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.)