Saturday, April 27, 2013

A short, heartfelt, frustrated rant about personal narrative

I have yet to write something on this blog that I thought might get me in trouble, but I think I've just arrived at that point.

I have spent the last couple of months listening to an endless string of personal narrative.  That seems to be the prevailing trend in storytelling.

Hey, did something horrible happen to you?  Tell it on stage.
Hey, did you ever go to third grade?  Clearly you need to tell it on stage.
Hey, did you ever get your heart broken?  Tell it on stage.
Hey, did your uncle ever say something inane?  Tell it on stage.
Hey, did (take your pick) ever happen?  Tell it on stage.

Hey, guess what?  Personal narrative is without question one of the absolute hardest types of telling to master or even do well.

Guess what?

Most of the ones I hear aren't crafted well.
Most of the ones I hear are really self indulgent.
Most of the ones I hear have nothing to do with the audience, they are about the teller.
Most of the ones I hear don't have a good story arc.
Most of the ones I hear have terrible phrasing.
Most of the ones I hear don't produce lasting images.
Most of the ones I hear mean a great deal to the people telling them and little or nothing to the members of the audience.
Most of the ones I hear need some serious editing.

Not everything that happens to you or your uncle or your grandmother is worth putting on the stage.  That seems to be something we have forgotten.  There is a serious quality control thing going on with stories.  There are always some lovely ones in the midst of the ones that are bewildering, boring, overly self indulgent, confusing, or just run of the mill.

We have become a nation of people who put our whole lives on facebook and twitter and every single thing that happens to us seems like something we should broadcast to the whole world.   We seem to have lost the line between private and public.  Stories that belong around our kitchen table and at the family reunion are on stages all over the country.

This seems to encourage others who think any random event in their life is worthy of a story.  It is not, unless you find a way to take it to the universal.  Unless you make it a story about us instead of a story about you, we don't care.  Sadly, that is true of most of the personal narrative we encounter.

There can be magic and wonder in stories.  There can be joy and discovery in stories.  There can be laughter and hope in stories.  There can be ironic twists and turns.  There are so many things we can find in stories.  They ought to fly.  They ought to sing.  They ought to....

Wait.  Have I lost my mind?  Who am I to say what a story has to be?  Who am I to say what we all should be doing?  There has to be a place for this type of random, windblown story in our society, since this is what people want.  Plus, how much research do you really have to do to tell your own story.  A few literary allusions here and there, and bam, instant story out of having breakfast.  Why not?  The short story on stage.  We are all just actors in our own play, why not put it on stage?

There is a place for personal narrative, just as there is a place for traditional stories.  This has always been true.  Perhaps those of us who follow the path of crafting and honing and working a story until it's bones are our bones, are threatened.  Perhaps we feel our extinction.  Perhaps we feel that the world holds nothing but the end for us.

Well, that is as it may be.  Still, I don't think I would mind personal narrative so much if the people who told them worked as hard to craft them and make them sing as they do trying to find random events in their life to put on stage.

End of rant.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

What is school for anyway?

I am always astonished by the lack of funding for education.  I am always frustrated by the lack of funding for arts positions in the schools.  I am always flabbergasted by the extreme ignorance our politicians seem to display when cutting willy nilly at our children's and therefore our nation's future.  I grow despondent about the whole thing.  I don't understand this lack of willingness to educate children, of course, those cutting services do not think they are unwilling to educate our children.  They claim to be making education better.  

Now, I do understand the argument from the side of the slash and burn folks who think that there is too much waste in education spending.  They complain that more money doesn't seem to make better outcomes.  They complain that teachers make too much money.  They complain that education needs to have more stringent rules.  They complain that there need to be measurable outcomes and penalties when those outcomes are not met.

When I hear arguments like this I always want to roll my eyes.  Our politicians aren't complaining about how much bankers make and punishing them for crashing our economy and making off with the cash, but they will be punitive to teachers.  Our politicians aren't pointing out that there is tons of fraud and waste in the private prison systems so many of them are embracing, yet they want to fire good teachers if they can't force the children to perform at the rate they think they should be performing.  They don't require every sixth grader to be able to dunk a ball.  They don't require every fifth grader to be able to tap dance.  They don't require every third grade to throw a tight spiral on a football pass.  They don't require every seventh grader to be able to hit a curve ball.  Why do they think every single child will have the same educational outcomes?

The argument that more money doesn't help is patently foolish.  You spend more money in impoverished areas to educate children because the parents in those areas aren't able to do as much for their children.

If you added up all the money a middle class or upper class family spends on their children's general education and add it to the amount of money the school has to spend to educate the children, you would discover that the tab far outstrips the educational money spent on children who are in poverty.  The playing field is not level.  I am not a rich person, and both of my children have taken lessons, played, or been exposed to piano, gymnastics, dance, soccer, basketball, karate, the theatre, symphonies, ballet and museums of all sorts.  Both my husband's and my parents have some extra money.  My kids have travelled all over this country and up into Canada with their grandparents.  They went on a photo Safari in Africa with grandparents.  They may very well head to Australia with a set of grandparents in the next couple of years.  My kids are competing with the kids who have never been out of their neighborhoods.  My kids are also competing with the kids whose parents take them to Europe every summer, Asia over spring break, to South America for the weekend and over to Italy for a pizza.  The playing field is not level.  Putting more money in communities where the poverty rate is high doesn't begin to address the discrepancies.  Cutting funding to a school in an at risk area is like deciding to use a teaspoon to fill up a fifty gallon bucket because the tablespoon wasn't making enough headway.

Which begs the question:  What are schools for Anyway?

Are schools supposed to erase the monetary discrepancies in our society and create a level playing field where anyone can get a good education?  Some people think so.  Others believe that it is not the government's place to do more than the basics.  Still, there are others who believe the government has no business educating people at all.  The federal government should stay out of it and state governments should be able to abolish the education system if they feel like it.

There are many different things education can, should and does do.  How many of them are measurable by a test?  Very few.

Here are the measurable ones

Elementary education Pre K - 5 is supposed to teach children the basics of the United States, geography, history and basic governmental structure.

Elementary education Pre K - 5 is supposed to teach children about the state they live in and its history

Elementary education Pre K - 5 is supposed to teach children the basics of reading the English language

Elementary education Pre K - 5 is supposed to teach children the basics of mathematical computation

Elementary education Pre K - 5 is supposed to teach children the basics of rudimentary science

Elementary education Pre K - 5 is supposed to teach children the basics of writing the English language

This is what elementary schools are required to teach children.  Nothing more.  Somewhere in the fear of falling behind the Chinese or the Russians or whoever, we forgot that these are not the only subjects to teach and these are certainly not the only ones that matter in the life of a person.  K - 5 education can do a great deal more than this.  It should do a great deal more than this.  Well, the testing industry knows this and they know that they will get called on it sooner or later, so some things have been added.  Many places are now going to test your arts readiness in the same dry way they test your basic knowledge.

Elementary education Pre K - 5 is supposed to teach children the basics of theatre arts

Elementary education Pre K - 5 is supposed to teach children the basics of visual arts

Elementary education Pre K - 5 is supposed to teach children the basics of dance

Elementary education Pre K - 5 is supposed to teach children the basics of speaking in public

I am certain if they come up with a way to test something else, it will be added to the pantheon of what children are supposed to be taught. The problem, as I see it, is that education is so much more than these tests.  It is so much bigger than drawing a pencil mark in a bubble.  It is so much more complicated than this.  The good, the bad and the ugly of schools is that it they are a microcosm for the places they sit.

Elementary Pre K - 5 teaches children how to deal with lots of different personalities

Elementary Pre K - 5 teaches children about friends

Elementary Pre K - 5 teaches children about competition

Elementary Pre K - 5 teaches children about authority

Elementary Pre K - 5 teaches children about enemies

Elementary Pre K - 5 teaches children about racism - not always in a constructive way

Elementary Pre K - 5 teaches children that adults can be very wrong

Elementary Pre K - 5 teaches children that things change over time

Elementary Pre K - 5 teaches children that not everyone believes the same things

Elementary Pre K - 5 teaches children that everyone's culture is not the same

Elementary Pre K - 5 teaches children that people's families are not the same

Elementary Pre K - 5 teaches children that bugs can be very cool

Elementary Pre K - 5 teaches children that even boys dance

Elementary Pre K - 5 teaches children that some children are smarter than others in some things and not as smart in others...nobody is perfect

Elementary Pre K - 5 teaches children that teacher's pets exist

Elementary Pre K - 5 teaches children that people wore funny clothes and men used to wear wigs

Elementary Pre K - 5 teaches children that ducks are waterproof

Elementary Pre K - 5 teaches children that  you won't like all of the people in charge

Elementary Pre K - 5 teaches children to work with others

Elementary Pre K - 5 teaches children about adventures beyond what they know

Elementary Pre K - 5 teaches children learning can be least it should teach them that

Elementary Pre K - 5 teaches kids that not everyone has to be a doctor or a lawyer

Elementary Pre K - 5 teaches kids that girls have gone into space

Elementary Pre K - 5 should inspire kids to dream way beyond their current should

There are tons of things that happen from Pre K - 5 that nobody ever tests for, but are nevertheless important.  Field trips into the world are an amazing way to look at new and different things, but that is not a testable quantity, so schools don't fund them much anymore.  What a loss for education and students and teachers. The arts are also defunded at a terrifying rate, though people are finally beginning to see that they have some merit.  Of course, instead of funding more arts positions or getting more artists into the schools, they simply require classroom teachers to add it to the various things they have to teach.

Here's a quick shout out to Joe Radner for this link she sent me.

New research bulletin is out from the Arts Education Partnership -- those of us who work in schools or WANT to work in schools might be able to use this:
PREPARING STUDENTS FOR THE NEXT AMERICA: THE BENEFITS OF AN ARTS EDUCATION offers a snapshot of how the arts support achievement in school, bolster skills demanded of a 21st century workforce, and enrich the lives of young people and communities. It draws on the research in AEP's, the nation's first clearinghouse of research on the impact of arts education on students and their school communities.
You can download the .pdf free at

I could make more lists for what middle school students are supposed to learn and high school students, but before we get too crazy here, let us answer the question that we have not yet managed to address:

What is school for anyway?

Is it to make sure you can make lots of money at some point in your life?  For some people that is a yes.

Is it to make sure you can be a responsible tax paying adult?  For some people that is a yes.

Is it to find your passion?  For some people that is a yes.

Is it to expand your horizons and show you what is out there?  For some people that is a yes.

Is it to get a job of any kind?  For some people that is a yes.

Is it a babysitting service so the parents can be rid of the little darlings?  Sadly, for some that is a yes.

Some people only send their kids because it is the law.

This is another endless list.  There are as many wants for schools as there are people who send their kids to school.

Education in this country has changed drastically over the years, and what is expected of our children has also changed.  What we teach and what we do not teach has changed.  How we teach it has changed.  What people expect from our society has changed.  What people expect from education has changed.

What is school for anyway?

There are some political things that go into this as well.

Are we supposed to be out engineering Germany?

Are we out computer programming Japan?

Are we out researching the Netherlands?

Are we holding our own with the rest of the first world nations?

Do the French know more about genetics?

I haven't even begun to talk about addressing learning styles...visual/aural vs. oral/experiential vs. logic/oral/experiential vs. intuitive/visual/aural vs. oral/visual/experiential/physical  and so forth, and how you incorporate activities in the classroom to accommodate all of these various needs.

Oh, I know, let's throw in ideological nonsense, just to make things more interesting!

Children should not be taught about evolution because of religious objections

Children should be taught creationism is science because of religious beliefs

Children should not be taught about the civil rights movement because it makes some states look bad.

Children should be taught about the civil rights movement because it is part of our history.

Okay, let's teach about civil rights, but let's gloss over it.

Children should not be taught about slavery because it is a touchy subject

Children should be taught about slavery, but we'll say it wasn't that bad

Children should not be taught about contraception because it makes some grown ups uncomfortable

Children should only be taught about abstinence even though there are lots of studies that show this is not the most effective way to prevent teen pregnancy

Children should be given age appropriate comprehensive sexual education

Children should not be told homosexuals exist

Children should be able to ask about homosexuality in their sex ed classes

Children should not be told they cannot harass homosexuals

Children should be told that bullying is bullying regardless of the person's sexual orientation

Children should not be taught that Columbus didn't really discover America

Children should be taught Columbus really did discover America

African American children should have their own clubs

Latino children should have their own clubs

LBGT children should have their own clubs

Caucasian children should have their own clubs

African American clubs are racist

Latino clubs are racist

LBGT clubs are wrong

Caucasian clubs are racist

Children should not be taught we are a Christian nation

Children should be taught we are a Christian nation

Homeschooling is wrong

Homeschooling is necessary

Homeschooling is mostly done by Christian loonies

Homeschooling is best for students with difficult learning styles

Homeschooling is the best way to educate everyone

Homeschooling is done because people don't like their public schools

Teachers are greedy

Teachers don't get paid enough

Teachers are lazy

Teachers work very hard

Teachers don't try hard enough

Parents aren't involved

Parents should help with homework

Parents are doing their kid's homework

Parents are more invested than the kids

We need free school breakfasts for these kids

Parents should feed the kids

We need better lunch programs

Parents should feed these kids

We need computers

We need books

We need (Fill in the Blank)

Don't even get me started on the rush to create for profit schools!

What is school for anyway?

Well, it depends entirely on who you ask.  For me, school should be about creating well rounded individuals who see possibilities in their future lives.  Yeah, I know, it is squishy, philosophical, and completely unmeasurable.

One thing is sure though, school is no longer for kids.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Showcase Application Season Is Upon Us! - What does that mean?

If you are looking to expand your market, showcasing is a great way to do it.  What is showcasing?  Why should you do it?  What is the most effective way to showcase?

1)  What is Showcasing?

A Showcase is a meat market experience where the artists are the meat.  It is a job fair for performers.  Arts Councils, library systems, theaters, speaker's bureaus, and a number of other organizations produce showcases.  Basically, they offer artists the option of buying a booth and putting up a display to attract customers.  This is equivalent to those showy birds that dance, puff up their chests, raise their crests and make evocative sounds to attract a mate.  You kick out the jams, put on your best display at the booth, and try to draw customers in like a spider with a devious web.  Lots of people put dishes of candy on their tables.

The booth is just one aspect of this.  The other component is the performance.  If you are lucky, you will be chosen to do a showcase performance.  This usually consists of getting anywhere from eight to twenty minutes to perform in front of the purchasers at the showcase.  PTA members, librarians, theaters, conference planners and anyone else in need of a performer could be in the audience.  They get a chance to get a flavor for what you do.  Showcasing is a great way to display your talents for a wide variety of people.

2)  Why should you Showcase?

Showcasing allows lots of different types of people to see you do your thing.  People who would never hire a storyteller because they don't have need for one in their venue, might nonetheless see you and love what you do.  Getting your name out there in a very controlled way is helpful.  Besides, you can also talk about some of the other things you offer from workshops for educators to author visits.  it is a great marketing tool.

3)  What is the most effective way to showcase?

I put this question in here because people always ask.  The simple answer is I have no idea what would work best for you.  I have some suggestions, but all I can do is explain what I do and give some examples of things that I like that I don't do.

One of the things that seems to be effective in terms of booth displays is putting candy on your table.  I don't do this, but lots of folks do.  I like banners.  I don't have one, but who knows.  Large cut outs of yourself performing or doing something interesting look good.  Large displays with pictures or great quotes are a nice touch.

My booth usually has large posters of me making wild faces.  My table contains the books I've written, all of the CDs I have, publicity packets, and business cards.  That's it.

In terms of the showcase performance.  Some people tell an entire story.  Some people tell most of one story.  Some people just explain what they do.  Some folks talk about their travels or give their credentials.

I tend to tell three to four bits of stories that would appeal to a wide variety of age groups.  I pick moments of action or tales where I am doing something vocally interesting.  I give a brief intro for each bit of tale and then I do the snippet.  My theory about this is that it allows me to do my most interesting and complicated work in a short burst.  It draws the audience in and then I stop telling.  It has been an effective way for me to intrigue an audience of buyers.

So, that's showcasing.  Here are some links to get you started.  Many of these showcases will begin taking applications very soon or they have already called for them.

For the Suburbs North of Chicago, Il

For Upstate New York

For Raleigh and Surrounding Counties

Arts Market for NC and Surrounding States

Southern Illinois Artist Showcase

Here is a site that lists lots of showcases

Okay.  Time to start marketing.  Good Luck!  Go Showcase!

Literate Household - Boosting Literacy in the home

     I came across the concept of Literate Classroom almost fifteen years ago.  it is a simple idea.  The classroom should have a variety of books.  They should touch a wide variety of subjects and they should range from simple books all the way up to books that are outside the age range of the kids in the classroom.  The books should be in all parts of the classroom and children should have time over the week to read in class.  They can either select a book from the bookcase or they can bring one from home.  it is a simple idea, and it promotes literacy.

     The students can choose books that meet their needs and since the books are in the classroom, it encourages every child to pick up a book of some kind.  It can help kids who are not at grade level get used to picking up books, and it lets kids who are reading above grade level find things they like.  There should be rules about books.  Nobody can criticize what anyone else is reading, that sort of thing to encourage children to pick things that they like.
 I liked this idea and wondered if this concept could be instituted in the home.  How would one go about creating a Literate Household?  It wasn't hard, but it requires a certain amount of upkeep on the part of the adults early in the process.

    1)   The first rule is that anyplace the children might play or sleep or just hang out should have books.

     2)  There should be a bookcase in each child's bedroom.

     The bookcase in the child's bedroom should contain a variety of books.  When the children are little, board books are most appropriate.  As they get older, play with the contents.  Put books about a variety of subjects, both fiction and nonfiction that are age appropriate.  Don't get rid of the board books just yet!  You should also put books on the shelf that are beyond your child's current reading level.  As your child gets older, supplement the books.  You might also pick up a few books and slip them onto the bookcase without telling your child.

   3)  The adults need to read as well.  You can read newspapers or magazines if books are not your thing, but modeling the behavior helps children to understand that reading is something that people do.

I instituted this in my home.  It worked very well except for one thing.  I don't read mysteries except for Agatha Christie.  It never occurred to me to put mysteries on my son's book case.  I am not a horror fan either, so I don't know much about that genre.  it turns out my son loves both mysteries and horror.  it took me a while to learn enough to pick good ones for him.  The only way I found out about the mysteries came when I was desperate to get him into some fiction.  He only read nonfiction about dinosaurs until he was about eight years old.  He was born on Halloween, so I already knew he liked spooky things, but I wasn't sure how far I could push the spooky just yet.  I got him one of the A-Z mysteries.  He loved it.  From then on, he was less wary of fiction and luckily, his bookcase was stuffed with things that caught his eye.  At sixteen, he loves Edgar Allen Poe, Stephen King, Fox Trot, Calvin and Hobbes and nonfiction biological and scientific texts.

On the other hand, my daughter was reading on an eighth grade level when she was five.  That proved to be quite a challenge.  Her bookcase had everything from Judy Moody to Septimus Heap before she was six.  By the time she was nine she'd devoured the Dragonriders of Pern, Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Giver.  Last year, at twelve she read Animal Farm, 1984, the Portrait of Dorian Gray and Bitter Blue.  We are forever scouring our libraries looking for things to engage her.

It is not uncommon for one of them to pick up a book they loved when they were little like Yertle the Turtle, and read it aloud to each other.  

As the kids get older they will pick their own books, obviously, but it doesn't hurt to slip a few things in every now and again.

My kids still get books for all holiday celebrations and one of their absolute favorite things to do is go into a bookstore.

If you are looking for ways to stuff more literacy into your child's life...surround them with books.  If nothing else, a title or two might catch their eye while they are sitting in the family room with the boob tube blaring.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Three Year Rule - Breaking a new market

It seems that I get quite a few people who ask me how to become a storyteller.  I also get people who tell me they are just starting out and ask what sorts of advice I can give them.  Well, there are lots of ways to become a storyteller.  Some people take classes.  Some people just jump in and start telling to anyone who will listen.  Some people join guilds.  Some people start in libraries.  I think you get my gist, there are lots of ways to begin.  However, if you want to know if you are getting anywhere, I have a simple three year rule that I use to gauge that.

The First Year you jump into storytelling, you will spend most of your time trying to get your name out there and find jobs.  There are some simple ways to do this.  Many arts councils offer artists showcases.   You may have to audition for a spot.  Most of the time you can get exhibition space even if you don't get to perform at the showcase.  You should market like mad.  Direct marketing through snail mail or email are options.  You should contact schools, libraries, community centers, book stores or anywhere else in your community that might hire a storyteller.  Get the word out as best you can.  Get a website together, start a blog.  Whatever you need to do to market.

The Second Year you still have to bust your butt for marketing.  In fact, just assume that you will have to do that every year of your life as a storyteller.  Anyway, the difference the second year is that your business should start picking up a bit.  The golden goose is being asked to return to a venue.  You should get repeat business your second year.  You should also get a little word of mouth business.  Referrals are lovely and this year you should begin to get them.  You might also get some calls from people who got your materials through the mail or email and are inquiring about you.

The Third Year is your first real turning year.  This year you should get repeat business, referral work should tick up to more of your income, you should get cold marketing inquiries from people who received your material, and the golden goose this year is people who have heard of you and know you do this.  Those are the calls where they already know they want to hire you even though you have never worked with them before.  This will not be a big part of your work the third year, but you should start getting this type of call.

1)Why does it take three years, and why does it progress like this?

2) So, what happens if this doesn't happen?

1)  This progression is neither speculation, magic, or just hope.  There are those who go from year one to year three in just one year.  It happens, but not for most people, so don't count on that.  The reason it works like this is because people who hire storytellers or live performance for various venues tend to have wish lists for who they want to get.  Sometimes it is a question of money.  Sometimes it is a question of rotating the kinds of performers they get.  Sometimes it is a question of convincing the PTA that their kids really would sit still for a storyteller.  Either way, they usually have a list and when they first see you as a storyteller, you seldom go to the front of the line.  Sometimes you do, but many times people want to know someone who has had you, or something about you before they hire you.  You most likely will join the end of the line, and in a few years or so, if they hear your name, see it written down somewhere or get a chance to catch your act, they will decide to contact you.  That process usually takes three years.   I allow this much time for all new markets as well.  It takes time for people to find you, find enough money to hire you and then arrange to get you where they are, especially if where they are is across the country or international.

2)  If for some reason you get to year three and you have not followed this progression, I strongly recommend that you consider reevaluating your business model.

a)  If you are not getting repeat business, then evaluate why that might be.  Are you choosing stories that don't fit well with your audience?  Are you doing something in performance that is not working?  Are you not getting positive feedback?  Are you getting the same response over and over and you haven't been listening?  List reasons why you might not be getting repeat business.  If your number one reason is that the audiences just aren't getting what you are trying to do, then perhaps you need to target a different audience.  It might also be that whatever you are attempting isn't working.

b)  If you are not getting calls based on your marketing, evaluate your materials.  Do you have so much verbiage that they open the email, sigh and dump it.  Nobody has time to read five paragraphs on why they should hire you.  Make it user friendly.  What is in you subject line?  Does it look like spam?  What pictures are you using?  This makes a big difference to lots of people.  What does your PR say?  If you get people to read it, does it make you sound like someone they want to have in for the day?  Do you have testimonials?  What do they say?  Where are you marketing yourself?

C)  If you are not getting word of mouth business, that is really not good.  That means nobody is referring you or talking about you in such a way that others want to hire you.  Now, don't get discouraged if you are in your third year and you haven't gotten more than one or two calls from word of mouth, but if you haven't gotten any, that is something to consider.  Evaluate the above pieces of your business and consider if you need some restructuring.  If you think it is all in place and it will take a bit more time, then hang on for another year.

D)  How hard are you marketing?  If you are not doing enough, you won't see results.

Your business should grow.  That is not to say you will always make tons of money, we are artists, after all, but you should see an uptick in work, mentions, phone calls, and emails.  How many you get, how much comes your way depends a great deal on how hard you market and how hard you work on your repertoire.  A varied arsenal of stories opens up wider venues.

So, good luck and happy telling!