Friday, January 13, 2017

Art Is Not An Elective For Everyone

James Ransome


He did this one
I met the incredibly talented visual artist James Ransome about a decade ago. He illustrated one of my books.

I sat in an auditorium and heard the tale of how he'd discovered his love of graphic arts by reading comic books. He showed an amazing image of the first pen drawing he'd ever done. It was fantastic. It was difficult for me to understand how he'd done the work with a ball point pen, but that's because I'm not a visual artist.

I've met a number of talented artists in my life. A good friend of mine, Clay Carmichael, who is the award-winning author of Wild Things and Brother, Brother, and a fabulous illustrator to boot is married to Mike Roig.

Clay Carmichael



Mike makes some of the most beautiful kinetic sculptures I have ever seen.








This week was another one of those experiences where I got whiplash. I started in Swan Quarter, NC at a small school. I had Kindergarten through fifth, and then sixth through eighth.

The principal told me that the eighth graders at the school had arrived as Kinders when he was the elementary principal. When he moved to the middle school the kids had come with him. Now he was the high school/early college principal. He reckoned if he stayed long enough, he would be the only principal in the state who'd shepherded one group of kids from kindergarten to associates degree.  He was very proud of that.

He told me to watch the eighth grade while I was performing. They were not the most academically gifted kids, in fact, he confided, they were considered at risk kids, but they were really talented. He told me a story about how they'd written and choreographed their own piece for the Christmas play when they were in fourth grade, and it was better than anything the teachers had done.

I did the show. We had a great time. As I was leaving, the principal was geeking out about how into the whole event the eighth grade had been. He kept telling me how they weren't "smart" or anything in the sense of school, but they liked things like this. As I was leaving he said in parting, "It's a shame we don't have a music teacher here."

So, a group of kids who like music and dance don't have an outlet for it at the one place they spend most of their time.

This "at risk" group of kids who might very well respond to arts centered education doesn't have access to the arts. They don't have performing or visual arts. Brilliant.

This morning I was at Durham Academy in Durham, NC. It's a private school...with a gorgeous modified black box theatre, state of the art sound system, music rooms, Djembe drums, choral rooms, grand piano, and a full-time dedicated music teacher. Their facility is less than a decade old and it is envy inducing. They also have a theatre program, visual arts curriculum, band...the whole suite of arts.

Before my show this morning, the music teacher had a small group of third and fourth graders who sang a call and response song for their peers and parents. Before the event began, I heard one of the little boys say, "This is the coolest thing I've ever done at school!"

For some kids, art isn't just something fun they get to do. It is a fundamental part of how they interact with the world.

My son is studying three-dimensional digital design and animation.

Here are some of his pieces.








He is also a pretty fierce beatboxer, has done some theatre, and is pretty amazing at putting together stories.


My daughter is not planning to study visual or performing arts. She is a logical, science oriented girl. In fact, she is really interested in physics or engineering. She attends a boarding school that specializes in such things.

 That does not mean she doesn't find joy and stress relief in the arts. She's been in a number of plays including being Anne in the Diary of Anne Frank. She loves attending musical theatre and she is an excellent fiction writer.

She also designs and draws mandalas.

She did this one for my parents



She made this one for my niece and nephew























She made this one for my sister and her husband

Both of my kids use art as a way to relax and refocus, and my son hopes to make his living as an artist.

How different would their lives be if their father and I were not drawn to the arts, and there were no arts in their schools? What if they never even knew you could be an artist as a career? What if they didn't have any place to practice their talents with people who understood and nurtured them?

What about the kids who learn best through the arts? What about the kids who could learn math through music? What about the kids who could use visual arts as a way to reading? What about the kids who could use singing as a way to increase literacy or vocabulary?

When the budget hammer drops, art is the first thing they cut. Imagination is the first thing on the chopping block. Dance isn't all that important, right? Forget that having it might help that really hyper kid learn how to focus on his/her body.

Theatre Arts aren't important, right? Forget that they might help that kid learn how to stand in front of a group of people and speak with confidence. I mean, when is that ever going to be a necessary skill?

Music? I mean honestly. It isn't like there are reams and reams of studies about how music aids in learning math and patterning, right?

It isn't like any of those things are life skills. Oh, and it isn't like any kid in that school will ever actually want to become an artist. 

Ax the arts!

I sat in that state of the art building this morning listening to jazz come through the fabulous speakers as the first, second, third, and fourth graders filed into the room and thought, "Every school should be so lucky."

For some kids, art is not an elective...it is the only way.

When will we ever learn.....

Happy Creating.



Thursday, January 5, 2017

Enlisting The Audience: 5 TIps For Managing An Audience

This is the last post in the Audience Participation series.

Text of Epaminondas

Part 1: Covert and overt Audience Participation

Part 2: Overt Audience Participation

Part 3: Covert Audience Participation

Part 4: 5 Tips For Managing An Audience

In the last few posts, I've gone into some detail to explain what I mean when I talk about overt and covert audience participation. Epaminondas is a great story to use because it is easy to see where the rhythms run in the tale, and how it lends itself to setting up easy rules for the audience to follow.

What about stories that don't have that kind of structure? Can you do audience participation with them? Of Course.

There are lots of things I could say about audience participation but who has space for that? So, here are five common sense things to consider. Some of them are things you can plan before you ever see an audience, and some of them are things you do while you are in front of one.


I often talk about storytellers as being tour guides. We pick up an audience, carry it to various places, or cajole it into following us, as we unfold amazing worlds, characters, and situations for them. I firmly believe that this is what we are doing, but that is not all that is happening.

We are also in hunter-gatherer mode.

We stalk and snare a wild audience and our job is to ride it no matter which way it chooses to bolt, buck, run, or roll. We hold on for dear life and try to figure out what we need to do to keep control of the beast and guide it where we want it to go all the while knowing that at any moment we might be thrown off and trampled.

While we are riding it, we must also respect what it needs, wants, and actually does in order to make sure that when the ride is over we go our separate ways having had an amazing and exhilarating though sometimes exhausting, experience.

Each performer must find her or his own way to do this, but here are some generic "everyone could do these" suggestions I have for working an audience.



1. Ask questions of an audience: These do not have to be individually answered. The whole point of these questions is to establish a communal baseline. 

Here is the way I begin a story about Brer Possum and the Frogs. The only response necessary is a raising of the hand after each question.

1. How many of you have moms who are good cooks?
2. How many of you have moms who are NOT good cooks?
3. How many of you have dads who are good cooks?
4. How many of you have dads who are Not good cooks?
5. How many of you have a relative who thinks they are a good cook...but they are not.
6. How many of you who have parents or guardians who are good cooks, but every now and then they go into the kitchen and they experiment? You know what I mean? They go in the kitchen and bring out something that has weird sauce, or some kind of strange looking noodles or something, and they put it in front of you and expect you to eat it. When I was a kid and that happened in my family, the first words out of our mouths were, "We aren't eating this."
7. How many of you have ever been served something so disgusting at the dinner table it made you cry?


I tell a short personal anecdote about a time when I cried at the dinner table.

Now, we are ready to tell the story I've chosen.

These questions aren't about my finding out everyone's story...they are about everyone joining me in my story. I set the playing field and invite them to come and play my game.

The coolest thing about starting a story this way is that for the rest of the day, everyone in that audience has a story to tell about a family meal or a funny food event.

The audience is engaged during the story, and they walk away to engage other people in story.

The second function of questions is to check in with the audience. By making them actively participate even on the level of raising their hand every five minutes or so, they get used to the idea that you want their input. They begin reacting to you in an active way instead of a passive one. Your overt request to see a show of hands gives you the covert request of having your audience stay with you because there is no telling when you are going to ask for their input.

This leads us to the second tip.

2. Check in with the audience during the story. You can do this by asking them to nod or having them fill in bits of the story over the course of the tale. You can also do this non-verbally. 

This technique is about reading an audience

a. Scan the audience. make eye contact with people

b. Look for nonverbal signals. Where are their eyes? Did they nod their heads? Are they smiling at places that need smiles? What are their hands doing? Are they fidgeting? Are they leaning forward? What are they doing? Do you need to recapture their attention? Make a choice to do something that will bring them back into the situation if you feel like you are losing them.

c. Are they engaged? Do they look like their eyes are glassing over? What can you do to recapture them if they look lost? Why are they lost? Did you say something that they missed? Have you glossed over an idea or point that they needed to understand the tale? Why are they behaving this way, and is this the first time you've seen it? Make a choice to either ask them a question or re-engage them some kind of way.

Once you realize what your audience is doing, adjust your work. You can ask a question or reiterate a point or go into more detail. If you catch the initial place you lose an audience, you can easily compensate...if you go too long without fixing it, then you are lost...and so are they!

3. Allow the audience to shape the tale.

If the audience starts reacting to something in a way that has never happened, take note of it. Do you like it? how will you change the tale because of it during this particular telling? Do you hate it? How do you stop it? Consider why the reaction is happening and adjust.

Some audiences are unique. They might do something that won't happen again. Crafting your piece for certain reactions can help, but sometimes you just get wild cards. Roll with it.

I started telling La Mariposa in schools pretty frequently over the last year. What I noticed was that if the kindergarten is in the room, they often applaud when the butterfly accepts the mouse's proposal, but nobody else does. It happens most often when I am in front of a K - 5 audience. When the older kids are not there, the kindergarten isn't likely to do it.  I am quite fascinated by what causes this reaction. I begin to wonder if there is some way to craft this story that causes the entire audience to applaud...hmmmm.


4. If an audience has a bad reaction to something, don't dismiss it! Learn from it!

Stories grow from adversity as well a success. Let the story that didn't work teach you how to work story. Only an audience can really teach you what kind of storyteller you are. Let them.

I learn a great deal from audiences. Every telling teaches me something. The tellings that weigh on me are the ones where I don't succeed, but I am not often baffled by them anymore. Sometimes I just can't capture an audience and I try to figure out what I could have done better. Other times I misread them and don't give them what they need. Sometimes I am fighting an uphill battle before I begin, but I just keep at it. I learn to crack some audiences, and other times I am confronted with something I don't understand. It's all part of the work.

My favorite saying about this comes from Mythbusters..."Failure is always an option!"

(I have friends who balk at the word "failure". They say, "It isn't a failure if you learn from it, or "you didn't fail!" I'm here to tell you that sometimes I fail. Failing isn't the end of the world. I think of it as a place to start. If the word makes you uncomfortable substitute something nicer.)

5. If you notice a recurring thing happening in a story that you feel adds to the story, incorporate it, and let it help shape the tale.  

We don't always know what is happening to an audience when we choose a piece. Just because we think a story is about one thing, doesn't mean that is so. Let the audience help you figure out what to do with certain tales.



The stories I tell in tandem with audiences are all due to the work I did with Epaminondas. Crafting that story over the course of five years helped me identify other stories that could be crafted in similar fashion.

So, that's my advice. Good luck out there.

Happy Audience Rustling!




Friday, December 30, 2016

Enlisting The Audience Part 3: Covert


Text of Epaminondas

Enlisting the Audience Part 1: Covert and Overt

Enlisting the Audience Part 2: Overt

Enlisting The Audience Part 3: Covert

Enlisting the Audience Part 4: 5 Tips



In the last post we discussed how overt and covert participation work together to help a storyteller read an audience.


Reading an audience gives the performer a chance to figure out what they need to do to effectively connect with an audience, but, in my opinion, the best part of the covert work is when it engages an audience so deeply that they become tandem tellers.

A good example of this happens in the second chapter of the Epaminondas tale.



The story starts with a sequence of language that is repeated throughout the story, but of course the audience doesn't know that the first time through. Some of the audience members are taken by how physical the story is, and they are already trying to mimic what they are seeing as it happens.

When Epaminondas gets to his grandmother's house they have an interaction that is also going to be repeated.

After that, we get into the particular language in the episode.

The first special sequence at his grandmother's house establishes some rules for the audience when we are not in repetition mode.

1. After Epaminondas and his grandmother clean up the kitchen, I go through some ingredients his grandmother is gathering. The sequence ends when I say, "His grandmother baked up a great big chocolate cake."

2. A number of the audience members make some kind of yummy sound. "mmmm" in various pitches and lengths.

3. After they make this sound, which I am pretty sure is coming so I wait for it to subside, I say, "with thick chocolate frosting."

4. The audience makes the exact same sound they made before, but usually louder and more enthusiastically.

None of that is prompted.

5. Next, I say, "His grandmother gave him a great big ol' slice of that cake." I mime cutting a slice of cake, and then I mimic whatever sound the audience has just made to signify yummy. Some of them will laugh at me at this point, but it is not lost on them that I have taken their sound and incorporated it into the story.

What does this mean? It means it is okay for them to add things to the story. It is okay for them to make noise. It is okay for them to play with me. That is the covert instruction. Some audiences figure out at once that they have some power over me, and they begin to search for other places to take over the story.

This happens in the first five minutes of the telling.

The next bit happens when his grandmother cuts him another piece of cake to take home to his mother. I make the same yummy sound with this second piece of cake. Inevitably, some audience members predict that he is going to eat this piece of cake as well. I hear it whispered all over the room.

He doesn't, He smashes it through his fingers because he's worried he might drop it.

(There is  a whole bunch of literacy stuff going on at that point, but this post isn't about that, so we'll leave that for some other time.)

His mother is upset when he gets home and the audience gets to say his mother's refrain. She tells him that if he gets something small he should put it under his hat.

The opening comes around again.

The entire sequence repeats from causing a ruckus to going to his grandmother's house. At the end of their second day together, grandma gives him some butter.

Now comes the moment when we go tandem...if it works.

1. He takes the butter outside and asks, "How did my momma say to bring stuff home?"

2. I get a mix of four reactions.

a. Some raise their hands - still asking permission or a conditioned response
b. Some answer while sitting perfectly still
c. Some reproduce the whole mime sequence I used when his mother told him what to do while saying the words in rhythm.
d. Some don't respond at all. Either they don't remember, don't care to participate, don't realize I actually want a response or they are still in television mode and don't realize they have to do anything to further the story.

Either way, the audience realizes around the same time the he plans to put two pounds of butter under his hat.

I say, "He took the hat off of his head. He put the butter on top of his head. He put his hat back on. He started walking home." I pause. "It was a really hot day."

Reactions:
All over the audience kids make predictions out loud. "It's going to melt!"

Now, the last time they made a prediction many of them were wrong. This time they are waiting to see what will happen.

I say, "He got butter in his hair." I make a surprised and disgusted face, but I say nothing.

Some members in the audience vocalize the sound that goes with that face. "ewww" or something like that.

I say, "He got butter down his face." I make the same face. More voices make the "yuck" sound.

By the third time - when butter is going down his neck - the whole audience is reveling in making the sounds I am not making, but they know belong in the story.

If I get an audience who just watches without making the sound, I have an ace in the hole. the fifth thing that happens is he gets butter in his pants.

The audience makes the "yuck" noise very loudly at that point - even the ones who haven't been involved up to that point tend to react.

Last but not least he gets butter in his shoes.

- The coolest thing about that sequence is that without any prompting, by the second reaction, the audience decides en masse just how long they are going to make the "yuck' sound, where it goes, and how intense it is going to be. It sounds like we have rehearsed it.

The first time it happened, I was pretty shocked. Now, I set it up covertly from the beginning and I expect it.



From that sequence on in the story the audience is empowered to participate to the point where I don't actually tell much more of the story. The only bits I vocalize are the things that happen at grandma's that are not part of the repetition. They do the rest, and they offer up sound effects and everything.

The key to effectively using covert audience participation is, of course, crafting. The more crafted your material, the better you can use it to create an amazing experience with an audience no matter what age.

I have one more post in this series. It will be a series of tips for using audience participation techniques to keep your audience actively participating all the way through your set.

Happy Telling!


Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Enslisting the Audience Part 2 - Overt

This is part of a series of blogs on using covert and overt audience participation.




I have been thinking about how to structure the posts in this series and have discovered that it would take me a couple of chapters of a book to really go into this. That is not happening in this space, so I am going to try to give the best outline I can about how I use this technique. 

The problem I ran into when I started writing about this was that the two - covert and overt audience participation - are joined such that I would have to completely craft out this story and then go back and explain how each piece works. There are way more steps to this than I realized when I started trying to put it into words.

I hope it is pretty obvious, but it took me years to work out how to do it, so here goes.


Epaminondas is one of those tales perfectly suited to overt audience participation.

- It takes place in clearly defined episodes
- It lends itself to repetition
- It builds from episode to episode

With these structures built right into the story, consider the possibilities for creating language that is repetitive.


1. You can have something the mother says to Epaminondas every single time he comes home
2. You can have a response to whatever the mother says 
3. You can have a repeated sequence for why his mother sends him to his grandmother's house
3. You can have a repeated sequence when the boy goes off to his grandmother's house
4. You can have a repeated sequence when he gets to his grandmother's house


The coolest thing about the overt participation in this story is that it is entwined with all of the covert audience participation.

Okay, let's get into the crafting.

Overt - How do I set up this story?

Before I tell this story, I employ two overt storytelling techniques: Rehearsing the Audience and Encouraging Participation.

I introduce the character's name, Epaminondas, and take the audience through a syllable by syllable pronunciation.

I use hand gestures for each syllable. 

After the pronunciation bit, we say the name together several times until I'm pretty confident that most of them can say it.

After that, I say to the kids, "Can you give me a moment to say something to your teachers(adults)?"
They always give me permission.

I turn to the adults and say, "Storytelling is not a spectator sport. Please do not sit and stare at me for the next forty minutes. That's disconcerting."

Some adults are mortified.
Some adults smile.
Some adults fold their arms in annoyance.
Some adults laugh.
Principals love it.
Some parents are game.
Some parents dare me to make them. (It takes a great deal for me not to editorialize about these parents, but I am pleased to see that I have not)

 After that, I introduce the mother's response when the kid has done something particularly foolish.

"When his mother gets mad at him, she puts her hands on her hips and says, "Epaminondas, you ain't got the sense you was born with." This sentence is said using neck isolations. Your chin thrusts out, and then your head goes side to side, and it finishes with the chin trust. This usually gets a laugh because it is a complete break from the very down to earth "instructor" sound they've heard out of me up to this point.

I tell the audience this is their part of the story. We rehearse the words without the neck isolations. 

I begin by saying the phrase several times without asking the audience to participate. After that, I invite them to try. 

After they are mostly saying it with me, I say, "One more time, say it with me."

Then we practice the neck isolations. Lots of kids can't do these, but they have fun nonetheless. The grown-ups who have decided to play actually enjoy this.

After all of this I say, "Now, let's put them together."

We do the neck isolations while we say the phrase in rhythm.

Then I say, "You'll know it is your turn to say that when I say, "She put her hands on her hips and said," - put your hands on your hips- "Epaminondas! You ain't got the sense you was born with!"

Lots of times audiences applaud for themselves after they get to this point. 

After that, I say, "I think we're ready. Let's tell this story!"

Let's take that three minute segment apart....


Covert: What do I get out of this that I didn't specifically ask for?

If the audience laughs uproariously in a way that has more to do with being in the gym or out of the class than that word really merits- Make sure that as you go through the next five minutes you give them solid parameters of what you expect of them during the telling.

If the audience has no response at all to his name - You might be dealing with a group of children who have been told on pain of death that they should only respond if the storyteller specifically tells them they can - These guys might need some loosening up to get them to really participate

Keep an eye on how many of the students mimic the hand gestures I use while articulating the syllables.... 

If there are only a few over the entire word, these kids might need more prodding to really go for it.

If a few start and the rest join in before the word is over...then they are coming along fine.

If they all jump in at once with the hand and inflection...HOO BOY!



If the adults in the room have absolutely no intention of working with you...that's a good thing to know right at the start!

If some of the adults are game keep an eye on them because they might lapse into just watching you over the course of the story. You can prompt them a bit. They won't mind.

If the principal is game, make sure you use her/him as a touchstone. Other adults will respond to that.

If the audience is having trouble getting the rhythm of the mother's words, adjust the speed of the telling.

If the audience jumps right in...take them as far as they are willing to go!

Once we finish putting our neck isolations and the mother's words together I see how the audience responds. They are usually very excited to find out what we are about to do. That energy is what carries us into the story. I tend to use this story as the first exposure for young audiences who may or may not have ever seen a storyteller. It is a good first story for young listeners.

All of this happens before the story even starts.


In the next post, I'll deal with a chapter out of the story that I love. It has to do with building the relationship with the audience that allows them to actually take over parts of the story. The sequence works about ninety-nine percent of the time. That one percent usually figures it out by the end. 

It happens in the butter sequence.


Happy Audience Maintenance!




Monday, November 28, 2016

Text of Epaminandas


This is the Text I will be using for the series.

Part 1 - Enlisting the Audience Covert and Overt
Part 2 - Enlisting the Audience
Part 3 - Enlisting the Audience - Covert

Part 4 - 5 Tips for Enlisting The Audience

Basics of Epaminondas -The crafted version of this tale takes 30 minutes.

Once there was a little boy named Epaminondas.
One day, his mother sent him to his grandmother's house. They spent the day together. On the way home, his grandmother gave him a piece of cake.
Epaminondus  was afraid he'd drop the cake, so he held it in his hands. On his way home he squeezed it so tightly, it smashed through his fingers.

His mother was unimpressed.
"Epaminondus, you ain't got the sense you was born with! That is not how you bring home cake! If you have something that small, put it under your hat!"

The next week, he went back to his grandmother's house. She gave him butter to take home.
"How am I supposed to take things home to my mother? Ah yes! I should put it under my hat!"

The butter melted.

His mother was unimpressed.

"Epaminondas! You ain't got the sense you was born with!
If you have something that runs, put it in the stream and cool it down until it isn't running anymore."

The next week, he went back to his grandmother's house. This time she gave him a puppy.
"How am I supposed to bring home something if it runs?" Ah yes! I should put it in the water!"

The puppy was quite bedraggled by the time he got it home.

His mother was unimpressed. The puppy was fine.

"Epaminondas! You ain't got the sense you was born with!
If you have something alive, tie a string around it gently and lead it home!"

The next week, he went back to his grandmother's house. This time she gave him a ham.
"How am I supposed to bring this home? Well, ham comes from a pig, and a pig is alive. I know!"
He tied a string around the ham and dragged it home.

His mother was unimpressed.
"Epaminandus! You ain't got the sense you was born with! From now on I'm going to your grandmother's house, and you stay home!"

The next week the mother went to grandma's house. She left six pies on the front steps to cool and told her son to mind how he played in the pies. Then she left.

Epaminondas took off his shoes and socks and minded how he put footprints in each pie. He tasted his foot, decided they were so yummy, he'd eat one.

When his mother came home and saw what he'd done she said, "Epaminandas, you ain't got the sense you was born with, and you might never have it, but I love you anyway."

Audience Participation: Covert and Overt - Part 1


Text of Epaminondas

Part 1 - Audience Participation: Covert and Overt Part 1

Part 2 - Enlisting the Audience

Part 3 - Enlisting the Audience - Covert

Part 4 - 5 Tips To Enlist The Audience

The audience is a critical tool in the art of storytelling. Being able to connect with an audience, convince them to follow you on a wild escapade through the imagination, and give you permission to invade their minds with thoughts, images, and ideas is a must for a successful telling experience.

So, how do you do it?

Well, for starters, assume that every audience member has their own battles that they were fighting just before you began.

Your goal is to make them lose track of those battles and stand beside you in whatever quest you have planned for them. In order to do that, you must be present with your audience. Storytelling only happens when you and your audience are sharing something between you.

Audience participation is an excellent way to achieve this.

For me, every single story is an audience participation story.

Now, that does not mean that every story I tell requires somebody from the audience to get up onto the stage. It also doesn't mean that every audience is required to jump around or even speak in unison.

When I say they are actively participating, it means they have been drawn into your world. You can tell they are with you by how they react to you during the telling. Every story I tell has moments built into it that allows the audience to express their place in the adventure.

To that end, I think about audience participation in two different categories.

One is overt. You are calling on the audience to participate.

One is covert. You build things into the story that allow an audience to respond in particular ways. Their reactions can tell you where they are and help you decide if you need to change, add, or emphasize something.

Let us begin with the overt forms of audience participation.

1. You Call Someone Out of The Audience To Participate On Stage: This is as simple as asking for a volunteer.


2. Rehearse The Audience: You tell the audience what you want them to do. They practice it several times, and then you start telling.


3. Assign Parts: You tell parts of the audience to do certain things at certain times. ex. "When the lion says, "Stop!" Everyone on this side should yell, "Not until Monday!"


4. Encourage The Audience To Participate: This is as simple as saying that you might need help, and they should feel free to jump in.



The Covert forms are much more interesting to me. Here is a small sampling of things you can do with an audience.

1. Build in a place for the audience to participate if they want without asking them to do so.

2. Allow for moments when you expect some kind of reaction from an audience whether verbal or physical, but don't linger or emphasize them.

3. Check to see who if anyone is mirroring you.

4. Monitor the audience to see how they are reacting through particular points in the tale


I was planning to go through all of the covert and overt in this post, but after reading what I'd written I decided it was too wordy and some of it didn't make sense out of context, so I scrapped it.

I'll take another approach that I think will make more sense.

I'll do a ?three? part series using a single tale showing how I present it for performance. The story we'll use is Epaminandas. Here is a version that came out in picture book form.



Next week I will break down this story and explain how, why and where I use both covert and overt elements. I will explain what I do, what I hope happens, and what usually happens. I will also talk about how the covert elements that I build into stories help me shape and craft material over the long term.


Now, there are some of out there who will remember this story because of its appearance in an incredibly racist text back in the early 1900's.

Before you start yelling at me about this story being "inappropriate" I would like to point out that the story is not responsible for the heinous pictures someone decided to add to it.

It is actually based on a type of Jack Tale. There are a number of these tales and they deal with Noodleheads, or people who aren't clever.

I have had African American adults of a certain age thank me for telling the story because they were able to reclaim it after the horrendous pics in the book they remember from when they were elementary school and somebody thought bringing in this book was a great idea since they couldn't find many books with black folks depicted in them.

Either way, check out the bare bones of the story.

Happy Participating!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Kids Are Capable: They Just Need To Practice.



I am here in beautiful Beaufort County North Carolina for a week.

I've had a pretty easy tour through this part of the world. Two shows a day means I have lots of time to write, relax, and well, mostly just write!

I was given an interesting challenge today. I had to convince some grown-ups that their children were perfectly capable of handling an assembly.


I'm used to going into a middle or high school and having the principal be leery about my ability to hold the attention of a prepubescent or worldly wise audience. What I am not used to is a group of folks who don't think I can hold the attention of six and seven-year-olds.

We got a call earlier this week from a principal who was concerned about the length of the program I was going to offer. She was worried that even thirty minutes would be too long, let alone forty-five minutes and an hour was out of the question. These, she informed me, were only first graders, and they didn't have the attention span or the capability of an assembly that was longer than half an hour at the most.

The David told her that I was not planning an hour long show. I was just going to do forty-five minutes. This did not fill her with confidence.

The David told me that even though he assured the principal that it would be all right she had her doubts.

I arrived at the school in the morning, and first few adults I came in contact with told me that their first graders were "rambunctious", "immature", "wild", "not well behaved". The assistant principal let me know that she would come in and check on me as much as possible to make sure I was all right during the show.

I also found out it was a Pre-K - 1 school, but there was no way the Kindergarteners could handle an assembly.

Well, I'd planned to tell Why Mosquitoes Buzz In People's Ears, maybe Too Much Noise, and possibly a little finger game, but after all of this certainty that the kids wouldn't sit I threw that out of the window. I decided we were going to go for one of those involved, slightly unsettling European folktales. I settled on Rumpelstiltskin.

Now, you might ask, "Why would you tell that story?"

Easy.

My telling of it is about forty-five minutes long, it is highly participatory, and it fits nicely into all of the language requirements I employ when telling to a pre-reading audience.

I decided that not only was I going to tell a forty-five minute story, I was going to tell for an hour...unless it would disrupt the schedule.

My goal was simple. After I told for an hour and the children were well behaved it might open the school up to offering the kids more arts opportunities instead of keeping them out because of "short attention spans" and "inability to engage with presentations".


The telling went very well indeed, and the kids had a smashing time. When we hit forty-five minutes, I pointed out to the teachers that we'd been sitting for that long. They looked shocked. I asked them if I could tell another story, and they were enthusiastic. I told a fifteen minute story and then dismissed them...in silence.

I have a little dismissal trick I like to do with the kids. They leave quietly and are very proud to have done so.

After the set, when the multi-purpose room was completely empty, the assistant principal said, "That was amazing."

She proceeded to tell me that they'd had a different assembly at the school in the past that wasn't completely age appropriate, and the kids hadn't even managed to get through twenty minutes of the thirty minute program before they'd had to call a halt.

I pointed out that I'd offered age appropriate material.

She waved that off at once and announced that it wasn't that, but that I had presented the work in such an engaging way. I switched the conversation back to content. I pointed out that kids this age are actually hard wired for storytelling.

She informed me that she'd left to go back to her duties after about twenty minutes into the story, but she was kind of bummed. She'd bumped into the principal who'd asked how it was going. She'd told the principal it was going well, but the woman was still worried. She told the vice principal to go back into the assembly just in case I needed help.

"I didn't say anything to her," the vice principal admitted, "but I was happy to go back because I love that story and I couldn't wait to get to the part when she guessed his name."

We talked a bit then about the importance of stories in children's lives. I told her I was disappointed I didn't get to tell with the Kindergartners and she said she was disappointed in that choice as well.

"The next time you come," she said, "I'll make sure everybody gets to see you."

I thanked her and left the school.

The David called to check on me. "How was the assembly?" he asked.

"After all the worry, I was sort of annoyed that the school had such little faith in their kids. So, I told for an hour and dismissed them quietly back to their classes."

Laughter on the other end of the phone. "I knew you were going to do that."

I've been chewing on that all day. I certainly have been in schools where the kids were difficult, the work was hard, and the telling was like offering up my blood. It was completely possible that when I got in front of these children, they would all turn into the zombie apocalypse of audiences or something of that nature, but I knew right away this was not going to be the case.

The most important thing I do before I open my mouth is to check out the audience. I see how the kids come in, what their teachers are doing, how they are behaving with each other, and how they respond to the break in their schedule.

Last week, I had a kindergartener come into their multi-purpose room, look up at me and say, "Oh God, not another assembly." The police and firefighters had been there all day because of Veterans day and she was heartily sick of looking at presentations. By the end of the set, she was right in it with everyone else, but she came in clearly not expecting to enjoy herself.

There are lots of ways to diffuse a tough audience.

The kids who marched into the multi-purpose room this morning were not even close to a problem. What I did notice was that only a few of the teachers bothered to participate with me. The rest of them sat like stones. Two were actually facing the opposite direction during much of the telling until the end when they gave up being annoyed by the assembly and decided to enjoy it.

As is the case with lots of schools, the kids take their cues from the teachers. Luckily, we were all too busy playing to worry about what the detached grown-ups were doing. By the end of the set, a number of teachers decided to join in the fun.

Not for the first time in my career, I wanted to shout at the grown-ups...it might not be the kids!

Don't assume they can't sit still! Don't assume they have no attention span. Expose them to arts and ideas. Model good audience behavior. Kids won't get any better at being an audience member if they don't know what to do. Give them space to practice.

Happy Telling!

DW