Thursday, March 30, 2023

Getting Better All the Time - hopefully!


These words taken from the Beatles’ song “Getting Better” resound with hope and I carry them with me often. They also inspire.

I just returned, on Sunday, from Sharing the Fire, the North East Storytelling Conference hosted and run by North East Story Telling, or NEST. It’s been going on for years, starting in the late 1970’s I believe and still going strong. It’s moved about it, and the format has changed, but for as long as I have been going to it it’s pretty much been the same: Keynote, featured teller, annual meeting of NEST members, an olio (showcase of storytellers) and closer, and in between all this, many workshops, and a few fringe performances. The keynote is usually very good and this year was no exception. Adam Booth came all the way from West Virginia bringing with him a flock of herons.

Adam and one of his many herons.

 Adam is a great storyteller and many of his tales are Appalachian. This weekend he told a new story which used many of the motifs found in folk and fairy tales, myths and legends, a story that was very original. As he created The Heron’s Journey he worked with a quilt maker, a paper artist, puppeteer and dancer, all of which informed and, in some cases, changed the story. The tale itself took the arch of a creation myth but Adam reversed this arch, making something very compelling. It was a tale of re-birth, community, transformation, The People, and was filled with surprises and compassion. At the beginning of what felt like the last third of the story, the flock of herons took flight and flew through the audience. Okay, this is where the paper artist came into play; the herons were made of paper. They were huge, with a wing span of maybe two or three feet. They had vertical handles on them, and were passed through the audience by the audience, and was incredibly powerful. The quilt, which Adam carried in at the beginning, decorated with a crown, and with some of the Underground Railroad motifs ( sewn into it, suddenly took on a new meaning, a greater meaning. Later in the story the quilt was reversed and became another powerful part of the tale Adam was sharing with us.

The Underground Railroad in Concord, NH which helped enslaved people escape to the North and Canada.


The story was told with grace and not rushed, but still I feel it is a piece that I need to see again because they were so many layers in it - I am sure I missed a few!

In the keynote, the next morning Adam challenged us to look at working with other artists, something I have been thinking of doing for a long time and tried out when Megan Wells and I performed The Magic Flute as a storytelling piece. Working with the quilt maker, Adam gave them some free-reign within the parameters of what he needed, and the image on the reverse side of the quilt caused the story to alter a little. The paper artist created the herons and when he was working on talking to them, he realized that addressing one instead of the group worked better. The dancer informed his movement on stage which in turn helped him find entry to parts of the story he struggled with.

There are a couple of other projects I want to do myself, beyond The Magic Flute. One is slowly coming together this year. This challenge Adam threw down, as it were, was a gauntlet of sorts, thrown down to help us create better work. We don’t have to work with paper artists, dancers and quilt makers but collaboration can help us see our own work in a new light. It might shine on areas where we have weakness, and working with another person can help fix that.

The gang on Tuesday night. We used a recording of Norm who was with Anne in Norway


Tuesday night Paul Strickland came over and we shared my garage to broadcast our stories in our TBD Concert with Antonio Rocha, Jeff Doyle, Ingrid Nixon, and Norm Brecke. Anne Rutherford, another member of the group, wasn’t telling stories that night. Paul told a folk tale, as straight as Paul can. He is a surrealist, of sorts, and a self-declared post-modernist! To hear Paul tell a folktale like he did make my mind creak in a new direction. It made me think of ways I can be better, get better and improve my craft. And we can all do this.

Find people who inspire you, watch their work, see what they do. Look at photographs and artwork, to inspire you. You can find prompts in things like this, even from photos in magazines or on-line - a glance or poise in a picture might make you think of a way you could portray a character in your stories, and this can apply to writing too. Go to plays and see how the performance is staged. Seeking out others can only improve your art and craft, no matter what it is.

Anyway, I am guessing you’ve spent enough time away reading this, rather than doing what you should be doing, so I will lay off and let you go.

Thanks for reading this, and being here with me on this journey of life.

Stay well.


Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Traveling to Nebraska

 Ever since I heard the album Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen, I have wanted to go. I recently got the chance to visit. Hazard, however, was an hour north of where I was so was not able to get there this time!


Last week I took off for Kearney, Nebraska for five days of storytelling at schools, their library and finally at the Country Club for the evening festival performance. I got back yesterday after a day and a half of flying and long layovers in airports! The trip was a lot of fun, and work. Flying over a snowy Mid-West was wonderful. The last part of the flight was on a small plane filled with eight people, including the crew! (The journey home had a packed plane, and I was told that “packed” was more normal.) The snacks were way better than the ‘usual’ airlines, too. The people of Kearney are friendly and the organizers took care of both myself and Priscilla Howe who was the other featured teller. In the days we were there I told over 30 stories at 12 presentations, did a visit to the local tv station to promote the event with board member (and awesome human being) Marlene Hansen, and presented a 3-hour workshop to college students studying to be Social Studies teachers at UNK.

Priscilla Howe with one of her puppets. Priscilla also tells the epics and very fun personal narrative tales!


Priscilla visited a senior center, and a bunch of schools too. We got to hang out with each other, and also with Allen deBay, another storyteller. Allen is from Kansas and tells mostly personal stories, but on Festival Day before my segment, he told an original story to the families, which went down well. Robin Bennett, another local storyteller/author, also told an original story before Priscilla told her family stories (pictured above) as part of the festival. The whole week was a lot of fun and Priscilla and I, although good friends before, were great friends after the festival. The events were well planned, the schools happy to have us, and the audience appreciative of the stories. The drivers, and there were many, were super people, not just driving us to the gigs, but showed us around a bit. And Priscilla taught me how to play dice! (No money was at stake during the game of dice!)

I have to admit I need to be more aware of my age during performances! At one school I was performing for two hundred and fifteen 6th graders and was having a lot of fun. I was in an auditorium, on a stage, raised four feet from the floor. As I was jumping down to get in amongst the kids, I ran back and launched myself from the floor up onto the stage. I made it, but only just. The next time I went up the steps!

Allen and I made a short visit to the Archway Museum, a tribute to the adventures and people who moved to Nebraska, the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails, and all roads that led West. Priscilla was doing something else, although we did invite her. It was a very interesting stop. There was even a 1950’s open-top Cadillac which Allen and I wanted to take for a spin! Sadly, there was no way to drive it out of the museum, and I had to wonder how they got it in there in the first place! I also got to see the Platte River, a very important place in America’s Western history and featured in many of the Western books I read with my Grandad.

Kearney is a wonderful town of about 14,000 people and is typical, I was told, of the mid-west with its many brick buildings. I would love to go back another time, maybe in the spring or summer and visit some of the other sights there.

An old grocery store which was empty for a number of years and is now a bar and gallery. So glad they kept the original signage

One last thing about the trip: On the way back home there was a very short time period where I had to get from one gate to the next. Walking quickly (it’s rare that I run these days, but I do walk quickly) I got to my gate for the fourth and final leg home as they were calling my group, the last, to board. Sitting on the plane, looking through the window, I saw my one suitcase waving at me from the airport. I waved back, and felt awful leaving it in Washington, DC, but we were reunited this morning and the case was very happy! Unpacking, I found that TSA had opened my case and tickled it, so it had a fun time while we were apart! I will be telling that story (as told to me by my suitcase) on Story Story Podcast on the 1st March.

I hope you are doing well.



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.