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.