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

Thursday, August 10, 2017

A Revelation

by Julie Pasqual

Julie telling to the littles
There have been a lot of articles, lectures, and discussions about how storytelling makes connections between people.  How the audience and the storyteller have a shared experience.  How there is no storytelling without the audience – teller and listener are in this thing together.
         And I have experienced that – from the adult that begins to reminisce after hearing a story, to the jaded teen that reveals themselves when they say they “get” where a character is coming from – even if that character is an animal, or a wizard, or has 16 arms - to the youngest listeners who are eager to tell me about their dog, after hearing about a dog in a story, or calling out that they know someone named Jack, like the boy in the story.  These little revelations are often touching, sometimes amusing, but one that happened just recently was troubling, and reminded me, once again of the need for folktales.
          For the last three summers, I have been fortunate enough to tell stories at day camps and child care centers in Paterson, NJ, through a program of the Paterson Library.  Instead of the children – mostly ages 4 – 6 years old, having to be brought to the library, this program brings several professional storytellers to the facilities, as well as providing volunteer readers, that come regularly.  Each site has been a joy, full of eager listeners and lots of fun!!
           On my next to last day, I went to a day camp that was run in a school.  I felt bad for both the children, and their teenage counselors, because there was ZERO air conditioning, and it was a REALLY hot day.  It would be too hot for the kids to go out even, so it was a day they would stay indoors.  The volunteer reader must have been great, because when they heard there was someone from the library there, the kids perked up!  The overheated, but very game staff, lined up the kids to take them to the cooler of the two rooms, and as the kids got up, I began to “read “ the crowd, to see who I would be telling my tales for.  I did this as I usually do – by acting silly.  Soon there were smiles, and laughs, and they pulled in closer to me, and I began to ask some of their names.  One little girl, who was, as a friend of mine says,  “happiness on legs” came very close to me.  Her giggle was like soap bubbles – light, floaty, and irresistible.  Her little face looked up at me, and then she said, quite merrily, “I have a stalker.”
         Whatever game I had been playing with the group came to an abrupt end – I did that thing we adults do when we don’t want kids to see we are worried or upset, I breathed deep, put on a kind, but straight face, and spoke in a decidedly even tone. “What do you mean?” I asked, knowing kids make things up – I mean that is the gift of childhood, an imagination as wide as an ocean.  It is this imagination that I fear that our children are losing faster and faster each year.  But, even as I waited to see if there was anything real about this statement, the reality hit me that the prospect of a stalker was in this little girl’s consciousness.  It wasn’t “I have a pet unicorn”, or “I have flown to the moon” – it was, “I have a stalker”.  This kid had been exposed to the concept of a stalker – in some way – either in life, or in TV, or in overheard conversations - enough that at age 5, she got what it was.  The counselor, no older than 16 years old came out, and I had the girl repeat what she said.  The counselor looked puzzled, and then was quickly taken away by another child who needed her. 
      “He comes by my window at night,” she continued, cheerfully.  “But, my big sister scares him away.  She has a gun.  She is big and strong, and will protect me.”  By this point, the line was moving towards the room I was to tell in, and the kids were hustled into the room, and made to sit down.  There was no senior staff in the room, so I began my telling.  The little girl was one of the brightest lights in the room.  My brain burned with the question, “Is she telling the truth???” even as I turned myself into lions, frogs, and one sassy fox.  It was one of those performances that, after I was done, the kids got up and gave me a group hug. 
             I alerted my contact at the library, so she could tell the person in charge of the program – I feared I was over reacting, but I feared MUCH MORE turning on the news and seeing a report about a little girl shot in her bed.  I was told it was “handled” – so I will never know whether the stalker was a figment of this child’s imagination, or someone who wished to harm this young innocent – but to me, it doesn’t matter.  Instead of magic, fairies, and talking animals, this child’s head was full of danger and guns.  Whether real or not, in truth, it was her reality, because what we hold in our consciousness IS our reality.  Somehow, the things that filled my head as child, weren’t even a moment’s thought to this girl – she could not conceive of the wonder that fills folktales, because all she had been exposed to was the harsh reality of a society that spews out violence to all ages 24/7. 
            As I drove away that day, I felt a mix of powerlessness and determination – I cannot eradicate the ills that are “downloaded” into the hard drive of young minds today, but I could, at least, offer them something else. Another view – a softer view, someplace where imagination could land, and allow them to picture a world, where danger wasn’t a given, where they could be what they were actually  meant to be – CHILDREN!!!


Friday, June 16, 2017

On the Road with Orpheus

by Gerald Fierst and Luray Gross

Part conversation, part performance, On the Road with Orpheus is a collaborative four-part storytelling fugue created by Gerald Fierst, Luray Gross, Philip Orr and Bill Wood. We improvise on themes of love, loss, music and memory out of personal, traditional, mythic and headline stories. Through several decades, we four have taught and performed as solo artists, but in 2016, we decided to collaborate using the Orpheus myth as a basis for an unconventional theatre piece in which our individual styles blend, accent, and harmonize with each other.

The "Orpheus" artists
Teachers, preachers, and storytellers are all music makers.  The rhythmic patterns of oral storytelling go back to the ancient bardic tradition of singing the tale, and, as we review our process, we realize how much our work in a classroom is similarly an act of improvisation and singing, and how teaching has informed our collaboration with its necessity to remain in the moment and to encourage and inspire.  Improvisational storytelling is something like jazz with a path of clearly defined forms, but with the liberty to change and riff until returning to the given melody.  So, in the classroom, the storyteller supports the curricula with stories that instigate and encourage the students to make connections between the notes of the story and the notes of the lesson – we might call them a-ha! moments – when the story becomes a personal revelation of fact and feeling.

 Our Orpheus piece invites the audience to remember the first song they heard.  Few people give us a title.  Instead, they sing us a song, and, often, others in the audience join in.  The power of music undergirds the story of Orpheus, whose song could conquer monsters, but couldn’t change the inevitability of loss.  Eventually Orpheus’s song became an oracular voice on the Greek island of Lesbos where, during the last two years, thousands of refugees landed, and where today, some 3,000 still await an uncertain future. 

For ourselves and our audiences, traveling on the road with Orpheus has been far less arduous, one without peril and with openings for conversation and reflection.  At times, it has become an a-ha! journey with myth, history, and philosophy becoming a part of our personal and communal story, bringing the inspiration of old stories to the moment and to the discovery of the sublime at the core of our own life’s progress.

Having begun our performance with singing, it felt fitting to end the program by singing together. Phil concludes the program by teaching an original round based on a Rilke poem from The Book of Hours.

God speaks to each of us:
Go to the limits of longing.
God speaks to each of us:
Flare up like a flame.
God speaks to each of us:
Don’t let yourself lose me,
Give me your hand.
Give me your hand.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Brainerd Residency 2017

by Luray Gross

It’s a rainy evening and I have not yet unpacked my suitcase after a four-day stint in the central Jersey town where I used to live.  I was there as the teller for a four-day storytelling residency at Brainerd Elementary School. Brainerd opted to have me see each of their sixteen kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade classes for one 45-minute introduction to storytelling.  This seemed to work out just fine.

In each session I told three or four tales, including at least one story in which the children participated through chanting, singing, and/or movement.  My hope was to activate not only their mental image-making facilities, but to create a situation in which they helped the story unfold with their participation.  I was quite pleased with the involvement of the students and touched by their wide-eyed attention and the many connections they made with other folktales and with their personal lives.

Luray telling to Brainerd Elementary School students
Near the end of a session with one of the second grade classes, a boy I’ll call Manny raised his hand to say, “I have a connection to that dress story.  It’s like my mother.”  The first story I had told his class was the Haitian tale, “Tipingee,” in which the main character is left with her stepmother after both her parents have died. As the story unfolds, Tipingee asks her friends to wear dresses the same color as hers and thus help her stay safe. In my telling of the story today, I found myself inserting an explanation for the selfishness of the stepmother who offers Tipingee as a servant to a man demanding payment for carrying a bundle of wood.  I said something like, “When Tipingee’s father married again, his new wife was kind and caring, but after he died, something in her heart cracked, and she became mean and selfish.”  A few other students had comments and questions about the stories, then Manny raised his hand again to quietly ask, “Do you want to hear about my mother?”
   “Would you like to tell us?” I asked.
Manny nodded and quietly explained that his mother’s parents both used “bad drugs,” and sometimes they didn’t even give her anything to eat, but her grandmother realized what was happening, took Manny’s mother to live with her and took care of her.  “And she grew up and met my dad and got married and they had me, and now she is happy,” Manny concluded.  All simply told.  All from a deep place.

This kind of happening is far from rare when age-old stories are brought to life in a classroom.  Children explode with energetic laughter over silly antics and grow thoughtful when the dilemmas of characters resonate with their own challenges. One of the most rewarding things for me is when this occurs for a teacher.  That too happened at Brainerd School.  In another second grade class I ended our session with the Native American story, “Gluscabi and the Wind Eagle.”  In the tale, the larger-than-life boy Gluscabi gets fed up with the wind and finds a way to trick the great bird, the source of that element.  He succeeds in stopping the wind, only to discover how much we need it.  Then he must reverse his actions to restore the great bird to its mountain top.  I tend to end this tale by saying, “And so it has been to this day:  sometimes the wind blows so hard we cannot stand against it, sometimes it is a gentle breeze, and sometimes there is not a breath of wind at all.”

Mrs. H, the teacher, was sitting behind her students for all of the stories, attentive and drawn in, but the wind story was different.  Her whole body was leaning into it, and when I finished, she was the one who raised her hand.  “That reminds me of something our pastor said in a sermon about the winds of adversity.  That’s what they can be.”   Without her having to say more, I understood that she knew what that adversity felt like and had found a way to stand up in its presence.  When we saw each other again in the faculty room, that bond of understanding remained.   For me, one of the deep rewards of this work.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Finding Focus - A Workshop with Regina Ress

by Paula Davidoff

I love my job, but there are times when I feel like I’ve lost focus: I’ve grown too comfortable with my repertoire; I’m using the same activities in every workshop; I get so invested in a lesson plan that I can’t realize I should drop it when it’s not working. I found myself in one of those slumps at the end of February or the beginning of March and I couldn’t find my way out of it. So when I saw that Regina Ress was leading a workshop at my storytelling guild this month, I jumped on it.

I first heard Regina tell nearly twenty years ago during a concert at a MidAtlantic Storytelling Conference. At the time, I had been working as a teaching artist for only two or three years and the MAST conference was my first experience of a big storytelling event. I don’t remember who the keynote speaker was that year or which workshops I attended, but I can close my eyes and see Regina moving across the stage as she told a piece from the Dayak saga Adi, Song of Agan. I can hear her voice change as she slips from narrator to character. I can even remember what she was wearing. She is an extraordinary storyteller. She is also an important storyteller. Her work is varied, broad, and deep; and she does it all over the world.

Her workshop at the NJ Storytelling Guild’s May meeting was entitled, Storytelling on the Moment, and it addressed the question of what we, as teachers and artists, can do when we find ourselves on the coat tail of an event that has caused an emotional upheaval in the community. One answer, of course, is that we could teach the lesson or tell the stories we had planned, knowing that sometimes offering the opportunity to escape into story is the best gift we can give. But this was not the focus of Regina’s workshop.

Regina reminded us that our work is cloaked in metaphor and, therefore, has the potential to help listeners begin to navigate even the saddest or most frightening circumstances without forcing them to directly address the real life source of their sorrow or fear. She told us about the myths and folktales she has used when she found herself working in the midst of a crisis: teaching in a school near ground zero in the days and weeks after 9/11; telling at a winter solstice coffee shop gathering that happened to take place the day after the Sandy Hook Elementary School murders, and telling at an urban playground a few hours after one of the student counselors had gone missing. Her stories reminded us that we have in our own repertoires many tales that would be appropriate to offer at such times. We need only the presence of mind to realize that we're carrying the gift.

She conducted the workshop as a conversation between herself and the participants, telling stories that illuminated important points in the discussion. In other words, she modeled the lesson she had brought us, illustrating how metaphor, through story, helps clarify and organize the things we know but may not be able to say; how it speaks volumes in just a few words; and how it sprinkles light into darkness so we can begin to find our way.

I left Regina’s workshop uplifted, with renewed enthusiasm for my work. A reminder that good teachers have the power.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

by Gerald Fierst

The cover illustration of Gerry's new book
With the May publication of my new book Imagine the Moon, I have been thinking of the connection between oral storytelling and literacy.  When I teach storytelling, I encourage participants to take the story off the page and use their whole self, body, voice, and imagination, to create their story in the moment. On the other hand, I tell stories on a regular basis at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University.  There, in the illustration gallery, pre school and primary age children sit with me surrounded by original drawings made for books.  I often refer to some nearby image, a frog, a rainbow, a mother with a child, to inspire a story and to make the children look and listen as the story expands their imagination into their own inner images.

So do books make stories more accessible?

Storytelling is a sensory experience in which the storyteller makes the imaginary become real. In olden days, the storyteller and the alchemist shared this tradition of magic.  Story was a rhythmic spell that empowered the imagination into reality by associating descriptions of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching.  In fact, modern actors train in just the same way, creating sense memory associations and  “as ifs” so that the imaginary becomes real.  A good actor doesn’t pretend, but fully incorporates the story so that body, voice and imagination are all present in the moment as if that moment were reality.

When I tell stories in the illustration room, the colors and images surrounding me, the books to which I refer, are merely the portal through which a new story will be discovered. Books are not an end, but a beginning of a journey.  So, I understand, as a teaching artist, I am a guide who introduces story and offers books as a beginning to discovery — I say the open sesame to reveal the treasure cave.  The marvelous experience of a book, the imaginative journey, the physical feel, look, and smell, is a reinforcement to using the whole self to experience, interpret, and create.  Literacy is not merely the ability to read and write.  It is the ability to process information -  expository, persuasive, narrative, and descriptive.-   creating one’s own story as we leave the magic cave to journey in the real world.

In my book, I have a verse:
“The moon is never constant but will always be there,
The stuff that makes magic out of thin air.
Poets and pranksters, kids and kings,
Imagine the Moon and dream.”

I am an artist of the ephemeral.  I tell a story, weave a spell, and it is gone —  Or does the power of inspiration, the magic of memory, and the experience of heightened awareness, provide a teaching tool far more powerful than the right answers to a standardized test, for in story we learn to put the facts to use, to use our books to make the leaps of the imagination that empower us in our lives and transform our world.