Friday, August 17, 2012

Summer session I. - Learn from the best

As you have probably noticed, apart from the poem below, I did not do much posting in the past few weeks.  My excuse is "thesis", which is a really good excuse, everyone should try it at some point, it does wonders in any conversation. And now that it is over, I have time to catch up on some blogging, and tell you what exactly happens in the ETSU Storytelling program in a summer session. I am trying to compress five weeks here, so bear with me.

Let's start with the institutes. Every summer the program announces three institutes held by master storytellers, and I use the term with a clear conscience, because they really are the best of the best. This year we had a treat (and I had the luck of being able to participate in all three of the institutes).

First off, David Novak taught "The Syntax of Surprise", which sounds academic-y, but it really wasn't. If there is one thing I have to mention about David, it is that he is an absolute master of weaving storytelling programs. He takes threads of folklore, mythology, personal experience, scientific knowledge, colors, smells, images, songs, rhymes and other bits and pieces, and he creates a tapestry that blends them all together. As you go along listening to him, you start to realize connections between things you have never seen before. This was what he was teaching us in those three days; how to blend a string of individual stories into one performance. We also talked about how to keep the audience's attention through the element of surprise within a story; how to create expectations, how to add pauses or twists that keep the listeners' minds from wandering. In a world of short attention spans, it is a useful thing to know. David is a delightful teacher; humble, helpful, and with a deep well of knowledge. I've been a fan ever since I first saw him, telling a story while standing on his head, in Timpanogos 4 years ago.

The second institute was held by Dolores Hydock, who has been and remains one of my ever favorite storytellers. Her class was called "Picasso's turpentine", and we talked about how and what to borrow from other art form such as painting, theater, animation, and dancing, and use the skills in our storytelling work. Sounds fascinating, right? It was. We spent half a day talking about Norman Rockwell's story paintings; we spent a morning learning cajun waltz; we watched Pixar shorts and pretended that our stories were created from a million dollars a minute. The whole institute was hands-on and very enjoyable, and we left with a whole list of techniques and tricks we couldn't wait to try.

The last instutite of the season was held by Charlotte Blake Alston, and connected to the Johnson City Umoja Festival. We learned about storytelling in Africa (which is, once again, a continent, not a country, with amazingly diverse cultures and languages), the griot tradition, African-American storytelling and musican genres and traditions, and tricksters! Gotta love tricksters. I can't get enough of them. We talked (and played with) rhythm, and song, and style, and then we took all we had prepared to the storytelling stage downtown and presented six one-hour sets of folktales peppered with some personal stories and Dr. Sobol transforming into the Incredible Rapper Professor. It was tons of fun! And once again I find myself in a trickster craze. Oh well. Happens to the best of us.

This was the lineup for the summer session. Institutes are usually smaller groups of people who come in from different parts of the country, and often, like myself, even farther away. Between sessions we have lunch together, we hang out in the evenings, we talk, we share ideas, we practice our stories, and make new friends. Summers just smell, taste and feel different from the school semesters, and not in a bad way; they feel like the ultimate learning experience for storytellers when you spend days sitting at a mentor's feet doing like a sponge and seeping up information, knowledge, and creativity. And now that the summer is over, it is time to play with what we have learned.


  1. Csenge, I totally agree that the ETSU Institutes are Awesome. I've only been able to attend one - last summer's Global Storytelling Institute - but it was an unforgettable expereice!

  2. First of all, I hope the thesis went well. You're right, it's definitely a great conversation booster!

    Second of all, the summer session sounds like such fun! *sigh* Wish I could have attended.