Welcome to the National Storytelling Blog! Within our membership, we have people with expertise in all facets of storytelling. Here we offer their insights and highlight their stories for you to enjoy, learn, and connect.
by Chris Sutton
The sesquicentennial (a word I love to say but cannot spell) has been an incredible, unmatched experience for me. The 150th anniversary of the American Civil War started in 2011 and ends this year, 2015. Hundreds and hundreds of reenactments, ceremonies and assemblies have taken place over the last four years to commemorate the bloodiest war in American history. More Americans gave their lives in this conflict than in all other wars combined. Reenactments, formal ceremonies, debates and even slave auctions, gave both spectators and those participating a chance to immerse themselves in this collection of historic moments. I was blessed to be a part of many programs during this time and I am eternally grateful to everyone I have met for making my life richer. I have studied the civil war for more than 20 years and in my travels of telling stories, I am fortunate enough to meet a collection of people from all walks of life. With each person that I meet who has a history to share, I am intrigued and humbled by all of the things I don’t know about the civil war. There is such magic in the art of listening, (something I need to do more of ) and I have been privileged to meet strangers who transform into meaningful acquaintances and friends before my very eyes. I gravitate to telling many of my stories surrounding this era because of the substantially rich history it provides. As a storyteller and historian, my life has forever changed over the last four years and am ready for the next chapter in my life as a living history presenter, keeping these stories alive. I look forward to continuing to tell the stories that you won’t find in any history book, stories that make us think and stories that inspire us to make a difference.
Chris Sutton is a talented public speaker, storyteller, actor, re-enactor, voice talent & living history performer. Chris has created educational programs for the Saint Louis Zoo, National Association of Interpretation, the National Park System, the Civil War Sesquicentennial Organization, Gateway Storytellers, MO-TEL Storytelling guild, & Riverwind Storytellers. He was exited to be chosen to represent his region at this year’s conference and you can watch him perform his first hand account of a Union Civil War officer at the Showcase on Saturday, August first. His living history programs have be described as “Intense & thought provoking!” Chris has an intriguing demeanor and a magnetic personality that is unmatched and once you see him perform, you will never forget him.
by Robin Bady
Once upon a time, my love affair with the canons of world fairy and folk tales was easy. I simply told the stories -of faraway princesses, kings and magical creatures, of transformations, possibilities, journeys, struggles, hope, and courage – and found the magic and justice within.
But as the world around us changed, first abruptly then steadily – 9/11 and its aftermath, the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, the economic downturns and the serious job loss, the Occupy and the Black Lives Matter movements, the failure of governments to act for the good of their citizens, etc. – I was shaken out of the complacency into which I had fallen. I could not help but examine what I was doing and what I was saying.
Believing in the importance of the words and their symbolism, in a time of untrammeled greed could I honestly tell of kings and queens without flinching? Why did so many stories end with the young man or young woman marrying the ruler or ruler’s proffered child, and joining that higher status/class? And what about the people left behind? As for gender– what is the role of women in these tales and can I stand one more story of an abusive wife?
And last but not least: I am a stepmother – I know from experience there was a backstory that was not being considered!
I had to figure out – how do I find the wisdom in tales whose societal structures are anathema to my beliefs? Does my acceptance of these stories constitute approval of the class systems therein? Am I then projecting that approval to my audience?
Here’s what Carl Sandburg said about his fantastical Rootabaga Stories. From the Huff Post Books of Oct. 12, 2012:
Sandburg had read Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales and was familiar with the classic fables, but he had no interest in stuffing European tropes into an America mythology. “I wanted something more in the American lingo,” Sandburg told Karl Detzer in a profile. “I was tired of princes and princesses and I sought the American equivalent of elves and gnomes.”
Stories do not exist in a bubble. They are microcosms of the mores, sociology and belief systems of the period of their creation or their collection. Imbedded in the narratives are the status and power relationships normative at the time. The stratification was not just symbolic, but real. Kings were kings, with all the power inherent in the position Peasants were lowly. Animals were lower still. Society has always been stratified, and still is.
Since status and power relationships were at the heart of my problem, that was where I decided to start.
David Mamet always said, “Acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” What is the truthful relationship of pauper to king, of queen to Lord Mayor? And what, as storyteller/creator/artist/visionary do I owe to my listeners?
And that, dear friends, is the reason I created the” Ladder of Power”. It is a simple graphing tool to lay out the story in terms of status and power relationships – to embrace, not ignore, the realities of everyday life even in the most fantastical of stories. You can think of it as a diagram, but in ladder form.
Think of a ladder with multiple rungs. King on top. Queen below him. Prince below her (until he gets to be king and then he trumps his mom.) Princess below him. Then the lords and ladies in order of their title. Then commoners, in order of the status of their profession. And don’t forget – women are always below the men.
Does the LoP answer all my questions? Not fully. But it does provide an unvarnished look of at the status and power relationships in a story. It reveals the characters’ motivations and needs and makes them more real, more human, more necessary – in a time different than but not so different from my own.
Does this take the place of other strategies you use to dissect your stories? Does this negate symbology or Jung or Campbell or good and bad or…? Of course not! It is just one more tool you can choose to use when you work. Has it changed the way I tell stories? Of course, though not in the ways I expected.
Are you interested? So come take a look at The Ladder of Power workshop at the NSN Conference in Kansas City on Saturday morning, August 1st, at 9:00 am. Add your voice. Let’s talk. What do you think?
Thank you to: Black Dirt Storytellers of Florida NY, The Lehigh Valley Storytellers, The Princeton Storytellers, The Patchwork Guild
Award winning storyteller Robin Bady performs and teaches throughout the United States and Europe in venues large and small. She partners with cartoonists, violinists and instrument builders and other storytellers. She is the producer of the BADYHouse Storytelling Concerts, a monthly series featuring four performers telling long stories in her living room in Brooklyn. Her obsessive passion,“as told to” ghost stories, is slowly morphing into a book. She is the recipient of the JJ Reneaux Emerging Artist Award and the Oracle Award for Leadership and Service for the MidAtlantic Region.
by Kevin Cordi, Ph.D.
As a storyteller and story crafter, how often have you been working on a story and been blocked in your thinking? When you were stuck, were you alone? This is often the standard practice of the storyteller. We reside in empty rooms, cradled at a desk, writing our ideas to create a tellable story. Even though this can create effective results, it is not the only way to craft a story.
I informally interviewed many storytellers and discovered that they work alone. As they work alone, a number said they first work with printed text before speaking aloud.
I strongly encourage a person to play with a partner and engage in a practice I call “word dancing” or living in the world using playful exercises before cementing a story on paper. Too often the writing becomes a script before one “dances” with ideas. People become handcuffed to script. Instead of being strapped to the words, consider adding a partner when creating your story.
Noted storyteller Jay O’Callahan once said to me, “storytelling is a lonely business.” It doesn’t have to be. Working with story for over 27 years, 14 of those years touring with teens, I have discovered we learn more about the craft of story when we tell together. This even truer when we build a “not ready” story with a partner.
With my teenagers, we shared finished stories, but more importantly, we played with story ideas and out loud experimented with new ways of creating them. We created “deep listening partners” and eventually those partners engaged in exercises to practice ideas within the story.
In order to become a deep listener, one must continually place the focus on the teller. This is a practiced art. It improves over time and reflection. One builds trust so the play can begin.
I recently taught a workshop in Utah at Weber State University with teachers as we told the story of The Three Little Pigs. However, we told it as homicide and as CSI investigators. With the suggestion of a partner, one teacher concentrated on the smells of the story and in the role detective, she started,
When I arrived, the room smelled musty, almost like deep woods. Upon further investigation, I sniffed and discovered the strong scent of hay…”
The teachers were engaging in role to accentuate the investment in the story and coupling this with showing how using a sense, in this case smell, made the story more significant. With the partner, a frame was created for play with this “not ready” story.
This cannot be easily done writing a story alone.
I was working with adult storytellers on a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk. One adult asked a listening partner to tell the story from the end point first. He breathed deeply and said,
“The giant was buried here. Jack’s mother looked at Jack and said, “What did this giant do to you anyway?” It was then that Jack felt guilty for what we had done. He took a breath and began to reveal to his mother his part in the murder.”
In play, we grow. Lev Vygotsky, a social psychologist (1978) said in problem-based play, we are a “head taller” when working with others. We need to work with others as we craft our stories. We will be taller in our work.
Play brings people together. It builds new awareness. It shows that story crafting can be a co-creative art. With a partner, two minds work for the same cause—to better or explore your story development.
I was invited by Pennsylvania Storyteller Stas Ziolkowski to work with his guild using play. He remembers that this work was not common in the guild.
He shares: “Typically when stories are shared at guild meetings, the teller receives comments and suggestions that are almost like a teacher offering corrections on an essay. The word play approach is not this. During the workshop the excitement in the room among the twelve storytellers was invigorating. My own story repeated to me by my partner immediately became more involved. In one exercise, she ‘repeated’ my story as she ‘heard’ it and new scenes were envisioned. When she finished, we discussed what had taken place and I gained a renewed interest in making the story even better because of the insight offered by my partner. I could see many sides to the story because my partner shared this with me. As a result I left the workshop with a clearer understanding of the story and with a need for more partner work.”
I am hoping that more guilds, groups, and partners form from combining play and stories. After all, sometimes the play we engage in as a child is as rewarding as the decisions we make as adults. And as Psychologist Jean Piaget reminds us, “If you want to be creative, stay in part a child, with the creativity and invention that characterizes children before they are deformed by adult society.”
I invite you to find that partner and do the serious work of play. You and your story will grow because of it.
Kevin D. Cordi, Ph.D. is a practitioner of play. For over 27 years he has shared his playful storytelling and teaching in over 40 states, England, Japan, Singapore, Scotland, and most recently, in the Middle East, in Qatar. He is a Co-Director of the Columbus Area Writing Project at The Ohio State University, most recently served as Assistant Professor teaching Applied Storytelling at Ohio Dominican University, and the author of Playing with Stories: Story Crafting for writers, teachers, and other imaginative thinkers with Parkhurst Publishers. You can find out more about his playful approach at www.permission2play.com and about him at www.kevincordi.com
Stas Ziolkowski is a storyteller who now resides in Pennsylvania. He has been telling stories for more than forty years as a schoolteacher of science, mathematics, and as a planetarium director. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
*Be sure to catch Kevin at the National Storytelling Conference in July where he will further share, demonstrate, and model the combination of partnering and play.
by Jane Stenson
How often we tell ourselves that the stories we live by and tell, define who we are…I believe that! I also believe that the tools we use or avoid, embrace or discard define who we are as much as those stories. If I tell a folktale, the accumulated wisdom of the culture shines through…if I see/hold an object/tool – an artifact – the accumulated thoughts and courage of thousands of people shines through. Our tools and our art are our humanity…and our tools are stories of triumph, courage and creation, of optimism, adaptation, and hope.
SO, I began looking at folktales with a new understanding that the science is embedded in the tale – it’s there – and it can be brought forward to show the tale’s relevance in today’s world, a seemingly more technological world, without losing any of the tale’s meaning…and without the linear use of the scientific method or the engineering process. The world is AWESOME! Scientific advances are AWESOME! I mean, you can’t make these things up!
AND then I decided to write another book with my pals Sherry Norfolk and Lyn Ford plus teachers and storytellers titled SCIENCE and STORYTELLING: Strategies for Integrating Science and Language Arts for Grades K – 6. We looked at folktales that emphasized Life Science and Physical Science and Earth & Space Science and created lesson plans that bring out the story and the science that kids are working on in school. The manuscript was mailed to McFarland Publishing a couple of weeks ago and in nine months, well…
Suddenly, I’m paying attention to the science as science! It’s all around me and truth be told, for years I have dismissed the working of my eyes, the dormant plant, the whirring of a motor, the night sky, the light that clicks on with the flick of a switch, the potter’s wheel – what Kevin Ashton calls “the everlasting legacy of our ancestors” in his wonderful book How to Fly a Horse. Why? Because I prefer to tell stories – specifically, how to teach via stories. Aha! science is a story. Stories are all about the technology or science of a culture. And, if I spent more effort thinking like a scientist – observing and experimenting and synthesizing – instead of trying to sneak science into a story OR deny that the story IS about science, I might teach with more forthright accuracy and fewer assumptions. And, the story would be more interesting and informative; the science would show.
There’s more! More thinking! More experiments with trial and error! More integration of story and science – science that I do understand if only I would pay attention. At 10:45 on Friday, July 31st in Kansas City at the NSN conference, we’ll take some of those glorious folktales and pull up the science…making the stories relevant in a new dimension, expanding the tale’s meaning and having a lot of science fun.
Pathways between Science and Story: Deeper Understanding
How can storytelling and science intersect in meaningful ways to foster deeper understanding? In this “working” workshop, we will examine what society/teachers seek in terms of science learning; identify stories that can facilitate science understanding; and explore a variety of ways to use stories to engage in scientific investigation. THAT’S NOT ALL! The pathway to keeping knowledge whole through story, completes the understanding of science/narrative concepts…which is what we find in the greatest stories!
About JaneA former classroom teacher and university teacher educator (35 years!), Jane is now a storytelling teaching artist, providing project-based residencies and performances in schools. Co-author and co-editor of three books on the relationship of storytelling and education, (and a fourth forth-coming, Jane also serves as chairperson of YES! (Youth, Educators, and Storytellers Alliance) a SIG of NSN. www.janestenson.com / http://yesalliance.org/
By Celine O’Malley
“Ay Dios! Mira el pajaro!” (My God! Look at the bird!) The words flew out of my mouth as I stared out into the audience of the Delfus Bar in Lima, Peru. I was performing, in front of strangers, in Spanish! The moment that thought flew through my mind, my Spanish vocabulary disappeared. I stood there, my arms outstretched, What was the next word?! Oh! I was in my story, but without the right words I was forced to adopt some other modality of expression—I began to sing and twirl around. This impulse turned my story into a new experience. The story was about a grumpy old man whose hip ached, who learned to laugh (and sing!) from a little bird. In that moment of lost words, the song inside my grumpy old man was exposed, and in turn exposed the true essence of the story. The song was a mish mash of Spanish and English words, but mostly just sounds of joy and elation at becoming free of confines—the old man’s aching bones, and my own limitations with language.
The performance was a showcase of women storytellers who had participated in a workshop through La Escuela de Las Palabras (the School of Words), a Lima based group under La Asociación Cultural Wasi, a Peruvian non-profit. My first two weeks in Peru I attended workshops with the director of La Escuela, Peruvian storyteller Wayqui Cesar Villegas. At the time, my Spanish was still warming itself back up after years of non-use. I listened to stories, played theatre games, and was pushed to do things in Spanish that I am normally comfortable doing in English—such as perform for an audience and rehearse new stories with partners. What initially felt like a limitation became a unique tool for exploration and creativity in my storytelling. I had to find other ways to get across what I wished to convey to the audience, and in so doing, I found in myself and in my stories new and untapped potential.
Performing in Spanish also uncovered the deepest, most gut wrenching stage fright I have ever experienced in my life. I had sought out storytelling professionals who could teach and train me. One such individual, Edwin Eduardo Ortiz Espiritu, a storyteller of the Yanesha, a Pre-Incan indigenous group of the native community of Tsachopen, reminded me that even professionals experience fear and uncertainty. He told me that when he first began on his storytelling path, he was afraid. He woke up to the tiger that was his fears each morning, but he made un pacto con sus miedos, a pact with his fears. He recognized the necessary lessons fear had to teach, and in return his fear agreed to let him go forward towards joy and success.
I faced my tiger of fears by performing in front of audiences in a language not my own. What I learned was that by just doing it, by performing despite my fear of failure, or lack of language, I had found my storytelling path. The path of bilingual exploration and creation gave me the strength, confidence, and courage to try and to fail, and to make a pact with my fears, to push forward and succeed. There is not one storytelling guru, or person who knows all, there is just me, my tiger of fears, and my choice to stand up, look that tiger in the eye, and shake hands.
Have you ever told a story in a new language? Share your story below.
Celine O’Malley is a storyteller, poet, comedian and educator in Chico, CA. Founder of Chico Story Slam!, producer of the first Chico Tellabration!, and founder of the newly forming Chico Story Guild, Celine is passionate about bringing young and old together through story and using the art of storytelling to further social justice work around the world. Search Facebook for Celine O’Malley.