Stories for grownups and older kids

The first time I told stories to adults in a performance in 1989, I was wearing silk parachute pants. I was nervous. My knees shook and my trousers shimmied. My palms were sweaty. Still, I kept the story strong in my mind and in my voice. The story I told then is one I still tell.

I grew to love performing for grownups. I mix it up, telling personal stories (often personal fiction), folktales and stories from books. My puppets stay home. I seek to connect emotionally, of course, but also to surprise the listeners, open a door to other points of view, offer shelter. I hope to delight. Often, listeners are surprised at how much they enjoy stories.

I gave a house concert not long after 9/11. One of the audience members said, "Thank you. For two hours, I wasn't thinking about world events." Often adults take stories in without showing emotion. For many performances, I thought one of my regular listeners was bored because of the way she sat, face static and arms crossed. At the end, she would come up to say, "That was great!" I now watch for this listening stillness. If the listeners are fidgeting, I consider why I'm not connecting. Maybe my story needs tightening, maybe I have left out a crucial piece of information that seemed obvious to me, maybe there's a problem with the venue.

With the advent of storytelling events such as the Moth, the general public is getting used to hearing stories for adults, specifically personal stories. Some of these are excellent, some are deadly therapy on stage. The best take a personal event and make it universal. To those who have just discovered personal storytelling, it's new. To the rest of us, it's as old as the hills.

On Tuesday, Valentine's Day 2/14/17), I'll tell true, slightly true and absolutely false stories to grownups, in a performance called "And they lived happily ever after...Or did they?" here in Lawrence, Kansas at the Union Pacific Depot at 8:00 p.m. Admission is a love offering,of course (passing the hat). Come see what I mean by stories for grownups.

On giving a lecture on storytelling in Bulgarian

I did it! Today I gave a lecture in Bulgarian at the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Studies with Ethnographic Museum (IEFSEM) here in Sofia. Some of the research I'm doing is in the archives of this institute, so I was asked about a month ago to do a presentation. Here's the invitation to the talk:

First I told a short story, then explained how it happens that I speak Bulgarian. As many of you know, I lived in Sofia in 1983-84. Sitting in the front today was my roommate from that time, Elka. The last time I saw her, before today, was 1988! We've just both been busy, but plan to meet up soon. 

I told how I became a storyteller in my job as a children's librarian in Connecticut, and about leaving that job in 1993 to be a full-time storyteller in Kansas. There is no such thing as a professional storyteller here, so I explained that I am my own boss, with my own business, and that I tell stories in schools, libraries, festivals, museums and other venues, to listeners of all ages. 

As an example, I told The Ghost with the One Black Eye first in Bulgarian, then in English.

I explained the core of storytelling, how for me it's about connection: the storyteller connects with the story and the listeners, the listeners connect with the story and the storyteller, and the listeners connect among themselves. I talked about why it's important and various applications of storytelling, and about storytelling in the US. 

From there, I moved on to my project, collecting Bulgarian folktales, primarily animal stories and trickster tales.

Of course it was time for another story. I told the first story I fell in love with in the archives, The Wedding of Bai Kotaran and Kuma Lisa. Bai Kotaran is a cat who is chased from home because he keeps eating the butter. He meets the tricky fox, Kuma Lisa and they decide to get married. The other animals get ready for the wedding, but Kuma Lisa suggests that her new husband is kind of a bad guy, so they should hide and see what he's like first. He comes to meet them, but they are hiding. He sees the boar's ear poking out of the leaves where the boar is hiding and thinks it's a mouse. He pounces, the boar squeals, Bai Kotaran jumps into the tree in fright, the bear in the oak tree throws herself out of the tree but lands on the wolf's back and an acorn falls into the rabbit's ear. All the animals run, except Bai Kotaran.

"He cut me on the ear with his sword!"

"He almost got me in the tree!"

"They hit me with a huge stone!"

"I heard the pistol. It was like a bullet in my ear!"

They agree that he really is a bad guy. They head home, disappointed not to have a big wedding feast. And Bai Kotaran and Kuma Lisa? They eat the delicious food the other animals brought and celebrate for a week.

While working on this story, I pictured Bai Kotaran as similar to my own cat, Frankie Bacon, who is being well cared for by friends Liz and Chris: 

 

I then told the audience about the widening of my Fulbright project to include encouraging a Bulgarian "storytelling renaissance." Then one more short story and questions, lots of questions. 

I've been working on this talk for the last week. I'm deeply grateful to my friend Tzveta, who helped me prepare, and to all who came to listen. While I stumbled a bit with the language, it was mostly intelligible. It was also a great challenge—and quite fun.

I think I'll sleep well tonight. 

Disclaimer: This is not an official Fulbright Program publication. The views expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations. 

Goldie

Don't worry, this isn't going to become the story poem blog. I'm on a roll, though, so here's the second in my series. Story poems don't have to be only about familiar folktales. For me, this was a natural jumping-off point. 

Jessie Wilcox Smith, Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Jessie Wilcox Smith, Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Goldie

 She saw them go out,

Bumbling, mumbling, stumbling.

Took a gamble.

What it would be like

To live another life?

Not tall, blonde and angry,

But short, dark and─

Hungry.

For porridge, clawmarks and all

For marriage and children or none.

Honey, sugar, sweetie.

Satisfied.

Dawdle into the den

Crochet hook near the ladderback,

Fishbones under the rocker,

Jug of mead by the recliner.

Relaxed.

Clamber up scarred stairs,

Drifts of fur, scuffed treads

Past the clawfoot.

To the bedrooms.

Mothballs and cedar.

Futon, feather, trundle,

Bundle

of

dreams…

Exit, pursued by a bear.

©Priscilla Howe 2014

 

Comments? Which familiar stories would you like to see a poem about?

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!

What's on the other side?

(Warning: this is a thinly veiled effort to link my home-grown produce to storytelling. I apologize in advance for the strained metaphor.)

This summer, I have a volunteer cantaloupe growing in my garden. I've eaten one small melon already and yesterday picked this second. It looks like a regular melon, a little rougher for being organic.

I started thinking about how we take things at face value. "Here's the story." That's it. Here's the cantaloupe. Sometimes, though, we look at the other side, taking the story from a different character's point of view or veering off in another direction. Authors such as Gregory Maguire in Wicked or Jon Scieszka in The True Story of the Three Little Pigs do this.

I've been working on a new program, which includes a folktale connected to King Lear. The program is a set of stories, versions of which inspired Shakespeare's plays (more on the program in a later post). I'm telling Cap O'Rushes, a Cinderella variant, that begins with the king asking his three daughters how much they love him, just as in King Lear. Rather than going on with the life of the king and the elder daughters, Cap O'Rushes tells the story of the exiled youngest. It looks at the other side.  

This ties in with the story preparation step of getting at the backstory, in order to understand the unspoken aspects of a tale, and to telling the story from another character's point of view or continuing a thread of a side story away from the original. In doing so, the original is changed in my mind. I hadn't realized I'd be doing that not as story prep but as the story itself in this particular program. I love it! One of the joys of being a storyteller lies in playing with possibility.

Here's the other side of the cantaloupe: 

Looks like a happy hedgehog, doesn't it? Maybe I should be writing about the Grimm tale Hans, my hedgehog instead of Cap O'Rushes.

You do WHAT?!

My friend Granny Sue is organizing a storytelling blog hop (the internet answer to a pub crawl?) and she asked for blog posts about who we are and what we do. If you're a family member or old friend, you probably know this stuff, but it occurs to me that many readers don't know my background or the range of what I do. So here goes...

On a plane, at a party, in a networking gathering or in many other places, the question comes up. "And what do you do?"

"I'm a storyteller." 

"What? What does that mean?"

"Well, I tell stories." I launch in, "I tell folktales, my own stories and stories from books. I don't read the stories, I tell them. When I work with young children, I use puppets, but I also tell stories to adults and older kids." 

The next question is often, "Can you make a living at that?" Yes, I have done so since 1993. 

"How do you get your work?" I jump into the list of things I use to market my work: this website and blog, directories and rosters, postcards, e-mails and my favorite, word of mouth. 

"How did you start?" I have a couple of answers. One is that I babysat when I was a teenager and would make up stories to tell to the kids. Another is that I was a children's librarian and learned to tell stories in my job. I always tell people how lucky I am to do work I love. 

Still, these answers don't ever tell close to the whole story.

You can find me telling stories in schools, libraries and at festivals. I tell for kids who are learning English, you can find me hanging out with the stroller crowd with puppets, I might be at a school telling character ed stories, I love telling stories in Juvenile Detention, I've told stories to high school communications classes and forensics students, I teach a workshop (or series) called "Storytelling, Storywriting." Before performances for kids, I often play "Name that tune" with the listeners, playing on my harmonica. Afterwards, the puppets might greet the audience.

Is that all? Nah. I tell Medieval stories to older kids and adults, including The Romance of Tristan and Iseult, my longest story, which clocks in at 95 minutes, and Queen Berta and King Pippin, which I translated from Old French and Modern French. I was one of three co-founders of Going Deep, the Long Traditional Story Retreat. Last week I did a one-woman show for adults called Blood, Guts, Spies and Fat Naked Ladies, a wild piece of personal fiction based on truth about the year I lived in Bulgaria in the early 1980s (yup, during Communism). I've got a large collection of stories of the Turkish trickster Nasruddin Hodja, most of which I translated from various languages.

What else? I coach storytellers, I teach workshops on using puppets with young children, story stretches and songs, storytelling, writing. More? Oh, right, I give house concerts, conference presentations and keynote speeches, too. Weddings and anniversaries? Yessiree.

When not performing, I search for stories in English, French, Bulgarian and Russian or do (or avoid) office work. I travel around the world (all over the US, Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, Brazil, Mexico, Peru and Argentina to date, with an upcoming trip to Chile) telling stories. 

Some of the personal stuff: I'm a reader, a talker, an adventurer. Though I live in Kansas, I'm a New Englander at heart, the youngest of seven kids. I love to cook, eat, play around in the garden, hang out with friends, listen to music, swim, walk. I have a four-legged office assistant who is meowing at me now to feed him. 

I also like pie. I'm still looking for the best restaurant pie on earth. Fruit, not cream.

Nasruddin and the sheep's head

Here's another story about the trickster Nasruddin Hodja. Or Nasreddin. Or Nastradin Odzha. Or Saradin. Or Hoca Nasrudin. Or Mullah Nasredin. Or Juha. There are lots of variations on the name, as well as lots of variations on the stories. Try putting the stress on the -din, not on on the -ru-. This one is from Croatia.

Nasruddin and the sheep's head 

When he was a little boy, Nasrudin's father gave him some money to buy a roast sheep's head.  On his way home, Nasrudin ate the whole thing.  He arrived with just the skullbone.
"What is that head, my son?"
"It's a sheep's head."
"Where are the ears, then?"
"The poor thing, it was deaf."
"Where are its eyes?"
"Unfortunately, it was blind."
"Where is the tongue?"
"The miserable animal had none."
"There's no meat on its face."
"It was very skinny, had the mange."
"Well, why on earth did you buy it?"
"It has good teeth."
"And so do you!" said his father.