Thursday, May 11, 2023

Crowd Control From from The Stage: Some Strategies

Anyone who has ever performed for kids knows that you will sometimes find yourself in front of: 

- A group of wriggly, squirmers. 

- The kid who will not sit down

- The kid who is going to work hard to distract all of the other kids around them. 

- The kids who have worked hard to sit next to the one person they mean to talk to for the next 45 minutes

- The kid with no sense of boundaries and cannot keep their hands to themselves

- The kid who has brought something really distracting to the assembly

Most of the time, the stories I tell are built to help these audiences throw off energy in a very controlled way so they can be successful listeners. I don't often have to

intervene to help the kids stay on track, but there are a few things I can do from the stage if I have to. 

In my perfect world, the teachers are on it and are doing crowd control, but that is not always the situation.

Many times, the teachers find themselves watching the performance and not the kids.

I get comments like, "I enjoyed that as much or more than the kids!"

That is wonderful. I am glad the adults get lost in the stories. Unfortunately, it makes my work a bit more challenging at times.

Over the course of my three decades doing this work, I have tried to come up with ways to help the audience and me get through a show together.

The best way to do this, in my experience, is to get the audience to monitor their own behavior in a constructive way.

Here are 4 strategies I employ.

1. When the kids are sitting "criss-cross applesauce" on the floor, I use a simple phrase to help keep them focused on their bodies. I typically use this with Kindergarten through second.

Okay, everyone, I want you to look down at your bodies. Are you sitting criss-cross applesauce? If you are, great! If you aren't, then you should sit that way. If you are up on your knees, the people behind you can't see. if you ever hear me say, "Check your body", it means
someone is up on their knees. Please look down and make sure it isn't you.

2.  When a kid is focused on being disruptive I single out that behavior and try to get the kid to redirect.

 Sometimes they are so wrapped up in their own thing, they don't even realize you are talking to them.

Then I say, "You know, I can see you. You are not invisible. Are you okay sitting there? Would it help you to be more successful if you sit somewhere else?"

This is something I use with 3rd grade and older. The whole point of this is to alert the teacher that they have a kid who might need to move. I sometimes give a student who is being repeatedly disruptive a chance to correct the behavior. If they continue, I ask them to move. If I ever have to do that, it typically stops anybody else from repeating that behavior. The kid has to be really disruptive for me to do that, but I will.

3.  I include a stretch break for the youngest listeners. The first story in a set with littles - up to second grade - usually lasts about twenty five minutes to half an hour. I don't typically tell more than two stories per set with anybody. Anyway, after the first story, we spend three to four minutes stretching. We stretch sitting down, and then we stand up and stretch. The standing part includes marching.

This allows the youngest listeners - who have been focusing for a big chunk of time to get up and blow off some steam. Here is the stretch on their feet.

Okay, everybody! We are going to do a standing stretch break. Watch me so you'll know what you are supposed to do!

When you hear me say the word "Go" you will stand up and stare at me. I am going to stare at you. Then, we will march. (I start marching) The reason we are doing this is because you have been sitting so still. We need to get your body moving, your blood circulating!

When I hold up my finger over my head, we are going to march in one circle!"

(I show them what I want them to do)


After that, were are going to MARCH!

(I march vigorously swinging my arms in an exaggerated fashion)

Then, we are going to raise our arms to the ceiling and take a deep breath. Then we are going to let it go. Then, we are going to take a deep breath. Then we are going to let it go.

We are going to raise our arms and stretch across the midline to activate one side of our brain! Then we are going to stretch across the midline on the other side!

Take a deep breath! Let it Go! Then we are going to sit down and I will tell you One More Story!

After that, we do the stretch together.

4. Releasing a large audience quickly - This is usually done if I have multiple sets and I need to get the previous audience out of the room as quickly as I can.

I need to find out which is the best grade level in this room.

Is it the Prek?

Is it the Kindergartners?

Is it the first grade?

Is it the second grade?

This is how I am going to find out.

The grade that gets out of here the quickest and quietest? That's the best group. I am going to let your principal know which was the best grade.

(This also works with the 3rd - 5th grade set.)

Turn and look at your teacher! Find them wherever they are and stare at them. Now, you can't get up until you get this signal. Everyone look 

at me for just a second. 

(I make a gesture for the teachers to use. It is a universal "rise" motion)

You got it? Great! Look back at your teacher. Now, I am going to be listening to see which is the quietest group. 

Don't stand up until you get the signal, and then follow your teacher out as quickly and quietly as you can. I don't even want to hear squeaky shoes.

Also, teachers, please don't stand them up all at the same time, that will defeat the purpose.

(Sometimes I offer to donate books or CDs to their media center if they are really quiet. Sometimes I just tell them I will let the principal know. Depends on the school)

Keep your eyes on the person in front of you so you don't have gaps in your lines!

I listen the entire time, praising the groups who are quiet and well- behaved - which is typically all of them.

It is a great way to get them out quickly without confusion. It is also very quiet. It helps me transition to my next audience!

Usually, the only people talking are the teachers, but I try to get them to model good behavior as well.

So, there you have it. A few strategies I have for keeping a large number of students engaged, involved, and monitoring their own behavior.

Hope they are helpful!

If you are willing to share your own strategies, I would LOVE to hear them. I am always learning!

Happy Telling!


Thursday, April 27, 2023

In The Trenches: When Audiences Need Storytelling


Sometimes storytelling is easy. You walk into a space and the audience is full of people who have chosen to be there. They are excited to see you in particular, or someone else there, and they can't wait to start. They know exactly what they are in for and they are strapped in and ready for the ride!

Sometimes storytelling is about satisfying an interest. You walk into the space and the audience is captive, but enthusiastic - think school
assemblies or conferences. They have some idea of what you are going to do, or none at all, but they understand why they are there and are at least curious about what is happening.

Sometimes storytelling is about telling to your ancestors - Thank you, Tim Tingle. You show up and there are fifty chairs and only three people are sitting in them. My philosophy about random public performances is that as long as the audience outnumbers me, it's a
show. That means I will perform my lungs out whether there are two people in the audience or two hundred. Tim Tingle says that if you have a show where not many people show up it is because your ancestors wanted to see you work so they took the chairs. I love that. 

My ancestors have seen me perform a great deal!

Sometimes storytelling is a nightmare. You show up and they have put the storytelling area in a stall between an ice cream truck playing tinny tunes, and a petting zoo. You are near the mainstage where they will have bands all day playing really loud music. You have no amplification. There is no place for the listeners to sit, and you have a one hour shift. (I discovered that if you charge the venue a goodly amount, they either won't hire you or they give you a better situation.) I leave these events and make a note to never say "yes" again.

Then there is the kind of scenario I found myself in a couple of weeks ago. 

I think about this as storytelling in the trenches. It is where you have been hired into a venue by someone who is determined that the kids in this area need storytelling. Nobody asked if they wanted to hear stories or anything like that. There is no culture of the kids in the area coming to the venue for anything but recreation and nothing short of exotic animal shows or magicians. 

So, I roll up to this venue. It is small - not a problem. 

They have set up nine chairs - not a problem. 

The room has tables, foosball, pool, and there is an area for basketball through a set of double doors - not a problem.

There are five adults sitting in the back. Nobody is sitting in these nine plastic chairs near me.

There are two pre-teen looking boys playing with the pool table equipment. There is also one girl who looks like a young teen, having some kind of snack.

When I arrive, the kids pay me no attention. The woman at the front desk says, "What are you gonna do?"

I explain.

"Oh. Okay. Set your stuff up over there." She points.

I have my sound system. I go over and set it up in front of these chairs. My past experience with these situations tells me that some pre-teens or teens will not come over and sit in the chairs because they are too cool to sit and listen to a storyteller, but they will happily listen while pretending to do something else. So, making sure everyone in the room can hear me is a must.

I assume this is going to be an ancestor show. 

Time arrives, and still, nobody is there. So, one of the women in the rec center excuses herself and leaves. I announce I will happily tell to the staff. There are five adults in the room and these three teen/preteens, so that is more than enough. I am told to wait.

Ten minutes later, the woman returns and she has got six grouchy teenagers with her. The three other teen/preteens stop what they are doing, and sit in the plastic chairs. 

During the entire event to follow, Teens/preteens trickle into the room, and not only do they fill up the chairs, but they have to sit at the benches at the long tables behind the plastic chairs. About half of them come in and exchange words with the others. Sometimes friendly...sometimes not.

Let us be clear about what is happening.


They are here for the snacks that will be available after the event. That is what they are expecting.

Over the course of the next forty minutes, I engage in a battle with the audience.

First - I must tell stories that they find worth listening to despite being bribed with snacks.

Second - I must not tip them over into aggression. This is a possibility because it is obvious some of the kids have beef with each other. As new teens join the group, there is a moment where I must stop telling as they shuffle around and reestablish the pecking order in the room. 

There is a battle playing out in the background that has nothing to do with me. These kids are on a boil with each other, and I don't know why.

One kid, in particular, is being snarked at. They are saying things like, "You're slow!" and "Don't even look at me!"

The girls who come in make that smacking sound with their mouths when they see other members of the group. The guys are of every size you can imagine from huge to small but clearly not little kids, but they could all be about the same age - genetics.

The kid everyone is piling on is named "Sincere", but everyone calls him Sin. He loves being called Sin and informs me almost immediately that this is who he is. His twin sister, who looks to be older than him by a couple of years, but obviously isn't, is named "Success". She is clearly the put together one in that duo.

I start with Morgan and the Pot of Brains because of all of the name calling.

Right at first one of the big guys is trying to play the clown and distract from the tale. I make the deal with the audience that I have to make sometimes.

"Guys, I'm only here for 45 minutes. I promise I won't be here longer than that. Let me do my job. You might even have a good time. After I'm done, the rest of the day is yours."

The big guy quiets. I think he was surprised I called him on it. The rest of the group stops paying attention to him, and after he is unable to get the attention he needs, he starts watching as well.

One of the girls in the front spends most of the performance surfing on her phone and sharing what she is reading with the girl next to her. They giggle at inappropriate times, but if I make a scene about these two noncompliants, it isn't worth the fight. What am I going to do? Demand her phone? The other kids are giving her looks. They know she is being rude. The other adults don't intervene. This girl could be a social timebomb. If I confront this behavior, things could get out of hand.

The rest of the audience is with me, and we end up having a great time.

I get to the part of Morgan and the Pot of Brains where Morgan can't solve the riddles. 

Sincere, the kid everyone has mocked as being stupid when they saw him does something no other kid has done in the years I have been telling this story. He figures out the riddles the second he hears them. They are obvious to him. Not only that, he is keyed into the performance on a basal level. His eyes never leave me. There are several other kids like this as well. They have left the building and they are walking through story with me. The adults are not bothering with the kids. They are also walking with me through story.

The woman who organized the story need, was there. She wanted me to do tongue twisters with this group. I had not prepared the ground for that, but she asked, she's paying, so I did. The kids were non-responsive to them. She was disappointed! 

She'd seen me do tongue twisters with elementary school students earlier. Her grandchildren had been in the audience. She was amazed at how that one simple thing changed her grandkids. They started looking for tongue twisters and practicing them. They were speaking more to each other and their parents. She wanted the kids in this group to have the same experience. I get that. Unfortunately, Storytelling doesn't work like that. Different audiences key into different things, and different audiences need different kinds of input. It isn't magic.

When the set was over, I asked the kids what they wanted to do. Several of them snickered and said, "Go to college."

I asked what they wanted to study there. They stared at me as if such a thing had never occurred to them.

I asked what they liked to do. I got the usual - play sports, but none of them offered an academic response. Most just stared blankly.

This doesn't mean they haven't thought about it. It just means they weren't prepared to say anything like this out loud in present company.

They did ask a few questions when we were done...not when I asked if they had questions, because nobody did at that moment, but after the bulk had gone for snacks. A few of them came up to me and asked quietly.

They wanted to know if this was really my job. They asked where I was from - they hadn't started listening when I explained that earlier. They told me they were going to look for me online. One of them asked me to sign her skin.

As I finished packing up, a commotion started between the kids. There was yelling, the threat of violence, and Sin and Success backed out of the building as tempers flared.

"Don't you ever touch me again!" and other things were yelled.

There was an exodus of most of the teens. They all ran out to the parking lot. A tall gentleman ran out there as well.

I continued to pack my stuff. As I did, one of the adults who'd wandered in during the performance spilled the tea.

Sin has been banned from the center for striking a staff member. She was shocked to see him there. He is bad news - violent, disrespectful, dangerous to others. (He was one of the original kids playing over at the pool table) She was the staff member he struck. She quit after that.

Success is the opposite of Sin. Everyone loves her, but she is protective of her brother.

Sin has beef with lots of other kids. He doesn't go to school, and he is a nuisance to everyone.

My heart broke for Sin. He clearly needs someone to help him find another way, but it doesn't appear he has that. He is as convinced as Morgan was that he is bad and stupid. 

The adults in the room were surprised at how well the teens did sitting and listening. They were apologetic about the one girl phone surfing, and the girl who kept humoring her. They pointed out that some of the kids were watching me like a laser.

The adults loved the performance and they were impressed I could hold the teens' attention. 

I am always surprised when people's biggest surprise is that I can hold kids' attention for long periods of time. From principals to parents, people are surprised by it. Heck, organizers are surprised I can hold adults' attention!

I guess this is why people think there has got to be magic involved.

Anyway, I finished and walked out of the building. There were a few teens still there.

They told me that I was good at telling stories, they told me which ones were their favorites, and they wanted to help me with my stuff. I let them. Then I left.

On the way home, I had one of those drives where I reviewed the experience in my head. I came to a conclusion...

Darlene was right. They needed stories. If I am ever invited back to that venue, I will happily return.

Happy telling.

Saturday, April 1, 2023

Kinetic Writing - With Ninth Graders


One of the Schools 

I spent the week with ninth graders. Lots of them. I was in a couple of schools that don't often get any outside funding for visiting artists or artists in residence. We spent the week working with kinetic writing.

Kinetic writing is the act of engaging the body and the brain in writing activities before you put pen to paper. I am a huge fan of this type of work with children.

For starters, writing is a different language. You don't write exactly as you speak. When we are speaking, we have the advantage of the pitch of our voices, the intensity of our movement, our expressions, our energy, and how emphatically we express ourselves. The majority of our person to person contact is not with words. Writing is nothing but words. 

I start by asking the kids if anyone likes writing. If they hate it. If they are ambivilent about it. Most kids said they hated it. A few said they didn't mind it. Only one or two in each class said they liked to write.

I found out that in NC, they stopped administering the writing test in fourth grade, and so some elementary schools stopped teaching writing. That sounds odd, but schools have so many assessments, they teach to the tests, and if they are not testing something, they don't teach it. I found out that the eleventh graders were learning what nouns were.

I told them why I write books. I explained that when I was a kid, I didn'thave many books where the kids in them looked like me or my family. Several of the kids nodded and one of them - a black girl - folded her arms and just nodded emphatically. I love magical realiism, and most books with black girls in them didn't get to go on those kinds of adventures. They didn't get the magic or entry into fantastic worlds, and that was what I wanted for myself. So, I am determined to write books where girls and boys who look like me get to have that kind of magic when they read.

I explained that we need their stories as well. They will be in charge of our country in the coming years, and we need them to be ready for that. Some of them look stunned that this was their job!

I also explained that if you really want to control people, you control what they read, and what they have access to. Banning and Burning books isn't necessary if people never even bother to write their stories or share their experiences. 

Their voices are powerful. Their experiences are important. Most of them were surprised by that.

Playing the Story Game
After that, the students played "The Good Thing Was/The Bad Thing Was" It is a story game. I love story games!

We had a wonderful time, and when we were done, we had a writing exercise.

We did compound writing. Compound writing is a low stress way to get kids to write something.

1. First, before anything - They put their names at the top of the page!!!

2.  Each person writes the first few lines of a story. They need a character, setting, and a problem. They can use the same process we employed during the circle story creation. We have been talking about launching stories for a bit, and they have had a chance to create at least one in group.

Once there was a _______________.  The good thing was _____________________. But, ___________________.

They aren't required to follow that format, but if they can't think of anything, they are welcome to do it that way. They only need a few sentences, but they can write as much as they want as long as they stay in the parameters of what is in the beginning of the story. (5 minutes)

3.  The papers are then passed in to the facilitators, and everyone gets someone else's paper.

4.  The next person skips two lines, and moves into the middle of the story. They write the next part. (5 Minutes)

5.  After they finish writing, the person folds down the beginning of the story so that the only thing showing is what they wrote. The papers are passed to the facilitator.

6. The next person reads the middle without looking at how the story started, and write what they think comes next based on what they read. They do not end the story. (5 min)

7. The person folds the paper so what they just wrote is at the top. Papers are passed in to facilitator.

8.  When they finish writing, they turn the paper over to the back (blank) side of the page. The draw two lines to divide the paper into three parts. They pass the papers in to the facilitator.

9. The next person reads the last thing that was written, flips the paper over and at the bottom on the back in the last third of the page, they write what they think happened at the end of the story. (5 minutes)

10. Papers are passed to the facilitator.

11. The next person who gets the paper reads the end of the story and writes what they think would belong in the middle of the story that would fit with the ending. (5 minutes)

12. Papers are collected.

13. The last person reads the middle and the end and tries to figure out how this whole thing began. They write the beginning of the story. (5 minutes)

14. After this, they turn the paper over, read the name of the original writer and return their paper.

Now, the original writer has two complete stories. They can read what was written, but they don't necessarily have any idea who wrote what!

I have some rules - 

1. You can't kill your character - That is the easiest thing to do. I call that lazy writing with the kids. They must figure out some way to deal with the chaos they write into these character's lives.

2. Don't put anyone in this class or anyone you know in these stories - This is to prevent bullying or embarrassing someone.

They got down to it!

When I told them at the beginning of class that we were going to write, they groaned. I expected that I might get one or two kids who absolutely refused to write anything.

The teacher was expecting that some of the kids would not write anything.

All of them wrote. They wrote with enthusiasm! They wrote with gusto!

 Some of them kept writing even after the five minutes ended. There was absolutely no way to tell that any of those kids hated writing.

One of the kids, a tall, athletic boy, started his story by writing only one sentence. He dropped his pencil like a mic drop, folded his arms and stared at me in defiance. When I collected the papers and redistributed them, he was surprised. 

"Man, I feel sorry for whoever got my paper," he muttered.

Half way through the exercise he said aloud, "Come on, people! Try to be creative! I hope whoever has my paper is trying to come up with something good!"

One of the boys who had come in with his hood up and tried to actively look like he didn't care what was happening said, "I can't wait to get my paper back."

Everybody wrote.

When the kids got their papers back, they loved reading them.

Some were annoyed at what people had done to their characters.

All of them were amazed at the way people saw their characters.

On a lecture in one of the classrooms
Some were annoyed because the story veered into love story or sadness or sci fi!

All of them loved it.

The teacher was amazed everyone wrote. 

Some of the students didn't speak English, and they had interpreters, and they wrote their stories in Spanish and traded papers with others writing in Spanish.

It was quite a week.

I don't have the patience to be a teacher. 

I salute teachers. Their job is difficult, they don't get paid enough, and they are under appreciated!

I do like helping kids realize they might actually enjoy writing.

That I can do!

Happy Writing!

Friday, March 24, 2023

Kinetic Storytelling - How to tell a 45 minute Story to Little Kids


Kinetic Storytelling - Engaging The Whole Body In A Story 

This past week, I did a quick pic and comment about telling a 45 minute story to little kids. Several people asked about how I do this. It occurred to me that this is a subject I don't think I've ever covered on the blog. So, let's get into it...

My Favorite Ways to Group Audiences - 

I create story sets that are eduationally and socially emotionally appropriate for various age groups in school settings. 

Pre-K - 2

3 - 5




9th - 12th alone or in any combination

College Presentations - I often talk about the craft as I tell the stories

Other venues/Family/Adults only

Composing Story Sets -

School sets tend to run about 45 minutes. I usually only tell two stories per set. The first story lasts about twenty-five to thirty minutes. The second story lasts twelve to fifteen minutes.

The rest of the time is filled with introductions, community building discussion, and Q&A with the audience.

I have several reasons why I use that structure.

1. Transitioning from story to story breaks an audiences out of one reality and into another. You should reset the audience every single time you tell them a new story. if you don't give them a palate cleansing between stories, they brains can get tired of listening. If you transition them too much, their brains get tired of listening. Think about it as a to do list. The longer the to-do list gets, the harder it is to remember all of the things on it. For stories to stick, keep the number low!

2. For story sets with the smallest kids, if I tell them two stories, I do a physical stretch break between the first and second story. The reason for this is to allow the most antsy ones to move a great deal, and the rest to stretch, march, do isolations, make noise, laugh, and/or wiggle. Once we've done deep breathing and moving about, the littles are ready to listen once more.

3. I don't typically stretch
the older elementary. The transitions are typically enough. However, if I get a really wiggly bunch, I might well do it.

Sometimes, the plan changes!

Every now and then, I shake it up and choose one of the 45 minute stories for a story set.

There are reasons why I do this, but mostly it is because when I have little bitties, it is easier to do one highly participatory story than try to transition them.

The point of a 45 minute story? training the Literacy Brain in young listeners. 

Emergent readers need to learn some basic higher level thinking skills that are essential to literacy 

- predictive behavior

Short term predictions help you figure out what is happening moment to moment in the story

Long term predictions are about synthesizing information from the story so you can guess how you think it might conclude.

If your brain isn't focusing on how events are put together and how they might unfold through predictive behavior, you are just listening to a random serious of unrelated things.

- recall so that your brain starts recognizing foreshadowing. That also helps with continuity.

- visualizing language - turning language into images

Crafting A 45 Minute Story

How do you craft a 45 minute story for little kids? Here are some tips.

1. The story should be highly participatory.

2. Lots of repetition

3. The repetition should happen in "chapters".  

-Some repetition happens in the first chapter and then falls away.

The next chapter has a different set of repetitions 

The repetition should be a signal that something is about to happen

A repetition that allows for predictive or recall behavior can/should carry through multiple chapters

4. Lots of physical movement attached to the verbal repetition.

5. The structure should allow for listeners to cement certain refrains so that you can go back to them when you need them.

Example  - Rumpelstiltskin

When we first meet this little man, he agrees to spin straw to gold. He has Three repetitive participatory actions.

- When he arrives, I make a sound - Ding, ding, ding, ding, - and move my hands around in a large circle. This is always his arriving sound from that moment until he shows up at the end of the story to try to take the baby.

- When he agrees to spin straw to gold, he asks, "What will you give me?" in a sing song voice and holds out his hand. He repeats this action the first 3 times he appears. By the second time, most kids say this with me, and the last time they all say it.

- When he spins the straw to gold, he "Rolled up his sleeves" I mime rolling up one sleeve. "And Rolled up his sleeves" I mime rolling up the other one. "Then he said, "Stand Back!" I say this in his little squeaky voice and make a motion with my left arm. "Stand Back!" I make the motion with my right arm. After that I break into his little spinning song and move my hands as if I am spinning a wheel.

The listeners join that little action usually from the second time, and they are all in on the third.

I go through that sequence when he spins the straw to gold.

Each of the gold spinning events is a chapter. Different things happen, but the repetitive events mark the beginning and end of that chapter. It helps the listener know what to expect.

As the storyteller, I transition out of that section of the story with information. I tell the listeners that time has passed, Anna married the king, and she had a child. The next chapter starts with the audience initiating a sound from the last three chapters.

 "Anna was sitting in the nursery rocking the baby when she heard a sound she hadn't heard in almost two years. What was it?

The listeners immediately make the ding sound and move their hands in a circle with no further prompting. We are now in the next chapter of our story.

Rumpel doesn't spin anything in this new chapter. The refrain he gets is that when he shows up to the queen, he asks in a loud, somewhat mocking voice, "What's my name?!" and there is an accompanying body, face, and arm gesture that goes with it.

Understand that this is just one of the characters in the story. 

The Miller has his own refrain that we learn at the beginning of the story. It ends before we ever even meet his daughter. The purpose of his initial refrain is to get the audience used to make a loud, silly, refrain without my prompting them. They learn that they will be doing this in the story, and they don't typically need me to tell them to participate after the start. They just decide on their own when they want to do it. I only give them prompts if I am asking them to initiate a new chapter or movement in the story.

Anna has her own refrains during the spinning straw to gold thing.

The king has his own refrains when he is taking her to spin straw into gold.

The travel between the various rooms full of gold or straw have their own refrains.

As you can probably imagine, it is an exhausting story to tell!

Since you don't transition the kids between stories, they are highly invested in the tale as they take part in the action. 

If you connect the physical, verbal, and visual images to the story, you can get kids to sit for
an hour without realizing that's what they've done. 

At some point, if people want to know the specific detais, I will break down that entire 45 minute story and explain how each chapter/movement works;

Until then - 

Happy Long Form Telling!

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

We Are Recovering: One Story At A Time


The work has come back with a vengeance, and I am telling all over the country in lots of venues. I am loving live audiences. I am in front of lots of children of all ages! 

When I first enter a school, I ask a few key questions so I can get a feel for what I am in for with the students.

"Tell me about the kids."

"Does your school have any major concerns?"

"What are you most proud of?"

"How is your literacy rate?"

"What kind of arts programs do you have?"

It is a basic set of questions designed to get me to a set of stories that is going to be best for whatever group I'm about to see.

Since returning to touring, I have added a new set of questions:

"Have you noticed any difference in your students since returning full time?"

"How are students adjusting to being back in school?"

"What sorts of behaviors are you noticing?"

Some of the things I've been told are expected. Students were home on technology for a while. They could lay down, eat, walk around, and do any number of things while online. They have been with family 24/7 and they couldn't get away from them for over a year or more. 

They couldn't be in physical spaces with their friends. They didn't have to learn how to meet new people, lget along with people they didn't like,  be frustrated, angry, or grumpy in public. 

Studentes were with parents or grandparents. Their needs could be met pretty quickly, and some households have neither structure nor discipline. Some homes have too much discipline. Some are running free!

Taking students out of those situations as they are developing and dropping them back in school has caused some interesting issues to appear - 

Administrators Say:

- Students are much less mature

- Students have more issues with anger

- Students don't know how to keep their hands to themselves

- Students are not great with personal boundaries

- Students don't know how to socialize

- Students don't listen well 

- Students aren't sitting well

- Students are having far more problems focusing

- Students are less patient

The above list is for all schools no matter the socioeconomic status of their population. 

It should surprise no one that schools which typically have less funding or service populations that are not as affluent were suffering through extra layers of problems.

The main problem rural schools seem to be facing is attendance. Apparently, if school is online for a couple of years, there isn't much reason to attend. Parents have been taking the kids out of school or just not bothering to send them.

They have gotten out of the culture of schooling. This is affecting everyone from Kinders all the way through highschool. In fact, it was a highschool administrator that first brought it to my attention.

Apparently, having children in school cramps the parent's style if they have something else they want to do. So, they just take them out of school whenever or don't send them at all.

These kids are falling further behind.

Today, I had a long discussion with a child psychologist who told me that she had been in charge of technology when she first got a job here in NC. This was right before the pandemic.

They had the following issues - 

1. Most of the students did not have Chromebooks. In Wake County (our capitol county) every student has one provided by the district. this was not true in some of the poorer districts.

2. The state moved swiftly to try to rectify what has been a huge problem that nobody was really dealing with until everyone had to go virutal.

3. When everyone got a Chrome Book - and the process for making that happen in these rural and poor counties was a nightmare - the next problem arose.

4. Many of the households had no internet access. 

I assumed wrongly that most people had some kind of access. The world is full of smartphones, right? I have heard so many people say "every three year old can work an iPad". That has certainly been true of my neices and nephews. What I failed to realize is that internet access is still privileged, and lots of people don't have the option or the money to connect. In some places, there isn't any infrastructure so you can't connect even if you want to. There are swaths of our population who do not have access to the digital world.

Spectrum stepped in and tried to get some kind of boxes to each home that didn't have access to pick up connectivity and give these kids a fighting chance, but it was hit and miss at best. Most families with Kindergartners gave up.

There are holes in our systems that were glaring, and we as a country were caught with our privilege blinders on. 

There are still glaring holes, and we as a society don't seem to be all that keen to deal with them. Well, that discussion is for another post.

Needless to say, the kids who struggled with connectivity have a whole other set of problems to deal with.

The COVID kids are going to have many hurdles in their future. I wonder how we are going to deal with this as they matriculate.

As for me?

Well, my performance has changed a bit. I am leaning in and letting the kids tell me what they need. How much interaction? How much discussion? What stories do they need?

I learn with every show.

There are some things that haven't changed. 

At the end of the story set I hear these comments 

Kid - You're not a storyteller, you are a comedian!

Kid - You are the best storyteller in the whole world

Kid - You're going to be my new background

Kid - I've also been to  - Whatever state, country, or place I mentioned in the storytelling

And there is the hugging. 

I am getting them from kids of all ages...even fifth graders, middle school kids, and high school students. They all want physical contact. Even some of the adults are hugging me. That's new.

Qutoes from adults -

Adult - Wow. I have never seen them that focused

Adult - You really held their attention

Adult - i think I enjoyed that more than the kids!

Adult - I never expected them to sit that long

Adult - They were participating and everything

Adult - You're really good at this!

Adult - Thank you! We needed this.

Adult - I can't believe the Pre-K stayed the entire time

I am enjoying the work. I know that the stories are needed as kids and adults try to figure out how to go forward into our next normal. All of us have been changed by the last few years. 

My stories have a different rhythm. I am looking for different kinds of participation. I am letting the audience resculpt the tales so that they can get what they need.

We are all recovering. One story at a time.

Happy Telling!

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Point of Focus or POF: What Is It? How Do You Use It in Storytelling?

Antonio Rocha

One of the most fascinating things about talking shop with storytellers is learning how they do what they do and why they do it. A couple of years ago, Antonio Rocha and I were talking about Focal Points or Points of Focus if you are so inclined.

Focal Points refer to creating objects, characters, and places in space during a performance by giving an audience visual or vocal cues as to where objects or characters are located in the story.

For instance, if you have a mother and son, the son character might turn his head and upper torso to the right and lift his chin to look up at his mother when he speaks to her. The mother turns left and lowers her head when she speaks to her son. 

Another example would be if all of the characters are referring to a particular object like the moon, or a mountain and whenever they refer to that thing, they point to it.  

I have learned over the years not to make that point of focus somewhere behind the audience because audiences of all ages who completely understand that they are not in a palace, jungle, or your living room will automatically turn around and look behind them if you point to something out of their view. 

Anyway, the storyteller establishes the physical presence and autonomy of each character or thing. Audiences track this movement or plaement, and whenever they see the storyteller move their head to engage someone in the story, or point to a specific thing they know what is being referred to, who is speaking, and to whom they are speaking.

This is a great way to help audiences visualize what is happening. 

This is also a skill you learn when you are participating in, I am not talking about dissecting bodies or finding biological clues at crime scenes, but the performative speaking competitions I loved so much in high school.

I participated in Original Interpretation and Humorous Interpretation. I was also on the debate team. (I know, shocking!) 

In Humorous Interpretation, you choose a scene out of a play that has multiple characters, and you have to do all of the parts. One of the skills necessary to pull this off is to choose focal points for each character so that you maintain the character's voice and physicality as you move from one person to another over the course of the scene.

 Antonio definitely uses focal points in his story when he has two characters discussing something. If you get a chance to see him, be on the lookout for this very effective technique.

After that discussion, it made me think about how I use POF in my stories. When I first started storytelling, I know that I did a great deal of POF work, and I even taught it in workshops. It has been years since I focused on it in my own work.

There is a reason for this.

After a technique becomes second nature and it is just part of what you do, you don't necessarily think about it. This is why it is hard for some people to articulate how they do what they do. it is just second nature. It doesn't have a vocabulary or a process they identify. It is just what they do!

My discussion with Antonio brought the whole idea of POF raging back at me and caused me to reexamine my current work. I had a feeling that there was some Point of Focus stuff happening, but I had no idea what it looked like. 

Had I gotten exceedingly lazy and just wasn't doing it? 

Was I practicing it without thought. 

There was also the chance I was doing it unconsciously!

So, into performance evaluation mode I went!

I paid attention to what was happening in my stories and how or if I was using POF. I learned some really interesting things!

1. I am definitely using Point of Focus, but it has morphed into a very particular kind of participation technique. 

2. The audience has their own bias about who they want to be in the story and how they want to respond.

3. The audience uses their power of Point of Focus to help them navigate through the story

4. I have way more observation to do as I move through my repertoire!

I love story crafting!

It turns out that the thing that I like to say, that the audience is part of the performance, they affect the performance, and they transform the teller and the stories was the key to helping me look at Point of Focus and understand why I use it the way I do in lots of my stories.

Over time, audiences respond to some things and not others. The more you tell a story, the more it settles into a rhythm. What works stays, what doesn't falls by the wayside, and when you get reactions, you continue to do that thing. It changes the pace, language, and apparently, the Focal Points!

So, here is how these observations play out in a story.

1. Participatory Point of Focus - Instead of having the characters speak directly to each other - apparently, the audience has become one of the characters in some of my stories. This is particularly true of highly participatory stories. The "audience as character" technique works like this. 

When I am any other character, the Point of Focus is the audience. I point at them, look at them, and sweep the audience. When the character the audience inhabits speaks, my focus is much more general and not direct. I look slightly over their heads or am somehow unfocused. (It was pretty amazing to realize I was doing this)

This does not mean the audience only participates with that character, but I certainly treat them as if they are that character.


I am telling Epaminondus. The character that the audience embodies is the title character. At one point, he puts 2 pounds of butter on his head under his hat. His mother has told him to do this if he is bringing something home he might squish. As he walks home, the butter melts all over him.

Me - He got butter in his hair. I make a face and pretend to flick butter out of my hair.

Audience - (what typically happens is that even though I don't say anything, the audience says "EWWW!"

Me - He got butter down his face.

Audience - vocalizes his disgust

Me - He got butter down his neck.

Audience - vocalizes his disgust

In other words, there are parts of the tale where I say nothing and the audience speaks for the character without me even cueing them to do so. I was amused to discover that I have several stories like this. I hadn't considered why this happens.

When you have given the character over to the audience, they have the space to jump in and play.

This was not my idea. This is what audiences have done for so long, that I make space in the story for them to do it.

2. The Audience Bias - I have learned that based on the way I craft my stories -audiences have picked which characters they want to become! 

I thought I had been the one choosing who they become and how they move through my stories, but I can now see that they have wrenched the focus out of my hands and decided for themselves who they want to be!

In Epaminondus, I start the story by teaching them the thing his momma says which is, "Epamiinondus, you ain't got the sense you was born with." There is an appropriate black woman neck maneuver that goes with this. It is always fun to watch kids and adults try to move their heads back and forth and then side to side. Some people discover a new skill, and some have never in their lives tried such a thing and they cannot do it for love or money.

The storyteller might have seeded them with mom's physicality and cadences, but they much prefer to be Epmainondus!

3. Emotional Point of Focus - Giving the audience their own character means they have skin in the game when it comes to the outcome of the tale. It also means that they have the power to decide how they are going to navigate the story. 

In the case of Rumplestiltskin, the kids love the funny little guy who shows up and spins the straw to gold. He is funny, sounds silly, and has an odd look to him. He is also helping the miller's Daughter. It is only when he asks for the baby that they begin to question whether or not he is a good guy. 

He has his own sound and way of speaking. I can hear them repeating what he says to themselves as we go through the scenes with the miller's daughter. 


I understand why they like him. The miller is a liar who got his daughter into the mess. The king is selfish, and he adds to Anna's distress without any concern for her. Anna is miserable and trying to fix the damage that is being inflicted on her by the king and her father...who wouldn't want to hang out inside the only character who comes in with mirth and a peppy attitude?

Just the same, on the last day of the contest to guess his name, when the queen is finally told who he is, they are so excited to watch that grinning little man get in trouble that they use his sound to usher him back into the story with great gusto. 

An audience will turn on a character on a dime if he betrays them. Rumplestiltskin has to face the music in the last scene of that story, and the listeners are calling for his blood!

4. Working the Technique - This way of thinking about an audience is not new, but I have only been focusing on it for a couple of years - most of which have been Covid virtual years, so I haven't had an opportunity to do much fine-tuning. 

I am still discovering how I am using it, and now that I know what I'm seeing, I can make choices about how to shape it effectively. This work is always fascinating to me, and extremely interesting.

I can't wait to find out what I will learn next!

Happy Telling!

Friday, February 24, 2023

Novice Audiences In Schools - You Got This!



It is February! We have come to the month on the calendar in the United States where we go out of our way to honor, learn about, and celebrate the African Americans who have contributed to our country. We don't always do it the rest of the year, but one time in the year we are encouraged to deal with our history and the black people who have been part of it.

February is an interesting month for black performers.  I always joke that even organizations that didn't know they needed any performer ever - suddenly need a black one.

What it means is that I don't tend to work in my regular venues. Organizations that fund programming for underserved rural schools or schools with majority-minority populations that rarely have funding for anything extracurricular get angel money to have a program.

So, I often rock up to a school that has no culture of encountering a live performer, and they are now going to have some storytelling. 

Sometimes these performances are spectacular as you share with a group of people who have never seen a live performer this close or at their school and they fall in love with the possibilities. I have been in many situations like this where I walk away and the school is not only trying t figure out how to get me back, but they are ready to find ways to bring other cultural arts experiences to their kids.

Sometimes I end up in a strange encounter where the audience refuses to engage with me. There are so many factors that affect my ability to reach an audience. I typically walk away from these experiences reviewing the choices I made and considering how to make more successful choices in the future.

Every encounter is a learning experience for everyone.

I was in a Prek - 1 set with a group of live performance newbies, and I was doing a piece called Silly Annabelle. At some point, Annabelle - who everyone calls "Silly Annabelle" because nobody appreciates her differences - has to put magic dragon shrinking powder on a dragon's nose. She gets out there to where the dragon lives and he is huge and scary. She hides behind a tree.

She asks herself out loud for the benefit of the listeners, "What am I doing here? I am so small, and he is so big! What was I thinking? if the grown-ups couldn't figure this out, what can I do? Everyone was right. I'm too small." 

When I got to that point in the story, a little PreK boy sitting in the front shouted, "YOU GOT THIS, ANNABELLE!"

In all of my years telling this story, I have watched kids respond in lots of different ways. Sometimes they cheer when Annabelle finds a solution. Sometimes they laugh as Annabelle sprinkles the powder on the dragon's nose. Sometimes they look scared as she approaches the dragon. 

That was the first time any kid yelled out emotional support for Annabelle when she was struggling with whether or not to keep going.

I love that kid. He gave me the strength to keep going! Even now as I sit down to write this I am grinning.

One of the keys to working with novice audiences is learning what works best for their school. Since it is the first time for everyone, sometimes it takes a bit to work out the kinks.

Sometimes the teachers have told their students that they must not make any noise upon pain of death before they come to the assembly. Sometimes teachers tell them nothing and just decide they are no longer on the clock the second they get into the assembly. They spend the time chatting and not doing discipline or anything else. The kids know they are "free" and some groups act accordingly and just take over the space with no consequences. 

Here are some tips for working with novice audiences in a school setting:

1. Asking Questions of the Audience to engage them. Establishing some kind of relationship with the audience before you begin. Find out about them before you begin telling them stories.

2. Check in with the audience over the course of the story by raising hands or getting suggestions. 

3. Encourage the educators in the room to participate as well. (If the educators are talking and having a grand old time during the performance and they are not participating or paying any attention to you or the kids...well, there isn't much you can do about this. Just know someone is listening!)

4. Make sure you model the behavior you want to see from the kids. Listen attentively when they ask questions.

5. Know that you are both in a learning situation, and do what you can to make sure everyone has as successful an experience as you can manage.

Over the years I have had many of these situations. Sometimes I walk away frustrated but determined as I learn something new. Sometimes I walk away triumphant after having learned something new.

Sometimes the answer to a tricky situation is as simple as changing the location of the performance.

This entire week I was in schools that have either never had assemblies, or it has been many years since they tried one.

Most of them were successful, but I had one audience I just couldn't reach. They were a small number sitting on the floor in a huge, echoing gym. It was a bad fit.

I returned to the school today, Friday, for two more small audiences. I persuaded the staff to let me tell to them in the library.

It was a much better fit, and we had great sets.

Good luck out there with the novice audience!

And remember, as I was told by that supportive 5-year-old,  "You Got This!"