Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Justice: Fairy Tale Style

Over the course of my storytelling life, I have marveled at how kids react to villains. 

Depending on what that character is doing, kids turn on a dime. They will love that character right up until the moment he betrays them, and then that character is dead to them.

They don't care what happens to the villain as long as he/she gets their comeuppance and they are happy to punish the character in whatever horrible way the story decides.

Rumpelstiltskin is a great example of this.

actor Robert Carlyle as Rumpel in Once Upon A Time
He shows up at Anna's great need, and spins the straw to gold. The first two times he takes baubles from her. The kids find the little elf man funny. Whenever he is about to appear I make a specific sound and hand movement.

Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding! (My hands open and close as I move them in a circle. This happens every time the little man is set to appear. By his third appearance, they have this down to a science and they take over doing it in the story. I become the audience for them.)

He has a funny voice and gestures, and moves in a quirky manner. He sings a little song as he spins, and they start doing it with me by the the second time through. They adore him.

Then he crosses that line from savior to sinner. He asks for her baby in return for his services. 

The children gasp in disbelief and shock. They can't imagine he's serious. They beg Anna not to agree. She speaks to herself, but really to the sea of shocked children,

"What if the king is lying? Maybe he won't marry me. Even if he does marry me, maybe I won't have a child. Some people don't have children. The future could be anything, but right now? Right now I'm in trouble."

So, she agrees to give up her child. The children are upset. They still spin gold with the little man, but the tide has turned. They are no longer looking forward to seeing him.

The next series of events unfolds until the queen has a baby. Usually one or two children whisper, "Oh no." under their breath. 

I continue, "Then, one morning, she heard a sound she hadn't heard in almost two years. What sound was that?"

The children make the sound, but they are not enthusiastic about it.

When he shows up to collect the baby, they are now pulling for Anna to get the right name. Some kids, the ones who know the story, can barely hold themselves together. Most of them don't remember the name. Those who do are trying to reassure their classmates sitting around them that it is going to be all right.

The first two days she does not guess correctly. 

Then, the maid arrives with the little song that breaks the whole story open.

"My lady, I saw a strange little man. He was dancing around a fire and singing this little song."

Today, I brew
Tomorrow I bake
On the third day
The queen's baby I'll take!
The queen must guess
This game she can't win

At the end of this little song, the audience lets out a collective breath and the kids get really excited.

The queen says, "Thank you." 

I give the audience a knowing look and say, "A few hours later, you know what she heard."

Now, up to this point in the story, whenever the children made the dinging sound and the hand movements, they mirror the way I did it with exactly the same gestures. Some of them actually stop making the sound after he asks for the baby. They want no part of bringing the little horror back into the story.

 This last time, however, when they know Rumpelstiltskin is about to get his comeuppance, they all lose their collective minds.

The exuberance with which they start making that sound, and the forcefulness of their hand motions is amazing. It always startles the educators and adults in the room. At least, it startles the ones who aren't participating. The grown ups who are participating are just as excited as the kids.

That horrible little man who they loved so well at the beginning of the story is about to get his little green clad butt kicked, and they cannot wait to see it.

Personally, I always felt sorry for Rumpel. I mean, he was helping Anna out. True, he did get greedy at the end, but if her father hadn't told that horrendous lie to begin with, she wouldn't have been in that situation in the first place.

I always thought he got a bum rap.

The kids in my audiences don't have this problem. 

I wonder if I would have had their experience if I'd had a storyteller tell me the tale as opposed to hearing it on a record. I wonder if I would have felt the same if I'd had that little man in my body and voice as he betrayed the helpless girl who was at the mercy of an exaggerating father and greedy soon to be husband.

I'll never know. My audiences, however, are not the least bit confused about why he should get punished.

The last half of this year I was telling social justice tales in schools. These are stories about people with power taking advantage of people who had no sure way to face them.

The children had no trouble identifying when the person in power was doing something wrong. In fact, they would yell at him/her. 

When one character decided he didn't want poor or ugly people around him, I heard about it vociferously from my audience. When one character stole from another, I heard about it. The kids had no patience for injustice. They were quick to call it out and let me know it was no bueno!

My favorite moment was when the West Wind stole cornmeal from Willa and offered her a ratty old tablecloth as a a fair trade when he could not return it.

I said, "Willa looked up at the North Wind, then she looked at that ratty tablecloth and said..."

Before I could get the next line out of my mouth, a third grader sitting a couple of rows back shook his head and said, "Bro!"

The kids around him nodded. That was the only possible reply one could give to somebody taking something valuable and then offering you a big rag as compensation.

I replied, "Pretty much," and went on with the tale.

I was quite proud of our children all across the country. 

I hope, as they get older, they keep their ability to recognize injustice, cruelty, liars, hatred, and intolerance. I hope they call it out when they encounter it. I hope they feel the same outrage in the world around them if they witness the abuse of power, and I hope they choose to stand agains it in times to come.

Happy Telling - 

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Jet Lag

Getting ready to fly to Rotorua, New Zealand.

Staying up way too late tonight.

Ah, Jet Lag!

Looking forward to the trip. Telling. Teaching. Sight-Seeing.


Happy Travels!

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Nightmare Gigs: A Story From The Trenches

There are few things worse than blundering into a performance situation that is annoying or horrible.

We all have types of shows we won't do. For every performer who runs screaming, another would do the venue at the drop of a hat.

Some people like birthday parties.
Some people like small classrooms.
Some people like outdoor venues.
Some people like farmer's markets.
Some people like animal farms.
Some people like street fairs.
Some people like fairs of any kind.

Either way, if you agree to the terms, you show up and do the job.

Over the years, The David and I have gotten very good at asking the right questions to make sure that I am not walking into a situation that will prove aggravating at best, or downright infuriating at worst.

He tries to avoid situations where I am not graceful. There are situations in which I am really not graceful.

Twenty years ago I was asked to tell at a festival for a school.  It was called 'Viking Days' or something like that.  

They didn't offer much money, but I was new to the area, knew a family who sent their kid to the school, and thought it would be helping them out of a tight space.

The school was a deep-pocketed academy, and I think I had it in my mind that this exposure might turn into a good gig down the line.  

I arrived to find a 'story room' on the other side of the building, away from the festivities. They'd hired me to tell for an hour and a half straight to whoever just popped into the room. 

I was annoyed. 

 I realized a couple of things at that point.

1)  This was not a great venue for a performer

2)  I needed to voice to someone that if they wanted a story room like this they should just get parents or older kids to read in there and not bother to get a professional storyteller.

They didn't even need anything particular.

A quiet room with a storytelling recording or even soft music playing would have been fine.

This was a time-out room from the 'fun'.

If your kid was on the verge of losing it after partying, this was the place to take them.

A live person dealing with the sporadic, often toddler aged, mostly unaccompanied random children, who popped into the room over the course of the hour and a half full of sugar, with swords, hats, tummy aches, adrenaline, and meltdowns from being way overstimulated was crazy. 

I am usually pretty even-keeled but as my time in that tiny room stretched towards infinity, I became extremely annoyed.

I compounded my first mistake of taking a gig without getting the details with my second mistake because I can be a stubborn, grumpy, whiny thing when I get really annoyed. 

I talked to an organizer at the event instead of going home, thinking through my response and sending an evaluation of the experience.

The next year, I got an unintended note. One of the organizers had sent an email to the committee, and I was accidentally cc'd on it. 

She's good, but she is high maintenance.  She was upset about something last year, but I don't remember what it was.  You can contact her and see if she'd do it again.

I had two choices.  

Either I could let them know I had been cc'd by mistake, or I could just listen in to the rest of the conversation.

I chose the first. 

I sent out an email to the entire committee. I let them know what my concerns were, gave them suggestions for better activities in that room, and told them that the fee I accepted the year before was very reduced and wasn't a reflection of what a professional performer usually needed. I apologized if I'd been disruptive the year before, informed them that I didn't want to do the event again, and wished them luck in finding an appropriate experience for that room.

I have no idea what the upshot was.

It doesn't matter, the point is, I made a poor showing of myself with them.

So, here are some quick, but obvious tips...

1. Make sure you know the venue, what you are expected to do, and who is the expected audience to the best of the organizer's ability.

2. Make sure you get a contract.

3. If you have suggestions or concerns about the venue once you arrive, do the show as long as it is both safe and possible, but wait until afterward to give them an evaluation if you feel they could better meet the needs of a performer and audience in the space.

4. Sometimes people hiring you know exactly what you do and how to fit it into their programs and sometimes they don't. Don't assume. Discuss.

Good Luck Out There.

Happy Telling!

Thursday, April 5, 2018

What Does It Mean To Be A Successful Storyteller?

Storytellers tend to feel it when we hit it out of the park. When we leave a stage or a classroom after having been incredibly successful, we can feel it all through our body. There is the energy, the excitement, the lavish praise, the joyful expressions and the contentment 

Alas, not all events are that successful.

Sometimes we leave and we feel like we did a good job, but something was missing. Maybe things didn't land the way we hoped they would. Maybe we feel like it was good, but didn't rise to great.

Sometimes we leave and it seems we did an adequate job, but there was nothing that made the experience stand out.

Then, there are those shows where we feel like a train hit us on the way out the door. What happened? Why didn't the story or stories connect? What went wrong?

When I was at Northwestern, Jay O'Callahan came to visit. He is a remarkable man who danced and told his way through one of my all-time favorite original tales called The Herring Shed. When he was finished, I was exhausted and in love with the images dancing in my head. It was obviously magic. 

My first set watching Jackie Torrence perform Brer Rabbit tales was beyond amazing and I sat there watching Brer Snake tempt that possum while laughing my fool head off and drinking in the sound of her voice. I never could have imagined anything so breathtaking as being part of an audience with her at the helm. I could actually feel the magic. 


I wanted to hit the stage someday and be that magic or as close to it as I could get. I wanted my audience to be that spellbound and joyful when they left me. For a long time, I worked to achieve that. Only, in my eyes, when I became a magic person, would I be a successful storyteller.

Unfortunately, there are no manuals about how to create actual magic. There are no books that explain how to actually turn dross into gold or any other useful thing. I suspect that it is this underlying quest for the keys to magic that has forced me to spend so much of my adult life researching storytelling and the human brain.

Many years have passed since those early days of youth and ignorance, and I've seen many storytellers and told many tales. I've worked to refine and challenge myself as I learn and work with audiences. 

I've had magic moments and moments I hope to never relive. 

In the end, I've figured out what success really means to me.


Success for me means I look at each audience and give them what I have. I also strive to meet them where they are. I hope they have a good time. I hope they get something fun out of it. I hope I learn something about humans or literature or nature or how people think or how to time something in a story. I hope I get just an ounce better each year. If you are not growing, then you are either atrophying or dying. Learning is the only thing that makes us better.

Sometimes I miss the mark entirely and the stories don't sing. I dissect the choices I made and debate what I might have done differently. If I learn something that helps me in the future, I succeeded.

Sometimes I partially miss the mark, and the stories limp through. I look through the stories to see what worked, what didn't and what I could or didn't do to help. Sometimes the problem is I stand in the way of the story. If I work out some bit of business or figure out a way to make something transition more smoothly, I succeeded.

Sometimes I do a credible job of giving what I've got and we all have a good time, but not a transformational moment in any way shape or form. I look through those shows and see what can be learned from the interactions with the audience and the amount of animation or energy I threw off during the set. If I can find anything at all to work on, I succeeded.

Of course, every now and then, I manage the thing I always strive to do. Every now and then, I am able to apply all of those things, those hopes, those techniques I spent my life practicing, the audience is hungry for the stories, the situation is perfect and I float into that sweet spot and we make magic.

The magic happens, but I was wrong about where it occurs. I thought it came off the storyteller, but the truth is, it comes through the storyteller. We are brilliant when we are conduits. 

Jay O'Callahan is a magic person to me. Jackie Torrence's magic changed my life and instructs me as a storyteller even unto this day. 

As for me, I feel like I've got a handful of magic beans and every now and then, I manage to plant one. 

There are many ways to measure success as a storyteller. I have learned to settle for learning, striving, trying and never getting knocked down for good even when I am discouraged. 

I make my living as a storyteller. 

In that, I am succeeding.

“If you are a dreamer come in
If you are a dreamer a wisher a liar
A hoper a pray-er a magic-bean-buyer
If you're a pretender come sit by my fire
For we have some flax golden tales to spin
Come in!
Come in!”

― Shel Silverstein

Happy Telling.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

What Is The Best Grade To Introduce Storytelling?

Some years ago, after a storytelling set, a curriculum teacher told me she really wanted to start using storytelling in the classroom. She asked me what would be the best grade to implement such a thing.

I know I had one of those run over by a train looks on my face.

What’s the best grade?


We seem to have forgotten that educating a student is like using a slow cooker to make dinner. You put the raw ingredients in, turn down the heat, and over the course of many hours the various ingredients in the pot simmer and blend to become a savory stew. 

So, what is the best place to start using storytelling?

How about hours old? That's always good. 

The best place to begin using storytelling as an integral part of curricular studies is...


Yes! This is amazing. You can start kids thinking about elements of a story, how language is put together, and images create meaning! Yes!


Sure! That is a great place to start giving kids the tools for language and comprehension. I'm on board.

First Grade?

Yes, you will see some immediate results if you start with first. Go for it!

Second? Second is fabulous! Second graders will get foundational skills that could help them become lifelong readers!

Oh, bring it on! Third is a great year to start storytelling! It will help those students struggling with comprehension! This could curb that pesky fourth grade slump when you get all of these kids who can sound out words but haven't learned how to connect them with images.

Fourth?  (This is a long read, but if you are interested, it is interesting. You can also skim the bits that look interesting.)

Yes, fourth is clearly the best grade to start...right?

Wait. What about Fifth?

They are getting ready for middle school, right? Fifth would ensure they are getting that oral presentation piece. Right?
We love this game!

"What is the best grade to start storytelling?" is a question that needs a long answer about building skills, reading and vocabulary, but in schools today where some amorphous "they" need a provable quick answer that can be tested immediately by a rubric...I'm thinking fourth grade might be a place to start.

The kids are developmentally ready to incorporate the lessons, and it will make a huge difference to them at once.

I am brought to mind of that famous Donald Davis story about storytelling and writing.  He was teaching in a school and he had a number of kids who were struggling with writing.  He had the teachers send those kids to him in the library every Friday for a month for stories.  At the end of that time, all of the kids could write stories

So, for anyone who might be curious, this seems to me to be the progression in question.

1. Before you can write a story, you have to know what is in a story.

2. In order to know what is in a story, you need to be exposed to stories. If you can't read, hearing them is perfect. Even if you can read, hearing them is perfect.

3. Once you are exposed, you will figure out that stories are built out of images. So, you need to figure out how to build images with language

4. Once you understand that you can build images with words, you have to start figuring out what words you know that can be used to build images.

5. Once you start looking through your own vocabulary for descriptions, characters, and settings your ability to visualize language will improve, and that will also increase your joy of reading.

6. f you can’t associate words and images, you can’t read, and writing will be impossible.  

So, the best answer to the question, "What's the BEST grade to start storytelling?" is pretty straightforward.


If that isn't feasible...sigh...start in fourth grade.

Happy Storytelling In Education!

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Strength: A Reflection On Stories, Wisdom, and Power

What does it mean to be strong?

Delilah beguiled Samson, lay with him, and when he was asleep, she cut his hair. When the deed was done she called to him, "Wake up Samson, the Philistines have come!"

Without his hair, Samson had no strength and the Philistines took him blinded him and chained him in their great halls to make sport of him.

What does it mean to be weak?

A mouse was scurrying home when she accidentally ran across a lion's paw.

"Well," said the lion, "you'll make a nice snack."
"Don't eat me," cried the mouse.
"Why not?" asked the lion.
"Someday, I might be able to save you!"
"You?" the lion laughed, but he let the mouse go because of its cheek.

What does it mean to be wise?

Anansi is often quite foolish!
Anansi tried and tried to find a way to get down to the bottom of the pond, but he could not do it. When all of the food was gone, the turtle swam to the top of the water and handed Anansi a glass of water.

"Sorry, friend Anansi! I waited as long as I could. I guess you just weren't hungry!"

Don't do something to someone unless you want them to do it right back to you!

What does it mean to be smart?

Brer Rabbit

"Why ain't you dead?" Brer Fox demanded.
"'Cause I was born and bred in this here briar patch, and it is 'xactly where I wanted to be!"

Over this last week, I have been watching the United States of America discuss our national tragedy...our ongoing national tragedy.

I have wondered what stories to tell.

I have wondered what to say.

I have fought and listened and discussed.

I have wept, and yelled, and clenched my fists.

I have also been proud, shocked, incredulous and hopeful.

So, I leave you with this tale (apologies to Margaret Read MacDonald for my not verbatim retelling!)

Strength - A Retelling

Once, all of the animals gathered to determine who was the strongest.

Gazelle went first. She ran like the wind through the trees faster and faster on her powerful and delicate legs. When she stopped, she raised her head proudly.

Everyone nodded solemnly. "Strength!" they intoned.

Gorilla climbed the trees higher and higher with his powerful arms and legs. He swung through the branches and then landed on the ground and pounded his chest.

Everyone nodded solemnly. "Strength!" they intoned.


Elephant ripped trees from the ground with her powerful trunk, picked them up with her tusks and hurled them into the air.

Everyone nodded solemnly. "Strength!" they intoned.

Man arrived late. Man was always late. He had a package with him. He hid it behind a rock and walked into the middle of the gathering.

"Okay!" he announced. "Here I am."

"Welcome," said the other animals. "What can you do?"

"Watch!" said Man.

He jumped up into the trees and went from branch to branch and then swung around from place to place, and then he climbed down and said, "Ta-da!"

"Well," said the animals, "we've already seen climbing. That was nice climbing, but it wasn't as strong as Gorilla's."

"Well," said Man, "watch this!" He ran around with sticks beating on the trees and singing and making lots of noise. He tossed the sticks away, ran over to the animals and said, "Ta-da!"

"Well," said the animals, "We've already seen running. That was nice but not as strong as Gazelle."

"Watch this!" said Man. He began to flip and dance. He went on like this until he was tired. He ran over to the animals and said, "Ta-da!"

"Well," said the animals, "that was entertaining, but lots of us can flip. Is there nothing you do that truly shows your strength?"

Man was upset. "You want to see strength?" he cried. "I'll show you strength!"
He ran to the place where he'd hidden his package, ripped it open, took out a strange object, pointed it at Elephant, and then there was a loud noise. Elephant fell down dead. The animals fled into the trees.

Later, after Man had gone, the animals came out of hiding.

"What was that?" asked one.

"Was it strength?" asked another.

"No," said the owl. "That was death."

To this day, Man walks alone, for he is the only animal who doesn't know the difference between "strength" and "death".

I have heard so many stories of strength and love in the last few days, that I think we might actually make progress.

I have seen determination and strength mobilize a new generation of Americans to oppose the routine slaughter and senseless death of our children that has become such a common thing in this country.

Let us hope these stories and actions can move our country forward.

Holding our children in my heart

The Telling Can Be Powerful
Use It Well

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Telling To The Sixth Grade: Stories to Reach The All Knowing

February is always an exhausting month for me. My running joke is that even people who didn't know they needed a performer of any kind suddenly need a black one in February!

I work with all kinds of audiences. Sixth grade is one of my favorites.

Sixth grade is a funky year for most kids.  It is a transitional year from childhood into the first blush of the teenage years. 

They are going through a hormonal obstacle course on the inside.  Some are changing drastically on the outside, others aren’t changing at all and everyone is noticing.  

All sorts of things that never bothered them before become of paramount importance.

For some, their arms and legs outgrow the rest of their bodies, leaving them awkward and clumsy.  Girls tend to sprout up, often leaving many of the boys behind.  Everybody starts developing towards full maturity and the blessings and curses of that tend to make pretty much everyone wish they were in someone else’s body.

This is the year some parents notice that their child is getting a bit more ‘sassy’.  These tweens need more space and less space and they vacillate between young people and children. 

"Cool Becomes Important" 
Their friends change as well.  Many become concerned about being ‘cool’, not fitting in properly and what their peers think about everything.  Their friendships often change and they start finding a niche where they can fit.  Some kids don’t go through any of this at all and remain untouched by such concerns until they are older.  All and all, it can be a maddening year.

I’ve often said that sixth graders do not belong with elementary kids and they have no place as of yet with the seventh and eighth graders.  In fact, most of them should be buried beneath the school. 

What on earth do you tell this transitional, morphing group of people?  Most think they are too old for stories and the stuff they think they want to hear is way too old for them.

The answer, for me, is pushing the boundaries just a bit. 

The set I offer for sixth grade is called ‘Hormonal Boys and Hyena Girls’.  It goes into the crazy stuff from the boys who think it is funny to hurt each other and don’t seem to understand how their rough play turns into an actual fight, to the girls who end up crying in the bathroom because somebody didn’t like their haircut.  

The kids are always amazed I know what they are dealing with.  It never occurs to any of them that we old folks really were in sixth grade once upon a time.

De Hag
This is the first group where I tell really scary ghost stories.  The caveat being that I gauge the students who seem to be the most freaked out and I ease back a bit so that things don’t get too scary.  Why do I tell these kids really scary stories?  This is the first age where none of them will be willing to admit to their parents they are scared.  

This means no aggrieved parents are going to call the school and complain.  Besides, they like these stories.

The second category of stories I tell to this group falls under the heading of gory and cerebral.

Morgan and the Pot of Brains is a good example of this.  A kid who is picked on until he shuts down completely goes on a lifelong quest to achieve his brains by cutting out the hearts of the things he loves best in the world.  It turns out all right in the end, but the very graphic, funny, sad and interesting twist to the ending is right up the alley for these emerging people.

The Debate in Sign Language is also a favorite of this group.

Here is a version of it that Mark Goldman shared in a classroom.

Once I lead them through a really dark story, I can tell them fun folktales and they love it.  They don’t even remember they are too old for stories.  The truth is this group will love anything as long as you package it right, but going at them through the truths of who they are is also a good way to get them to reflect, even if only cursorily, on their own situation.

Happy Telling!