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