Thursday, January 26, 2017

Guerrilla Storytelling, Personal Stories, Historical Fact, and Convenient Fictions

This has been a week of listening to stories.

This has been a week of telling stories.

This has been a week of watching stories take shape.

This has been a week of watching history distort, change, and become clear.

Sometimes, looking at the world with a storyteller's eyes is frustrating. You see stories morphing and changing, and you wonder if anyone else is seeing it like that. I see the streams and stamps of stories everywhere, and I don't want to just talk about a single event, but all of the story that preceded it. That makes it hard to find words at times.

Linda Gorham, Arianna Ross, and my humble self in Raleigh
On Saturday, I was at one of the Women's Marches with two of my friends. I didn't bring a sign. I wanted to take pictures, talk to women, and find out why other people decided to come. I wanted to catalog my favorite signs, listen to the chanting, and see who turned out.

Arianna Ross and Linda Gorham, two wonderful tellers, were with me, and we had a great time. Each of us, at times, was in deep conversation with someone around us. Going to something like this with storytellers is cool.

Before the march began, there was a woman standing next to me with a little blonde boy. He was three. His shirt said, "Feminist In Training". He was not having it. He was upset and fussing. Not crying, but making that annoyed child sound in that pitch that just makes you wish you had earplugs.

I dropped to my knees and told him Johnny and Suzy thumb. He was mesmerized from the first second. He watched my thumbs, listened to my voice, and was completely silent and smiling by the end. I stood up and he kept smiling. In fact, he didn't make that noise the rest of the time we were near them. Every now and then I'd look over and he'd be looking at me. Whenever I caught his big blue eyes he'd flash me a big grin and then snuggle close to his mother.

I told his mother that the three of us were storytellers...professional storytellers. We made a few jokes. "Have Stories Will Travel" or some such thing, and then we moved on in the march.

Guerrilla storytelling can always be a useful thing.

During the march, I heard lots of personal stories. I heard about women who'd driven to Raleigh from other states instead of heading to Washington DC. I heard from women who had items of clothing or names of women who couldn't march, but wanted something of theirs there. I heard stories about cancer survivors, women who were encountering others of different ethnicities for the first time in years, listened in on a conversation between a black woman and a white woman where the black woman explained that she no longer tries to talk to white people about her activism all the while talking to this white woman about her activism. The white woman was fascinated, and begged to know more about the activism and why the black woman had disengaged. At the end, they hugged each other and went back to their various groups. I saw lesbians out holding hands and kissing. I saw gay men holding hands and cheering. I saw some fabulous signs. I saw lots of kids. I saw women live streaming their experience for daughters, sons, other women and husbands or boyfriends who couldn't be there. I met photographers, journalists, moms, children, gentlemen from all walks of life, and I listened to them.

They weren't all there for the same reasons, and they weren't all angry.

There was also the backlash. There were people who were angry or confused about why so many women came out to march. There were the people who derided the marchers, called them names and said they were stupid or hysterical or foolish.

Senator Joyce Krawiec
Senator Joyce Krawiec of North Carolina had this to say about the women's march.
“Message to crazies @ Women’s March – If Brains were lard, you couldn’t grease a small skillet. You know who you are.”

She has since apologized for this tweet.

It made me think about stories.

-What stories do you have to believe to decide to spend a chilly Saturday marching? (Actually, it was a nice leisurely stroll)

-What stories do you have to believe to decide that insulting the marchers is the way to go?

-What stories do you have to believe to announce that George Soros paid most of the women to march?

-What stories do you have to believe to feel excited by watching three to four million women protest something?

-What stories do you have to believe to feel disgusted, threatened or angered watching three to four million women protest something?

The stories we believe have a huge impact on what we see when we look at the world. If you believe something is true and you see something that does not conform to the story you believe you have some options.

A) You can accept the new story, or at least try to understand it.

B) You can reject the empirical evidence of the new story and dismiss it.

C) You can just tell a completely different story in place of the one you are observing and substitute that new story for reality.

D) You can reshape the new story so that it conforms with societal norms no matter what the actual story might be.

Why does any of that matter, and how does this impact what happened last weekend? Last year? Last Decade?

We have always reshaped our stories. George Washington chopped down the cherry tree, and he couldn't tell a lie. You know, the stuff we proclaim that isn't true, but we repeat over and over again.

Sometimes, however, when we reshape or try to reshape our stories, we run into problems. Here are two examples of stories that we tried to shape. In one instance we failed, and in the other, we succeeded too well.

An artist wanted to sculpt a 9-11 statue of the firefighters raising the flag over the wreckage after 9/11. That artist wanted to depict the firefighters as a multi-ethnic group even though it was caucasian firefighters who put the flag in place. They canceled construction of the statue.

"A controversial bronze statue planned for Fire Department headquarters was scrapped yesterday after angry protests from firefighters. The statue was based on a photograph of three white firefighters raising an American flag amid the World Trade Center rubble. But the artist hired to cast the $180,000 statue used one black, one Latino and one white fireman, prompting firefighters to accuse the FDNY of abandoning historical accuracy for political correctness. "We heard the reaction of the firefighters, and we decided to take another look at it," Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta told the Daily News. "I was not there when the original decision was made, but now it's my responsibility to come up with something appropriate, and that's what we are going to do."

I remember the flap about this. The artist was trying to say something about how 9/11 was a national tragedy, and these firefighters represented all of us. The story was meant to be uplifting and one of shared sorrow and hope. The pushback on that was immediate.  The original designs lost.

That does not mean there is no statue. In fact, there is a statue depicting the three white firefighters. Unfortunately, there was a bit of a problem.

Jinxed 9-11 Statue in Trouble Again

"...The statue’s dedication marked the end of its saga — until recently, when it was reported that the statue’s construction was financed by investor fraud. A company named Coadum Advisors gave Watts $300,000 in 2006 to build the statue, which then was valued at $4.8 million and which Coadum hoped to write off its taxes. The SEC now says that Coadum was just a Ponzi scheme, using money from new investors to pay off earlier ones and pocketing the difference.
The SEC can’t seize Coadum’s almost $19 million in offshore accounts. But it’s seized the statue, and is looking for someone to buy it so that Coadum’s investors can get some of their money back."

This statue ended up on the FEMA training camp grounds in Emmitsburg, MD. I had no idea how this story ended when I started researching this in the morning. A moment that was originally meant to be memorialized for the nation ended up as the end result of fraud, greed, and acrimony. However, it does accurately depict three white guys raising a flag.

The second story that came to mind was a new one for me.

My uncle told me about watching the Lone Ranger at the picture show with his grandfather when he was just a boy. They had to sit in the balcony because that was the colored section of the movie house. He loved the film.

I remember watching the Lone Ranger on television when I was a kid. The show was in reruns at that point, but I did love it.

The Lone Ranger was this uncomplicated hero who was out there keeping the west safe from outlaws and evildoers. He was a strong man. He was a courageous man. He was what the American Man of Action and Mystery was all about.

Bass Reeves
I just found out that The Lone Ranger who shaped so many young men's fantasies of justice and power was based on a black man.

I found that really hard to believe.

Bass Reeves (July 1838 – 12 January 1910) was one of the first black Deputy U.S. Marshals west of the Mississippi River, working mostly in Arkansas and the Oklahoma Territory. During his long career, he was credited with arresting over 3,000 felons and shot and killed fourteen outlaws in self-defense.

I think about all the little black boys who could have grown up for generations with one of our huge culutral icons being a black man who was brave, strong, unafraid to stand against evil, handsome and a complete badass. A real live gun slinging superhero who was part of the fabric of the old west was just like them.

Maybe it is time to recast that story and tell it again. Hmmm.

Does it matter if our stories depict real things?

Does it matter if our stories are understood?

Does it matter if we have different reasons for telling those stories?

Does it matter if we see the same things and come away with different images?

Does it matter whether or not the stories we tell ourselves as a nation are true?

Is it more important that we shape the stories to fit the nation because the stories are definitely going to shape the nation, or should we let the stories play out as they fall?

The only thing I am sure of in all of this is that it matters that we listen.

Listen to the three-year-old, and tell him a story.
Listen to people who are different from you. They have a story.
Listen to the people marching in the streets. They have a story.
Listen to the politicians who have something to say, they are going to try to shape the story.
Listen to the stories we tell as a nation, do they actually tell our story, or are they leading us away from who we are?

What I am asking is a hard thing. Especially if we think we already know what we are hearing before the sounds ever reach our ears.

Happy Listening.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Inauguration Day, 2017

I was recently asked why I thought folktales were a good vehicle to help people understand Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.

Here is my response:

The thing that Martin Luther King Jr. did for our nation was to retell our story including black and brown people in the narrative. Up until he came, we had no national story that included people of color that didn’t consider them as less than or worthless. 

It wasn't just that we had no voice; we had no place on which to hang our voice. There was no national place to even think about how people of color fit into the world…only in its shadow.

Go and See This Movie!
Even when people of color were doing amazing things in the shadows, there was no way to tell their stories. No context in which they would have been understood or accepted.

There was no national idea that black and brown people even had a right to have a voice. Anytime we tried to speak in our neighborhoods, communities, states, or regions, we were met with beatings, blood, fire, and persecution. The terrorism of the establishment in America was so fierce, that it made most people too afraid to do anything about the obvious discrimination.

Dr. King’s voice resonated not only with people of color but other citizens who had watched the systematic oppression of their fellow citizens and decided they could not let it stand.

Together, we began to tell a new story about what America could be and what we wanted to see.

The themes in folklore are clean-cut and powerful. They are about hope, love, equality, justice, persevering in the face of fear, the importance of community, treating each other with respect and the dangers of what happens when we don’t, and many of the other things that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about in his life.

The universality of folklore also brings us closer together as we realize that our ancestors all wanted the same things no matter where they were in the world. They wanted us to find ways to live together. They wanted us to love and care for each other. They wanted us to learn from our mistakes, and they wanted us to think about the consequences of our actions.

The story of the country in which I live, America, is a powerful one. It is filled with triumphs and places we failed; soaring dreams and nightmare cruelty; determination and despair. These things march hand in hand through the actions and inactions of those in power and those who fight for human rights.

Our story continues on this day as one administration leaves to be replaced by another.

There will be new battles, concerns, triumphs, hopes, disappointments, and possibilities.

Some people feel like a long national nightmare ended; others feel as if a long national nightmare is just beginning.

We will continue to write the story of who we are.

We must not forget where we started.  

We must remember that we can always be better than we are as long as we keep working together to move forward.

Most importantly, let us never forget to keep dreaming of a better world: Martin’s world.

January 20, 2017

Friday, January 13, 2017

Art Is Not An Elective For Everyone

James Ransome

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

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

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

Clay Carmichael

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some of his pieces.

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

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

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

She also designs and draws mandalas.

She did this one for my parents

She made this one for my niece and nephew

She made this one for my sister and her husband

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ax the arts!

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

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

When will we ever learn.....

Happy Creating.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Enlisting The Audience: 5 TIps For Managing An Audience

This is the last post in the Audience Participation series.

Text of Epaminondas

Part 1: Covert and overt Audience Participation

Part 2: Overt Audience Participation

Part 3: Covert Audience Participation

Part 4: 5 Tips For Managing An Audience

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

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

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

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

We are also in hunter-gatherer mode.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This leads us to the second tip.

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

This technique is about reading an audience

a. Scan the audience. make eye contact with people

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

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

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

3. Allow the audience to shape the tale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Audience Rustling!