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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.”
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.