Yesterday I performed for the Sisterhood of Beth Meyer Synagogue in Raleigh, NC. We had a wonderful time sharing stories about strong women. When the set was complete, an elderly woman came over and told me a story.
"This all took place before you were born." She began. "I used to take my children down to the 92nd street Y, and there was a storyteller there. You probably don't know her. Her name was Peninnah Schram."
She went on to tell me how Peninnah had been such a huge influence on her life, and the lives of her children.
"She wouldn't know me." The woman said, "I never even spoke to her, but her stories changed the way I taught reading, and they gave my children a profound love of stories and literature that has stayed with them all of their lives."
She told me she'd forgotten all about those far away days, because it was so long ago, but hearing me tell brought it all back to her.
I called Peninnah this morning to share the story. I asked what she was doing with herself, and if she'd mind if I wrote about her on my blog. She said I could write about her if I liked, and then told me about the projects in her life. I forget how much of a whirling bundle of energy she is! I could do an entire series on what Peninnah is up to these days.
For those of you who are new to her work, there are myriad biographies of this incredible woman all over the web. If you want to explore more about how she has been shaping storytelling in general, the Jewish storytelling traditions in particular, and using stories to reclaim culture for over sixty years, click here.
Here is a small sampling of what she's been doing to keep busy these days....
She still teaches at Yeshiva University in the speech and drama department, and she is currently working on her thirteenth book of Jewish stories.
Here is a little something from her listing over at NSN.
"Peninnah is a recipient of the prestigious Covenant Award for Outstanding Jewish Educator (1995) awarded by The Covenant Foundation. In mid-1990s she received the National Storytelling Network Regional Leadership Award and in 1999 she received NSN's The Circle of Excellence Award for "a body of work which is nationally recognized as a shining example of quality in the art form of storytelling performance." Peninnah has also been awarded the National Storytelling Network's 2003 Lifetime Achievement Award". This makes her a triple NSN award winner." Peninnah is a member of the Jewish Storytelling Coalition, and still actively travels the world telling stories, conducting workshops, and teaching as an artist in residence. She is an award winning author, educator par excellence, master storyteller, and Mensch of the highest order.
Many years ago, I worked with a teller by the name of Susan Stone. Susan introduced me to the concept of Tikkun Olam. Once, at the beginning of time, the world was good. Then, the ten vessels that held the light of the world shattered, and the shards were scattered through the world. It is the responsibility of the Jewish people to gather the shards of light. Once all of the sparks of that bygone time have been collected, the vessels can be restored, and the world will be healed. In order to gather the shards, you must do good deeds and kind works. These works are called Mitzvahs. Susan informed me that 'Gathering the Sparks' was an important part of the Jewish tradition. Storytellers don't always know how we touch people's lives. We see so many faces in audiences over the years, and we don't remember all of them. We hope folks enjoy our stories. We hope that we leave laughter and memories in the hearts of those who share stories with us. Yesterday, at the end of a wonderful brunch, I was reminded once more that we touch lives much deeper than we know. If it is a sacred duty to gather the sparks by doing deeds that lift the human spirit in order to bring back light to heal the world, then Peninnah Schram has picked up so many of them she has become a beacon. Happy Telling! Here is a list of Peninnah Schram's work.
CD & BOOKSby StorytellerPeninnah
Schram, Peninnah and Gerard Edery. The Minstrel and the Storyteller: Stories and Songs of the Jewish People. CD.Sefarad Records. $15.00 This 72-minute CD includes 6 folktales told by Peninnah Schram interwoven with the
songs and music sung and played by Gerard Edery. The stories and songs come
from Sefardic and Ashkenazi traditions.
Schram, Peninnah. The Hungry Clothes and Other Jewish Folktales. Illustrated by Gianni De Conno. New York: Sterling Publishing, 2008. hc. $15.00
22 Jewish folktales filled with wit and wisdom. Elegantly designed and splendidly
produced book with full color paintings, with sources and glossary.
Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning, Edited by Goldie Milgram and Ellen Frankel. Phila: Reclaiming Judaism Press, 2011. $25.00
60 mitzvah-centered stories by leading storytellers, rabbis and educators. It includes
essays about the Jewish oral tradition and techniques of storytelling. The Foreword is
by Richard Joel, President of Yeshiva University. The book is dedicated in honor of
Schram, Peninnah. Jewish Stories One Generation Tells Another. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1987. Laminated cover. $55.00 64 wide ranging stories and folktales culled from various Jewish oral and written
traditions with source-filled introductions to each story, glossary, bibliography and an
index. The foreword is by Elie Wiesel.
Schram, Peninnah. Tales of Elijah the Prophet. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1991. hc.$35.00 36 stories of Elijah the Prophet, the master of miracles, gathered from various
sources and centuries with a major introduction and endnotes and written in an oral
style. The foreword is by folklorist Dov Noy.
Schram, Peninnah, ed. Chosen Tales: Stories Told by Jewish Storytellers. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1995. Laminated cover.$55.00 A great variety of 68 favorite and meaningful stories chosen by Jewish storytellers
and presented as if the book was a "literary storytelling festival". The foreword is by
Rabbi Avi Weiss.
Schram, Peninnah. Stories Within Stories: From the Jewish Oral Tradition. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 2000.hc.$45.00 The fifty stories in this book, drawn from Talmudic and midrashic sources, medieval
sources, and especially the Israel Folktale Archives, are frame narratives. Stories are
embedded within stories. The intriguing stories range from witty tall tales to Hasidic
tales. The foreword is by Howard Schwartz.
Schram, Peninnah. The Purim Costume. Illustrated by Tammy L. Keiser. NY: URJ Press, 2005. hc. $14.00
Illustrated story about a young girl’s refusal to dress as Queen Esther for the Purim
costume contest. The story of Purim is recounted as part of a Purimspiel.
Schram, Peninnah. The Chanukah Blessing. Illustrated by Jeffrey Allon. NY:
URJ Press, 2000. hc $14.00
Illustrated story about Elijah the Prophet who teaches the children of a poor family
why their potato menorah not only fulfills the mitzvah of burning the oil to celebrate
the holiday but, also, why it is filled with the love of mitzvah.
Schram, Peninnah. The Magic Pomegranate. Illustrated by Melanie Hall. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publishing Group, 2007. hc$18.00 - sc$7.00
Illustrated folktale about three brothers who find unusual gifts. By each using those
gifts, they then must decide who deserves to marry the cured princess.
For starters, you can guarantee that most children between second and tenth grade think that what makes a story scary is telling it in the dark. This is not actually true. What makes a story scary is how well you get inside your audience's head.
If you can freak them out behind their own eyeballs, you could be standing inside the sun, and they would still be scared out of their wits...provided you weren't all burnt alive.
Here are some quick rules of thumb I use when choosing ghost stories for audiences.
1) When dealing with really little kids, the stories should be way more funny than scary. Usually, it is enough to tell the group that you are going to tell them a scary story. Their imaginations will do the rest. They will see 'scary' written in each element of the story right up until the time you make it funny. They may announce afterwards that they weren't scared, but if you look into those giant, nervous eyes while you are setting up the tale, you will see that they aren't all that anxious to be frightened despite the bravado. These kids do not want to be scared!
The Gunny Wolf is a perfect example for kids this age.
2) From about third grade to fifth grade I tell 'scary stories for kids who just 'think they want a scary story, but not really'.
This group actually thinks they want to be scared, but beware, for if you actually scare them, you will get phone calls from angry parents, principals, and teachers. Jump tales are the name of the game with this crowd.
These kids are on the precipice that leads from the fears of young childhood i.e. monsters in the closet, things under the bed, creepy creatures waiting to spring out and grab them, and the beginnings of peer pressure fears about being teased, left out, and other more real world concerns.
There are plenty of great ghost type stories for this group. Many traditional tales will serve. They can be silly, a little creepy, have a jump or two, but don't do anything exotic...unless you have permission, or you don't mind adults freaking out on you.
I am sure you have plenty more! If you want to share stories you tell in the comments section, it would be helpful for people who are just looking for stories. You can also head over to Catch the Story Bug and go through Karen Chace's blog for more tales.
3) Sixth grade is the first year I tell really scary stories. Using lots of vocal technique and wild facial and body positions can make these stories really creepy, and they can benefit from some lighting. This is the first group of kids who will probably not wake their parents, and demand to sleep in their bed, so it is safe to scare them.
The rule I use with this group is that I try very hard to monitor what is happening, and if they get too scared I back off a bit. They may be in large bodies, but they are still children. The Boo Hag is a good tale for this group.
My version of The Boo Hag is on my CD Cup Of Blood. You can download individual tracks if you are of a mind.
4) Once you get into high school, anything goes and you can tell those stories that are not fit for man nor beast. Scare 'em. Tell those stories that will peel the skin off of their hides, and make them look both ways when it gets dark. Pull out your worst stuff and let it rip...unless you are in a school that makes a point of telling you how sheltered and innocent their students are. If you get that song and dance from the person booking it, pull everything back a notch. No matter how into the stories the kids might be, the grown ups will be in a faint and clutching their pearls if they think you've exposed their precious charges to something inappropriate, and they may never invite you back. Appeal to your audience but remember who is paying your way.
5) Intergenerational audiences should probably stay in the 3 - 5th grade range unless you don't have any really young members of the group, then you can go with the sixth grade tales. If you have an all adult audience let the blood drip, I say.
One of my favorite stories about a scary story set was one I did in upstate New York. The guidance counselor took these two very big, somewhat disrespectful, tough looking boys out of the main body of the audience, and made them sit with her.
After the telling of The Lover's Promise, the guidance counselor came up to me trying not to laugh. She said, "Did you see those two boys I had sitting with me?" I nodded. "When you asked if there was anybody who wasn't scared of anything they raised their hands. After the story was over, one turned to the other and said, "I only jumped twice, how many times did you jump?"
The story I told them is called, The Lover's Promise, written by my son when he was just ten. Here is a retelling of it. It is a long story, fair warning!
Spooky stories require us to walk a fine line between what is appropriate and what is too much. For some listeners, anything is too much, and for others, nothing is too much. You can't please everyone, but these stories should also be fun, not just hair raising.
Get behind their eyeballs and they won't even remember whether the lights were on or not.
We may have done future professional storyteller's a disservice by shouting 'everyone can be a storyteller'! Not because everyone doesn't have a story to tell, they do, but because not every one of them is going to be able to hang out a shingle, and become a professional storyteller.
Then, and this is the part we don't talk about much at all, there is all of the competition.
Yes, there is competition in the storytelling world, but it takes on a different aspect than in other art forms.
For starters, you are not competing for the same parts. Unlike theatre where there are only seven parts, and the director makes the decisions based on what they see in their heads, the field is much more open and the players can take on many different aspects.
There are hundreds of festivals all across the country, and they are all looking for tellers. Chances are there is one out there for you if you go looking.
It isn't like Broadway where there are only a few big theaters, and you are trying to sell out every seat in the house, and make money for your backers or they will close you down.
Heck, you can tell stories to tiny audiences for years and years and years. Nobody is going to come and announce that because you can't draw more than fifty people at t a time, you are no longer going to be allowed to tell stories. We aren't competing for audiences.
It isn't like we have a Grammy award equivalent where storytellers are awarded best story, best folktale, best personal tale, best...you get my drift.
Authors put out books, and then their works are pitted against each other for awards all over the country.
Storytellers don't really have that either. Well, you can apply for a Storytelling World Award, but they give out way more than just one. Your work is evaluated on the merits of its worth, not on whether or not it is better than someone else's work.
So, where does this competition come from then?
Go get a mirror. You see that person? That person is your competition.
Work to be better than the person you are looking at in that glass.
When I put a new story together I am not trying to figure out how to be:
I grapple with the tale, my style of telling, my understanding of the story, and how much I like the material; not what any other teller in the world might be doing in that moment.
I ask some simple questions.
1. What does this story need from me in order to be successful?
2. What does the audience need from this story in order for this to be successful?
3. What does the audience need from me in order for this story to be successful?
4. What does this story need from the audience in order to be successful?
5. What do I need from the audience in order for this story to be successful?
I answer those questions, and I've got a story I can tell.
Will it be 'better' than someone else's? Not why I tell that story. I picked the tale, I tell the tale, I stand behind the tale, and I've got to love the tale. If I don't love it, I shouldn't be telling it regardless of whether or not I think it is a 'good' telling. That's just my opinion of course, do whatever you like.
I was having dinner with the incomparable Beth Horner the other night after the Wake County Storytelling Festival. Beth has been a dear friend of mine for over twenty years. She is also one of my early mentors in the field. I always love seeing her.
Beth started telling me about what some other storyteller was up to, and I got that wistful look on my face.
I said, "I wish my career was that exciting."
Beth looked at me, picked up a piece of paper, and threw it across the table at me. She started carrying on about how ridiculous it was for me to make that statement considering all of the things I was doing. Then, to my amusement, she began complaining about her own career, then, stopped and started laughing.
I noted that it isn't possible to do everything, and take advantage of every opportunity, and it always seems like somebody else is doing something more exciting, interesting or fascinating than you.
Beth nodded, "Yes, even in storytelling the grass is always greener."
So, the next time you begin to wonder why you haven't ever been featured at Jonesboro, or why you only did fifty schools last year, or why you don't do more work in libraries, or how come Mr. X is always at place Y, and you haven't even been there once...take a deep breath, look in your mirror, and consider all of the beautiful, luscious green grass behind you. Consider the fact that somewhere out there is another person looking hungrily at that grass, and wondering what you did to get such good, sweet stuff.
Then, put the mirror down and get back to work!
The competition you face is too stiff to sit around wondering what someone else might be doing.