Storytelling Arts' mission is to preserve, promote and impart the art of storytelling to develop literacy, strengthen communities and nurture the human spirit.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Fitting the Story to the Audience

  by Julie Pasqual     

   Here’s a riddle: What do stories, warm muscles, taffy, and rubber bands have in common?  Answer: They stretch!
Julie Pasqual during her recent China storytelling tour.
          While that has always been my experience with the marvelous things known as folktales, never have I found that more true than on my recent storytelling tour in China, where I found myself telling tales to children as young as 3 and as old as 17, with various degrees of English language skills.
          Being as this is my third tour of a foreign country, I have come to know, a little bit at least, what to expect.  At the international and bilingual schools I visit, the academic standards are SKY HIGH, the teachers EXTREMEMLY committed, and the kids sweet, excited, and very receptive.  For the most part the language level is almost always like the same as a native speaker – what I tell to a six year old here, I can tell to a six year old there.  But, from time to time there are groups, or parts of groups, where the language level is not so high, when, for instance, a group of 12 year olds have English skills that are more like a 7 year olds (which, I have to say is better than ANY skills I have in any language – including, on MANY days, my own mother tongue!!).  It’s times like these where the elasticity of stories comes into play.

          In a situation like that, the challenge is: how does one tell, in simple language, a story that wouldn’t talk down to a 12 year old – and age when it is all about proving you are no longer a “little kid”?  That’s where the elasticity of the folktale comes into play.   Because stories don’t belong to ANYONE, they belong to EVERYONE, so characters that might have a sweet innocent personality when telling for a 7 year old, can become sassy and “over it” for a tween ager.  Instead of describing, say a princess as being “lovely and fair”, I might say, “She looked like a movie star!”, and strut about a bit, so they could see, rather than just hear what I meant.  Working in moments to give them a chance to choose something in the story is a great tool as well, because it puts them in the driver’s seat a little bit – like in the story I tell of Juan Bobo.  I take a few moments for them to help me decide what color dress Juan should put on the pig – it’s silly, fun, they understand the question, and have the vocabulary to answer the question, all the while it’s something kids that age all around the world are into – FASHION!!

          Working in things I see on their tee shirts, or backpacks into the story always elicits smiles and engagement, as they begin to see, whether they understand every word out of my mouth or not, that storytelling is about us both – teller and listener together – we’re both in this together, stretching this story to include the actual plot, who they are, and their level of comprehension. 
          Really “taking it to the audience”, so to speak, is ALWAYS one of my favorite techniques with younger audiences, and when they don’t understand many words, what they do understand are facial expression and tone.  “Reading” what my emotions are, and what my body gestures “say” – is learning to read as well, and as these youngest children make a connection between the sounds coming out of my mouth, and the way my body is moving, they are learning language.  Maybe the story didn’t have the prefect beginning, middle, and end – but it was a “telling”, a narrative of the smallest kind.

          Stories stretch – better than a yogi in a heated room – they can expand to take in what is actually happening in that moment, in that place.  That is what allows storytellers to be able to reach audiences of all ages, in all countries, and can make each telling a custom made fit for the listeners at hand!

"Storytelling is about us both -- teller and listener together"

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Meaning of Human Existence

 by Jack McKeon  

illustration by Arthur Rackham
A couple of months ago, I read a book by biologist Edward O. Wilson modestly titled “The Meaning of Human Existence”.  In it, Wilson makes the case that we are a “eusocial” species – one that cooperatively raises its young across multiple generations and which divides labor so that members must sacrifice some personal reproductive success for the success of the group.  There are, he says, about 23 such species, primarily insects (bees, ants, termites), a couple of African mole rats, and us.  We’ve attained this status by the adaptation of our ancestors to meat eating, which favored a more stable form of life than our previous wandering.  The “nest” or campsite developed, becoming the focus of social life.  Work became divided and complex and the community cared for the children.
    Aiding this eusocial development was a genetic disposition to be insatiably curious about ourselves and each other. This developed our sensitivity to the non-verbal messages put out by others, enabling us to interpret situations and anticipate the future. This function was further aided by the development of spoken, then written, language and the creative arts in general.

… the creative arts… are… in an important way just the
same old story, with the same themes, the same archetypes, the same emotions.

The function of anthrocentricity – fascination about ourselves – is the sharpening of social intelligence, a skill in which human beings are the geniuses among all the earth’s species…a state of intense, even obsessive concentration on others has always enhanced survival of individuals and groups. We are devoted to stories because that is how the mind works –
a never ending wandering through past scenarios and through alternative scenarios of the future.

It struck me that what we do is at the center of this process, not only in the actual act of telling stories but in the content of what we tell.  One of the consequences of our eusocial standing is a conflict between the individual’s drive for personal genetic success and the opposing need of the success of the group.  This is a conflict that has plagued us throughout our history and is playing out now in our own politics.
    Our stories, more often than not, deal with just this conflict. Take the Grimms’
“The Golden Bird”, which I recently told at the Morris County Juvenile Facilities.  This is a story with the typical three brother conflict.  The older two brothers, faced with the task of first identifying and then locating the bird, indulge their desire for sleep when they should be watching, and then, trusting to their “cleverness”, ignore the good advice of the fox that would have deprived them of some personal satisfaction.  So they get stuck living for pleasure and abandoning all responsibility towards a greater good.  Eventually they end up on the gallows – an interesting response of group control over the excessive individual – and are rescued by the more other-oriented youngest brother, only to resume their selfish, disastrous, behavior.
    This youngest brother, on the other hand, as is usual in these cases, assumes the responsibility of watching through the night and heeds the advice of the fox to avoid the snares of the Inn of pleasure and assume the humility of the dark, quiet inn.  In this way he attains the invaluable assistance of the fox. He pays attention for the good of all, at some discomfort to himself, at least this time.  (Other third sons gain helpful assistance by engaging in generous, socially conscious sharing of food or information.)
    The youngest brother is not without flaws, however, mainly an inability, shared with his brothers, to accept the humble when the grand is available.  He is still trapped by a desire for “show” that each time arouses the community and lands him in prison.  Each time he is given a reprieve by the various kings – the social authority – if he can only bring something further that might be useful for the community.  Even his final task, accomplished by the fox, of removing a hill blocking the king’s window is to enable the king to see further, an increase in power rather than wealth.  By the end, the youngest brother has obtained the animal power and energy of the horse, the spirituality of the bird and the life asserting force of the anima/princess.  However, they are usurped for personal gain by the older brothers and ultimately do not function in a positive way.  Only by approaching them with humility, as the youngest does in the guise of a beggar, can they be persuaded to sing, eat and be joyful. The youngest son then becomes heir to the throne, the new social condition..  The individual has integrated in himself all that can make him whole in such a way that he blesses and unifies the kingdom at large.  The apparent conflict between individual and society is resolved and everybody wins.  Except the elder brothers who are put to death.  While this doesn’t actually address the biological imperative of the individual to reproduce personal DNA at all costs, one can imagine that prince and princess will have lots of children in a manner sanctioned by society.
    It’s nice to see us storytellers on the front lines of this eons old and ongoing battle for civilization.  I think of last year’s workshops with the 6th grade at Frelinghuysen in which we told stories and ran exercises about the benefits of community.  Our stories work towards a socialization that traditional societies accomplished more forcefully and sometimes brutally.
    What about the fox?

Our stories about animals require human like emotions and behavior understandable with well worn guidebooks of human nature.  We use endearing animal caricatures including those of even tigers and other ferocious predators to teach children about other people.

    I think there’s more to what we find in the animals in tales, particularly the helpful creatures like the fox.  Part of this fascination is our intuitive connection with animals which we lose as we become civilized.  Our houses are filled with animals, not, I think, just for companionship but because we need that connection, however domesticated.  It’s fascinating to watch my Aussie do her best to herd and control my two cats, or to listen to the guttural noises the cats make as they watch the birds out the window. We need to be close to them to be reminded of who and what we are.  The animals in story speak with that inner voice that resides deep in our brain.  They are us.  We are at our best when we can listen to these foxes, who, perhaps ironically, always put us onto the difficult and uncomfortable road towards civilization.  But if we listen we can experience, as at the end of “The Golden Bird”, the transformation of animal to civilized being.
illustration by Jamie Mitchell