Advice on telling jump tales

When I tell stories to older kids, I often start with a jump tale. You know, the kind of story where there is a sudden bit that makes the listeners jump. Afterwards, the kids usually turn to each other to laugh and talk about the jump. In order to bring them back to a place where they can listen, I give advice on how to tell these stories. Here's a clip from a show at a school in Quito, Ecuador last month, thanks to videographer Sandro Rota.

Staying healthy on the road

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I love performance tours. I am deeply thankful to do this work and for the privilege of traveling to do it (thanks, DreamOn Productions!). I'm writing from Costa Rica, where I'm telling stories for a week. Last week I was performing in Ecuador. (I promise to post pictures soon.)

Alas, I have a headcold. I work hard to stay healthy, especially on international tours, but sometimes I succumb to germs. 

A couple of weeks before I leave for an overseas trip, I start taking echinacea and goldenseal, to boost my immune system. I also take Vitamin D. I pack these, along with multivitamins, ibuprofen, Pepto-Bismol, anti-diarrheal pills, night-time and day-time cold medicine, sinus rinse packs and my neti pot, bandaids, antibiotic ointment, tweezers, Tiger balm and zinc lozenges. 

On top of this pharmacopeia, I drink lots of water. Lots of water. This is the best way to keep my voice in shape, along with vocal warm-up exercises before performances. If I feel throat irritation, I buy lozenges at local pharmacies and health food stores. I'm partial to those made with propolis and honey. I also buy ginger, lemon and honey, which I simmer to make a soothing drink. It's good hot or cold. I find out if the country I'm going to has safe water. If not, I drink bottled or boiled water only. Yes, I have Pepto-bismol, but if I'm careful, I may not need it. 

I try to wash my hands frequently. I tend to forget hand sanitizer, maybe because I don't like the way it feels. Maybe if I'd used it, I wouldn't have gotten this particular cold. Then again, it wouldn't have stopped the person sneezing and coughing on me on the airplane on the way to Costa Rica.

At the first sign of a cold, I take zinc lozenges. Sometimes they can keep a cold at bay. Or at least that's what I tell myself. Warning: don't take them on an empty stomach. They can make you feel nauseous. I do that revolting sinus rinse a couple of times a day so a simple cold doesn't turn into a sinus infection. I've been lucky not to lose my voice on these tours--the only thing you can do in that case is not talk. Yikes!

After a day of work, usually four performances, I take a nap. I like to get a walk in at some point. I also go to bed early--it's important to save my energy for the school sessions. 

Oh, yes, and that's sunscreen in the picture. In Ecuador especially the sun is strong. Sunscreen is essential. Wear it.

Bringing old stories to light

[This blog post was first published on the National Storytelling Network blog in May 2014]

What is that? See it, down there, under ages of dust and grime, just a glint of gold? Pick it up, use your shirttail to wipe it off. Wow! What a marvel! Needs a bit of cleaning, polishing, maybe a small repair or two, but it’s all there, a new story from the depths of tradition.

I’ve found great satisfaction in bringing old stories to light, specifically (though not limited to) long-form traditional stories. I started with Tristan and Iseult, not a terribly obscure story but one that is rarely told. In a remainder bin at a bookstore, I’d found a paperback edition by Joseph Bédier. One day while casting about in my office for a new story to tell, I picked it up and read it in one gulp.

Despite an archaic quality to the written language, I fell in love with this epic tale of good luck, bad choices, giants, dragons, fools, betrayal and of course, Romance. Call me fickle, but I later fell in love with another Medieval tale, Queen Berta and King Pippin, and now have a dalliance with Amleth, better known to audiences since the 1590s as Hamlet.

Falling in love with the story, though, is only the first step. From there, we have to go farther, to create a story worth telling and worth hearing. Long-form traditional stories, generally at least an hour long and sometimes much longer, can be a rewarding challenge.

How do you tackle a long traditional story? What are the cultural considerations? How do you craft the language for modern audiences without jarring them or boring them? What do you do with conflicting versions? How do you practice the story? How do you break the work into manageable bits? How do you find the stamina for the performance? Where are the venues for stories like this? Will people really listen? What works? Those are questions we’ll consider in my workshop this summer at the National Storytelling Network Conference in Phoenix, Bringing Old Tales to Light: Long-Form Traditional Stories.

Many years ago, Liz Warren, Olga Loya and I started Going Deep, the long traditional storytelling retreat, because we wanted to tell long-form stories and play with the questions they raise. We found many storytellers who yearned to tell and hear this kind of deep story, but didn’t know where to start. We found storytellers who already tell long traditional tales and wanted a place to perform them and to talk about the process. We can’t cram an entire retreat into a workshop session, but we can at least catch a glimpse of that gold under the dust and grime. Hope to see you in Arizona!

Storytelling house concerts

Picture this: seventeen or eighteen grownups and older kids sitting comfortably in a living room, some on sofas, some in armchairs, some on kitchen chairs, a few relaxing on cushions on the floor, all listening to stories, then chatting about their own stories or about how the art of storytelling is not lost. A dog or two snore nearby. Every now and then somebody gets up quietly to graze at the table of goodies in the kitchen or to fill a glass. Maybe there's a break in the stories for snacks or maybe the performance runs for an hour or even more with no break. Maybe there are two or three storytellers tag-teaming. When the guests leave, they linger at the door to talk more about the evening and the connections that were made. They ask to be kept on the list for the next house concert.

That's the flavor of a storytelling house concert, in my experience. 

Here are some other considerations when planning a house concert, whether you're the storyteller or the host.

  • Find a place for the storyteller to stand or sit where the sight lines are best.
  • If guests have hearing issues, use a sound system. I know, it's a living room, but of course you want everyone to be able to hear.
  • Invite more guests than you think will come, at least the first time, as some adults think they might not like storytelling. The second time, they are sure they do like storytelling and they talk it up everywhere. 
  • Be clear in the invitations about the age range of listeners (that is, if young kids are welcome).
  • Send out invitations about three weeks in advance, with a reminder the week before. Facebook works well for invitations.
  • If the storyteller is performing near the front door, provide an alternate entry for guests who arrive late. At my house, I ran Christmas lights from the front door to the back, with a sign requesting late-comers to follow the lights, in order to avoid interruptions.
  • If the house concert is really a garden concert or a campfire concert, discuss this with the storyteller. 
  • Let guests know in advance if they will be expected to pay or contribute in some way. You may have a set fee, you may pass the hat, or the program might be free. The performer and host will arrange this in advance.
  • Potluck? Perhaps. Unless the house concert is at my own house, I don't provide the food or drinks, just the stories. One good friend had the house concert catered. Yum!
  • Have fun.

I love performing at house concerts! If you're in the Kansas City area and would like to host one, let me know. If you're a storyteller who gives house concerts, feel free to leave your tips in the comments section.