Thursday, December 29, 2011


This might have been the most fun I have ever had in a museum.

Today I took the effort to crawl out of bed early, and show up at the Met for opening. I have been there three years ago and spent 8 hours in awe; I went back again this Monday to see the Storytelling in Japanese art exhibition (excellent exhibition! And great publication too!). But going back for a few hours just made me realize I have not seen nearly enough of the museum's collections; I decided it deserved another day - six, eight hours maybe. And, because this was the first time my friend Kata was not coming with me, I made up a little game to make it more interesting.

It's called dragonspotting.

The difference between dragonspotting and dragonhunting is, as you can probably guess, that in the former the dragon itself is not harmed. Which is just as good, because no one wants to get kicked out of the Met for smashing five hundred years old Chinese porcelaine.

The game is simple: you only need a camera (and possibly a museum map)

The mission: find as many dragons as you can, and document them.

The rules: there are only two.
1. If it is called a dragon, it is a dragon. Even if it does not look like a dragon. Even if it looks like the love child of a rabbit and a spoon.

2. If it looks like a dragon, it is a dragon, unless specified otherwise. "Zoomorphic symbols" are fair game.

I ended up spending 6 and a half hours in the Met. I covered most of the collections, except for photography (not many chances there) and modern art (gotta leave something for next time; also, it was horribly crowded).

The results:
I have documented 126 artifacts with dragons on them. Because many of those artifacts have multiple dragons, I would estimate the dragon population of the Metropolitan around 200 or more. That is a decent number for any museum.

The good things about dragonspotting?

1. It is a lot of fun. Every new dragon you find bring a sense of achievement. And there is ample space for leveling up. Ha-ha.

2. It keep you focused. One thing about the Met: you get lost and confused very easily, and there is an overload of information one needs to process. Going through the collections with a specific purpose makes you look at everything, but filters out the objects you are looking for.

3. I quickly developed a sixth sense for spotting dragons and dragon-like shapes. You'd be surprised.

4. It teaches you a lot about different cultures. I expected a stray dragon or two in the Ancient Near East, but I was surprised by the numbers. There was a decent number of them in the Medieval section, but not as many as I expected. I had to use an educated guess to seek them out at Greeks and Romans - where the is Jason, there shall be a dragon (it was quite a skinny one though). The Asian Art gallery was no surprise - dragons great and small, blue, read, green and yellow, prancing around on every possible surface. But no matter where I went, I could always find at least one of the critters, if I looked hard enough. Sometimes only the label told me it was one; other times I was certain, but the label only said "bronze object" or something of the sort. In those cases, I used my authority as a storyteller to declare them dragons.

Until you start looking for them, you never realize how many dragons lurk around in an art museum. The Metropolitan Museum is overrun by them. Japanese dragons, Greek dragons, French dragons, Italian dragons, Central Asian dragons, Chinese dragons, Korean dragons, Persian dragons, Scythian dragons, English dragons. Dragons on banners, on arrowheads, on swords, on plates, cups, bowls, vases, bottles, carpets, hangings, boxes, chests, tapestries, axes, rings, bracelets, belts, armors, helmets, gemmae, sigils, walls, ceilings, spoons, roofs, tiles, flags, shields, illuminated pages. Crouching dragons, hidden dragons, coiling dragons, stretching dragons, biting dragons, roaring dragons, dragons spitting fire; sleeping dragons, eating dragons, playing dragons, marching dragons, flying dragons, swimming dragons, and dragons hopelessly tangled. Dragons on samurai blades, dragons on Buddhist temples, dragons on the banner of King Uther Pendragon; dragons embriodered onto cloaks, perching on helmets, disguised as handles on a vase or a pitcher, hiding in the Chinese zodiac, under and over saints and gods, decorating all kinds of deadly weaponry and fragile pottery, and of course, dragons galore in the gift shop.

Here. Be. Dragons.
(Sorry, I had to.)

Of course, every once in a while you run into some other fantastic monster that is distinctly not a dragon, but you add them to the collection anyway.
But that will be the topic of another post.

Happy dragonspotting, everyone!
Oh. Right. Pictures.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Project Grimm - the numbers

Now that there are only 4 days left of 2011, and, incidentally, also 4 days left before 2012, the YEAR OF THE GRIMM TALES, it is time to take a quick glance at the Project Grimm, the collaboration of many excellent European storytellers. Since there is no official website yet, I decided to summarize the statistics here, to give you an idea of what will await audiences all around the world next year.

So, here come the facts:

As of today, Project Grimm has exactly 65 participants; some of them are individual storytellers, and some of them are duos or groups.

Each participant has 4 Grimm tales: two chosen by the participant, and two assigned by luck. 151 of the 202 tales on the list have been assigned.

The three most popular tales are the following:

Rapunzel (KHM 12) (6 participants)
The Three Spinners (KHM 14) (6 participants)
Mother Hulda (KHM 24) (5 participants)
Rumeplstiltskin and Cinderella both have 4 participants assigned.

We have participants from 11 European countries:

Spain (33) - including storytellers from Catalunya and the Basque country, more than half (!!!) of the Project Grimm participants! Go Spain!
United Kingdom (11) - including tellers from Wales and Scotland!
Germany (7) - the home of the Brothers Grimm. We are looking forward to hearing the tales in their original language :)
Netherlands (3)
Austria (3)
Norway (2)
Italy (2)
Hungary (2)
Switzerland (1)
Ireland (1)
Denmark (1)

With as colorful a group as this one is, we will hear Grimm tales in more than 11 languages!
(Catalan, Spanish, English, French, Norwegian, Basque, Dutch, German, Hungarian, Danish, Italian - and whatever the tellers decide to surprise us with)

The first videos are already trickling into my mailbox. I will do my best to compile and share them as soon as possible. Numbers and facts may change as more information comes in. Or a few stray storytellers. You can never know with our kind. There are still a few tales up for grabs!

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Let the Grimm Year begin!

All I want for Christmas is BOOKS

I am spending the holidays in New York City. My friend Kata, who was my roommate back at Trinity College, invidited me over, to spend Christmas together. I feel like the Country Mouse, and in a way, that is exactly what I am, for now.

I have a love-hate relationship with New York. I would not live here even if they paid me, but wandering the streets for a few days at a time can be tons of fun.
(A T-shirt I saw on a girl who pushed past me in the crowd at the Union Square market kind of sums it up: "Go [heart] your own damn city.")
I have a three-day limit on Manhattan. Three days of awesome fun and miles and miles of walking and shopping bags, and then I kind of curl up on Kata's couch and refuse to face the crowds and the noise and the crazyness for a day or two. Repeat as necessary.

But. No one can deny that the holidays in New York offer a lot of opportunities. Instead of targeting specific places, I took tours: walked down Broadway from Union Square to Bowling Green; walked up 6th Avenue from 14th to 42nd; walked across town randomly, stopping whenever I found a shop, a building or an event that looked kinda interesting. I nerded out in all the comic book shops I could find; bought dice for the gaming class; poked at bones and stuffed animals in the Evolution shop; hunted up and down the Holiday Market (The Unemployed Philosophers' Guild takes the cake!). The weather was kind to us this year: sunshine and no snow, and just a sprinkling of rain. Since, according to my experiences, "white Christmas" in a big city quickly turns into "grey, kinda slushy Christmas", I didn't really mind.

Long story short, I ended up in the Strand.

It is a cruel, cruel place. You get lost in there for long hours, and when you finally defeat the dungeon, you leave your money behind. I kid you not, I strained my shoulders going home from that place, carrying bags of books.
Of course, it is everything a bookworm can dream of. Even with the pre-Christmas last-minute-shopping crowd, I wandered around sqealing like a happy mouse. I would stop randomly in corners and aisles, and stare at the rows and rows of books without actually reading a title. I would drag ladders from one shelf to the other and climb them to perch on the top, balancing the books I already had in my hands and the ones I wanted to flip through. I would seek out the names of my currently favorite authors and find long rows of their books. Mark Twain, Mary Renault, Gerald Morris. And of course, the Myths & Epics section. Oh, that section. Yeah, I was the girl who blocked the aisle with her back against the Fiction section, sitting on the carpet, pulling out one book after another.

And boy did I find cool things! Unfortunately, I did not have money for everything. For one, I tried to avoid big and heavy books, because there is no way I can take all of them home; with a heavy heart I had to leave all the Fairy Encyclopedias and the Arthurian Albums and the Dictionaries of Monsters and Imaginary Places. But, of course, I did not leave the place with empty hands.

So, without further ado, here are my picks for the holiday season:
(None of them are holiday-related, as you will find, but that was never the point)

The Green Hero (because I can never leave behind a book that has Finn Mac Cool written on it)

Parsifal's Page (another great Gerald Morris book I have not read yet. I don't know what I'll do when I run out of them. Write fanmail to the author demanding more, most likely.)

Tales of wonder (Mark Twain meets steampunk, your argument is INVALID)

Tom Sawyer abroad (no one ever told us in school Tom Sawyer has a sequel. Duh.)

Digenis Akritas: The two-blood border lord (Byzantine-Arabic half blood hero fighting everything that moves? sign me up! Every day you find an epic you have not read yet is a good day.)

King Harald's Saga (because it is one of my ever favorite sagas. Hands down.)

And now comes to the curl-up-on-the-couch reading séance. See you all next year!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Storytelling is like roleplaying...

So, posts have been few and far between. I apologize for that. Believe it or not, Storytelling students do have a lot to do around the end of the semester! Like, writing papers on werewolves. And sirens. And the lost oasis or Zerzura. And Aicha the demon-hunter. And... stuff. Not to mention gigs and performances.
Anyway. Semester is officially over now. It was great, and a lot of fun! And there is another one coming up, right after the holidays...

Here is the big news: during the Spring semester, for the first time in its history, the Storytelling department is starting a course in Collaborative Interactive Storytelling.
Which, ladies and gentleman, is a fancy name for roleplaying.

Yup, that's right. Time to break out the dice and the character sheets, storytelling students are taking over the gaming world!

(Nerd alert, read on at your own risk)

It kinda, sorta, started with me. *toe kicks dirt* We played Changeling with my classmates, and had tons of fun doing it. Have you ever played any roleplay game with professional storytellers before? It was a blast! We are living it, and doing it, why not play it? Changeling (the Dreaming) is the perfect game for storytellers.

Well, some time later, going home from a gig, we started talking about it to Dr. Sobol in the car. We brought it up as an example of storytelling improvisation, and mused about the Jungian implications of Changeling (believe it or not, there are quite a few. Not a die-hard Jung fan, myself, but it does fit the shape we have been wrestling with all semester). Anyway, conversation went on, and we ended up with "hey, we do need a special topic for next semester's Storytelling Performance class..."
And the idea was born.

Basically, the class will look like this: we will talk about roleplaying as a cultural phenomenon; we will discuss some background and history. We will talk about how roleplay games figure into storytelling, and vice versa. And, naturally, we are going to play a series of games to test the theory. Right now, D&D, Changeling and Werewolf are on the menu, with a side of samples we probably will vote on (my choices would be 7th sea, Pendragon, Piratas!, or Star Wars, but that's just me). Then, in the second half of the semester, we are going to build a game world together, and create a storytelling performance that presents to people what gaming is.
And we shall have a lot of dice.

When I tell my friends I'm going to be roleplaying for a whole semester for graduate credit, I get all kinds of reactions. Mostly along the lines of "What the..." and "I hate you!" (of the nice kind). Gamers generally applaud the initiative.

But, seriously. Wanna know why a storytelling department is interested in roleplaying?
Read on! With the authority of someone who has been a gamer for 11 years, and a storyteller for 6, I present you:

Things gaming and storytelling have in common

1. "It is like writing a story, but with other people."
When you are playing a roleplay game, you are essentially creating a story together. It has a beginning, it has characters, it has a plot, and adventures, with the occaisonal monster thrown in, and then it has an ending, hopefully the successful kind. Some adventures follow the Hero's Journey quite closely; others meander away from the trodden path to create a whole new story no one heard before. In the present, sitting down together, us players give birth to new stories every time we play.

2. Adapting to the audience
When you are a DM (Dungeon Master), GM (Game Master), ST (Storyteller - isn't that just adorable?), you are telling a story while the others play the main characters in it. You have to twist and tweak your pre-planned tale every time they do something, to be able to tell them what happens next, and keep them on track for the plot you have planned. Or, in my case, kinda planned. You have to be ready to improvise to fit their mood, their characters, their decisions, their experience lever, and their personal tastes. Again. Just like storytelling, your version of the tale is born in the moment, based on feedback from your audience.

3. Brings people together
Just like live oral storytelling, live gaming (also known as tabletop gaming, as opposed to online gaming) brings people together. You sit down with your friends, cover the table with character sheets, maps, dice, books and notoriously unhealthy snacks, and you spend hours talking, laughing playing together. It doesn't get any better than that. Actually, this is why I prefer live gaming to online games, just like I prefer live storytelling to watching a video: it happens in the moment, and it is a community experience. We are in desperate need of those.
Storytelling and gaming also teach teamwork. In a roleplay game, you are part of a group that has to accomplish things while working together; in storytelling, you work with your audience and give them a collective experience of sharing a tale.

4. Teaches values
Courage, teamwork, logic, creativity - just a few things stories and roleplay games can teach people. Playing together a game of any kind is a valuable experience, especially for children - just like listening to stories and having discussions about them. Children instinctively seek out both forms of entertainment: they were born longing for stories, and born ready to play. And besides, as it has been pointed out recently (see further readings), some games are great for teaching simple math...

5. Myths and legends
Many games are based on world folklore and mythology; some more than others. Both gaming and storytelling carries on the characters, motifs and tales people have been fascinated with for long centuries. Gaming is rapidly creating a moder folklore where everyone has a chance to chime in... just like storytelling.

6. Shared memories
Good stories stick with you for a very long time; our brains are wired in a way that make it easier to remember things through narratives rather than as data. Your favorite tales are with you all your life. Same with gaming; there are adventures you will never forget, and talk about them every time you sit down with fellow gamers. Just to have a laugh.

7. Great fun!
That needs no explanation. Never underestimate the power of fun.

8. Nobody believes it is useful
That is why we have to explain it over and over again.

9. Creates a community
Wherever you go as a storyteller; you will always find other tellers to talk to, who are going to be unbelievably nice and friendly to you just because you are a storyteller too. Because they are nice people. And if you meet other gamers, you have at least one common topic to break the ice...

See? I bet our storytelling class will get a lot out of gaming together. If nothing else, definitely a bunch of good stories to tell...

Once a gamer, always a gamer.

Further reading:
Everything I know I learned from Dungeons and Dragons (Awesome book! The Bridget Jones of the gaming world.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Winged Wolf

Yup, you read it right. A winged wolf. How freaking awesome is that?

Pretty awesome, if you ask fourth grade. I told this story for the very first time in my life, it took 30 minutes, and they loved it. If you want instant feedback on a folktale: tell it to fourth grade. They will comment on everything, and you will know what works and what does not by the time you get through your story. Don't forget to take notes.

We started out by collecting mythical monsters on the board. I was completely shocked by the amount of creatures from Greek mythology they could come up with. Halfway through the session it started to dawn on me that I had Percy Jackson to thank for that. Say whatever you want to say about the quality of the book or the movie, but it did teach kids a thing or two about mythology. Most of all, that it is cool.

The Winged Wolf is a Hungarian folktale collected from the northwestern part of the country (actually pretty close to the city where I'm from). It is a long and classic fairy tale with three princes, and flying horses, and magical swords, and dragons, enchanted castles, you name it. And, above all, a winged wolf that can breathe fire.
It was amazing to watch the kids delve into the story. They gasped; they cheered; they helped me when I mixed up words (happens after 4 hours of sleep); they reminded me of details and asked a whole bunch of questions that I will need to think about.

It was really interesting to see how they made no difference between the stories they knew and the story I was telling. When I told them about the seven-headed dragon, the girls started squealing: "Don't cut off the head! Don't cut off the head!" I kind of went along with it and tweaked the story a little so the hero did not make that mistake, and everyone nodded in approval. For them, hydra and seven-headed dragon (hétfejű sárkány) were the same.

When I got to the first appearance of the Winged Wolf, the boys wanted to know if 'it was bigger than Jacob'. I told them it was definitely bigger than Jacob. Bless his cute tame teen romance werepuppy heart.
(That coming from a seasoned Werewolf: the Apocalypse player)

The story was long, but it took the class by storm. It has action, suspense, a little bit of romance, and a whole lot of mythical, magical stuff that makes the kids squeal with delight. After it was over, however, they attacked me with a whole bunch of questions: there were details in the story that did not make complete sense, and after I gave up trying to answer their questions, I had to admit that.

And this is where I have to stop to think: many storytellers and/or psychologists claim that fairy tales talk to people on an elemental, unconscious level, and they need no explanation; that they make sense in their own way. Well, that might be the case with adults, who kind of just accept that 'it is just a story, and anything is possible'. Kids, however, especially in this age group, expect the story to make sense, even within the endless realm of fantasy. Once you set a rule (love makes the prince too heavy for the winged wolf to carry him), you have to stick to it (or answer for your mistakes if you say he did carry him to his wedding in the end - or admit that the prince stopped being in love by the time it came to the wedding, which, you know, is also a plausible explanation.)
And they will have questions and they will ask them all. Which made me realize the ever-changing nature of folktales once again, and my responsibility as a storyteller to adapt them to my modern audiences. These kids know a lot about stories (mythology and fairy tales are in this year), and they will expect them to make sense to them, here and now. They will not appreciate symbols, or authenticity; they will just want to be entertained in a world they are just starting to discover. So in the end, you have to be responsible for changing the story to meet those needs, and at the same time stay true to the original as much as you can.

You are a storyteller - make it work. They will let you know if it does.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Good, The Challenge, The Tales - Beginner Storytellers' Guide to Audiences

I have been thinking a lot about this lately. Every budding storyteller seems to have his or her own idea about what the perfect audience is like, and, most of all, which one is the perfect age (group, range, grade) for storytelling. Including me. You listen to conversations between storytellers and you hear stuff like "I love Kingergarten" or "I'd never tell in high school" or "I wish I could only tell to adults", or (in my case) "Teenagers, wheeeee!".
And then you start doing gigs and all of your expectations and preferences turn upside down.
I thought teenagers were my complete favorites. Then I started working with fifth grade and they completely stole my heart. Against my better judgement.

Storytellers work so hard on making the world understand and accept that storytelling IS FOR GROWN-UPS TOO, that sometimes they tend to forget that does not mean children are not equally good as an audience. We overcompensate the all-around trend of "storytelling is for children" by believing that storytelling as an art form can only blossom and shine in front of adults who can grasp the higher meanings.
Well, this might be true, but let's not forget that those open-minded, appreciative grown-ups have to come from somewhere.

So, here is my totally subjective and scrambled Beginning Storyteller's Guide to Audiences:

The Little People (Ages 0-6)
The Good: They will love you to bits. They will also love the stories to bits. They generally love everything to bits, including toys and books.
The Challenge: They can't sit in one place for more than 30 minutes, and if theit attention wavers, they walk away. They are very honest in theit critique that way.
The Tales: Participation stories. A moving target is harder to hit.

Shiny Eyes (Grades 1-4)
The Good: They truly and honestly love and crave storytelling, and they are old enough to remember complicated refrains and repetitions. They also figure out riddles quite quickly.
The Challenge: They are very active and they talk a lot. They express their ideas, and expect to be given the chance to do so. They are the age group that will carpet bomb you with questions and expect you to tell the complete any honest truth and nothing but the truth. Or, you know, just make it up.
The Tales: Folk tales and fairy tales, or, if you want them to love you and worship you and follow you home and sleep on your doorstep: scary stories.

The Untamed (Grades 5-8)
The Good: They are fiercely loyal and they understand everything you say. Or imply. Once they accept you as fun, they will adopt you and consider you a BFF. Their reactions are honest, and hard to miss; if you want to test a story, they are the best audience you can wish for. Laughter will be quick, gasps will be common, and snoring will be loud.
The Challenge: Something weird happens around the age of 12 (although it may vary from person to person and it usually happens to boys first): kids suddenly turn cool. From this point on, they will expect to be treated as grown-ups, and will start a protest against stories they find childish. Or, simply, lie down and pretend to be asleep. Or talk loudly over your head.
The Tales: Ghosts. Adventures. Knights. Dragons. Magic. Adventure. Pirates. Ghosts. Vampires. Adventure. Did I mention Ghosts?...

The Wanderers (High school)
The Good: They will love the stories grown-ups love, and they will love them with much more enthusiasm. They will be looking to the stories for answers and guidance. They are very creative and extremely grateful if you treat them as equals.
The Challenge: They will be cheeky and they will test you. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
The Tales: Love and adventure. Grown-up topics. Tricksters and humor! Blood and gore. Strong emotions. Vamps and wolves, if you are so inclined. Warrior maidens, pregnant Sleeping Beauties, and Mouse Deer in all his glory.

Party People (Undergrads)
The Good: They have a lot of time for storytelling events.
The Challenge: They don't usually go to storytelling events.
The Tales: Stories about beer are always a hit. Kid you not.

Reasonable Adults (Out of college and still alive)
The Good: They really enjoy storytelling, and they apreciate it as a performance and as an art form. They like to look into the deeper meaning of the story, and appreciate the eduational value. They can also sit fairly still for an extended perion of time.
The Challenge: It is hard to tell what they are thinking. They might smile and nod politely, and blank out the story. College teaches us to do that. They also believe that tales are for children. Duh.
The Tales: Anything, really, as long as it is not annoyingly repetitive. You can also flash the background of the story to them. They enjoy exotic things.

Don't take any of this in whole, though. This is just how I see it.

The good thing about storytelling? We do not have to settle for one!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Cinderella was a prostitute

Don't tell that to the fourth graders.

Telling fairy tales to a high school class composed almost entirely of seventeen year old guys does pose a certain challenge. Just hearing the term 'fairy tale' makes them think of butterfly wings and Disney princesses and fluffy animals who sing terrible songs and all the things they are just too cool to enjoy. It will take them another ten years to admit they all used to be in love with the Little Mermaid.

I have nothing against Disney; I openly admit I like a lot of stuff they do. But. Being a storyteller, I also know the importance of teaching the younger generations that Disney did not invent those stories. They merely made the appropriate for the greater public. Including kids.

So, today's goal was to show them where fairy tales come from and how they evolved from tales told by adults to adults into children's literature. Of course if I did a nice shiny presentation on the topic, the class would have walked out on me.
So, I just told them stories.

First I told them the tale of Rhodopis, also known as the 'Egyptian Cinderella' (not quite correct) or the 'Greek Cinderella' (more or less agreeable). Taking the bones of the story that I dug up from Aelian's Various Histories, I crafted a tale that is part history and part legend. Apart from Rhodopis being a hetaera (which detail one might or might not want to mention, depending of the age group), it also talks about slavery in Ancient Greece (slavery being a topic American students are familiar with anyway), Aesop, Ancient Egypt (and the dangers of swimming in the Nile) and a bunch of other very useful things. It shows kids how old some stories can be, and what a huge journey they have to go through until they turn into a Disney fairy tale.
(I especially enjoy telling it to American kids in that regard. Tell them this story is 2500 years old and they fall off their chairs.)

For the second half of the class I told them the legend of Zal and Rudabeh, as an example of a very old version of Rapunzel. The two girls who were in class were melting in their seats. Nobody can resist the charm of the white-haired Persian prince. Huh. The guys also enjoyed the story, although for different reasons; even though there were a lot of details to giggle about, their attention was captured and they followed the story from beginning to end. I have told this story a few times before, and thanks to audiences like this one, it is finally starting to take shape. The same goes for Rhodopis. Some tales are just too complex to be told well at first try; you have to see what details capture your audience the most, and where the story needs stretching or editing. But no matter how much they shift during these tellings, the natural magic of a well chosen tale (that was pretty awesome to begin with) works wonders with teenagers. Even if they are guys.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Scary is Forever

"We don't want to be scared. We want to be terrified."

She was eleven years old and she was talking to me in the calm, patient tone of a grown-up talking to a baby. She has younger siblings. She has experience.

Kind of hard to scare a class of fifth graders brave enough to take on the world. Nothing gets to them, really, not zombies, not werewolves, not ghosts, no nothing. No matter what scary, gory, terrifying story you pull out of your storyteller's sleeve, they will tell you 'it was great, but can you tell us a really scary one next?'. It kind of ruins your self-esteem as a storyteller after a while.

We talked about what makes scary stories scary today. They came up with a nice long list. Of course there were things like ghosts, vampires, witches and haunted houses; but there were also stalkers, kidnappers, and men with knives. The girls, very cleverly, added 'story' and 'descriptions', noting that they have an important role in making a tale scary. There were also eyeballs, loud noises, haunted buildings, and Math. And Chucky. They all seemed to agree Chucky was the scariest thing they have ever seen. Go figure.

I told them Halloween was over, and it was time to tell some other stories (mainly because I think I have told enough scary stories to last me till this time next year); but one of the girls looked up and said "Halloween is all year round." They also told me scary stories were the only kind they liked.

(Of course that is not true, whatever I start telling them they listen with their mouth hanging open anyway)

I am curious what a child psychologist would say to all that. All storytellers know scary stories are very important to children; not because they like the blood and gore, but because this is how they learn about fear in a safe way. While they listen to these stories they get to experience all the emotions - fear, worry, stress - but inside the world of the story which makes them distan enough to deal with. Their imagination only allows them as many details as they can handle, and filter out the rest.
It also gives a great opportunity for the tricksters to crawl around on hands and knees and pinch the legs of others to make them jump, but that's a different story.

As you could see from my previous post, the fire alarm was a great addition to the genre of jump tales; but to really, truly terrify a group of fifth graders... that remains to be seen. I have been adamant that from next week on I'm not going to tell any more scary tales; we are going to explore some other genres, adventures, and cultures. Still, all this talk about terror and horror made me thing a lot about this age group and their connection to fear. There is a lot in this world to be scared of.

This is why I want to attach my favorite song on the topic to this post. This is how kids shoud be raised.

Voltaire - Goodnight Demon Slayer

Sunday, October 30, 2011


So, here is the thing: storytelling makes English classes awesome.

My mother teaches high school English in Hungary. That is where I started to practice storytelling five years ago, and it is the best audience anyone could ever wish for. Let's face it: most English teachers over here get away with grammar tests and lists of words that everyone forgets as soon as the test is over. Sure, there is some listening practice from tapes (!!!) and CDs, but that's mostly two people talking about homework or reserving a table in a restaurant. If you are a teenager, that is the exact definition of BOOOOOORING. And if you are not lucky enough to have a teacher who wants to make you enjoy speaking a foreign language, you are stuck with it for your whole high school career.
Well, my mom has that crazy idea that speaking a language should be fun, which makes her a minority among her peers. Sure, she teaches grammar and stuff, but she also makes her students chat, just for the fun of it; she makes them sit in a circle instead of rows, and she makes them sing and act and watch TV shows in English.
And because I am not always available to be passed off as "listening practice", she also borrowed the storytelling CDs I accumulated over the years, and decided they were just as good. Except, better.

I would like to give a special thanks to all of the storytellers who have inspired me. And I would like to give a special big thanks in the name of the students and my mom to the following tellers:

Barbara McBride-Smith. Her Texas Greek myths are awesome. One of the girls in the school decided she wanted to tell Medusa in an English contest. Have you ever tried performing storytelling in a foreign language? Try doing Greek myths with a Texas accent... but she loved it, and she did great! You could see how much she enjoyed telling, just by looking at her. Thank you, Barbara!

Gay Ducey. She introduced me to Mouse Deer, and and I fell in love with the little critter. I told Mouse Deer stories in the school; some girls decided they wanted to tell one for an English contest. Complete with puppets and funny voices. Kantjil became an all-school rock star. They even had posters on the walls. How could one possibly resist a creature this handsome? Thank you, MaryGay!

The Storycrafters. Our education system in Hungary does not include public performance or public speaking, and it genreally doesn't encourage students to perform at all. So, when two teenage guys volunteer to do a rap story in a foreigh language, you know you are doing something right. For the same reason, at school competitions the audience is usually very quiet and very polite, applauding at the end of every poem or song; so when the whole audience jumps up and starts cheering and clapping during the performance, you know you are doing something even better. When other students the following year decide to look for a rap too, and beacuse they only find half of it, they make up the other half on their own, in English... you know you are doing something magical. Thank you, Storycrafters!

And the next step in the plan? Get funding and bring all these peole to Hungary, so these students (and many, many other students too) can meet and hear them in person! In one CD can make such a different, imagine what a live storyteller could do...

(If you would like to see a video snippet of what I am talking about, go to the school's homepage here:
Scroll down to the section called "Letölthető dokumentumok"
Download the videos titled
Egy rövidke (4 perces) bemutatófilm

And enjoy the show!)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


(Or: how to get out of telling jump tales on the professional level.)

As my friend Sara always says: if a kid is young enough to be dressed as fruit, you should not scare them.
A pack of fifth graders, however, yelling "tell us a really, really, reeeeeaaaaally scary one!!!"... is fair game.

I was scheduled to tell stories today in the library of the ETSU University School. Since this was our last meeting before Halloween, and because they chewed my ears off last week about the Golden Arm, I arrived prepared for everything and anything.
Or so I thought.

First of all, I had a fool-proof plan for NOT telling the Golden Arm (as I have already mentioned in my previous post) - I had the Mummy's Hand ready. I told the kids I am an archaeologist, which, of course, was the most awesome thing in the world in their eyes, so now they wanted to hear about archaeology. I told them some funny little details about the exavations I worked on, and strange things archaeologists tend to find (like a huge German soldier's skeleton in a Roman girl's coffin). The conversation got so edutaional it made my eyes well up with pride (I am just getting acquainted with State Standards...). We talked about archaeology, and history, and I told them how you can tell if a skeleton a boy or a girl (they loved that). Then I slowly shifted the conversation into the story of Sir Hamon and the mummy's hand. At first it is just a weird, slightly funny tale about a hand in a box, and the kids expressed their opinions about both the gift and the archaeologist. Here we got educational (sorry, I mean, Eduactional) again and talked about Egyptian burials and why people were mummified. They knew a surprising amount of details about that (well, I guess it's not all that surprising). Then the story slowly started to sound creepy, especially because I put a great emphasis on it being something that really happened (we know the story from Sir Hamon's journal, so there). To my grown-up (archaeologist) brain the end of the story comes as no spurprise at all - the ghost of the princess shows up to take back her hand. But to them, it was te creepiest, scaries story ever, even if it was not a jump tale. It worked.
The story seemed to drag on forever - it tied into the grave of King Tut and the pharaoh's curse, and since they had not heard about either of those, it was time for more Educashun (and a few creepy legends). Once we exhausted that topic, they startes whining again, demanding a second "reeeeeeally scaaaaaary" story.

The library grew very quiet by then (the older had kids left), so I decided to tell them a well known urban legend called The Stolen Cross, that I heard from my grandfather countless times as a child, in the local colors of my family and the village they live in. It is not a jump tale either, just a creepy story about a guy who steals a cross from the graveyard at night, and when he puts it back he pins his shirt to the ground and thinks the dead had caught him and dies of a heart attack.
Well. I got as far as putting the cross back into the ground; I was describing the man's dread when he felt an invisible force pull on his shirt, [whisper] and he could feel the fabric being pulled down into the grave by what felt like cold... cold... hands...


... and in that moment, the fire alarm went off!!!

I have never seen a group of kids so scared in my life! They fell out of their chairs, they screamed bloody murder, they jumped up and they all ran out of the library (which was just as good since we needed to leave the building anyway).
I could not stop laughing. I found them again on the lawn outside the school where they surrounded me and wanted to hear what happened next; some of them were already running around like crazy telling friends and teachers what just happened, and re-telling the story right there. Class was officially dismissed; I will need to finish that story next week when I return.

The best part? They all think I planned it! It certainly was the most perfect timing anyone could ever imagine.
That's just how awesome I am. I can tell a jump tale when I don't even want to. So there.

(Still giggling randomly as I type)

The Scary Season


I have been in the States for two months now, and one of those two would officially qualify as the Halloween season. The one before that did not, but most of it was spent gathering scary stories and assembling a seasonal repertoire, a sort of International Storyteller's Survival Kit for Halloween. Wherever we go, even if we happen to catch a "theme not specified" gig, the kids would see us and erupt in an ear-shattering "TELL US A SCARY STORY!" chorus that will not quiet down until we comply.

Well. We do not celebrate Halloween in Hungary. At least, not the way they do it over here.
I have to admit, American Halloween is actually pretty fun. If you have the right stories to go with it.
We (as the Tale Tellers storytelling group assembled from students and faculty) certainly do not lack opportunities to practice. Our Tale Tellers Tour just started last Friday and I have already done 4 performances. In five days. Yay!

Here are some of the highlights of the Halloween storytelling season:

1. There is virtually no Halloween gig without some (or all) of the kids demanding the infamous Golden Arm. I have to admit, I have never really liked jump tales, and this one especially annoys me for some weird reason. But since it seems to be in such a high demand, I managed to come up with a solution: I found a story that looks like the Golden Arm just enough for me to get away with it. It's called The Mummy's Hand, and it's a ghost story about a long dead Egyptian princess looking for her lost arm. It is also supposed to be true, which works for the story, and it ties into archaeology, which is right up my alley. Yay!

2. Teig O'Kane. I love telling Teig O'Kane. Yay to the scary fairies! I just told this story to 4th grade today. They loved it. This story would make such a great, Tim Burton-esque crazy road movie...

3. Talking about Tim Burton: Corpse Bride. I found two versions of the original folktale in the library (plus the one by Clarissa Pinkola Estés). They are in a book called Lilith's Cave. I am in the process of merging the two versions into one. The story makes for a great telling.

4. Werewolves. When it comes to Halloween monsters (and the supernatural in general), my favorties are the werewolves, there is no question about that. So for this season I developed a milder version of Sigmund and Sinfjoti from the Völsunga saga (minus incest and baby-killing), and Marie de France's Bisclavret (because you can't really get cooler than having a werewolf knight in King Arthur's court). I have great fun telling these stories. I especially enjoy describing the transformations.

5. Hoichi the Earless is another classic favorite of mine - a Japanese ghost story about a blind singer and the ghosts of a clan that perished in battle. Makes for a very good telling, and gets very creepy in the end.

6. Last but not least: being the only Hungarian storyteller in the United States (as far as I know) comes with certain responsibilities. We don't really have many Halloween stories, but we sure are good at creepy. The first story I developed is a historical piece about Erzsébet Báthory (a.k.a. the Blood Countess); it goes about 30-35 minutes, plus questions and answers, and tells both the legend and the historical truth. I also tell (to kids) a Hungarian version of Mr. Fox, and a folktale with witches and wizards that I have been telling since I first visited the States. I have a few short stories too, like an urban legends I learned from my grandfather (about stealing a cross from the graveyard).

I am in the process of developing some more; if not for this season, then for the next...

Monday, October 10, 2011

NSF 2011 - Magic in Jonesborough

I have been waiting for 4 YEARS to come back to the Festival, and now that I came back, it felt like I have never left. I saw Jonesborough the day before the Festival - anticipation making the air quiver like a heat wave, tents and decorations going up as if by magic, people with that special smile on their faces. I saw Jonesborough after the Festival; the sea of people slowly trickling out of the town, tents disappearing with the last daylight, everyone slightly dizzy and blinking at the sunlight as if awakening from a centuries-long dream.

And, of course, I saw Jonesborough during the Festival, and there is nothing like it.

I have been taking notes furiously all through the weekend (we get university credit for listening to stories, how awesome is that?!) - there is simply too much to remember, and still, too much one will never forget. So right now, instead of recounting the whole three days minute by minute as I would like to do, I will give you my top 5 favorite moments of the weekend!
(The order is purely by chance, mind you, I would never compare them to one another in any way)
Here we go:

1. Dolores Hydock. As a person and as a storyteller. As usual, she was the star of the Festival. I didn't get to hear her tell Silance, which is probably for the better, because I am seriously close to a Silance overdose from listening to her CD over and over again. But I did get to hear her tell Eglamore and Cristobel (and buy the CD, I am so doomed) and half of the time I was looking at other people's faces to see how they reacted to my favorite parts in the story. There must have been about a thousand people in the Library Tent. And we all laughed and cried and had the "Aaaaawwww" experience, and it was perfect.

2. Antonio Sacre. Strange thing, when I was here four years ago, I heard him tell and he was good, but I did not count him among my favorites. But for some reason (people change in 4 years, and I think I am also getting the hang of the whole "personal storytelling" thing) this time I really, really enjoyed his telling. And when Sunday morning he told his own poem about working with high school kids and poetry slams, he completely, utterly blew my mind, and I cheered with the rest of the crowd until my throat went sore. I love working with high school students as a storyteller, I absolutely adore them, and he talked about them with so much love and such a great sense of humor that now he definitely is in my top 5!

3. Clare Murphy. It was great to see her again (I met her before through FEST), and she did such an amazing job on the big stage! People adored her. She was telling in Tent on the Hill, and people were spilling out of the tend and over the hill, to hear her Irish legends. We have a great need for scary fairies and dashing heroes. She apparently enjoyed the well-trained Jonesborough audiences who did whatever she told them to do.

4. Megan Hicks. I did not get to hear the civil war story, but I did go to hear her European fairy tales. She did a great job with Molly Whoopie and the Twelve dancing princesses, but she absolutely rocked Davy and the Devil! She is not your average nice and cuddly fairy tale teller. She is brave and strong and sassy and she had the most amazing voice. For the third time in one weekend, I saw the crowd stand up as one and cheer.

5. For some strange reason, I also count the end of the Festival in my Top 5. Not because I liked the fact that it was over (I could keep going for a week...) but because it ended on such a great note. I was in the Courthouse Tent for the Sunday afternoon show. Ed Stivender was the last teller; he sang a song with us, and everyone sang together, and it was the perfect song for closing the Festival. Just when he was finished, we heard the whistle of the Jonesborough train, and I saw the tellers spill out of the tent right below the rail tracks and wave at the train with hands and shawls and musical instruments as it rumbled by and carried the 39th National Storytelling Festival away.

+1 (There is always a plus one)
I needed to relax and catch my breath, once the Festival was over. I was invited to the storytellers' party for Sunday evening, but I have about two hours to wander around and relax. I finally made my way to the park, and sat on the root of the huge willow tree, and closed my eyes in the nice warm autumn sunshine for a few moments. I heard people talking on the other side of the creek. It was a lady, walking two dogs, and a man in a baseball hat.
"So, did you tell at the Festival?" the woman asked.
"Yes, I did! I told at the Swappin' Ground." the man answered proudly.
"That's great! What did you tell?"
"Oh, just a small story about..." (the dogs barking drowned out the rest)
"That sounds great! Will you tell it to me?"
And they stopped right there in the park, with the dogs barking and jumping, and he told her the story.

This is exactly why the Festival exists.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

It's all about the stories, dear Watson

Getting a scholarship for doing storytelling work 24/7? Best. Thing. Ever.

Finally, after doing all kinds of stuff kind of simultaneously, I am in a place where it is my full-time job and responsibility to work on my storytelling. I read about it; I write about it; I discuss it with my classmates; I hear lectures about it; I go to see storytellers perform; and I perform myself. When I am not working on my stories, I am doing research for new ones. I have been raiding the library almost on a daily basis, and I turned the Interlibrary Loan system into Skynet. Long story short, I am having a field day. A two-semester long one.

My favorite part about storytelling work (right after being on stage, of course) is background research. I got that much out of the Archeology Master's. I found out that I immensely enjoy digging into a story and seeing where it came from, and who took it over from whom. Once I get started, time ceases to exist, and then it is two in the morning and my friends in Hungary are waking up, asking me why am I not in bed yet. It is kinda hart to explain. Here is what it would sound like:

Well, there is this story that I found, it is an Algerian folktale published in an English magazine in 2001. I have been looking for the original all over the place. Finally, after Googling and JSTORing my life away, I figured out that it is actually a Berber folktale, and has been published before in a French folktale collection in Paris, in the 1940's. Here comes the Skynet, someone must have that book in America too. And, lo and behold, they do. The firt loan request bounces with a huge red warning, "THIS BOOK IS IN FRENCH", so I have to do the whole order again, and tell Skynet that yeah, I kinda figured (Contes Algériens, Paris, 1940?... No sh*t, Sherlock.) Book comes in, and then comes a whole night of painfully slow translation, word by word, sentence by sentence, and all the previous sins of Google Translate are forgotten. I read enough French just to be able to tell if the translation is A.) correct or B.) fishy. Good enough.
Moving on. Comparing the translated version to the English, I notice significant differences that do not come from the translation (extra chapter, that kind of stuff). On we go to happily Googling and JSTORing our life away. The problem? The female hero's name is Aicha, kind of a common name in that part of the world, so in addition to the tale I am actually interested in, I end up with a whole bunch of other Berber folktales where the hero is called Aicha, Aisha, or Ayesha, and three of them are daughters of merchants, so no help there either (the whole title of the French version is Aicha, the merchant's daughter). Some of these tales are actually good, so I am not complaining, but I am obsessed with that one particular story. So.
Apart from searching for the name, I also search for all the other names and places in the story. The prince's name is not helping, he is called Aslan, I could Google that till the end of days and keep ending up in Narnia. The villain, on the other hand, is pretty unique (Horath), I do have a chance there. And I do. As soon as I turn of the Hungarian autocorrect (Horvath). You know those books on GoogleBooks that don't really have a preview, but if you search for a word in them, they show a two-line long snippet with that word? Well, I manage to find a footnote in one of these snippets referring to a name and half a title. Here we go. I find the name and the full citation. Old magazine, a hundred years old, in French, archives on the Internet, God bless the Internet. Searching French archives. That are in French. Searching in French. Found it.
This is the earliest version of the tale where I have gotten so far - 1916. But I do have some very interesting leads. One is that the story from the French book is actually a mosaic: only the first part was about Aicha, the later adventures belonged to other Berber heroes, and surprisingly enough those same stories were printed in the same newspaper. Whoever chose Aicha's tale for the book (that would be the author I guess), added the latter stories to Aicha's series of adventures, maybe to make it longer or more complete. Also, there is a point in the story where the wandering Aicha meets a mysterious stranger with scras on his face, who tells her a story about his escape from an island full of strange cannibals. Hey, I know that story. I know that guy. Aicha just met Sindbad the sailor... that opens a whole new thread of clues to go on!
And this is not all. To tell the story properly, I also need to read up on Berber folktales and culture. So, back to the library to dig. The story also has an ogre. Two hours worth of research later I figure out that 'ogre' is French for 'ghoul'. Here we go. Let's see what we know about ghouls.

At some point during this investigation (a fairly late point, but oh well) it also occurred to me to actually ask a storyteller who speaks Arabic. Wouldn't that just be so much easier?! So I went online and asked the other storytellers if they knew of someone. And so I got the name of an Algerian woman who is currently compiling a folktale collection about strong women stories... waiting for her to respond to my email now.

There is no solution to this investigation. No criminal, no original story. Not one clear answer. But if you keep following the clues, and walking the path back in time as it gets thinner and thinner and splits up into many smalles threads, if you keep your eyes and mind open to details... it will take you to places so far away in time and place you would have never even dreamed of. And when you return in the end, you will have one heck of a story to tell...

Thursday, September 1, 2011

X-tellers, assemble!

(I'm so gonna get kicked around by the geeks for that title.)*

It really is like joining the X-men, in more ways than one. There is this huge, amazing setting that is the ETSU campus, this closed world of students and sciences and creativity. Then, there are our professors, gathering us from all the corners of the USA (or, in my case, the world), to help us nurture and develop the skills we already have, and teach us new tricks of the trade. We are all gifted in one way or another; we all come from very different backgrounds, religious, ethnic, family, language, age, all those details that make the handful of storytelling students colorful and unique. And our gifts are all different too; the stories, the telling styles, the tale of how we got here and the plans of where we are going, they are all different and fascinating. And together, we make a great team, and we have a mission: keeping storytelling alive and sharing it with the rest of the world. Even if many people do not understand why we are doing this at all.
With that said: first week of classes, and I am having the time of my life. It is not always easy, being an international student in America; many times locas students are just not entirely sure what to do with us, or how to talk to us, and it gets all kinds of awkward, or even lonely. Adjusting to a new culture and a new place, far away from everything and everyone you know is not easy, and even when you do, not everyone will be nice to you. You have to keep trying to find those groups, cliques, communities that just accept you as you are.
Good thing I came here to study storytelling.
Storytellers are a wonderful bunch of people. They are open-minded, kind, fun, and completely kick down the cultural boundaries. As I said, we have a passion in common, and that washes the initial awkwardness away. When I first walked into class, I was greeted with smiles and questions and stories, and I just felt like I belonged. No matter how strange and faraway this land is across the sea, storytellers are storytellers everywhere you go, and they will be there at the end of your journey to catch you.
Romantic images aside, I really do like my classmates. They are smart and fun, and as different from each other as you can possibly be, and as far I can tell now, we work perfectly together. I haven't felt this anticipation about going to class since... um. Sophomore year in college? I think I took some awesome course back then. Yep.
Anyhow. I am here, they are here, we are going to go through these two semesters together, and I am looking forward to it!
X-tellers, assemble!

*Just so you know, I could have gotten my references straight if I wanted to.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Back in Jonesborough

I have worked two years for this. Two. Years.
Actually, it might have been three.

After I returned to Hungary from my one-year trip that really, truly transformed me into a storyteller, everything I did with school and work was for making sure that I would come back here, sooner or later. Finished my degree in Archeology, graduated, applied for the Fulbright, worked my way through mountains of paperwork, found work to make money, practiced my storytelling and performed all over the place, got a job, got the Fulbright, more paperwork, administration, visa, and finally, here I am.
Of course it would not have happened without the help of a lot of amazing people who helped me thorugh all this work, and I will not thank all of them here because I don't want to sound like I am at the Oscars. They know who they are and they know how grateful I am.
Long story short: I have been accepted to the Storytelling Master's program at East Tennesse State University. More paperwork, traveling, moving in, jetlag, more jetlag, campus maps, orientations, I spent five days on the Johnson City campus and I was itching to finally break free. School is amazing, and ETSU is the best place to be; but I knew one that is even better.
On the Friday of my first week, I couldn't bear it anymore: I called for a cab (yeah, no wheels, European exchange student here) and headed straight to Jonesborough.
The driver was explaining to me she was not entirely sure where the "storytelling center" is; but when we turned the corner and I saw the Visitor's Center, I told her she could drop me off right there.
It was early afternoon; I arrived just in time for the Teller-In-Residence performance. It all felt suddenly real; three years just melted away as memories, smells, feelings came rushing back. I crossed the parking lot where the market used to be; only a few short weeks, and a huge tent will be standing there, a tent I must have shown to half the world on a photo to illustrate what a storytelling festival really is. I practically ran down the little alley between the parking lot and the main street; still cool, green, crowded with trinkets, smells of warm grass in the sun.
And then I burst into the light on the other side of the alley, and I was back in Jonesborough.
It felt like returning to Narnia. I can't really describe it any better than that. All the details I loved were still the same; the same shops, the same colors, the same smells. I must have looked like some crazy person, walking down the street with my eyes welling up and grinning like the Cheshire cat. My own personal little fairy tale world from three years ago was still the same. And I was back.
Arrived to the Storytelling Center just in time to say hi to everyone, pick up my ticket, and find a place in the auditorium. Then, I just sat, and let the memories wash over me.
The ISC still smells the same. When I used to work there, it had that really unique scent that probably came from some potpourri they sell at the gift shop; one whiff of the air inside was enough to take me back to the storytelling mood and the storytelling days. I sat in my seat and listened to the people murmuring around me and looked at the empty stage and remembered the evening when I was sitting up there telling Hungarain stories, feeling like the queen of the world.
And then the day's queen of the world appeared.
Dolores Hydock has been my instant favorite the moment I first heard her tell at the National Storytelling Festival; then, I met her again while I was an intern at the ISC; and now here she was in her own graceful, smiling self, and she noticed me across the room, and recognized me, and proceeded to introducing me to the audience which made me look not unlike a tomato with a sunburn and red hair, and then she hugged me. It was so good to see her again! She will be performing my two favorite stories at the Festival and I am going to be there to listen and if I have to break a leg and an arm to be there so be it.
Her performance of the day was a wonderful mixture of the life stories of a Southern lady and the story of how she collected those stories. I couldn't say which was more fascinating and more touching. All her words just in place, her face, posture and accent changing as she slipped in and out of character; her own humor and wit combined with those of the lady she was telling us about. The tales were full of references to American culture and people I don't know about; and still, even for me, the once-upon-a-time Southern lady turned into someone loveable and real.
After the performance and talking some more to the ISC staff and Jimmy Neil, I took a walk in Jonesborough. I wandered in and our of shops and up and down streets; and when I finally grew hungry, I went to the Cranberry Thistle.
Right after the ISC, the Thistle means the heart of Jonesborough to me. I used to have breakfast there, and sometimes lunch or an afternoon piece of delicious cake. I wandered in, and I felt right at home; there were no other guests, just the lovely ladies of the Thistle, so I got to sit wherever I wanted, got a big glass of lemonade, and a sandwich that could have fed an army for a week. I just sat there, listened to music, munched on my lunch, and felt completely happy.
I am back on campus now. This year will be mine, all mine, and I am going to enjoy it to the last second before they kick me out of the country. I will be in, around and all over Jonesborough; I am going to be there at ever storytelling event I can possibly reach in some way; I am going to contradance all my shoes to pieces, and I will learn as much about storytelling as I can get. I am going to drink deep from the well that is Jonesborough. And then I will be on my way again, just to beeline around and wonder back here again from time to time.
Every once in a while, one needs to return to Narnia.

(And thank God we have no mean old lion to tell us we are all grown up and cannot come back anymore! Take that, Aslan. Duh.)

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Guadalajara 2011 - The tales of the Ocean Mouse

Yes, Ocean Mouse. Sea Mouse, more accurately. The pun took me almost three days to figure out, and it's a cute one, so I just had to share it with you all. 'Mar' is Spanish for sea, 'ratón' is Spanish for mouse. Hence, Maratón.

Of course, I am talking about the 2011 Maratón de Cuentos (Story Marathon) in Guadalajara, Spain.

My first storytelling festival experience was Jonesborough in 2007; ever since then, every storytelling event (including our own festival) I involuntarity compared to that one. And let me tell you, it is hard to measure up to Jonesborough. Not really in numbers or quality, or the tellers; not even tradition or fame. It was the unique feeling of a whole town living our of time in some fairy tale world for days and nights.
Guadalajara brought all those memories back, and more.

We arrived Friday afternoon, just after the Marathon started; Pep was nice enough to take me to my hotel to get rid of my luggage; after that, I was on my own to walk downtown and find the Palace.
It took me about half an hour, but it was worth it.
The closer I got to the Palace, the more people I saw; music floated above the palace gardens and the green labyrinth, and I saw all the colors of the rainbow on the walls. As I got closer, the crowd began to grow, and the music with it; and suddenly, I turned a corner, and there it was: banners, flags, colors and the marvelous old building of a palace filled with stories.
Maratón de Cuentos.

I wandered into the gardens first. They were filled with colorful little tents selling colorful little things; jewelry, dresses, trinkets. And of course under the colorful arches there were long tables filled with books. I dove into the thrill of the book-hunt (with what money I had left from the travels and Toledo) and spent a lot of time (I mean, a lot) wandering shiny-eyed and bushy-tailed along the tables, turning pages and admiring covers, and generally enjoying the fact that I understood what was written in them. I was finally surrounded by a crowd of Spanish-speaking people, and I loved it.
(Spanish was my second language in high school, and my mother used to teach it too; I grew to love this language when I was a kid, but I only visited Spain once before, and I was eight years old then)
I finally settled for buying one book (ONE!) - a collection of Spanish gypsy legends and tales, and wandered on. A little farther down the road by the green labyrinth there was another tent, with a sign that said Taller Cyrano - Poems and tales for measure. For one Euro, you could sit down and have a poem or a story written just for you on the spot. Of course I had to buy a story, how often do you get to buy stories tailored just for you?! So I sat, and talked to the nice guy wo sat at the table, and he wrote me a story (in Spanish!) and I paid for it with one Euro and a 200 Forint coin. We were both satisfied with the business. How awesome is that.

Finally, I wandered inside through the main gates, and walked right into the story.

What you are seeing now on the photos is the inside of the Palace, an open courtyard covered with a roof against the sun, filled with chairs and hundreds of people listening to tales. In the back, under the green tents, sat the artists who illustrated every story as they were being told, and hung the pictures on the walls for veryone to see!

I grew to love this idea during the Marathon. Every time I walked along the long rows of pictures, I admired how beautiful they were, and tried to guess the stories they illustrated. It was great fun, and a beautiful addition to the lively colors of the festival.

So, I sat down, and listened. I spent a long time listening, drinking in the language and the stories from the ever-flowing fountain. The Marathon is really what its name suggests: non-stop storytelling for three days in a row, day and night.

Around ten o'clock at night (still not dark outside) I joined the other storytellers who came with us from Toledo to the marathon. We met outside the Palace, and talked, and laughed, and then the local tellers and the organizers of the festivals took us upstairs to the balcony for a welcome dinner. It was amazing; we stood on the balcony above the crowd and the colorful tents, watched the sky turnd dark, watched the swallows flying in great numbers, nibbled at stawberries, cherries and cookies, talked and laughed, drank champagne, and listened to the music from below (in th gardens, simultaneously with the Marathon, there was a marathon of music going on. Inside the palace, not a note could be heard, but outside it was magic)

Once dinner was over, we all returned to the inside court to wait for our turn in the telling, which, according to the program, was about to happen at 3 in the morning. So we wrapped ourselves in blankets, sleeping bags, and some of us even in banners and pieces of courtains, warmed our fingers on cups of boiled wine and listened to the tales.
We had audience all night. Even if most of the people went home, after midnight we still had about fourty or fifty people listening to our tales. I almost fell asleep once or twice, but when the FEST tellers started telling, I felt awake again. I told my tale around 5 in the morning, in Spanish (try telling on stange in your second foreign language... I would love to hear what I said, but the audience seemed to like it). My first official Spanish telling. It was fun :)
I waited till the sun came up before I walked back to the hotel to sleep. I woke up at 3 in the afternoon, got dressed, and walked back to the Palace. This was enough to mess up my perception of time; from that on (well, even from before that) the whole three days in Guadalajara felt like being out of time. Days, nights, light, dark, it didn't really matter; I slept and I woke randomly, I listened to enought stories to last a lifetime, I laughed, I cried, I wandered in the city, I ate when I felt like it, I hung out with other tellers, some of them disappeared and some stayed, and it was all very colorful, and very exciting, and magical.

The whole city was full of story people. They were eithr storytellers, or friends of storytellers, or listeners, or writers, or musicians, or just tourists who wandered into the city and got trapped in the Marathon like flies in honey. We couldn't walk ten meters down the street without meeting someone one of us knew; we always found each other at the oddest places (I ran into Birgit and Brendan in an alley at an open bazaar once).
And then, all of a sudden, after a century or two, we were in the courtyard again, and colorín colorado, the Marathon was over.
So, we danced.

We danced to the music under the yellow-red-orange banners that hung low from the ceiling; we waltzed and polkaed (however you spell it) and danced in circles, and laughed, and spun, and had a great time while the decorations of the festival were already coming down around us. We went to have dinner together, courtesy of our generous hosts and the festival's organizers; and by the time we returned to the palace, the square was empy, the banners gone, and not a soul wandering around in the garden.

It felt like a fairy market; for three days and nights, it was there, filled with magic and colors and laughter; and suddenly, it was gone with the light of the day. It left the same sweet heartache behind, the same exhausted happiness and memories like trapped butterflies. One could only sit in a quiet park, smell the freshly printed pages of the book of tales, and make a quiet promise - see you all next year...

Monday, June 27, 2011

FEST 2011 - Jeux Sans Frontières

More than half a hundred storytellers gathered in a haunted castle in Spain to share ideas, news and stories for three days and as many nights before they scattered again in every direction of the compass.
Sounds like a fairy tale?
You bet.
(Also, 'castles in Spain'. I learned that from Orlando Furioso. The air castles of Spain, held together by spells and dreams, and occasionally a hyppogriff. How freakin' cool is that.)

It was the fourth annual meeting of the Federation for European Storytelling. In Spain. More specifically, in Toledo. Even more specifically, the thousand-year-old castle of San Servador, complete with its very own five-hundred-year-old ghost (that has already been exorcised at least once).
There was no way I would have stayed away from that.

I set out by plane on a rainy Tuesday morning from Budapest to Madrid, and I realized once again how much I love to travel. Especially by plane. Not like I am not afraid of a crash, but the whole experience makes me feel excited and comfortable at the same time. Terminals are easy. They tell you exactly where to go, and what to do, and they are usually clean (at least the ones I've been to), and full of interesting things and people. From the moment you walk in the airport gates all through to the gates of your destination, you are somewhere else. Outside of time. In-between. No everyday problems, no worries. Just... traveling.
(Annnd yes, I'm an Eshu, thank you to all of you who asked ;))

So, as I said, I set out from Budapest to Madrid. I was prepared to tell in Spanish; the tale I brought, translated and practiced, was the Hungarian folktale of The Boy who wanted to walk on the clouds. And now that I could see the clouds from above, I started to understand why. From below, clouds are just puffy white and grey things in the sky; but from above, they are their very own realm. The Cloud Kingdoms. There are valleys and mountains, islands and great white seas, cities with towers and walls, ships that sail the endless blue, and flocks of tiny white sheep. I spent three ours staring at them with my nose pressed against the glass. Not like it has been the first time I flew. But with the story fresh and rehearsed, it suddenly made all the sense in the world.

In Madrid, I got a brief taste of the 10+ metro lines from the airport to the railway station, and a little bit of the pouring rain, before I was on the train and on my way to Toledo. In the meantime, I found an unlikely travel companion in the one and only Giacomo Casanova, whose travel journal of Spain proved to be an amusing read on the long plane and train ride.
When I arrived to the most beautiful train station I have ever seen, the rain was still pouring. I walked around the castle hill, and up some steps; and suddenly, there it was, Toledo on the other side of the Tajo, with a great ridge in-between, and the sight was so beautiful I had to stop and stare. I climbed up the hillside, carrying my backpack with wild ducks circling above, and stood on top of the road, staring at the city and the river and the bridges, laughing.

San Servador is old, and cozy, and beautiful, everything one can wish a castle to be. And it was already starting to fill up with storytellers. Pep was there, with some of the other Spanish organizers, and I knew everything in the world was all right. I found my room, and a roommate from Austria called Karin, all smiling eyes and colorful clothes. And then other people started to arrive. Martin from England (big hug and laughing), the Italians (Paola, Davide and Giovanna, long time no see, and a lot of smiles), and other storytellers, one after another, some of them I knew and some of them were new. And then suddenly Birgit and Tone were there too, and the conference has begun.

When you have 50+ storytellers in one place (which usually puts 'herding cats' into a new perspective), speaking more than a dozen different languages, it is always confusing in the beginning. But our steering group did a great job keeping the program together as we introduced ourselves, and laughed, and slowly figured out who spoke what. That is one great thing about international storytelling: most of us speak 2+ languages, and then it is just a matter of time to figure out who can help you speak to whom. And by the end of the week, we even spoke in languages we have never heard before, and every once in a while I found myself wondering which language I have been using a moment ago... our hosts compared the whole experience to Babel, and I liked the idea. Many many languages, working together, trying to reach the sky. The book got it all wrong.

Once the introductions were over, it was time for some short presentations; first, the FEST babies, those projects and organizations that were born from the inspiration of FEST meetings in the past. One was FIST, the new organization of Italian storytellers, and the other one was our very own HOLNEMVOLT Festival. I was proud like a mother.
After the presentations, Abbi Patrix told us the tale of FEST; some of us have heard it before, but there were new details to it now, like to any good story, and it was good to hear it again, to remind us where we started.

After the presentations, we had dinner; by that time, the rain stopped, and a rainbow appeared over San Servador. This settled out program for the evening: after dinner, we all gathered and walked down the hillside to the bridge, to cross over the river and visit the magnificent city of Toledo.
A nighttime walking tour.
The city was ours; we barely ever saw anyone as we walked down streets, through narrow alleys and under great old buildings, following our guide who told us the story of Toledo. I think we must have spent about three hours wandering around, amazed by the city in the dark, the shadows around the cathedral, the moon above the main square, the gates and massive walls and cobblestones and tiny little balconies. It was great fun, doing that tour with other storytellers. I did not envy the guide, but we had so much to talk about... and at night, it felt like the whole of Toledo belonged to us, and there was no one else within the walls.

It was very late by the time we got back to San Servador; after a whole day of traveling and all the new things and the excitement, I fell into bed as I was. And the conference had just begun.

After the first day of the conference, three more followed; we had a lot to talk about. There were panel discussions of different topics; I participated in Young storytellers, Multilingual experiences, and Repertoire. In Young Storytellers, I learned about storytelling education in other countries; how the new tellers are taught, through mentors or in schools, where they practice and how. It was all very useful and fascinating, especially since I am trying to help two other young Hungarian tellers (see below), and also because I only have 2 months left before I return to the USA to start the Storytelling MA program at ETSU. (Yay!)
Multilingual experiences was equally interesting; as a group I have described above, we needed to talk about solutions to multilingual telling, which includes telling to audiences with a different native language, and also telling with other tellers, translation or tandem. There were a lot of fascinating ideas for tandem telling, and we all agreed that languages are essential in our work, and also in promoting the art of storytelling. Everyone should be able to tell in their own language, but it is also important to speak at least one other, to make international telling easier. And of course, the more the merrier.
Repertoire was mainly about what kind of stories we tell, and how we work with them. Patricia McGill had a lovely image for that: she said picking stories is like buying shoes. There are the ones that are comfortable enough to wear for years; and there are some beautiful ones you just have to have, even if they hurt your feet for a long time before you break them in. And sometimes you just need to run into a shop and buy one out of necessity, and that's okay too.

Apart from panel discussions, we also had group meetings. One for festival organizers, which was extremely useful for me (our festival is still a baby, while others are already teenagers, or even grown-ups). I took pages and pages of notes of useful ideas and creative tidbits about making a storytelling festival successful. And there were a lot to them to learn from. Hakaya, Maratón de Cuentos, ZauberWort, Raccontamiunastoria, Beyond the Border, Festival on the Edge... it would be a long list, if I listed them all. But they all had good things to say, and I was happy to be part of the group.
We also had meetings about FEST itself, trying to figure out what to do to make it more visible, to promote storytelling, to create a website, a newsletter... there were a lot of ideas, and we invented the wheel more than once, but there were things to be said, and in this huge Game Without Borders, we all had to be on the same page. Our greatest fear was that between the annual meetings (Belgium next year, Rome after that, and then Sweden) nothing would happen. But everyone seemed very determined to continue active projects in-between, so we had all the hopes in the world. We'll see.

On the last day of the conference, we even sketched out an international all-European storytelling project for the 2012 Grimm year. It is called Project Grimm, and includes dozens of tellers all telling Grimm tales in their own languages, styles and versions. I am currently coordinating the project. Fun fun fun!

And of course, we had fun. While the festival organizers worked, those who do not have a festival had creative labs, and in two days they created five multilingual story performances, one better than the other. Thursday evening we all walked into Toledo once again, to the baroque theater, to watch the show. One group after another walked on stage and told us stories, and with the abundance of languages they used, all the stories were great, and the performances enjoyable, full of fun ideas for translation and interpretation.

We even had a Mini Film Fest, where we watched videos and slide shows of various storytelling events and programs of the past year. It was nice to see the photos from Raccontamiunastoria, the amazing DVD from Hakaya, and I even presented a short music video myself, cut from the videos made at Holnemvolt. Once the music is legal, I will post it online as well...

Anyhow, a lot more happened in four days than one would believe; it felt like a year, or more, some reverse fairy tale where one thinks she spent a year in the other world, and comes back to find out nothing has changed. Not that I mind.

We are all very different, us storytellers. It is a unique European experience, having so many cultures and so many languages in one place. (Just for the record: Spain, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Italy, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Greece, Sweden, Norway, Canada, Israel, Jordan, Chile, Mexico... I must have left one or two out...) We have ideas, and festivals, and a lot of stories; sometimes we invent wheels enough to supply a car factory, but most of the time, we get along just fine. Storytelling builds long and strong bridges from one culture to another, and even when we are tired and confused and don't always understand every word, we always find our way back in the end. It is a great honor to be a part of such a great group of people; to listen to the tales, and share the news the old way: traveling, listening, telling.

And here ends the conference, but not the tale.