Thursday, November 29, 2007

Notes from the Field (V)

The Storytelling Rule I’m Glad I Broke

Generally speaking, I am what’s known as a “good girl”. You know my type – on time, works hard, takes multi-vitamins and flosses. But I have to admit, that I, a sometimes nauseating “goodie two shoes”, has done a bad thing. I have run with the proverbial scissors. I, a professional storyteller, have changed the ending of a folktale from a sarcastic joke to – GASP – a happy ending. With a morale, in fact. OH MY GOD!!

Now, for some of you this may sound unremarkable, harmless, trivial even. Let me explain. Very early on in my storytelling life, before I knew a chain tale from a porquoi story, I attended a story swap. Swaps are sort of like laboratories where storytellers can try out new material in front of fellow story lovers. This particular evening of tale telling began with a woman standing up and announcing, “I’ve been working on a REAL Cinderella piece.” The others in the group smiled and clapped. “No Disney versions for me!”

As the crowd roared it’s approval, I sank in my seat. What the heck were they talking about? “Real Cinderella”? “No Disney’? What could anyone have against a little bippity-boppity-boo! My shock only continued to grow as the woman began to speak. The story that she called Cinderella was nothing like the tale I knew. There was no mention of talking mice, no little songs, and to my absolute amazement and horror, the birds in this tale weren’t happy avians who perched on Cinderella’s shoulders – they were attack animals!!

The discussion that followed kept my mouth clamped shut, and my butt glued to the chair. Person after person talked with scorn about the folktales that had been “altered”, “sanitized”, and, in one person’s words “mutilated”. The more heated the conversation grew, the more confused I became. My then limited knowledge of stories, told me that folktales were ancient – from a time before books, when everything was passed along orally. And as these tales were shared by one person and then another, they changed, mutated – adding or subtracting details along the way. Sort of like that old game “telephone”, where the first person whispers in someone’s ear, “My sweater is blue.” and what the last person hears is “Your grandmother’s a kazoo.” If that was the case, why was everyone so upset about the fate of Cinderella’s sisters being softened, or not revealing that Hans Christian Anderson, the author of “The Little Mermaid” and other tales, had a REALLY BIG dark side?

I didn’t dare ask these questions at that meeting, so a few weeks later, sure I wouldn’t suffer some sort of folktale retribution, I spoke with a long time professional storyteller about what I had seen and heard. “Glad you asked”, she said, chuckling as she pictured my fear of questioning the tellers that evening. And with her, over a cup of tea (I know – very storytellerly!), I learned the following: yes, stories do and SHOULD change and grow with each telling and with each teller. That is why there are so many variations of even the least known folktales. Part of the beauty of storytelling is that a room full of people could all tell the same tale, and it would be different each and every time. But, she also explained, the basic plots of these stories all had meanings and significance. Long ago, before Dr. Phil, the experts on Oprah, or any of the ten thousand books on raising children and personal ethics, folktales taught lessons. The hero of a story was an orphan to signify he was at the cusp on manhood. The wicked Queen was killed to show that evil could be overcome. People were penniless, got lost in the woods, and threatened by things that went bump in the night. In other words, real, honest to God life happened. These stories were used to prepare the young, and not so young for the realities of the world.

As I learned all this, I began to understand why those storytellers were so fired up. Taking out all the “big time grown up stuff” as my friend B.B. calls life’s challenges, was akin to some store bought cakes. Really pretty to look at, but completely tasteless.

On the other hand, I could see why people would want to tinker with some aspects of a folktale. I know I just wouldn’t feel comfortable telling a group of seven year olds that Cinderella’s stepsisters got blinded by a flock of winged critters that must have escaped from Hitchcock’s “The Birds”.

So what’s a responsible storyteller to do? I suppose it’s one of those personal decisions that “only you can make”. I chose a middle (and I hoped not cowardly) path. I would simply not tell stories that had those things I felt uncomfortable giving voice to. Sure, I’d adapt aspects of the tale, and tell it in my own style and words; but I would always keep “the guts” of the story true to their original intent. That way, both I, and the tale, would keep our integrity. Problem solved. Case closed. Until I met the Knee High Man.

The story of the Knee High Man originally attracted me for a completely superficial reason – it was about someone shorter than I am! (Being called shortie all your life leaves an impression, I guess) The details of the tale basically go like this: tired of being only knee high, our hero tries to make himself more “sizeable”. He asks several large animals how they became so big, but nothing works. In fact, each new plan causes him to have a headache, which in turn makes him even smaller, until he is only about an inch tall. Finally, he asks the Owl, who mockingly tells him,”The only thing that needs to be bigger about you is your brain!”

Always being one for getting a laugh, I played up the Owl’s words – and the tale worked just as it was. Audiences enjoyed the Knee High Man’s journey, and they chuckled at the punch line. What more could I want?

But one day, as I watched a group of especially adorable faces staring up at me – I saw something besides delight at the end of the little guy’s journey. I realized the audience was rooting for him, they wanted him to succeed. And as I searched my storytelling soul, I did, too.

OH, OH!!

“What now, Einstein?” I recall asking myself. “You said you wouldn’t alter the arc of a tale, but now you REALLY, REALLY want to!” Darn me!!!!!!

I tried to keep telling “The Knee High Man” the original way, but more and more it felt wrong. Then I banished it from my repertoire, but I missed the little fella. I began to search for similar stories with endings I liked better, but to no avail. And then – I did it. I crossed the line.

I was in a classroom of fourth graders with learning disabilities, and zero self esteem. I had already told one or maybe two stories, and all was going well, but I was struck with the feeling that I wanted to do more. I wanted to leave those kids with something. And all of a sudden I knew what that something was. I launched into “The Knee High Man”, keeping true to the story all the way until the end. There, I broke the rule. I changed the story. Instead of making a joke, the Owl asked, “Why do you NEED to be more sizeable?” And as the Knee High Man thought about this question, he realized he didn’t need to be any different – he liked himself the way he was.

Every time the Knee High Man said, “I like myself the way I am”, he grew. When he was back to being knee high, he went home, and never tried to be taller, or more sizeable ever again.

I’d like to say I felt guilty about committing a storytelling no-no. But I didn’t. Especially not after going around that classroom, and hearing those kids say what they liked about themselves, and each other. Maybe, I thought, that’s what the Owl meant – maybe he was saying, “Dummy, realize what you have. Be happy with who you are.” Or maybe not. Either way, I found MY ending to this tale – and it has stayed that way ever since.

To this day “The Knee High Man” is the only story I’ve ever altered in that way. I still believe in abiding by the original plot of a story. And there are many tales I will never tell because they aren’t “me”, just as they are. But every time I see my audience chanting along with the Knee High Man, “I like myself the way I am.” I can’t feel anything but joyous. Happy that for a little while, at least, some people realize how wonderful they really are.

Upcoming Performances

January 2008

1/8: Parkchester Branch, New York Public Library (NYPL) 4PM

1/25: Huguenot Branch, NYPL 4PM

1/26: Soundview Branch, NYPL 2PM

1/30: South Beach Branch, NYPL 4PM

February 2008

2/2: Jackson Library, NJ 2PM

2/9: Toms River Library, 2PM

2/12: George Bruce Branch, New York Public Library (NYPL) 4PM

2/13: Columbus Branch, NYPL 4PM

2/22: Van Ness Branch, NYPL 3:30PM

2/23: Donnell Branch, NYPL 3:30PM

2/27: Grand Concourse Branch, NYPL 4PM

March 2008

3/11: Eastchester Branch, New York Public Library (NYPL) 4PM

3/12: Melrose Branch, NYPL 4PM

3/19: Stapleton Branch, NYPL 4PM

3/25: Kingsbridge Branch, NYPL 4PM

April 2008

4/13: The Morristown and Morris Township Library 2PM

4/15: Ocean Township Library 4:30PM

4/16: Eatontown Library 4PM

4/22: New Utrecht Branch, Brooklyn Library 2PM

Monday, November 5, 2007

Notes from the Field (IV)

“Storytelling Pants”

About the 4th or 5th time I perform before the same group of children - be it during a multiple visit residency, or because I’m fortunate enough that the school has had me back year after year – the same question arises. I’m not talking about the usual queries: “How old are you?” “Are you married?” “How do you talk so fast?”

No, this question makes me laugh, because it shows that, A) these kids have been watching me INTENTLY. B) They’ve been soaking in the most minute details of the performance. And C) They probably watch makeover shows like my guilty pleasure, “What Not To Wear” on TLC. Because no matter what age, economic, or racial group these children belong to, at some point they ALWAYS ask, “Julie, why do you always wear black pants?”

I giggle at this because they are ABSOLUTELY correct. I do wear exactly the same type of pants every time I perform. Newport News boot cut leggings. I order them two at a time, and when they wear out, they are relegated to work out and yoga wear for a few years, and then finally to the trash. Like the coat in the folktale “Just Enough to Make a Story”, I utilize these pants until they are “all worn out”!

It took me a while to find my storytelling “costume”. I tried skirts and dressed, but because I am known to roll on the ground at a moments notice, that didn’t pan out well. God knows, I love my jeans, but since I routinely lift my lift to my ear while telling how hard Anansi the Spider pulled on a rope in a folktale, the possibility of splitting inseams seemed to outweigh denim’s usual “all-purposeness”. And while I know many of my fellow African-American storytellers feel strongly about wearing kente cloth and Afro-centric clothing for their work, these garments didn’t mesh well with my “dancerly” tellings.

So, early on in my storytelling career, I looked in my closest and moaned,”I have nothing to wear!!” What would give me unrestricted movement, like the leotards and tights I wore in ballet class, yet be presentable enough for me to saunter into PS 548? What would not require tailoring, dry cleaning, or even folding? What could go with button down shirts or loose fitting tops? Boots for street wear, and dance sneakers for performance?

Newport News boot cut leggings. In black – the universal slimmer and neutral color. Very often – ON SALE!

As I’ve mentioned, the “storytelling pants” that have started to loose their color and elasticity get bumped down the clothing food chain to become sweat wear. Now, I am not one of those people who believe that one must look good while exercising. Catching me on the way to the gym is not a pretty sight. Any article of clothing that allows me to reach my endorphin high is fine with me. So, I have pairs of these black pants that, as my mother-in-law, famously said, “Don’t owe me anything.”

There are ones with bottoms so torn, you’d think I had a dog – a big one. There’s the pair I have to tie a shoe lace around the waist while wearing, to keep them from falling down. And then there’s my (and probably the guys in front of me at the gym when I’m doing squats) personal favorites – the three pairs that have safety pins holding together the crotch and thigh area.

All these poor misshapen pants live in my bottom dresser draw, along with my mangled tee shirts, sweatshirts, and equally pathetic dance wear. At least, USUALLY they do.

I “train” myself, as I like to say, to keep from loosing things. (Keys in the cup by the door, gloves in the bag in the closet) But, from time to time my generally sloppy nature over rides any such training, and things land up where they shouldn’t. And that is how one of my safety pin laden pants landed up in the storytelling pants section of my dresser, and eventually in my knapsack.

My performance wasn’t until the afternoon that day, so I was looking forward to one of my favorite schedules. Gym, ballet class, performance, home. I remember pulling on my “needs a shoelace to stay up pants” over my leotard and tights, and putting one of my favorite tops, and, what I THOUGHT were a pair of storytelling pants in my knapsack for later, before hitting the road for the day.

All was going so well. I got the machines I wanted at the gym, my pirouettes were “on” in class, but when it came time to get dressed for my performance, I hit a snag. A snag, a rip, and a big old hole. The very worst of the worst of my pants were curled up in my knapsack. Material pilling, hem chewed up, and at least five metal safety pins smiling up at me like a pair of brand new braces.

I was way too far from home to even think about getting back there for a good pair of pants. The “needs a shoe lace pants” were not only wet with sweat, but the bottoms were soaked by the rain (because, of course, it was POURING) And, Newport News is, unfortunately, a catalogue and a website, not a corner store.

Then I remembered – there was a Modell’s two blocks down. Checking my wallet, and tying on the moist pants. I headed out the door. They weren’t Newport News, but there might be something black, stretchy, and most importantly, without holes, that would work.

The rain was slamming down, turning the moist pants into heavy, wet, bunches of material that dragged mud across the entry way of Modell’s. The arrow pointing to women’s wear pointed downwards, so I ran down the steps, the bottoms of my pants looking and sounding like the flippers of a seal.

“Black pants, black pants”, was my mantra, as my eyes searched the racks (especially the ones that said,”SALE.”) But, apparently, every other woman my size must have been there that day, because I saw none. Oh, there were white stretchy pants (and okay, who is really confident enough to ear those?) and velour purple pants (Barney, anyone?) and MANY pairs of black capris – but nothing like my beloved Newport News.

I was beginning to consider buying a sewing kit, to at least get rid of the safety pin problem, when my eyes saw them. Black, stretchy, boot cut, my size, ON SALE!! I ran to the dressing room, and prayed they didn’t pucker, tug, or (god forbid) make me look fat. As they glided onto my body, I gave up a silent prayer of thanks to the clothing gods, and bought them.

Outside the sun had come out. Hiking up the rain and sweat sodden “shoe string pants”, I practically skipped up the block to a Barnes and Noble whose bathroom I frequent in that part of town, found an empty stall, and put on my new storytelling pants.

The show was a good one. Librarian happy, kids happy, parents happy. But more than anyone else, I was happy. I had found a new source for storytelling pants. One where I didn’t have to wait for delivery. One with many locations through New York City and New Jersey. One that offered up boot cut leggings for $14.99 on sale. Modell’s – home of Julie’s new storytelling pants.

Upcoming Performances

November 2008:
11/14-7pm at Barnegut Library, NJ
11/24-1pm at Westfield Library, NJ

January 2008:
1/8- 4pm at Parkchester New York Public Library (NYPL)
1/25-4pm at Huguenot Park NYPL
1/26- 2pm at Soundview NYPL
1/30- 4pm at South Beach NYPL

February 2008:
2/2-2pm at Jackson Library, NJ
2/12- 4pm at George Bruce New York Public Library (NYPL)
2/17-12pm at Afro-American Historical Museum, Jersey City, NJ
2/13- 4pm at Columbus NYPL
2/22- 3:30pm at Van Ness NYPL
2/23- 3:30pm at Donnell NYPL
2/27- 4pm at Grand Concourse NYPL

March 2008:
3/11- 4pm at Eastchester New York Public Library (NYPL)
3/12- 4pm at Melrose NYPL
3/19-4pm at Stapleton NYPL
3/25- 4pm at Kingsbridge NYPL