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.