Storytelling Matters

The Live Art and the Power of Words

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Conquering the Ugliness in Beauty

Social media is buzzing about how distorted images of women create unnatural, unattainable representations of ‘beauty.’ And this reminds me of an important, related issue.

A friend recently told me that as a kid, he hated reading certain stories because they were about characters he could never be like or look like. My friend has a disability. Whenever he read about beautiful people in books, he felt awful about himself.

There can be great ugliness in beauty.

A mom I know struggles with teaching her kids about beauty, wishing for more stories that reflect her kids’ Asian heritage. And then there is my friend whose daughter has a rare, genetic syndrome. In addition to having a unique appearance, the child uses a wheelchair. There aren’t many beloved story characters who conquer kingdoms in assisted devices or who have asymmetrical body shapes. Finding stories that don’t marginalize such children can be more challenging than conquering storybook kingdoms.

My friends are not alone. Many parents wrestle with this. We comb bookshelves to find stories with illustrations that depict beauty in ways we feel are appropriate for our children. But many of those images are picture book perfect or culturally biased; they don’t reflect our reality. So images in books can become subliminal, insidious reminders of how we “should” look. Most of us fail.

Because pictures send a thousand messages, some parents carefully screen the images their kids see. They don’t want their children receiving messages that might cause them to undervalue their own unique beauty, heritage, or gifts. They don’t want their kids to feel like they don’t measure up. They don’t want to teach them to aspire to impossible ideals.

There can be great ugliness in beauty.

Rigorous screening of media is one way to offer images of beauty to kids. But you can also do something else to give children stories and images that reflect them and which can build self-esteem.

Tell them stories.

When stories are told, words are chosen by the storyteller. Pictures are imagined by the storyteller and the listener(s). Thus, beauty is in the imagination of the beholder.

You can make up a story, adapt a traditional one, or retell one from a book. In so doing, you can define beauty in all the ways that make sense to you. A beautiful character can be from any culture, can have any disability, can mirror any child. Listeners can imagine themselves riding wheelchairs to glory.

Best of all, the potent images from a child’s imagination can stay with a child for life.

Beauty does not equate to blond hair, white skin, two straight arms, a certain weight range or a particular ability. Beauty is not just appearance alone. Beauty can be described in all the ways that humans perceive it. Most importantly, when you tell a story, your beautiful characters can have the beautiful traits that your child possesses.

Inspire children to find themselves beautiful. Inspire “typical” children to see beauty in those who have disabilities. Tell them stories.

The little girl I mentioned earlier, the one with the genetic syndrome, is one of the most beautiful children I have ever met. Not because she looks like everyone else, but because she looks like herself. Her heart popping smile is riveting, her glance has the power to light up the dark. I fall over myself when she smiles at me because her infectious, gorgeous glance kisses my heart. She radiates pure joy. What is more beautiful than that?

Every person deserves the chance to feel beautiful. Reclaim beauty for yourself and for the children around you. Beauty does not have to call up the beast of failed hopes; when stories are told personally, when beauty is described consciously, then stories become more beautiful. And that is when they can bring joy, possibility, and peace to parents and children.

Beauty does not have to be ugly.

Copyright 2014 The Storycrafters All rights reserved

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In an upcoming post – soon I hope – will outline ways to describe beauty in inclusive ways in the stories you tell. Follow for more on this and other stuff.

What to Do About Those Disney Princesses

In improvisational acting, one big rule is that when another actor does something, you say “Yes! And…” This means that you embrace the prompt that the actor gives you : Yes! Then, collaborate by adding something of your own to it: And….

Joy Martin-Malone from the MamaPop blog wrote a piece that appeared in the Huffington Post. To this I say “Yes! And…”

I love her article and urge you to give it a read. I love it so much that it is preventing me from doing my sacred exercise ritual because I have to write this post NOW.

Her article is about the striking parallel between Disney princesses and drag queens (big hair, fancy gowns, dressing up). It is also about the author’s discomfort as a parent of young girls who adore Disney princesses and their glitzy paraphernalia, princesses who share perfect looks and wait around for rescue from princes and their assorted ilk. She says that where drag queens revel in humor, Disney princesses wait and worry; at other times they wake up singing with animals. But unlike drag queens, they lack spunk. Martin-Malone worries how that imagery affects her children. About such princesses, she writes that “[t]hey are a perpetuation of the stereotype of the weak, dumb woman who obediently waits for a man to come along and make her valuable. Between the two I’ll always promote the big-wigged man crooning “I’m Every Woman.”

Yes! And….

Much of the imagery that Martin-Malone disdains is borne of visuals. Movies and accompanying products like dolls and princess apparel are examples. Because they are visual, these images get FIXED in the minds of those who view them: the princess must look or dress a certain way, sometimes she must even behave the way we saw her behave. The power of the picture is very strong indeed.

So what can you do about it?

Tell the stories yourself.

If the stories are told in person, face to face, by parent to child at home, in live storytelling performances, by librarians or teachers without picture book accompaniments – if visual representations of the princesses in a story are NOT physically shown to a child, then that princess can look and act like anything the imagination can conjure.

Together, the storyteller and the listener can fashion the princess into anyone. A princess can look like Mommy, she can look like the child, a friend, a relative, a babysitter, a drag queen, anyone! Princesses can be from any cultural background and they can have spunk, compassion, drive, or whatever your parental heart desires. Stories contain powerful role models; you don’t have to let Disney be the main storyteller in children’s lives! Take back that power and draw princesses with your own lips.

As professional storytellers, Barry and I take this responsibility seriously. We carefully craft our stories to describe princesses (and all characters actually) in broad enough terms so listeners can thrust themselves or others they know into the role. A broad description opens the door for them to do this while hearing the story and later in imaginative play. It also allows listeners to be creative and morph their princesses in future play sessions or when they tell the story to others.

An upcoming blog post will share ideas for how to describe such characters in broad terms. Be on the lookout for that. In the meantime, tell stories to the young ones around you. Later, when you look at the pictures in books and movies, you and your children can talk about how each visual representation of a princess is only one representation out of the limitless human imagination.

Copyright 2013 The Storycrafters

The Arts for Whose Sake?

While performing recently in a small theater with my storytelling partner, Barry, I noticed a seasoned, powerful, storytelling producer in the audience. As much a critic as a storytelling aficionado, my nerves quivered like a teenager meeting the dour road test examiner for the first time.

“Would he like our work? Were we on our game?” My internal dialogue merged with my stories, and this caused thoughts, images, and emotions to assault me in a poly-rhythmic fugue.

Typically, when that producer attends storytelling concerts, he sits apart from the audience, in the sound booth or theater wings. This is not unusual behavior for producers. Barry and I do it when we run the open air Story Grove stage at Pete Seeger’s beloved Clearwater Festival. While artists perform under tree and sky, we hunker down in a market tent that is sandwiched between the back of the audience and the poison ivy. The tent functions as backstage, green room, and sound booth rolled into one. There, we do countless tasks while trying to listen to the performers onstage. Although we make a mighty effort, we are keenly aware that we’re set apart from the spell being cast by performers and audience.

But the seasoned producer that day was in plain sight, not secreted away in the shadowy wings. He attended the performance like a typical audience member. I saw every detail of his facial muscles. A disapproving frown, the crinkle of a smile, and I would know if he was happy or bored with our work. To salvage soul and show, I focused on everyone else and pressed my jitters, Panini-like, to the bottom of my being. Then, after a cleansing breath, the stories bubbled free to the surface, untainted by my parochial concerns.

After the show, the producer emerged from the crowd, beaming. “That was a great show. And it’s such a different experience to be in the middle of the audience! What a wonderful feeling, I felt so connected to you and everyone.”
My first reaction was “Phew! He liked it.” But as we chatted on, my internal dialogue, like a desperate puppy, licked and nuzzled me for attention, saying, “He seemed surprised at the power of being part of a live audience!” That was much more meaningful to me than whether he liked our work; it raised important questions.

If a seasoned arts producer can forget the power of attending a live performance, what about the rest of us? What else is forfeited when we miss the mood and emotions that sizzle and soar among performers and audience members? What do we forsake by not being fully present at a performing arts experience?

What we lose is the vibrancy that springs to life during shows. It happens between artist and artist, artist and audience, audience member and audience member. Connections are forged with shared smiles, ripples of laughter, and knowing nods to neighbors. And those connections build community. Regardless of politics or background, everyone feels as though they hold hands and heart, mind and spirit, with each other.

Sitting alone in the wings or under a separate tent, choosing a seat apart from the group; these are choices that create a gulf of separation. They block that untouchable, yet vitally felt part of a face to face performing arts experience. That’s what struck the seasoned producer that day in the small theater. Fully present for the fleeting moments of one show, he was reminded how precious and human those moments are.

Lest we forget too, let’s immerse ourselves in the vitality of live performances. That way, we can support the arts for art’s sake, and ours.

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Copyright 2013. The Storycrafters.

You Never Know

Yesterday we performed in an elementary school for several classes of kindergartners. They were a lively bunch. In fact, they were livelier than usual for several reasons.

First, they were visiting the cafeteria at the wrong time of day. Second, they were attending a storytelling assembly. But the third and most prominent reason for their excitement was that it was Pajama Day. Almost all of the children were dressed in pajamas.

If our assembly occurred later in the day, their excitement would have dwindled and the children would have forgotten about their ‘evening wear.’ But there was not enough time that morning to properly determine who was wearing what superhero pajama top before they were led away, single file, to the cafeteria.

They streamed in like a hive of busy, buzzing bees. After settling down on the floor, they were very attentive. They sang when invited to do so, they moved when asked. It was an interactive performance with a responsive audience.

As we were telling our first story, though, we noticed one child. It was hard not to notice him. He stood out because he suddenly stood up. But even after his teacher gathered him in and sat him down next to her, it was hard not to notice him. He called out during our stories. Sometimes he guessed what was coming next in response to our prompts. But mostly, his words came at random moments. He seemed to have a hard time controlling his desire to talk along with us.

Over all the years that we have been doing our work, we have seen students like him. He is not like Jakey, a child whom we wrote about last month. Jakey’s exuberant ‘outbursts’ were completely connected to the narrative and in sync with our invitations for audience commentary. This child was different. He was not always in tune with the social niceties of audience behavior, his comments weren’t always invited or on point. Lovingly, his teacher quietly redirected him when she could.

To the observer, it might seem like the child’s frequent interruptions displayed a lack of interest in what we were doing or betrayed his desire to sabotage the show.

Does this sound irritating?

When we started our work years ago, it might well have irritated us. But over the years we have seen how difficult it is to read individuals in an audience.

For instance, when we performed for the first time in England, one carefully coiffed lady sitting front and center drew our gaze. She appeared to be annoyed with us. She scowled continuously, as if her most recent cup of tea was served with curdled milk. Throughout the show her pinched face suggested displeasure. Like two toddlers trying to get the loving attention of a surly aunt, Barry and I both felt like we had to get her to smile. But that scowl was etched on her face for the duration.

When the show was over, we expected her to hightail it to the nearest exit. Instead, she hurried over to us. We cringed in preparation for an attack. Instead, she shook our hands until our forearms were vibrating, and said, “Brilliant. That was just brilliant!”

Who’d have thunk?

That was the first of our many lessons about how challenging it can be to read the minds of an audience member through body language alone. Sometimes what appears to be a downright rude expression is merely a concentrated effort to take in all that is offered in a live performance. It is hard to know.

That was why, in the school cafeteria, we didn’t take the child’s interruptions personally. We didn’t know his story and were in no position to make an accurate judgment. Instead, we acknowledged his comments when they made narrative sense, and focused in on the rest of the audience when they did not.

After the show was over, the teacher approached us. She said the boy was very connected to our storytelling and it had touched him in ways that she didn’t usually see.

We said, “Does he have any challenges?” Her nod and widened eyes spoke about just how many issues there were.

“He hardly connects with anything. Even if he doesn’t say what he should, the fact that he says anything shows that he is connecting. I am so delighted and I want his parents to know.”

Although she was complimenting us, we understood that it wasn’t due to our skills alone, but rather the live connection that we were making with him. By shifting our performance on the fly to accommodate some of his comments, by looking into his eyes and responding to his gaze, we gave him the raw materials of connection.

So you never know. The rude one out there may be the one who is most heartily listening. The one who interrupts may be connecting in the only way she knows how. Even if it is not ‘appropriate’ in one set of standards, it may hugely appropriate for the person in question.

You never know.

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The Power of the Arts – Volume 1

So the arts made national news this week. In short, a principal at a tough school in a tough district repurposed a line item in his school budget. He knocked out expenditures for security and replaced security personnel with arts education. Instead of the grim supervision of security guards, student artwork decorates the school hallways. Check out this video for an uplifting story of how the arts can and do make a difference. http://nbcnews.to/10caclB

Artists who work with students know how much vitality is injected into learning and thinking when the arts are part of the educational process. As it happens, the arts are among the first things to go from school budgets during tough economic times. The story depicted in the video suggests that it is not wisest course.

May other schools learn from this important real life lesson and take to heart how valuable the arts really are.

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Copyright 2013 The Storycrafters. All rights reserved.

They Should Have Fun

Last week, Barry and I had a little surprise while visiting an elementary school. It wasn’t a pop quiz, but it did make our eyes pop quizzically.

As professional storytellers, we work with every age range – adults, children, teens, families – in almost any place where people gather (including palm tree lined beaches). But in springtime, we often find ourselves in schools, where we usually know what to expect. But on that day, in that school, something was different.

While getting the sound system organized on the stage in the gym, the principal came in to greet us. We were delighted. Rarely do we meet principals in the flesh; they are often in meetings or stashed away like good wine for special occasions.

This principal looked like a male principal archetype:. Dark pants, button down shirt, belt that had more to do with decorum than function. He walked with the relaxed yet sure gait of a leader who feels at home in his skin and in being a leader. He greeted us with a warm smile and hand shake.

After niceties were swapped, we asked him if there were specific school topics that he wanted us to address in our show. Character education “words of the month,” particular literary connections, or social studies themes are often requested. With a spunky, yet earnest glint in his eye, he said, “Forget about that stuff! I want those kids to have fun.”

Have fun. That is a phrase I wouldn’t expect in a Principal’s Conversation Starter Handbook. I was dying to see what Barry was thinking about it, but I didn’t want to be obvious. Keeping my head still enough to win a gold medal in an Olympic game of freeze tag, my eyes migrated to the left. They stretched so far that I feared that one eyeball would sever its relationship with my optic nerve and rudely tumble from my face like a marble rolling off a table. It turned out that Barry was looking at me in exactly the same way. So much for subtlety and the sideways glance.

When our eyes connected, Barry was gazing at me with two dark and shining question marks. I turned to the principal and asked, “Did you say you want them to have fun?”

He nodded and said, “These kids have so many things that they have to do, so many should’s and musts. Children need to play. I want these guys to have a blast with you. That’s all.”

Wow. We haven’t encountered a principal like him lately, one willing to admit that there are too many pressures placed on youngsters. Here was an educational administrator suggesting that children have opportunities in school to revel in the lightness of being.

It’s not that I believe educators forget this. Regulations and extensive testing have tied the hands of teachers, forced learning to fit into a box, and made the fun of learning less of a pedagogical imperative. This is the complaint we have been hearing again and again from teachers. And this is what made the news just days after our school visit.

According to The Albany Times Union, the school board in Saratoga Springs is sending a message back to New York State saying that enough is enough with testing. My take away from the article is that educators in many different areas want to teach to hearts and mind, not to the tests. http://bit.ly/12zA12x

And now, back to our principal. He wanted his students to have fun. We gladly honored his request, but… we did nothing different than what we usually do. We selected stories that were right for the mood of the audience and the age of the students. The tales had laughter, surprises, and interesting images. Educational themes of all kinds were threaded throughout, along with the developmental good things that oral storytelling offers to listeners for: brains, language, emotional intelligence, memory, and listening skills. All of that and more happened, and everyone had fun.

Storytelling makes learning fun, even when there are tests and standards. The students had fun that day in the multi-purpose gym-a-torium, just as the principal wanted, and just as they always do when they hear stories told.

We are so glad that educators are standing up for the teaching they want to be doing, like the principal we met one day last week.

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Copyright 2013 The Storycrafters. All rights reserved.

Why Tell Stories Live? For Many Reasons…Here’s One

Barry and I told stories in a library recently. A multicultural audience of young children and their parents filled the plush, auditorium seats. They were attentive and happy. Everyone sang and clapped along, laughed in all the right places, and were with us, start to finish.

But there was one child who sounded happier than the rest. His laughter rang out over the others. He was always the first to call out an idea, to squeal, to clap. And when asked, the boy always had a guess about what came next in the story.

From the stage, I saw that his mother looked worried. She seemed tense. Sometimes she would pull her son close and embrace him, as if her arms could hold back his bursts of laughter or keep him from piping up with comments. In spite of her efforts, his jubilation always won out. Like a geyser of happiness, exuberance bubbled out of him. His mother would get swept up in his delight and forget her concerns…until the next time.

I have seen that situation before, so when the show was over, I approached the mother. She thanked me for a great show and apologized for her son’s distracting behavior.

Hmm. In all our years of performing, we have seen many instances of distracting behavior. But this was not one of those situations. The boy was engaged. He listened attentively when the situation called for it and was interactive with the performers: laughing, giving ideas when asked, and reacting with pleasure.  He contributed a great deal to the show’s atmosphere.

However, other situations in that child’s life did not always appreciate his liveliness. The mother didn’t tell me this with her words, I could read it in her eyes.

But storytelling values it. Live storytelling is special and unique because it is interactive. By inviting audience members to say things, to comment, or sing. storytellers incorporate their voices into performed stories, underscoring the interactive nature of the storytelling experience. It makes for a one-of-a-kind performance – a wikishow –  shared, in the moment, community-building.

I told the mother that I loved having her son in the audience. At first, she looked surprised, then delighted. “Did you hear the lady, Jakey? She said you were wonderful to have around!” They both beamed. Then, a moment later, the librarian berated the child for something he was doing. The mother sighed and gathered up Jakey. But before leaving the room, she turned, and smiled at me.

But that smile wasn’t really for me. It was for this morphing, amazing, in-the-moment, interactive art.

Live storytelling surely mattered for Jakey and his mom that day.

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Copyright 2013 The Storycrafters. All rights reserved.

Einstein Thought Stories Matter

Storytellers and other narrative artists know firsthand about the value of storytelling.

But we are not the only ones who see it. Albert Einstein, the brilliant scientist, noticed many things about the world. One of them is this:

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

Einstein believed that listening to fairy tales helps develop children’s minds. We believe it too. Research supports it. But it doesn’t just develop children’s minds. It develops community, passes on culture, and connects people. Live storytelling matters.

This blog will focus on the ways storytelling matters to people. It will also explore storytelling matters and issues. With musings and anecdotes, research, information, tips, and guest bloggers, we will dive into the world of storytelling – live storytelling – and explore the ways that storytelling matters. Stay tuned!

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