Seeking an Audience

by Christine Mounts ~ September 3, 2023

While wandering the Minnesota State Fair conducting our annual folklore tour, Dr. Buzz’s State Fair Odyssey, we made a stop at the 12:30pm Arts A’Fair performance of the Black Storytellers Alliance. Being the last show, at lunchtime, and in the heat of the day, only two performers told stories under the foliage of the East Grandstand Plaza. But it was a real treat to see their performance.

If you missed the Black Storytellers Alliance at The Fair, you can see them perform by attending the 33rd Annual Black Masters Storytellers Festival on September 28-30, 2023.

Master Storyteller Vusumuzi Zulu tells a traditional story at the Minnesota State Fair Arts A'Fair
Master Storyteller Vusumuzi Zulu tells a traditional story at the Minnesota State Fair Arts A’Fair

Afterward, as our Founder Loren Niemi chatted with Master Storyteller Vusumuzi Zulu, I made my way around the gathered audience, circling the plaza with some promo materials and asked what I thought would be an easy question: “Are you interested in storytelling?” For ¾ of the people sitting on the benches in the shade, with corn and beer in hand, the answer was “no.”

OK, so maybe the State Fair is not the best place to find an audience for storytelling. To be fair to The Fair, the East Grandstand Plaza was a better location than the North End Event Center, which was a place of blazing sun and no seating last year. But I continue to be astounded by the lack of interest or understanding of this artform.

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First Night

by Christine Mounts ~ August 20, 2023

“What is going on here?”- a question posed by an upstairs neighbor to some of our guests who had spilled out the front door of “First Night”, the grand opening of the American School of Storytelling on Friday August 18, 2023.

The official answer is “storytelling” or more accurately “nothing new” since storytelling is an ancient artform, indeed the Mother Art. But perhaps it’s new to our neighbors or at least “something different”- an intimate performance venue dedicated to the oral narrative arts of storytelling, poetry, and singer-songwriters.

Not theater because there is no fourth wall separating us from the audience. Not a poetry open mic at the bar on Wednesday to draw in patrons. Not the storytelling slam model that The Moth Radio Hour is renowned for. Not a writing program, not a marketing buzzword, or a gathering of liars, unless you believe fiction to be a lie despite its ability to tell the truth, often better than facts.

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Jonesborough TN Storytelling Center

The Flounder at the Festival

by Loren Niemi – October 16, 2022

The Christine and I brought the American School of Storytelling to the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN. It was her first time, and my … well, at one point I was asked if it was my first Festival and I told the bright young ETSU student who asked the question that I came to my first festival in 1979, quite likely before her parents were born. 

I mention this because in the 50 years of the Jonesborough Festival I have been in the tents for at least 40 of them and as such, have had the opportunity to see how storytelling has changed. In the early years (AKA the “Ray Hicks Era”) traditional stories dominated. They had moments of humor but many were sparse and dark variations on their European roots and the hard-scrabble life of Appalachia. If you heard Ray offering a Jack tale, his dialect and accent were so localized you could be forgiven for needing a translator. It was a glorious introduction to a storytelling that would soon pass out of fashion.

At this year’s festival personal and humorous stories dominated. That transition began in the mid-’80’s when Donald Davis went from telling his versions of Jack tales to telling the stories that have been his bread and butter – his childhood. Soon he was joined by Andy Offut Irwin, Bil Lepp, and in a nod to the “not Southern”, Kevin Kling and Bill Harley. 

I have no complaint about the dominance of humor, as clearly the audience appreciates it, but rather that on the whole, the Festival telling feels ”safe”: risk averse and predictable. I suppose risk and unpredictability are what Fringe Festivals are for. After all, Spaulding Gray was on the Jonesborough stage in ‘85 and it was a mismatch of epic proportions. But I, for one, loved the contrast between his neurotic Yankee autobiography and the Southern Baptists trying to make sense of “public confession”.

In my view of storytelling, there is room for it all- traditional and personal, light and dark.

What I appreciated the most about this gathering of the storytelling tribe in the post-pandemic world (are we actually there yet?) was the hugs and greetings, the genuine pleasure in seeing one another in the flesh and not on a digital square. The energy in the tents was palpable and appreciated. Conversations, whether short or long, were punctuated by glimpses and greetings. The prevailing mood was, we are still alive and glad to be in the company of our ilk.

And true it was and is. 

The Flounder Watches Whales

by Loren Niemi – June 16, 2022

The Flounder/founder (Loren Niemi) of the American School of Storytelling just returned from the Storytellers of Canada National Conference where he taught a “Difficult Stories” Master Class with Elizabeth Ellis, a three-hour “Double Helix: Plot and Voice” workshop and was ¼ of the Saturday night concert. It was all good. The Tigh-Na-Mara resort in Parksville, BC was scenic and the folks attending the conference were excited to be able to be in the same room with their storytelling ilk again. 

One of the conversations he had was about the importance of Storytelling Toronto in creating and sustaining the community of tellers. Loren had first encountered it in 1980 when visiting Joan Bodger and Dan Yashinsky. In those days it was two second floor rooms where Alice Kane was teaching an introduction to traditional storytelling class and 1001 Storytelling Nights performances. It is still offering classes, albeit in a more accessible location. It is also producing the Toronto Storytelling Festival and a variety of other story and community related projects. And the truth be told, Storytelling Toronto’s 40 plus years of promoting the narrative arts  is a model for the American School.

What about the whales you ask? The Master Class was on Wednesday and the conference officially began Thursday night, so on Thursday afternoon, Loren, Elizabeth and Noa Baum were treated to a three-hour whale watching excursion that spotted 17 Orcas in three pods, Sea Lions and Harbor Seals (the Orca’s favorite meal). Here’s a good pic of the three of us on the boat and a not so good (close) pic of Orca fins in the water.

Flounder on the Road

by Loren Niemi – May 12, 2022

We just finished twelve days on the road clocking in 3,567 miles to share four performances including three (High School, New Voices, Liar’s Contest) at the Stone Soup Storytelling Festival in Woodruff, SC and an on-line performance for the Northlands Storytelling Network’s 2022 Fringe Festival. In between and around those stories were meals, museums, and visits with friends in Richmond, VA, Brooklyn/ Manhattan, NY, Montclair/ Maplewood, NJ and Peoria, IL. 

It was a nod to the “used to be” of my years of spring tours and a reminder of what I do love about America. Even from the freeways/ tollways/ expressways, billboards and announcements of local attractions invite you to stop and look. Who wouldn’t want to wonder about Noah’s Ark Storage or Uncle Ali Baba’s House of Prime Rib? In another time I might have added stops there and back for house concerts or small storytelling workshops though for this road trip it was a hard two days driving 500 plus miles to get to South Carolina and similar long drives amid bumper to bumper traffic and road construction from Richmond to Brooklyn and Pennsylvania to Indianapolis. Even with the price of gas being what it is, it was good to see spring green.

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Reimagining Traditional Stories

by Loren Niemi – March 27, 2022

What do you remember about your favorite fairy tale? The major characters? Three pigs, a wolf… The basic plot? They build houses, the wolf blows the first two down but can’t shake the third. What else? The setting? Where were the pig’s houses? The time of year? Springtime or was it Summer? Who is telling the story?

Ahh, now there’s the first question that needs be asked about traditional tales, and personal tales as well. While most traditional tales are told in the third person (they/them), there is an argument to be made that when told in the first person (I/we) the story has more “energy” and greater emotional engagement. What is the story when told from one of the pigs or the wolf’s point of view?

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How Erotic is that?

by Loren Niemi – September 8, 2021

When we posted the description for “The Erotic in Stories” some wag commented that it was “talking about pee-pee” which probably says a lot about his proclivities but nothing about what the workshop actually is. If anything, that comment points out the need for a considered understanding about what eroticism is amid the frequent and casual misunderstandings.

We are not talking about porn. We are not talking about cliché. We are not even talking about the ordinary images of bare-chested hunks of Romance novels or the prominent busts of femme fatales of Detective/Crime covers, though they may claim it.

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Woman smoking on couch

Forgetting the Middle for a Moment

by Loren Niemi – August 7, 2021

In America we are used to stories that begin, “Once upon a time…” It is familiar and recognizable. What follows is not here and now, but some other place, some other time in which, as often as not, magic and adventure are possible. What follows is a story that proceeds to an ending which, as often as not, concludes with “Happily ever after.” It takes us out of that other time and place and returns us to the here and now. This too is a metaphor that all is well, that the world turned upside down has been righted.

“Once upon a time” and “Happily ever after” are not the only beginnings and endings of stories. There are dozens, hundreds, of culturally specific beginnings and endings but all serve the same purpose to mark a departure from the here and now into another realm. Why? It is easy to see the utility of those formula beginnings and endings in traditional stories. They are a shorthand that lets the audience suspend judgment, and enjoy the lessons, values, modeling of behaviors that are contained in the entertainment, that is the story.

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Elizabeth Ellis & Loren Niemi

Telling Difficult Stories

by Loren Niemi – June 30, 2021

John Barth (an author not much read outside of Academic enclaves these days) said: “The story of your life is not your life; it’s your story.”

I am in agreement with him on that point. The stories of my life are usually more interesting, and perhaps more meaningful, than the life that gave rise to them. I can tell over 400 stories about my life from age 5 through last week. Each of them is a mix of memory, emotion, fact and (for the sake of honesty) craft, that makes the story as Elizabeth Ellis and I often say in the Difficult Stories workshop: “truthful and artful.”

But let me elaborate on this point in relation to difficult stories in general and the Difficult Stories workshop in particular.

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The Allure of Summer Camp Ghost Stories

by Loren Niemi – June 19, 2021

There is a story I tell about camping with the boy scouts in my youth. At one point after the meal of bacon, beans and burnt potatoes, the scoutmaster has us assembled around a fire and begins to tell us a series of ghost stories. Each is more horrible than the one that preceded it and I say, “If this is the place where the insane killer slaughtered all those boys, why are we here?”

His reply was, “Niemi, you just don’t get it, do you?”

But I did. Even then I realized two things about ghost stories told around the campfire. The first that no matter where you are, some dreadful spilling of blood and guts took place. The location doesn’t matter, the story doesn’t change. It is always supposed to make you look around wondering, WTF will happen next? The second thing is that these stories are only as scary as the audience’s willing participation. No matter how we ratchet up the BG&G (blood, guts & gore) if the campers are unwilling to suspend their disbelief, unwilling to see themselves in the situation, the stories cannot offer thrills and chills.

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