Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Being A Touring Storyteller Is Like Being Shackled to a Galloping Unicorn: Amazing and Disconcerting.

The odometer on my 2006 Saturn

Before we made this the running around town car last February, I put 256,125 miles on it.  

An itinerate performer’s life is not a stable one.  We travel to everywhere from Miami Gardens, FL to Lima, Peru.  Our daily lives can be described as many things but the word ‘routine’ is not one of them.  This is not such a problem if you are single, don’t have pets, and are not needed for anything in particular in your community.  This becomes much more tricky if you have pets, children, spouses, social obligations, or some kind of side job that requires stable hours.

Pets like to eat and they need attention.  Not so easy if you are gone all the time!

When I went into storytelling twenty-six years ago, most of the storytellers I knew had gone into the field as a second career.  They’d had their children, raised them, and then, in their retirement or second life, they’d become storytellers.  Most of the ones who’d chosen it as a primary career were men whose wives had stepped in to take on the role of stable parent.

Being neither a man, nor old enough to have retired from a previous career, my husband and I had to look at this a bit differently.

I went to my friends for advice about how they dealt with the touring schedule and family.  Jim May, Milbre Burch, and Syd Lieberman gave me invaluable advice about what to expect while touring.

After careful consideration, my husband and I decided upon a simple idea.

My chaotic life could not create chaos for the rest of my family.  We divided up the work in a way that seemed very unfair, but couldn’t be helped.

David anchors the family in place.  He drives the kids to school and collects them at the end of the day.  He volunteers at their functions, goes to their various activities, helps with homework and makes sure that meals are on the table.  He organizes their chore schedules, keeps track of their calendars and plays games with them.  In other words, he took on a major amount of parenting work.

David also took on the role as business manager, PR guy, and personal accountant. 

My job?  Write books, travel the world, create and teach workshops, make recordings, and tell stories.  

Yeah, I know, it is out of print.  Hey, I'm just supposed to write the things!

For ten years now I flow in and out of my family’s manicured life.  I join in when I get home.  I help with the housework, cook, drive the kids around, help with their writing, and stand about being everyone’s cheerleader.  Then, like smoke I vanish for a while. 

When my kids were little, it was a frightening to them when I left.  They had no understanding of time.  When I left and didn't come back right away, they feared I might never return.  As far as they knew, I disappeared into the ether the second the car left. 

We used several things to help our kids cope with this dismay, and incorporate the travel schedule into their lives.

We put a calendar up by the front door.  It was mommy’s travel schedule.  If I was gone, the name of the place was on the calendar and there was a star on the days I would return.  They crossed off the days and could look forward to when I would return instead of feeling that vague sense of discomfort because they didn’t know when I would appear.  Some families put up a map and use push pins so that kids can see where their parents are going. 

Still keep a calendar by the door.  Not as big a deal, but they still like to keep an eye on when I'll be back.

These days you can also Skype and email, but the calendar and the map are tangible ways to help your kids understand the time involved.

Despite our best efforts, there were the plaintive requests from our children that I not leave.  Children, as everyone knows, are not above emotional blackmail, and they are excellent at manipulation and breaking your heart. 

We explained to our children that everyone in the family has something that they contribute.  Daddy was there to keep their lives running smoothly and keep them safe.  The kids were supposed to learn, play, and grow up.  Mom’s job was to make sure we had a house, clothes, food, cars, toys video games and so forth.  If I didn’t travel, we wouldn’t have anywhere to live and there would be nothing to eat.  They accepted that, and if they started getting upset, we would remind them that it was important for me to travel.

Travel isn’t easy for me either.  I miss exciting events, the daily discussion of what is happening in their lives, the discussions that can only happen when I am sitting in the kitchen and they wander through.  I miss teacher conferences, award ceremonies, presentation nights, and project presentations.  I missed the tooth fairy, and birthday parties, and I don’t even like to think of what else I just wasn’t on the spot to experience. 

Still, the reason they do so well is because their lives are such that they only have to worry about homework, getting their chores done, what their friends are doing on the weekend, and planning their future.

My kids with their younger cousins

They are older now and accept that travel is part of my life.  Still, every now and then, when I am preparing for a trip, my seventeen year old gets that sad little note in his voice, as he demands, “Where are you going now?” 

They don’t have to like the fact that you travel, but they do need to understand why you do it.

Being able to make a living as a storyteller is a privilege that not many people have.

When I’m listening to the latest event I can only watch on video, or hear in a retelling from one of my children I remind myself that I am very lucky.

Happy Touring! 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Family Time….Build Your Relationships On Stories

I don't plan to do a great deal of posting links to other blogs on my blog, but I just read a piece that speaks to storytelling in families.  This piece is about something called 'deep listening', a process where you just sit with what the other person is saying to you, hold onto it and let it sink in to your thoughts before you talk about yourself.

This is a piece about how we elicit the stories that drive our relationships.  It is about knowing how to reach for those stories so that the person you are talking to can tell them.  It is about the deeper act of sharing the 'how' and 'what' of a person's personal narrative.

Building relationships that last requires us to become part of each other's stories.  Raising children who will talk to you beyond the third grade requires learning how to ask questions and elicit the stories that make up their lives.

For those of us on the practicum side of storytelling:  The questions Glennon Melton poses to get information from her friends and family would be a great template on which to build a storytelling exercise while teaching people about crafting effective personal narratives.

Learning to ask personal, universal questions would be a great jumping off point for personal narrative practitioners.

Happy Telling!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Picking Publicity Photos - Marketing, Marketing, Marketing

I hate Marketing.

Professional Storytellers conduct the business portion of their work like every other business in the world.  We have to figure out what we have to offer, package it with a pithy logo or tagline that helps us stand out from the pack, and sell that brand to the public.  This is not an easy task for many of us.  I have met very few professional storytellers who went to business school.  There are some, but I haven't met many.  I also haven't met many storytellers with a degree in marketing.  Again, there are some, but most of us spend our time trying to play catch up.

Some storytellers have a natural eye for what makes a good photo or what elements tell a story.  Some are also visual artists, and they have a good eye for composing images.  That's all fine and dandy, but what if you haven't got any of those things going for you?  No business school, graphic arts background, visual arts sensibilities, or Martha Stewartesque sixth sense about pictures?  What if you are just somebody who tells stories?  Then what?

"Every Story I tell is true…except for the parts I make up!" - Donna Washington

Most of us pick photos of ourselves based on a few criteria.  For instance: 

We often look at the one physical feature of which we are most horrified, and try to pick a photo that does not emphasize it.

We consider which photo makes us look the thinnest.

We consider which photos show off our most attractive features.

If you are a super model, these are perfectly reasonable criteria for choosing a publicity photo, but if you are trying to tell a story of who you are, and what you do this might not be the most useful set of guidelines.

A Little Shiver - Donna Washington

I have different criteria for different photos.   All of them have one purpose:  To catch your eye. 

1.  Does this photo evoke some kind of emotion?
2.  Is this photo interesting?
3.  Could this photo have more than one caption?

Next, I consider the image.  What's in it.
1.  Is this picture about me, or something else?
2.  Do the other elements in the photo fight with me?
3.  Does this photo say anything particular about me as a storyteller?
4.  Is anything in the pic distracting from what I am doing?
5.  What is the first thing that draws your eye?

Then, I consider what I'm doing in the picture.

1.  Does this give you some idea of what you might see if I was performing?
2.  Does this make me look interesting or versatile?
3.  Do I look committed to whatever it is I'm doing?

"Every Story I tell is true…except for the parts I make up!"  - Donna Washington

The last type of pic is my neutral pic.  This is the image that is as close to the 'glamour shot' as I ever get.  Again, the question is not do I look beautiful.

1.  Do I look interesting
2.  Can you tell I'm a performer of some kind?
3.  Do I look 'fun'. (And by fun I do not mean in any way that would make my Great Grandmother Topsey blush)

I market myself as a "fun, interactive performer who uses her elastic expressions and vocal pyrotechnics to bring stories to life".

All the images I select are aimed at that phrase.  Any image that does not capture that idea, is discarded from the publicity line up…no matter how  lovely I actually look from my left side in the proper light while wearing shades of plum.

Here are a few images you will never see in my Marketing materials

This says, 'look, I'm surrounded by young adults from Taiwan!'  I like the photo, but it is not one I would choose for a cover photo, internet grabber, or primary marketing photo.  I will use it for a post about traveling or possibly on my Facebook page, Donna Washington - Storyteller, as a 'look at me' pic, which you need in your pr stuff, but this not a centerpiece pic.

Love this photo.  it evokes images, shows emotion…not a publicity photo.  I have seen lots of storyteller photos that show images of them with their kids or family.  They are lovely, but they are not photos that tell us what you will be like as a storyteller.

Here's a pic I used for a while, but retired once my braces were removed.

Totally NOT a marketing photo.  Distracting, odd and too much clutter!

Now, you might say, why would you include this one at all?  This is just a candid photo someone took of you.  Well, the truth is, lots of times we are photographed doing things that are interesting.  We also have photos in our collection from teachers and other people who happen to catch random images of us.  Unless that person is a photographer, there is a good chance these pictures aren't quite what you are looking for.  That doesn't mean it doesn't ever happen, but it is not likely.  

Not even going there.
Who doesn't want an awesome photo where you are rocking a pair of shades?

I have a glowing box coming out of the back of my head.

I'm in this picture.  Grab a magnifying glass and I'll prove it!  Aside from my ability to stand in front of people, what does this image really show?

I do have a face, I might even be using it right now, can't tell though.
This one is off center and cluttered.   I also look like I might be about to grab my boobs.

You'll have to trust that this is me, and not some other random black lady in a dress!
resting? half telling? blurry!

My recommendation is that you get professional photos done in a studio, or get a professional or quasi-professional photographer out to one of your venues.  It is always better to get a pic that shows who you are.  

Don't make clients guess if you are the right hire.  Turn up the volume and shout it…with an image!

Happy Marketing!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Steeping in Havoc and Mayhem - or - What Did I Learn This Week?

(Falling water tea from my Teaposy)

I Love Being a Storyteller!  

I had great shows this week.

I relearned tons of things I already knew!

I learned tons of things I don't even realize I learned!

I had adventures.

I had challenges.

What I'm steeping in this week…

I told at an International Montessori school on Monday.  I saw the K - 3 group.  I heard a fantastic story about a family who has a seven-year-old girl.  The girl is best friends with a boy born in South Africa who has a brother from Mexico in a family where the husband is Italian and the mother is French.

The little girl got in the car after school one day and said, "Sit Down!"  (Apparently that's what they say in their family when someone has earth shattering news.)
Her mother said, "What?"
She said, "Did you know my friend was adopted?  Can you believe that?"
Her mother, trying not to laugh, says, "Really?"
"Yeah, but don't tell dad.  I want to spring it on him at dinner."
Almost a year later this same little girl gets in the car and announces, "Mom, Sit Down!"
Her mom says, "What?"
The little girl says, "His brother is adopted too!"

                                         (My biracial children in the holiday pageant many years ago)
                                           (Neither is adopted.  Just like the whole color scheme)

I relearned that if we don't tell them otherwise, children see the world through the eyes of love.  It is a place where color neither matters nor has any implications.

I had a small show with a group of  about 100 sixth graders.  Ten minutes into the first tale I made the sound of a door opening very slowly.  It is a pretty cool sound.  The kids loved it.  One kid off to the left made an approximation of the sound very loudly.  I glanced over.  The smile on his face and the shine in his eyes, and his utter lack of acknowledgement that his peers were shushing him told me all I needed to know about this young man.  I have told with many autistic kids in the past twenty six years.  Sometimes the experience is a catastrophic fail on my part, and sometimes it works out all right.  This young man had been staring around until I made that sound.  For the next half an hour, he not only mimicked any sound effect used in the story, but started making sounds when the pitch of my voice changed.  His peers were trying to ignore him, but they were starting to get annoyed.  He was also mimicking the larger movements of my hands.  In the end, I didn't make some of the more obvious sounds so that he wouldn't be shushed by his peers.  Didn't matter.  When I didn't make the obvious sound, he did!  He knew what was supposed to be happening!  When the story was over, I changed the last tale from my version of The Debate in Sign Language to the Monkey's Heart.  I announced that he and I would be telling together, and I launched into it.  That young man and I spent the last ten minutes of that story set chattering, howling and yelling in unison.  It was great.

I relearned how to listen.  I relearned that stories can be experienced in many different ways.  I relearned what it was like to see pure joy on the face of a new story listener.  I relearned how to meet the audience wherever they are.

Had my first encounter with a Leadership school.  These were inspired by Stephen Covey.  They use his philosophies to teach children how to be successful.  His quotes are all over the school.  You might know him for the book, 7 Habits of Highly Successful People.  The school was interesting.  Right before I started the show for the third through fifth graders, every single classroom teacher left the multipurpose room, leaving me with four other adults and 450 students sitting criss cross applesauce on the floor.  We had a great show, but the kids took slightly longer than they should have to come to quiet after each exciting event.  Well, what can you do?  There were no real restraints anywhere!  I know teachers are pressed for planning time, and this is when they could have it, but the third through fifth grade teachers at that school didn't have the chance to use any of the language building or vocabulary we played with in the assembly in their classrooms…they don't even know what it was.  They won't be able to talk help their kids unpack things…they don't have slightest idea what happened.  The show went well, and it was fun, but I left thinking to myself that for a school that prides itself on Leadership, it sure didn't make a great deal of sense for all the adult leaders to leave!


I relearned that we can't see the forest for the trees sometimes!  I learned that at a Leadership School, the kids take initiative!  I learned that at a Leadership school, two kids are assigned from each class to approach a visitor and offer a handshake.  I learned that at a Leadership school, the kids are taught how to stand up, speak their names, tell their grade level and then ask their questions, or offer an answer…very impressive.  I learned that at a Leadership school, any kid can approach and offer a handshake or a word of thanks after a show.  I relearned that it is good to carry hand sanitizer in my purse.

What did you learn or relearn on your storytelling journey this week?

Happy Listening!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Storyteller's Toolkit: The Body or To Move or Not To Move

The Storyteller's Toolkit is a simple way to talk about the elements that storyteller's use to present a story.  These do not include puppets, props, costumes or anything extraneous.  You can certainly use all of those things as a storyteller, but they are not standard tools in the toolkit.  

The basics in the toolkit are as follows.

Voice:  If you missed the post, just click here.

Eyes:  If you missed the post, just click here.

Face:  If you missed the post, just click here.

Hands:  If you missed the post, just click here.


Easy enough.  In keeping with my new policy about blog entries.  We will deal with each of these one at a time.  Today's selection deals with the body in storytelling.

Let me explain my point of view about movement and storytelling, and then proceed with the rest of the post

I searched, but didn't find much in the way of using the body as a storyteller.  Many sites rolled the body in with 'body language' which covered every item in the toolkit except the voice.  There were some articles about dance, lots about mime, and there were some tips on a couple of sites, but nothing really addressed the subject in the way I was seeking.

Here is my take on the Storyteller's body….

I believe that when you move all over the stage you break the illusion built with your words.  As long as the audience can imagine you moving around, you don't need to move.  I believe you become less effective the more you move about the performance space.

The reason I believe that wandering about while telling is problematic?  Moving your body everywhere scatters the energy you are creating and throws it off in all different directions, lessening the impact of the story and distracting the audience from the narrative.

The advice I am going to offer, the observations I will make and the comments I will submit are based around the points I've just made.  You may or may not agree with my take on movement and storytelling, and that is what makes our art form so varied and interesting.

On any number of occasions, I've taken storyteller's aside and suggested they attempt to tell while standing still.  Most of them swear they can't do it.  The story causes them to move.  The ones who have gone away and tried it have all contacted me in shock at how big a difference it made in the telling.  The one thing you notice right away is how much more control and power the story has when you ground it.

Six years ago I was performing a version of the Squeaky Door.  It is a tale about a kid who is frightened of the sound his bedroom door makes.  His grandmother misunderstands the source of his fear, and runs back and forth to the barn putting all sorts of animals in his bed in order to comfort him.  My version is silly, ridiculous, and an audience participation riot.  After the tale was done, I had an inservice with the teachers.  One of them interrupted my introduction and announced that she thought it was hilarious that I was running all over the stage.  The other teachers laughed out loud and agreed.  They'd seen me! They saw me running back and forth to the barn, dragging the animals across the stage, and running back and forth to the kid's room whenever he started yelling.  They saw it all.

I let them laugh about it for a few minutes, sharing their favorite moments, and then told them I hadn't moved an inch.  I'd stood in one spot in front of the mic the entire time.  Silence.  Confusion.  They didn't believe it.  They argued the point.  They knew what they'd seen. I pointed out that the mic was on a stand and I hadn't taken the mic out of the stand the entire time.  How would they have heard me so clearly if I'd been running around the stage without the mic?  They didn't know.  They realized I couldn't have been running all over the stage.  They still didn't believe I'd been standing still.  Then, I informed them that it was perfectly possible for them to have seen me running all over the stage, but despite that, I hadn't moved.

You can take up an amazing amount of space without moving.  Let the audience see the story, and they will see every part of it.  The key is to employ the other elements of the toolkit to give the illusion of movement.  

The story does not happen in front of you, it happens all around you.  As long as you don't break into the space around you and trample it, the story can take place in that space.  The second you actually move, you stop the imagination from filling the space with images.  We need to see the story coming out of you in all directions.  If you are moving in all directions, the story can't expand to fill the space.  Instead of being someone surrounded by wild images, you are a single person moving around an empty space.  The first is powerful, the second just gets tiring for the audience.

If you get out of the way of your stories, they have a chance to take the audience to places even you can't see!

Of course, not everyone wants to stand still.  If you are going to move, do it on purpose!  Choose when you are going to move.  Don't let your feet decide where your body is going!  

So, here are some fabulous storytellers making the world shake from the space around their feet.

Peter Cook!

Geraldine Buckley!

Carmen Agra  Deedy

Len Cabral

Andy Offut Irwin

Was there anything that these stories lost because the storytellers either sat, or simply turned their bodies, or adjusted themselves?  Did they need to move further than they did?  Did they need to show us beyond what they did in the spaces around their feet?

If you've never tried standing still, give it a shot.  What you will find is that you will have to focus much more heavily on your face, voice, eyes, and hands.  Translate your nervous energy into power.

Stand still and hit your audience with everything you have!

Empower your stories!  Empower your audience!

Happy Telling!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Storyteller's Toolkit: Facial Expressions

The Storyteller's Toolkit is a simple way to talk about the elements that storyteller's use to present a story.  These do not include puppets, props, costumes or anything extraneous.  You can certainly use all of those things as a storyteller, but they are not standard tools in the toolkit.  

The basics in the toolkit are as follows.

Voice:  If you missed the post just click here.

Eyes:  If you missed the post just click here.


Hands:  If you missed the post just click here.

Body:  If you missed the post, just click here

Easy enough.  In keeping with my new policy about blog entries.  We will deal with each of these one at a time.  Today's selection deals with facial expression.

The best thing about writing a blog has got to be the research aspect.  I spend lots of time reading what other people suggest, think, and discover, and then I get to decide what I think, suggest or have discovered about it.  The information about the use of facial expression is no different.  So, let us discuss what I found out about using facial expressions from hours of jumping around the web, and ferreting out the best practices I could find.  

For starters, lots of the advice I got was about using facial expressions with children.

Kid's Encyclopedia

Tell the story with your face

Why Facial Expressions are Important

Then, I found a number of reference that simply said it was important.

"Jackie Torrence is proof of the power of facial expressions."

Storytelling and Communication:  Discourse in Deaf Communities

Here is an article about using close ups of facial expressions in eLearning situations

I found this WikiHow page that gives a step by step look at how to tell a story!

The last article, but hardly the last reference, is about cultural differences in facial expressions that I found both fascinating and informative.

Perception of facial expression differs across cultures.

After all of the reading, I can state that I definitely think using facial expressions with children is a good thing, but I also recommend it for adults.  They enjoy it as well!  Yes, facial expressions are important.  Using them does enhance storytelling.  Saying that doesn't make it an easy thing to do!

The coolest thing about facial expression is that just as babies learn vocabulary and figure out how to respond to the world by watching facial expressions and listening to the tones of our voice, people continue to pick up language in this manner right up until the time they hit puberty…after that the pituitary gland kicks in and everything switches over to sex, and you have a whole different set of things to manage!

So, let's start with a master storyteller who knows how to work a face!  Peter Cook, one of my absolute favorite storytellers.  He has mentored me on any number of occasions about nonverbal communication.  Watch this man's incredible face, though, I know it will be hard because everything he is doing is fascinating!

Some Basic Uses:  Your face offers you a chance to share a kinesthetic link with your audience.

Bring characters to life - Work very specific character faces.  Whenever the audience sees the expression they will be able to more fully engage and follow the story.  examples:  The squint, the big eyes, the mouth over to one side, the wrinkled nose, the annoyed expression

Create Atmosphere - Your face tells the audience the mood or atmosphere of the story.  examples:  scary, exciting, suspenseful

Asides - Your face lets us know when you are talking to us directly.

Set Tone - Is this story funny, serious, scary?  Your face can let us know what sort of ride we are about to have.

Slow Motion Expression  - Allowing your face to slowly settle into an exaggerated expression.  This allows the audience to go on that physical trip with you.  examples:  fear, anger, joy, disgust, discovering you are in pain.

Change the mood of your stories - Your face gives the audience an indication that the story has moved on to another beat.  examples:  relax, be worried, everything is okay, something horrible is about happen, somebody just fell in love

Foreshadowing - Use your face to inform your audience of what is coming next!

Here is a telling of The Laughing Place.  Brer Rabbit's laughing face is the key to the whole tale.

Having said all of that, I know that not everybody is anxious to make faces on stage.  Some folks feel quite inhibited, some feel foolish, some people aren't naturally expressive, and find the very idea of making exaggerated faces uncomfortable.

If you want to add expressions, the best way to begin is to sit and imagine expressions.  Happiness, sadness, anger, excitement.  Imagine what you think it looks like, and then see if you can make your face 'feel' like it is excited or happy based on the image you have in your head.

Some people like to use a mirror.  If you want to look at yourself in a mirror as you make the expressions, go right on ahead, but there are lots of people who do not.  Me, personally, I do not.  I find that when I practice with a mirror, I become distracted by things other than 'does this expression convey sadness?'

I practice the expression until it 'feels' right, and then I try them out with friends, family, or in stories.  I ask, 'does this work here?'

Start small if you aren't using much expression.  Work on techniques for transitioning and mood if you have managed the basics.  Your face is never neutral, we are learning something from it every second you are performing.  Choose what we are learning.  Create the atmosphere on purpose.  Lead us through the story by choosing facial expressions.  Craft your face to reflect your tales.

Empower yourself.  Empower your stories!

Happy Telling!