Thursday, June 23, 2022

The State of Mind

 This is a ten minute read

Back in April 2022, as you may or may not have read, I had what I felt was my first real gig back in-person for a long time. It was certainly the first time since March 2020 where I was not 20 feet from the first row. It was certainly the first time since March 2020 where most folks were maskless and I was not wearing a mask, or a face shield. It was the first time I had had three large presentations to different groups of kids since the pandemic began. There was this wonderful, euphoric feeling of togetherness. It felt like a normal presentation – well three! The kids had been prepped on behaviour, there was some silliness, as it was the first event at the school with “an outsider” since March 2020, and it all felt wonderful and thrilling!

Since then, I have done a number of other first events as a visiting guest. Some have gone really well, others have been a little challenging. I am writing this because there are some folks, some performers out there who have not physically visited, in-person, a venue since March 2020, and things, I believe, have changed since then.

The amount of time people have been actively engaged in technology – screen time since the pandemic began, the amount of time people have been distracted by virtual meetings and calls, children who need help, and not being able to go outside and play to a large degree, has been huge, and at the end of the day many of us just vegged in front of a box or device. This has had a severe effect on not just kids, but everyone. I think we need to participate in a lot less digital engagement. AND I THINK WE NEED TO ADDRESS THIS WITH PARENTS AND CARE GIVERS WHEN WE HAVE ACCESS TO THEM! We need to take time out for ourselves as humans, to disengage from digital content and seriously get back to analogue.

 


I am not a Luddite! I am NOT calling for people to throw out their devices, or run into schools and businesses and destroy computers and the like! I am suggesting that we step away from them for a while, go on a digital vacation, to some degree! Put devices in a time-out box!

I have been in schools on and off since the pandemic began, and since the beginning of 2022, have been regularly back in, in-person and I am seeing a difference in child behavior. This is at the elementary level, and middle school level. I am also seeing this with my own high school aged daughter and her friends - she is 17 and will start her final year of high school at the end of the summer. When I originally posted this as a letter to listservs I am on, I have heard back from others, including Milbre Burch who said: “I’ve seen what you describe from first graders to Masters students.”

I have presented Gilgamesh to sixth graders at a local school many times prior to 2019. The kids were spellbound by the story (and hopefully the telling). I presented it (at the same school) virtually, via streaming media during COVID. Because it was streamed, I have no real idea of how students were engaged those two years.

This April of 2022, I took Gilgamesh back to the school, in-person, in front of 6th graders. Same school with the same teachers, although in a different space. The reception was totally different. Lack of focus, getting up, whispering to friends next to each other were all happening which never happened in 2019 and the years prior to that. I had worked on Gilgamesh, probably more this year than in the past, and put a lot more work into being as engaging as possible, both with physicality and with word choices. And dramatic action! What I found was that the 'same' 6th grade students were behaving like 4th graders.

This is not my only experience this year. I have been into a number of schools, and performed at community events and found, to more or less a similar extent, children, students in elementary and middle school, have little attention span at all. I put a lot of this down to being remote for two years; having parents working from home, trying to work and engage the kids, and help them where possible. I imagine there was a lot of  - go play on your device, go watch a movie. Being stuck indoors for much of the first year, there was little play, little reading, just a lot of screen time. Habit forming, addictive screen time.

 


By doing what we do, analogue storytelling in front of warm bodies, we need to start with shorter stories, build up to longer ones, get the span of attention longer, larger, more resilient. The attention muscle has atrophied! It needs retraining. I believe we need to tell folks to read to their kids more often. Start with short stories, get into longer ones, combine stories. Heck, read them anything they will listen to. Discuss things with them. Get magazines like the Smithsonian or National Geographic and find articles to engage the kids, Mountain Bike Action magazine - anything! I think we need to be like that - try on multiple different fronts to engage young people, and retrain adults, quite possibly, based on a recent experience!

As storytellers, I feel this year, we need to be far more "accepting", maybe tolerant, way more patient with young people. It's Not Their Fault. We will, in my experience thus far, need to take more deep breaths, show patience, and try to work to gather them into the stories we tell, like a blanket on a cold day. From what I have seen this might be tough, and also not needed everywhere. We do need to be the fireplace where young people can gaze and lose themselves to their imaginations (which are being stripped from them by technology). They need to learn (for the little ones) or relearn (for the older ones) that the imagination is a wonderful (and much needed) tool and place. We need parents to realize that reading to kids, telling them stories, is so, so important right now. The tv and devices need to be Put Away. A return to analogue. And when we face children, young people this summer at libraries and camps, etc., we need to give them space and be tolerant of their behaviour, and guide them back gently.

Karen Chace on a 12-week class she led this year (and has led in the past many times): “Was every student difficult? No, but the vast majority had trouble listening, attending to their work, many were even disruptive during the interactive games, and practice time outside of class was fairly non-existent.”

And I have also experienced some wonderful interactions with students. In fact, last week I did three presentations at a large school (5 – 6 year-olds, 7 – 8 year-olds, and the last group 9–10 year-olds). The smallest group I had had around 65 kids in it, the others much larger. With each group I set expectations. The first two groups were amazing – wonderful, we had a lot of fun. The 4th and 5th graders (9 and 10 year-olds) were challenged in their ability to concentrate or sit still, or even listen. At one point in a story Goldilocks ran into the bedroom, landed on a really hard bed and cried out: “Crud! That really hurt!” Some of the kids, I think mis-hearing my British voice, told me I couldn’t use that word. So I said, Goldilocks ran into the room, and landed on the really hard bed crying out: “Bother!” Again, the kids called out, “You can’t say that!” So, I did the same thing again and again substituting the ‘bad’ word until I was using words like ‘shoe,’ ‘saucepans,’ and ‘fish hook’ until we agreed on: ‘Oh, oops-ee-daisy!’ and moved on. This took up about four minutes of the story as the kids cried out and then settled down before starting over again. This I would expect from 2nd graders, not from too-cool-for-cucumbers 4th and 5th grade students. And it was fine. I tried other things in another story when one of the characters was granted a wish. I asked the kids (by raising their hands) what they might wish for. I used every trick in the book to engage on a more personal level and used some tricks that came to me, spur of the moment! They settled in, but it took time.

Like Karen, I had to have a serious talk with one of the kids (Karen had three and she eventually called the parents during her 12-week program). I rarely do this, and hate having to do this, but sometimes it is needed. Again, I don’t believe it’s the fault of the child.

 


This brings me to another point! At another gig with very little, delightful pre-school kids with wonderful parents and staff, I had some issues. It was a special event and held outdoors. It was hot and sunny, and I was placed in a pavilion, and invited kids and parents into the shade with me throughout my set. Some of the kids later joined me, but it got a little wild. Some kids walked about the space, some came and sat next to my feet, and one little girl for a while stood between my feet and rested her elbows on my knees and rested her chin in her hands as I told a story. Engaging the other children, and the parents continued, and after the story some of the kids went back to their parents. Some kids were whispered to, others were not. Those who were not whispered to came back and goofed about a bit on the pavilion platform.

When I finished and was packing up, a mother came over with her daughter. I thought we were going to have a nice little chat about stories, and by the look on the girl’s face, she though the same thing, but the mother then told her daughter to apologize to me for misbehaving. This was a parent who had said nothing to their child during the performance, in fact I wasn’t sure if she was the mother until that moment. The look in the girl’s eyes changed and I thought she was going to cry. I felt pretty annoyed myself. The parent had done nothing to educate her daughter, and her girl was just being a little preschooler – being who she was supposed to be. I felt the parent was the one who should have been apologizing. I said pretty much, just that – the girl was being a little kid, that’s all. No harm done. And that kids need good role models, they need guidance as to how to behave, especially when it might be their first sort of experience like this. I gave lots of smiles to both of them and hope the point was made.

Parents might need reminding that we, the performers, are not their children’s care providers. That care providers need to keep a check on their wee ones, that their wee ones might not know how to behave, but they, as parents, should be able to remember! I try to make light of a lot of this sort of thing and chalk it up to experience, and learn from it. We might have to tell parents that more than ever their children need active attention from them.

The kids have been through a lot, and I am sure many of these children have not escaped seeing or hearing about the horrific news about shootings. They are daily. Some are worse than others. There is so much division in the country, I am sure children feel that anxiety coming off parents and other adults around them. Kids sense a lot. We have to cut slack, as I said, breathe deeper, be more forgiving and supportive.

Again, from Karen Chace: “The principal was very aware of the problems and agreed the vast majority of students at the school were affected by the lack of social contact during the pandemic.” They are craving for contact, for attention. And it’s not all bad out there, as I said. We just need to be aware of the audience’s needs, and limitations. It is a changed world. As Fran Stallings wrote about her first time out in-person with children (K-2): “…they were great. Nobody moved, except with my gestures. Whew!! Teachers were dumbfounded. I credited the stories (with active participation tapping off excess energy). I’m glad we all survived together! Summer reading programs, with a wide range of ages and distractions, are a different challenge!

And I Know we will rise to it. Milbre Burch again: “There’s a lot of work ahead, not all of it the kind you get paid for. Let’s all hold hands and jump!” Welcome to the new times ahead. Have fun out there and Love Your Audience.

Peace,

Simon

Friday, April 01, 2022

Bak 2 Skule - It's Been a While

  

Dragon Backdrop
 

I had no idea!

  I had no idea how much I had missed it (well, I really did, but...)

     I had no idea how much fun it would be to see young people get excited about stories after two years of not being in a school.

       I had no idea how out of shape I have become!

This last week I had two school gigs. And it was brilliant. Both were very different, but both were in-school, in-person and very much live. The organizers, librarians, and teachers were wonderful, and seemed so happy to have in-person events going on. The kids, very much the same!

Curious looks and glances were made by children as I made my way through the halls with my gear. "Hallos" were called out, along with the Big Question: "Who are you, and what are you going to be doing here?" So many crazy thoughts went through my mind in answer to that: special agent, location scout for a film, building inspector, but I just said: "I'm going to be seeing you later, to tell stories to your grade!" Eyes wide! That put a bigger smile on my face!

Tuesday was a big rush of a day. I packed a banana for lunch and an apple for the ride home. It was going to be a half-day visit. Three presentations for second and third graders, then kindergarten and first graders, ending with the fourth and fifth graders. Then a workshop for the latter group - invitation only!

I had my stories polished and planned, the PA set-up in the cafeteria, my drum warmed up! But then the kids came in, we started chatting and things changed. I shared some personal narratives about being a kid, long, long ago, before moving into the folk and fairy stories. I talked about the importance of reading, and playing, and spending as little time as they possibly could on t.v. and devices, and that music was also really cool without the videos and think about playing an instrument. Music is a language spoken all over the world. The principal popped in and out, other teachers who were not looking after the young folks listening came and went.

We laughed a lot. As did the teachers. I told some more thoughtful stories which provoked smiles. One group left and another shuffled in. I grabbed water, looked at my notes, and played the penny whistle. I played the same tune three times, but each time it was a different song. Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, followed by the ABC song kids learn, and then Ba-ba Black Sheep. I do not profess to be an accomplished penny whistle player, but the kids and teachers liked it, groaned and rolled their eyes when I started the third song. They waved good-bye and the older kids, the nine and ten year olds came in. Another sip of water, and banter. "Ah, here we have the Big Kids!" They strutted a little taller before sitting down on the cafeteria floor. I showed them a map I had painted of Scandinavia and asked if they knew what was where, and a couple did. I then began a story from Finland. The kids were great. So many smiling faces, so much chatter at the end, talking about the stories, their favourite parts, the wonder of it all.

It was then time to rush into the library and get set up for the workshop. We didn't have much time, but I was able to cram a bunch of stuff in, and have some of the students tell their stories, give them different kinds of feedback, before they had to go. The kids were amazing, as they had chosen to work through their lunch break. Their attention wandered at times, as did mine - we had all been at it for a while, but we got quickly back on track. One young lady who really didn't want to share her story, ended up volunteering to tell her tale! And it was good. There's something so empowering for kids to be actively listened to, to share their own stories, and be heard by their peers and teachers.

I left on a high from that morning.

Tuesday night I had another gig but it was a virtual presentation with TBD Storytellers for grown-ups. A fun night with some great stories, but a late night. The next day was prep for Thursday. Thursday was only two presentations, and no workshop. This school was very different from the previous school on Tuesday. A much larger school. Their policies were slightly different in that the classes, if we were to present inside, would not all be allowed to be together, and that one group would be in the library with me, the other classes would watch through streaming live. It was cold and windy and the report said there would be rain, so we moved into the library. A laptop was set up in front of me, I stuck the map up on the white board along with a photograph of a cave in England's Lake District (it's where a dragon used to live) and I began.

Again watching and listening to the kids, this time fifth and six graders, was wonderful. The story of the cave has a dragon in it. At first it is only a voice, the kids don't know who it is in the cave speaking to the kid in the story. But when it comes out that it's a dragon, there's a rush of quick conversation on what they thought it was. And the look on their faces at it being a dragon was so heart warming.

I say that the kids have similar challenges in both schools, but there were differences. When we talked about sweaty palms (one character was very nervous), I asked who had felt that way, and had anyone ever been the principal’s office. Eighty percent of the kids raised their hands! We talked about devices, writing, stories, books. The laptop was treated as a person in the audience. I got close, very close to the camera lens, I made faces for the camera as much as I did for the audience and I asked teachers to put forward questions in the chat feature. It seemed to work; a teacher came out afterwards to tell me the kids were engaged! This is the first time I have got immediate and unsolicited feedback about virtual work. After two years, it seems I have it.

We talked about all sorts of things related to the stories I told, and it was wonderful. Again the kids left chatting about what had happened and the tales told. Teachers talked about the way the kids were not used to having to sit for so long and pay attention (class periods are not sixty minutes long), and how much joy they exhibited - some kids who had not done so since March of 2020. It was great to hear. And I hear similar things from other storytellers - the joy stories bring, the connection stories create with the kids, the peering over the walls some teachers have slowly built up since the beginning of the pandemic.

One thing I did discover today, Friday morning, was that I am Exhausted! Before the pandemic I was doing this sort of work all the time, in and out of schools, dashing around the countryside, presenting, working with teachers, but since March 2020, not so much. So I now need to get this Dad-bod into shape so when I next go out (in a few days) I won't be quite as tired at the end of the day!

Do you feel like too?

Peace,
Simon

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Moving! or having "an apartment"?

 As my website has morphed and changed over the years, and I have switched providers I have always used Blogger as my, well, blog! Then in 2020 things started to get a little odd, shall we say. Flying back from the UK in March of 2020 I was receiving  emails canceling performances. I scrambled and changed the way I did business, and adapted, and looked for storytelling work. And it came. But the blog fell by the roadside.

 I had thought with my current provided, I would move everything there, but there are things I cannot do there, that I can here. So I don't think I will be moving, but will have a small apartment of blogs over on my website. And I hope I can get this blog rolling again. If you want to see what I put in the 'apartment,' it's here: https://www.diamondscree.com/news

Welcome, or Welcome Back!

 I learned a lot of new stories in 2020, but with the event of on-line work, this meant I had to learn even more because people were seeing me from all over the world, and at many more venues (on-line). Normally I would have been able to use the same story at quite a few in-person venues, as people in a new town, or festival would not have heard them. This all changed with the event of on-line work. And I don't think this will change totally. We shall see!

 With the world seemingly going to Hades in a hand basket, I think stories are needed more than ever. Especially the folk and fairy tales, myths and legends. These stories teach us about tyrants, about uphill struggles, the world around and give us hope. There are stories which teach about tyranny and how it comes to be - teaching us to watch out for it. The stories make us think, and I believe there is little of that going on. We hear 'stuff' and are triggered. We have no, or very little tolerance to hear what other people say. We can no longer have discourse. Sharing folk and fairy tales, I believe, can open up discourse. They can poke a hole in a reality which rapidly deflates - they can shatter the mirrors and blow away the smoke. And what I think right now is so important, is that they can make us laugh, and by golly we all need some humour in our lives! There are a couple of places (again with the two homes!) where I have shared videos of recordings I made. There are here: https://www.youtube.com/c/SimonBrooks

and here: https://vimeo.com/smbrooks

 I recorded an album in 2019 and 2020 which released in 2020. It's called A Flight of Tales, and of course has artwork by Rob Brookes! Marek Bennett, comic book artist and musician was the guest member for the band. My website has most of what I have released for sale as both physical CDs and downloads if you are interested.

https://www.diamondscree.com/merchandise


 I also started a new podcast in 2020 called Lindyline. Although it started off as a serialized book, it has morphed into traditional tales, some public domain literary tales, and original stories for kids. You can find that here: https://smilinsimon.podbean.com/

 I have been invited, once more, to Timpanogos which I thrilled about. It is a wonderful festival out in Utah and this year, will, we hope, be live and in-person! And what a line-up! Donald Davis will be there, of course, and Ed Stivender will be MCing. The rest of the line-up are, from left to right, Donna Washington, Doug Elliot, Josh Goforth, Lyn Ford, Megan Wells, Nestor Gomez, Randy Evensen, Regi Carpenter, Tim Lowry and Willy Caflin. Some of these folks are not just colleagues, but over the years have become friends. Others I have not met before and am looking forward to seeing and meeting. I am also working on a bunch of new stories! This all happens in September, so plenty of time to prepare! If you want to know more: https://timpfest.org/

Simon at Timpanogos

 It was a little hard going from 6,000 people here at Timpanogos in 2019, to telling stories to a camera in 2020, I have to say!

 So what's new? I made a lot of friends on-line, and got to see some remarkable storytellers from all over the world. Things are slowly going back to in-person. I am booking gigs for the Summer Reading Program at libraries, schools, and camps, and festivals - mostly, at this point, in-person. Keep an eye open on the calendar for those sorts of things. https://www.diamondscree.com/new-events

 So what's new with you? Any plans? Any great books you've read? Let me know! I would love to hear from you!

Peace,

Simon


Thursday, April 30, 2020

Google Meets and Zoom Performance. It's a New World


Well, like a lot of people, my work dried up. Boom. Stopped. No income. This, I believe is the same for any performing artist, and entertainer. It even effects the music, theatre, tv and film industries as studios and the like shut up shop during the COVID-19 lock-down.

Compared to the average actor, as a storyteller I don't need a script or director to do work, I can make stuff up on the fly. I don't need a stage, editor, sound crew. I have experience of doing a lot of this myself as I travel about the country, when the world is less pandemic!

I have been fortunate. I have set up my own very make-shift and somewhat chilly studio in my garage. There's no fancy or expensive gear, just a bunch of jimmied together lights, my old laptop, and some sheets and the backdrops I use when I travel around schools, colleges and libraries.
It doesn't look too bad when I broadcast. It sounds pretty good too. The garage has served as a 'play space' for the kids since we moved into the house, so it's had carpet pieces on the floor since we moved in, old chairs, a dilapidated karaoke machine, and as you can see, my record collection, and very old turntable.

I have already done a number of school presentations, and this weekend - starting tonight - I have a couple of events I am broadcasting live. One of this weekend's performances is an event for a now-cancelled festival I was supposed to travel to in Woodruff, South Carolina earlier this month. To keep the festival alive and in people's minds, the storytellers and producers got together to present a one hourish show, each of us performing for ten minutes, each of us broadcasting from our homes. Tonight, Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, I am doing three more performances (from my garage in isolation) for the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College, under their HopStop program.
So what's it like performing for an audience who is not there with you? Odd. Decidedly odd. I am feeling more nervous before an event than normal, but it is a different sort of nervousness. Before getting out in front of a live audience, one who is there to reach out and touch, if one was so inclined, there is an electric nervousness, one full of energy and vitality. The 'anxiety' before going live without a 'studio audience' feels, for me anyway, how I felt before sitting for an exam at high school! Not the same feeling at all.

If you make a rare mistake with a live, physical audience, you can play with it, because, as a storyteller, there is no real fourth wall. Or if there is you can easily break it. If you make a mistake when broadcasting live you don't see if the audience noticed or not, you can't see their reaction if they do notice it. You cannot respond, alter and correct. I mean, you can, but... You can't be as playful as you might have been.

Performing live as a storyteller, there is a flexibility to the performance, there is spontaneity, you feed from that audience. For me, there is a buzz, or natural high coming off the stage, or stepping away from 200 kids sitting on a gym floor. There's often an unscheduled Q & A afterwards, hand shaking, high-fives, the noise and excitement of people leaving, chatting to one another. You see people walking away smiling, laughing.

In my garage it is very different. It's a kind of sterile feeling. There's no one to engage with before the performance starts. When I look into the lens on my old laptop and say, "Hello! How is everyone today?" There's no 'visible/auditory' hello back. If you're doing a Facebook Live event you wonder if there is anyone watching. You know there is when there's a ping, or smiley face that wobbles up the screen, or someone posts a comment. On Google Meetings and Zoom you see a few faces on the side, but you wonder if they are able to engage and commit to the story you're telling, or if there are too many distractions in the house - is there a screaming baby, a FedEx delivery, someone that needs help with the at-home schooling. There's the concern for me that the internet might crash. And yet, I feel that I put more energy into a digital performance than a live one. I feel I have to overcome the portal I travel through into people's homes. Sometimes there's a pause between the stories where the audience on Zoom or Google Meetings can show their appreciation when the moderator or host opens the mics on the audience! For a moment there's a buzz, and then back to me in the garage and the sound of my own voice.

The performances I have thus far done, when it's over, have allowed for an on-line meet and greet, a Q & A and a quick chat with the host or moderator, then, click - leave the meeting. It's a good feeling that I come away with. There are smiles, positive comments, even - "we should do this again, it works really well." But then quickly and quietly I am in the garage turning off the equipment, rejoining the family upstairs. The high isn't there, but there is a sense of well-being and satisfaction. Not a self-congratulatory feeling, just a good feeling, a warm feeling.

Sometimes you get a glimpse into people's homes, and you might get a sense that some are struggling more than others during this time. I feel, I hope, in that brief moment of time I told the stories, those characters, those scenes, transported the listeners. The listeners who, like me, had to work a little harder to hear and see in their minds-eye those same scenes and characters, were taken out of their new normal and went somewhere with me to a place that offered hope, transformation and a bit of a giggle even for a brief moment, and they found some joy.