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

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Speaking Stories: Face Time vs Screen Time

by Paula Davidoff

I’m sure that all professional storytellers have had an epiphany about a tale in their repertoire as they worked on its retelling. It has even happened to me in performance: the story that I have deconstructed, reconstructed, practiced and, perhaps, told to audiences many times, shows me something new and important midway through a telling. I think people have similar experiences with true, personal stories. Telling it over and over leads to deeper understanding.

For the past eleven years, I’ve taught a writing and theater program for teen girls called Girls Surviving. Twice a year, the girls in the program write, rehearse, and perform a new play that is based on stories from their own lives. Although we use traditional oral storytelling in the program, it’s not a central focus, but a few weeks ago, something happened that reminded me how important it is to tell stories out loud.
To set the stage, the Girls Surviving playwriting process goes something like this:
-       the girls chose a topic or theme they want to write about (past topics include racism and stereotyping, parental desertion, parent/teen conflict, sex and dating)
-       program directors introduce texts – oral and written – that might stoke ideas about the theme,
-       girls listen to or read the material and begin to discuss and write about it,
-       they create characters who have problems related to the chosen theme,
-       everyone writes independently; writing is shared with the group,
-       each day’s writing, which is done longhand in notebooks, is typed by group leaders and copied for everyone,
-       and, finally, the girls construct scenes using pieces of everyone’s writing.

This last part, putting together a scene, is very intense. It demands a great deal of concentration as girls read and re-read texts created through several weeks of writing and fit pieces of them together into a dramatic scene of dialogue between characters. It’s not unusual for some of the girls, especially those new to the program, to lose focus and interest during this part of the process. So, a few weeks ago, while we were struggling to put together a new scene, my colleague and co-director asked the girls,
“Can you think of an easier way to do this?”
Another staff member suggested using computers, that is, giving each girl a tablet or laptop so that she could work on a screen, cutting and pasting text. After a short discussion, the girls rejected the idea. My colleague and I thought it was interesting that the girls, who spend a lot of their socializing, entertainment, and study time in front of screens, rejected the idea of bringing computers into our workshop, but we were glad that they did.

I have often used laptops and tablets to facilitate collaborative writing projects for students, and these tools do make some things easier for me. No transcribing and making copies of student writing. Everything is on a Google doc which is available for minilessons on various writing elements. Students can revise and critique each other online – cutting, pasting, and rearranging each other’s contributions as they perfect the text. But in the programs in which students use computers to organize a collaborative text, a final, polished text is the overriding program goal.
In Girls Surviving, our focus is different. Our main program goal is to help the girls find their own voices and feel comfortable using them as they navigate their way to adulthood and beyond. Although each season’s culminating performance is an essential part of the program, it is not the most important element. It is the give-and-take between the girls, as well as between the girls and program staff, that allows participants to gain confidence in their own ideas and abilities, and to bond them into a cohesive collaborative troupe of actresses. This back and forth happens in conversation: before and after independent writing, during the sharing of the writing, in improvisational theater activities, throughout rehearsals, and in putting together the scripts. And, as with all artistic processes, results come through practice. They often come surprisingly – a flash of insight; a breakthrough piece of writing or performance that comes seemingly out of nowhere after days or weeks of tedious work; or the moment a scene comes together, actresses all in synch with each other and the script.
Something like this happened in the workshop I referred to above. The girls had been creating the scene they were struggling to put together since well before winter break. For weeks, they had been writing, reading, discussing, and analyzing the characters and the action. Then, on the evening they were trying to construct a completed script, Bianca, one of the freshmen in the troupe, said, “You know, I just realized that this scene is a lot like something in my own life,” and she told us a story that was very similar to the one the girls had created in the scene. It was a tale of heartbreak and resilience, and listening to Bianca tell it was a moving experience for all of us.

It’s not unusual for Girls Surviving scripts to reflect episodes in the girls’ lives, but we never consciously retell a girl’s story in our plays. I think in Bianca’s case, she really did become aware of the connection between the script and her real life for the first time on that night. Sometimes we need to hear our story told by another before we can recognize that it is, in fact, our story. Life has a definite beginning, but it doesn’t unfold like a plot. Our lives unfold so slowly and so seamlessly that we don’t realize that, in the eyes or ears of others, some of our experiences tell like stories with rising action, high points, and, sometimes, resolution.
Bianca discussed, wrote, and listened, examining a crisis in the life of a fictional character, and when, that night, she recognized in it a part of her own story, she was able to articulate, maybe for the first time, the details of a defining life experience. I don’t think that would have happened if we had been working on laptops. I think that she may have recognized the similarity between our script and her real experiences, but I doubt she could have shared it with – told it to – the group. And I believe that telling is crucial to making meaning of experience.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Working It Together

by Paula Davidoff

illustration by Marcia Brown
Storytelling Arts artists have been working together in the Morris County Youth Detention Center since 2010. The work is usually rewarding. For the most part, the kids like hearing stories and they like learning about them – about where the stories originated, and about the customs and people of those places. On a good day, students will discuss the stories and make insightful connections to their own experiences. There are, however, times when our lessons fall flat: those days when the students just can’t focus, or when one kid seems determined to sabotage the workshop. Those days are hard.
I have been telling stories in detention centers and other facilities for teens at risk to themselves and others for nearly twenty years. So I know that when classroom dynamics aren’t working it’s usually not the fault of my lesson planning or my instruction. The lives of children in such facilities are in turmoil, so it would be solipsistic to imagine that a student’s disruptive behavior was about me.  That said, after a hard day, I always reflect on what I might have done to make it easier for the kids. Should I have ignored disruptive behavior? Could I have more clearly articulated my problem with behaviors that crossed the line of what I find acceptable? These are the kinds of questions that are hard to answer when they remain internal. When there is only one person in the conversation, it’s hard, if not impossible, to be objective. So, when Storytelling Arts was first awarded funding for the detention center program, it was a no brainer that the work should be collaborative.
There are five artists currently teaching in this program. Workshops are scheduled on two consecutive days every other week during the school year. About half of these workshops are taught by pairs of tellers; the other half are solo. The five us mix and match the pairings so that each of us has opportunities to teach with everyone else. We plan together in face-to-face meetings twice a year, and we fine tune lessons and debrief in between on a private wiki site constructed for this purpose. Even with this support, bad days are still bad days.

This fall, when we resumed workshops after the summer, we had a particularly hard run. For starters, protocol for classes at the facility had changed since our spring workshops, and for the first time, there was no guard present in the classroom while we were teaching. Although we discussed the question of whether our personal safety might be threatened by this change, we didn’t really think it was an issue. We have a good working relationship with facility staff and administrators and trust their ability to keep us safe. The officers on duty are always just a few feet away and they always have us in sight. A word or gesture would bring them into the classroom. But the officers who sat in the storytelling workshop had added a dimension that was suddenly missing. Most of them participated in discussions and activities and, because they knew the students much better than we could, they were often able to spot a potential problem and stop it before it became an issue. So, when things began to go downhill this past fall, our first thought was that the job was just harder without an officer in the room.
And things really did go downhill. For months, discussions on the wiki became downright depressing. The kids seemed angry and discouraged. They argued with each other and with the storytellers, they talked and gestured to each other during the stories. A couple of times, tellers had to stop and send the kids back to lockup. Some of us began to dread the days we were booked to teach the program. But, as bad as it was, it was better – five times better – than it would have been if we had been on our own. Through the hard time, we worked together, taught together, planned together, debriefed together. We were always in communication.
Teaching artists knows how unusual this collaboration is. Most of us are on the job on our own. We work in schools with teachers but, at least in my experience, it’s rare to have an opportunity to create a true collaboration in single residency or workshop. During the tough months at the detention center, I questioned the value of our presence there. If I hadn’t had my colleagues to remind me of better days, and that we can’t always tell what sticks with a kid and makes a difference, I might have thrown in the towel.
The experience made me realize, once again, how important it is to work in a community of peers. I encourage teaching artists who don’t have the opportunity to work with an organization like Storytelling Arts to create their own networks for planning, discussing, and assessing their work. It makes us better teachers and enriches our artistic lives.

And things are better at the detention center. When we returned after the winter holidays, the energy in the building had changed. You could feel it as soon as you walked into the common room. Staff was more relaxed, kids were calmer, and storytelling workshops have been fun again. What happened? That’s another story.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Something or Nothing

  by Gerald Fierst

I have just returned from presenting at Limmud, the European Conference of Jewish Education, at the National Exhibition Center, Birmingham, UK.  I call it the TED Conference for Jews. Three thousand scholars, activists, politicians, journalists, artists, and spiritual leaders from all over the world gather to share and teach.  To me, of course, it is all storytelling: The power and courage of a 15 year old boy telling the story of a terrorist bombing at his school; the former head of the New York Times Jerusalem Bureau discussing the frustrating and fascinating characters in conflict in the mideast; the twenty something narrating his spiritual journey from ultra orthodoxy to secularism and his yearning for the security of faith; and the storyteller/educator telling how folktales and midrash provide the core of an ethical and compassionate world view.

The great sage Hillel was challenged to encapsulate the whole of Jewish thought while standing on one foot.  “Do unto others,” he said, “as you would have them do to you. All the rest is commentary.”

The old stories, the traditional stories, that have been passed through generations have always been the tools to explain the choices life offers.  In our fragmented and branded world, these stories are more important and more powerful than ever.  Five of storytelling arts teaching artists are working together at the Morris County Youth Detention Center.  This past year, we chose to travel across the world, tying our stories to geography.  This month, along with Julie Pasqual, I am in India.  Our lesson plan includes the ringing of a Tibetan prayer bell whose tone seems to go on forever.  One rings the bell and everyone listens until they no longer hear anything.  Then the question is asked, “What did you hear?”  A bell?  or eternity?  Your own breath? or the sound of the universe breathing?

The story goes that as Alexander the Great crossed the Himalayas, he came upon a naked yogi sitting on a rock.  “What are you doing?” asked Alexander. “Trying to find nothing,” replied the yogi.  Alexander thought the yogi was surely crazy.

“What are you doing?” the yogi then asked Alexander.  “I am trying to conquer the world!” exclaimed Alexander.  The yogi thought him certainly crazy.

In our society, we value product.  Can something be weighed, measured, and monetized.  Stories, on the other hand,  are nothing, an ephemeral breath, but they resonate with eternity and eternal truth.  Cosmologists, physicists, artists and sorcerers agree that the energy of the cosmos came from one expansive moment and that all matter was born therein.  So we are the stuff of starlight, and our stories are a small echo of that act of creation when a new universe was born.  When we talk of education and community, when we talk of responsibility and leadership, we must teach about inspiration - from the Latin to breathe.  We listen, we breathe with a breath that comes from deep within ourselves, from our traditions, and from our sense of our connection to the eternal; and from that release of energy comes the imaginative big bang and our power to transform and create ourselves and our world..

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Rambling with Remus

by Jack McKeon

I recently purchased, reluctantly, The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus by Joel Chandler Harris, reluctantly because of my belief about its racist condescension towards the character of Remus, its flaunting of illiteracy in the dialect and the exploitation of an oppressed culture’s tales for the oppressor’s purpose.  But I love the Brer Rabbit tales and there seems to be no other source for them.  The Julius Lester versions I’ve read, updated with contemporary insertions, just didn’t do it for me.  I haven’t been able to find any versions “translated” from the dialect and without the presence of the slave context except the old compilation Disney made to go along with the release of “Song of the South” in 1946.  I owned that book, and my mother used to read me the stories.  Now I wanted all these tales and figured I could modernize them myself easily enough. I’d have to bite the bullet and suffer through the racism, made more difficult after I read Harris’s appalling description of Remus as having “nothing but pleasant memories of the discipline of slavery.”  Zip-a-dee-doo-dah and blue birds!  Remus was the happy slave companion of our other relatives, Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima grinning with pleasure from the master’s kitchen, and that other uncle, Tom, whose goodness as a slave has made him a pejorative.  Even so, I started reading the first of the books, “Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings.”
            Now I have to confess.  I like and admire Uncle Remus.  I wish I had known him.  I wish I had been the 7 year old boy fortunate enough to have had his company.  And part of my admiration for the man comes from his reaction to ”the discipline of slavery.”  To do this, though, means taking the man from his context.  I don’t know if it’s morally or historically correct, or even possible, to do this without seeming to defend the “silver lining” version of slavery, but if we can look at Remus as just a man living in adversity, in a dehumanizing situation beyond his control, he becomes a person who has centered himself and has found peace in his own sense of dignity and self-worth.  He has taken himself out of the context and it no longer defines him, however Harris may have perceived him.  He demands from the little boy that he be treated with respect and takes him to task when he feels liberties have been taken (Whether he would do this with “Miss Polly”, however, is another thing).  He dresses down the boy for his behavior, even when Remus himself is not involved, and once reduces him to tears almost cruelly, but the boy loves him and respects him, and relaxes into the peacefulness of the cabin, as does the reader.  We are almost always in this cabin watching Remus perform the skills of the poor:  mending his jacket, making a new sole for a shoe, making an ax handle, roasting a sweet potato in the fireplace, sharpening his knife on the palm of his hand.  (How this reveals that slavery, even for Remus, wasn’t always peace in the cabin!)  There’s a calm in him.  He’s the still center around which whirl the action and mayhem of the tales, accounts of the harshness and turbulence of life.  He answers the boy’s questions about the stories honestly, with cynical observations on the fallen nature of man and beast.  You wonder how the young boy digests this wisdom, but Remus pulls no punches.
            I also confess to thoroughly enjoying the dialect.  It’s rollicking, colorful, evocative and funny.  It’s both readable and delightful.  Harris spent a lot of time trying to get it accurate, and for Mark Twain, no one else had done it better.  It does not, as I expected, come across as mocking or condescending but as a folklorist’s effort to capture the feeling, the culture and the true voice of the storyteller.  I recently told  “Brer Rabbit’s Riddle” at the Detention Center.  The version I first went to was in an anthology, told in modern English.  Updating the language, though, made a crucial part of it incomprehensible.  I went to Harris’s version, and though I had to look up a couple of words, it made much better sense and sounded right.  I combined the new and the old when I told it, and, though it needed some explanatory material at the outset, it worked.  It would be impossible for me, certainly, to tell the stories as written, even if I wanted to, but reading them in the original puts in a place and an outlook that modern English can’t convey.  Modern versions can give us the story.  Harris’s versions give us the people.  Maybe it’s difficult to ignore that he is a white man trying to portray the speech of an oppressed people, purposefully denied the education given to their oppressors, but he’s walking the same road as Zora Neal Hurston, with the same purpose.
            Harris (1848-1908) did not grow up on a plantation, but as a teenager he worked for a newspaper on one and spent much of his time in the slave quarters listening to stories.  The tellers became the models for his creation. While he never quite lost his patronizing idea that blacks depended on white assistance, he went on to spend much of his career as a journalist advocating for the emancipated African-American.  He promoted reconciliation between the races, education, suffrage, and equality for African -Americans.  He condemned racism in Southern culture and condemned lynching.  His collection of tales was not a product of a racist mentality, but the work of a serious folklorist trying to preserve the best versions of tales he loved in the voice in which they were told.  It was a labor of love and affection.
            If you read Harris’s introduction to the tales, you need to contend with his benign version of the slave-holding South.  His forays into the quarters as a youth evidently presented him with this vision - Disney’s vision- and he did not know about, or chose to ignore, the horrors of the institution.  “The realities (of slavery),” he once wrote concerning Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “under the best and happiest conditions, possess a romantic beauty and tenderness all their own.”  In spite of our understanding that romantic beauty might have been in short supply during this period,  this is clearly the spirit in which he wrote his Remus books.  There are certainly cringeworthy elements in the books.  There’s a liberal sprinkling of the n-word, not with any negative intent but dropped casually as a part of the language, as it is in Twain and Hurston (or in August Wilson’s Fences today).  Still the word jars, mainly because of the slave context.  Also, Remus, whatever else he may be, exemplifies Harris’s ideal of the dedicated, loyal servant of the family, staying with them through generations, during and after the Civil War.
            You want to see some anger, some sense of injustice and desire for retribution.  You won’t find it in Remus, but it’s there in the stories he tells which are filled with conflict, mischief and sometimes sadistic violence.  The physically weak use their wits to overcome and punish those who would prey on them.  They are funny but not gentle.  Remus doesn’t make the point obvious, but it is clear why these stories were so popular in the quarters.  One would like to think that Harris realized this.
            But maybe he didn’t.  Anyway, I’ll read on, even though the first paragraph of the next book, “Nights with Uncle Remus”, introduces a woman as “the owner of Uncle Remus.”  Just a simple statement of fact, as if nothing could be more reasonable. Still, on I go, keeping Beloved clearly in mind, so I can hear a very human, wise old man tell a little boy some wonderful stories.