Wednesday, December 12, 2018

New Year, New Start - getting there

Ho ho ho
Many things have happened this year and a few challenges and changes have come and gone.

Dwali, Halloween, Hanukkah, have passed by and Christmas and Kwanzaa are fast approaching. I have moved a lot of my website, blogging and email services around after having issues and find myself dancing between the old and the new as I try out these newer services. I have performed at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN and been invited, as a result, to two other large festivals! Under the Oaken Bough was published and released by Parkhurst Brothers in April, and my Gilgamesh CD won a gold awards from Parent's Choice the same month. One of my children went off to college, the other is getting through the last year of middle school (yikes)! A lot has been happening.
I guest hosted a few podcast episodes for Rachel Ann Harding's StoryStory Podcast, a wonderful show featuring some of the best traditional storytellers in the world. I have followed Ann's work for a while and have been to her workshop on podcasts and been working on my own. Her work is top notch.

Working on the podcast!
A number of years ago we lost Brother Blue, then Diane Wolkstein, Sid Leiberman and some other storytellers and friends I have a great deal of respect for. Thinking on these losses, I wanted to create a podcast of interviews with some of the tellers who were part of the 1970's and early 1980's storytelling revival of the traditional art form. I am not interviewing those who tell personal stories, but instead those people who tell the old folk and fairy tales, myths, legends and yes, fractured fairy tales too. I interviewed the legendary Jay O'Callahan who really tells tales he has created himself, but I see these as fairy tales of a similar vein as Hans Christian Anderson. Jay is a master storyteller, a storytellers storyteller. As I have asked "who inspired you?" of some of the guests, it is more than once people have said - Jay!
Why do this, I have been asked by a few? 'There is such a small audience who might be interested in this what's the point?' The point is, for me, these people are walking libraries of folk tales. When they are gone we might have books and CDs, obituaries, reminisces, but no real idea of who these people are, what made them tick. I wanted to talk to these people and get their story in their own words and voices. To hear them laugh, and share thoughts and memories, ideals, wishes even. I know some of these people, some better than others. Some are my friends and mentors. Others I have only talked to via email - until the privilege of talking to them for these interviews. This will be a finite series. I have a list of people I want to talk to. I have already recorded Elizabeth Ellis, the Godmother of storytelling. Laura Simms, who some have called a shaman. Jay, Donna Washington, Megan Hicks and Papa Joe Gaudet. Bobby Norfolk and Odds Bodkin have said 'yes' to being interviewed, I am talking with Jim May and Tim Jennings, Diane Edgecombe and Elisa Pearmain in hopes to get their stories. All of these folks are "famous" or at least well-known and respected deeply in the world of storytelling. My list is much longer than here.
Performing at Jonesborough
I am creating this podcast through Buzzsprout and Patreon. Keep an ear out for it and let me know what you think. It's called "Conversations with Storytellers:  Wisdom, folk and fairy tales from our elders. A meeting with professional storytellers."
In this ever changing world there is and hopefully always will be great stories told by great people. My guests are some of our pioneers.

As the year winds down, I want to thank you all your support over the years, for reading, listening, booking me, sending me ideas and requests. Thanks for following me, sending me corrections for my website (I am very thankful for that!), and being one of my fans. All is greatly appreciated.

I hope this year has been as productive and exciting for you as it has been for me. And I hope great things happen for you in 2019, when it gets here!

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

National Storytelling Festival, 2018

This was my first time to visit the National Storytelling Festival, and my first visit to Jonesborough, TN. Leading up to the event, I was nervous as I was going to perform as part of the Exchange Place. This is where six storytellers got a twelve minute slot to tell a tale in front of a lot of people. The tent (one of five at the festival) holds 1,200 bodies. It’s been a while since I have been performing before so many people. The last time was back in my twenties when I was sat behind a drum kit!

I tried out the stage to get a feel when I first got there. The second time was at the sound check. After a day of listening to other people tell stories, it was time for me to get ready to tell my story.
I needed a shower as the weather was in the mid to upper 80’s and humid. I was also about to don my three piece suit and Converse low-tops. College Tent, when I got there, was filling up. Other storytellers were in the audience, along with a thousand other people. I saw friends, and people I know. Folks I have respect for, people I have not seen in ages. This was quite a crowd.
Rachel Ann
Myself and the other tellers took another go at the stage to take it in, I stood beneath and looked over the faces before getting seated. Geraldine took the stage and began. First up was Willa Brigham, a sassy, take-charge teller filled with wit and full-on stage presence. She told a story about her passion of hats. This may not sound interesting, but it was so funny and lively she had the audience in her hand. Next up was my friend and colleague Rachel Ann Harding. She and I were telling folk tales and Rachel Ann told the most wonderful version of the Corpse Bride I have heard. Creepy in places, funny in spots and filled with compassion. Brilliant job. Nestor Gomez followed Rachel Ann with an impassioned performance about his coming to America as an undocumented child and becoming a citizen. I think it was one of the most powerfully told stories I saw over the weekend. This did not mean Jessica Piscitellli Robinson could not follow Nestor with her story. Oh no. Her personal narrative about overcoming fear and crappy boyfriends hit it out of the park too. Her story hit home.
I followed with one of my favourite stories - The Song Unsung, Story Untold. I had had doubts about telling this story. It is a low-key story, a quiet story. Would this work at this event, especially fit between two personal stories? I had had a long conversation with another friend and colleague Sheila Arnold, a fabulous storyteller on the way down. With all the nerves I was having doubts and was thinking of switching stories. Sheila’s words were magic and I am glad I did not change plans. The story went down
really well.
Following me was the extremely funny and talented Paul Strickland. He tells wonderful tall tales, and is a natural liar - so it seems. He tells those tales that folks who love Bil Lepp enjoy and I loved his piece. Standing on the stage with all these folks was incredible and an honour. Especially when we got a standing ovation and could see the tent was filled to capacity. What a night. And it wasn’t over.
After changing clothes I rushed down to
listen to Joseph Bruchac, Elizabeth Ellis, Bobby Norfolk, Anne Rutherford and Shelia Arnold tell ghost stories. What a cast, and what stories. Some were so creepy chills went up my spine, others made the audience jump, but Sheila Arnold’s closer was my favourite. She told an historical ghost story of enslaved people escaping a cruel master and the way things sometimes happen in a swamp. I get the shudders just writing about it.
If you have never thought about going to the Jonesborough National Storytelling Festival, and love storytelling in all it's forms, you should go. It is an incredible experience.
This photo taken by the remarkable and wonderful Donna Washington

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Unintentional Magic

There is much talk about what we do in the work of ‘healing’ as storytellers. I think we can help people. But unless we are also trained therapists or psychologists, not simply storytellers, we need to be very careful in the realm of things like "stories for addiction" or "stories for veterans."  If we are not trained or qualified, and are not a vet or addict (for example), really we have no idea what could be the 'right' story. In fact we might even think a story that would be ‘good for a veteran event’ turns out to be triggering instead. We need to remind ourselves that we are storytellers, entertainers. We need to know why we are telling a story and if we have the right to tell it. The motives need to be authentic. This is an art and craft.
I do believe in gut instinct and if a story cries out to be told (not from ego, but from that place within - the story as the petulant child – me, me, me), or the story you planned on telling does not seem right anymore, then to listen to that voice, that inner (or outer) guide.
Although stories can help (unless we are trained, as I said) we are not therapists. We are entertainers, as I see it. The fact that our craft can lighten the load, can help people see through an issue they might be having is secondary. I love being told, as I am sure everyone who tells tales does, that a teacher has never seen this or that child laugh before. And at the same time that is really saddening. It makes my day when someone comes up after a performance and says: "that story really helped me...” But it was not me, it was the story, and when this happens, it was not because I had a plan, other than – I think this would be a great story today. No other motive, just a great story to tell.
I know we suggest tales to one another. It's what we do. As a colleague said, we should be doing due diligence and asking if there are any 'off topics' which could be triggering, and leaving those stories at home. I believe we should not be finding which are the right tales to tell. If we do our due diligence, make sure we leave out stories which could trigger and tell stories we love, then maybe we will heal someone along the way. And that is what is wonderful about what we do: we can create unintentional magic.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Public Speaking in Seven Steps (well, maybe eight) – Seen from a storytellers perspective

Public speaking is just like storytelling. When I talk about storytelling, I mean the traditional kind – telling the ancient stories, word of mouth. Not filmmakers, not playwrights, not poets or novelists, not script writers or directors, but oral storytellers. Storytellers, raconteurs, a maître conte, cuentista, conteur or griot will all stand before an audience and without a script, piece of paper, or screen of some kind, will tell stories. View public speaking as a skill you probably not only have, but one you can hone. And public speaking should not be seen as an exercise in humiliation. It is an opportunity to show off your best work or skills, and you know it better than anyone else – or else, why would you be asked to do this?

1.    With any presentation, tell a story in the most direct way. This does not mean read bullet points. It means leaving out what’s boring or irrelevant, but retaining what is essential to the story, builds a necessary picture, or is entertaining. Make sure the sequence of what you are talking about is understandable!
2.    People want to be entertained. It doesn’t matter if you are talking about a new product, tips on selling, discussing a project, presenting your homework, sharing how people have been healed, or how to act. Entertain. I am not talking about writing a comedy skit. Simply inject a bit of humor. It will add a human touch. Find things to include in a presentation that is personal, and relevant - something that the audience can identify with. If it is a product, then make fun of something that happens to older versions or problems it or similar products have had in the past. If you are talking about acting, make fun of gaffs you have made, or reactions from audience members. Your audience should know about these sorts of things, and can usually identify with them. This creates empathy and a rapport with the audience.
3.    Practice. Make notes, read them out loud, and listen to how it sounds. If you can record yourself, do so. Listen to how you sound. Are you getting your point across? Are you going to confuse the audience? What can you do (add, remove) to your presentation which will make it clearer, more concise and understandable? Is it all relevant to what you want to achieve?
4.    Practice more. Get rid of your notes. Once you have read through your notes or script a few times, you will know what to say. Practice in front of someone who knows nothing about what you are about to present. Ask them if there were parts which were unclear or confusing. Fix that. Unless you are an actor or have total recall, you will not remember every word, every line. So create bullet points of your presentation and work from those. Then lose the written word all together. I believe if you miss something out it will not be hugely important. And if it is, it will come back to you. Add it to your presentation as soon as you can.
5.    Embrace your case of nerves. It means you are truly alive, that you are at your most alive! The feelings you get, butterflies (or alligators), pounding heart, shaking, this is your body telling you you are ready. It is that feeling warriors get before battle. You might not be going into battle, but your body is quite possibly feeling the same thing. You have practiced, rehearsed, trained (or at least prepared yourself properly) for this moment.
6.    Speak slowly when you present. Really slowly. Tortoise slow. If you think you are speaking too slowly, you are most likely speaking at an intelligible speed. If you think you are speaking at a ‘normal’ speed, you are probably speaking way too fast for the audience. If you find yourself galloping, stop. Your breathing will clue you into this. Stop. Take a deep breath. Smile and look around but think of what you are talking about – stay focused. Then continue. Believe me - there are times when I get into what I am talking about, I get excited and start to speak too quickly. So I stop. I take a deep breath. I might say: “Let me repeat that.” Or “As I was saying.” If someone happened to miss what I had said, I am providing it again.
7.    If you do miss something out, as mentioned above, you will not be the first to do so. Every public speaker has missed a bit, or forgotten part of their presentation at some point. If someone says they have never done this, don’t believe them. Add the missing part when you can. Don’t say something like: “Oh, I forgot this bit!” Simiply add the missing part. If you have practiced enough, you will know what to say to create a segue which will sound okay, if not great. And most people will not notice. I missed a huge section of a story out once, and when I realized this, I thought quickly (still telling the story) about where the best place to add it would be. No one realized. And I am not the only person to have done this.

There are things to avoid.
Don’t read bullet points. If you are using slides don’t read them, but add to what is already on the screen. Make it interesting, raise a relevant point, inject a bit of humor, or that human touch. This will mean keeping what is written on the screen to a minimum. The audience don’t want to see you can read off a slide you wrote. They want your knowledge and/or experience. If you can use images instead of words on the slide all the better. The words you speak and the image should complement each other and build on what is being talked about. The two together should be stronger, not the same.
Don’t just present you work, show your work, talk about it. If you are showing off artwork, or photos of things you have done, don’t tell people about the image, they can see it. Explain the image, yes, but talk about it, add to it. How did you get there, create the image, why? What had the impact for you as an artist? What inspired it? In this day and age most people can find your work on-line and they do not want a repeat, but they want an insight into the work and you. It is similar with sales. Talk about the product or stats, show images of it. Make it a human experience – connect the product to how people will benefit from it, what it can do that no others can. If it’s your homework, show the class and teacher you learned from the project, or research. Inject humor into it – “Did the Greek gods REALLY do that? And no one complained? (Sounds like some school teachers!)” Maybe leave out the bit about the teachers.
Don’t brag. Don’t pretend you know it all. No one does. We should always be learning. Share your failings. Show you are human, and that mistakes are what make us stronger. If someone in the audience is new to what you do, it can be helpful for them to know even the experts failed when they first began, and still make mistakes – hopefully fewer. Your listeners will have more empathy with you, you become a real person, and therefore are more relatable. This is another place where you can make people be more comfortable by laughing at yourself. Maybe it’s that self-deprecating Englishman in me!

8.    My last piece of advice is this: Have fun. Enjoy what you are doing. The nerves will leave soon after you start, and you will be in the moment. If you are having fun, those with you will be having fun. If you love what you are talking about, this will come across and people will feel that.

© Simon Brooks, 2018

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Gilgamesh and Under the Oaken Bough

I admit that I have been a little slack on blogging. In fact so slack on blogging I have not mentioned two very exciting things:
My CD The Epic of Gilgamesh which I released last year has been awarded a Gold Award by Parents' Choice this April. I am thrilled and overjoyed. A lot of work and research went into this audiobook/CD/album/recording and at this point in time it is the one I am most proud of. I am hoping to get it in book form at some point with illustrations by my son Aidan.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu by S Aidan Brooks, copyright 2018
The other wonderful bit of news is that my book is out! It was released on April 1st when the shops were shut - it was a Sunday. Under the Oaken Bough is a collection of seventeen folk and fairy tales - some old favourites, some more hard-to-find tales. They are retold in the style of my live telling and was quite the challenge. Odds Bodkin called them 'wonderfully irreverent.' I loved that.
The illustrations are by my old friend Rob Brookes. Those of you who have some of my CDs will know Rob's name as he has done all of my storytelling CD cover artwork. He has done the cover art for the book, created art for the holding page of each story, and helped with the book's layout and design. The pictures are true works of art. Personally there are a couple I would have blown up and framed on my walls.
Anansi by Rob Brookes, copyright 2018
The book is aimed at middle school readers and I did not dumb it down. When my publisher, Parkhurst Brothers, suggested I changed some of the words, I suggested a lexicon, or vocabulary list at the back of the book instead. I am thrilled to say Ted Parkhurst agreed. So readers can enjoy rich language and learn at the same time without having to get on a device or look for a dictionary. There are notes at the end of each story telling the sources, the story type, and my thoughts on it. There is also a section called "Tips on Telling" to help not just young readers get into storytelling, but also to assist teachers, librarians, grandparents - anyone - who wants to be able to tell stories. And there is an author Q&A. (A little secret - writers are asked to come up with their own questions and answer them! Shh. Don't tell anyone!) And not only all that, but you will also get this! A suggested reading list of books to help you learn about and how to 'story tell' and great resource books.
Here's one of Rob's illustrations from the book. If you would like a copy of the book it can be found or ordered from your local brick and mortar book shop, or at any other book seller. It can also be purchased on-line in physical or digit format. If you see me performing anywhere ( I will also have copies of the book to sell and sign along with most of my CDs.
I hope this finds you well. Drop me a line with your favourite story.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

March - Read Across America month

I have read two somewhat heavy books and a fun one so far this year. I began the year with Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. I love the story, the writing, the book. I immediately followed this with The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley. What a book that is. Having lived in the USA for over twenty five years, and have put a son through the school system (college next year), and have a daughter who is in middle school i find it hard to believe that the latter of these two books are not required reading, or at least parts of it. The book, when it began to be put together, was to be about the life of Malcolm X, but during the process of completing the book his life changed.
Malcolm X (Madam Tussauds), Simon Brooks 2018
Everyone's life changes, but to see it (as it were) as it happens is incredible. The book of Malcolm Little's life was mostly about his life of crime, and redemption when he found The Nation of Islam. But this changed when Malcolm X discovered cover-ups in the Nation of Islam, and decided to visit the Middle East and Africa. He went to discover true Islam (I am no expert), but this changed his view point to hating the White Devil, to understanding that not all white men are devils. This shift in his life is captured as it happened, along with threats from the Nation of Islam. An urgency comes to the book as Malcolm X tells Haley about these death threats, and about his work with other nations and his diplomatic meetings with heads of state in the Middle East and in some African countries. He seems to be gathering his thoughts, formulating a way to peace, a way to truly bring equality to the USA. There are also hints that he and Martin Luther King Jr. might end up working together, but of course both great men were shot to death. I have to wonder how different America would be today if they were both alive. I think we would be living in a very different world, but of course this is all conjecture!

Revisiting Led Zeppelin's 'Physical Graffiti' LP cover, NYC, 2018
I finished reading the Autobiography on the day of Malcolm's murder, in 1965. Then this week in New York City, I went to the Natural History Museum. One of the exhibits I like is the Egyptian exhibit. Malcolm X talks about the art he finds in Egypt and other African countries, and he describes the real art of these people which came from 2,500 B.C.E. while Europe was still 'rubbing sticks together'. The art in the Egyptian exhibit is a small sample of the remarkable work done by artisans 5,000 and more years ago. Yet there were people not that long ago who said Africans could not have made such amazing art. Human beings are a strange race. The stories we can tell each other are sometimes remarkable.

The other book I read was in preparation to recording it - Tangled Magick by Jennifer Carson. This is the sequel to  Hapenny Magick, the first audio book I recorded. I am looking forward to revisiting some of the characters and bringing them back to life in this new story. I will keep you posted. Jenn is also pretty exited about it!

The next book I am diving into is Giovanni Boccaccio's 1300's masterpiece, The Decameron. I am very much looking forward to this. Not sure I will get across America with this book, but who knows!

What are you reading this month? What have you read so far this year? I would love to hear from you.

Be the change, be a positive force in the lives of those around you.

Your storyteller,
Simon Brooks

We are responsible for the world in which we find ourselves, if only because we are the only sentient force which can change it. - James Baldwin

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The end of 2017 is nigh!

I hope your year has been full of splendor and joy, or at the very least had a very liberal sprinkling, or generous coating of both! Outside the wind is whipping over the recent snow fall. When we had the first snow fall, it was like hunks of butter on warm bread to mostly sink into the ground, but leaving coverings in places. The next big fall we had was like a layer of thick white marmalade - it was sticky, and not going anywhere.

The snowfall before Christmas was like a blanket wrapped around a child, gently covering everything, heavy and silent helping to bring the sleep of winter. It now lies everywhere. It has pushed trees over, some old-timers leaning against their still upright siblings, as they support it lovingly, moaning gently in the wind - the only sound, it seems, in the woods apart from the stream. There is ice over the streams and brooks now; commuters of black pockets of air can be seen rushing downstream, shape-shifting as they go. Moe jumps in and out of depths of white powder, taking delight in the now easily spotted squirrels and chipmunks, dark and dashing against the white. She tries to beat them to their tree hideout but has yet to catch one!

The trees were not totally denuded of foliage when the snow came and with the wind that has been visiting, these leaves lie in abundance on the surface of white. Pine trees have been ejecting cones both large and tiny. Other trees have spat out their own seeds in preparation for spring. Red berried bushes, stand out against the background of white snow and evergreens.

Photo by Simon, copyright 2017
It's been a busy year, and it is not yet over! There are many things I am thankful for over the last 12.

Looking at the calendar I have thus far completed 88 performances at 77 venues, worked with Doug Lipman for the sound at this year's Sharing the Fire - the Northeastern Storytelling Conference, told at Dawnlands Festival, and presented workshops and told stories at the Northlands Storytelling Confabulation, completed a book for publication next year, been the headline at the White Mountain Storytelling Festival, contributed to two of the four issues of Storytelling Magazine, and written and recorded a full retelling of Gilgamesh, for middle school aged kids and up.

It's been a fun year and I have met some great people on my travels.

Working with the sound system for STF with Doug Lipman was probably the most challenging and stressful of all. Going to a gig of my own and not making the sound sound good is one thing, to be responsible for the sound of others is daunting. People pay good money to enjoy, learn and HEAR others at Sharing the Fire, and making sure people were heard well was our job. I think Doug and I both learned a lot from this experience. We were very happy we visited the venue and tested the sound equipment a couple of months before the weekend, and ironed out the kinks we found. Practice, practice, practice! One thing I learned is that Doug is great to work with.

The organizers and people I met in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin were wonderful. The feeling there at the Confabulation is very welcoming and family-like. Although a smaller version of STF it is every bit as full and good. The presentations and storytelling were superb. I learned from many people here in WI and I am grateful for that.
I was thrilled to be performing at the White Mountain Storytelling Festival in Waterville Valley, New Hampshire back in September. Although I was the main feature, or headliner, there were a lot more storytellers sharing their own tales, too and I was able to see many of them. This is a great weekend of stories, and more stories, and even more stories. From ghost tales on Friday night, to the sacred stories on Sunday morning, there is someone to hear. If you like to hear stories, then this is a great festival to go to.

Artwork by Aidan Brooks copyright 2017
My work on Gilgamesh was a lot of fun, and a lot of work. As when I dived into the Ramayana (pronounced Ram-EYE-an) a few years ago, I totally immersed myself into the Sumerian epic of the king of Uruk. Figuring out a way to tell the story and make it "fun" for tweens and young adults, yet appropriate and authentic was a challenge. I knew I wouldn't make a scholarly version of the tale, yet I wanted to stay as close to the original as I possibly could. I think I succeeded and from what I have heard back, I seems I did! And I loved the illustrations Aidan did for the book.

Not sure what's in store for 2018. Under the Oaken Bough will be published by Parkhurst Brothers sometime in the spring. This collection of folk and fairy tales is a little gem with eighteen stories, an author Q & A, vocab list, and tips-on-telling section. The stories were written as I tell them - as best as they can be in written form! I am hoping that I will be able to get The Epic of Gilgamesh, a retelling, printed and in book form during 2018, and a new kids/family CD out. It's been way too long. And I have plans for a podcast - still! But they are much closer to happening now! I have conducted some interviews with other storytellers, and have recorded a few stories for it, but need to get more done and then get it edited.

Anyway, I hope the year for you has been filled with wonder and you have had time to smell the roses!

I raise my glass (of spicy hot chocolate) and offer a toast to a successful and harmonious New Year.
Here's to 2018!