Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Storytellers undercover: I swear I am a folklorist!

Soooo. New Orleans. The week before Halloween. Voodoo Fest. 80-something degrees. Live music.
And the annual meeting of the American Folklore Society (of which I am a member since... two weeks ago?)

It was Dr. Sobol's brilliant idea to apply with a panel on gaming, popular culture, and storytelling to the AFS conference about the Continuity and Creativity of Culture. Our small but powerful team of undercover superheeeerhm, I mean, storytellers, consisted of Kevin Cordi (representing improv role-playing and creative drama), Patrick Gerard (representing storytelling in video games), and yours truly (representing traditional tabletop). Our panel was scheduled for 8am on Saturday, which, given that the hotel was a corner away from a Friday night on Bourbon Street, was less than ideal, but that did not break our momentum at all.

New Orleans, by the way, is a lot of fun. I have been there four years ago, visiting my friend, Angela, and I have been planning on going back ever since. When I was not sitting in a folklore panel, we were wandering around in the French Quarter, visiting touristy places, eating good food, and listening to good music.

When I was sitting in panels... well, that was actually a lot of fun too. For example, Milbre Burch and her husband presented an amazing two-hour panel on their project of interviewing 90 storytellers all around the USA, and gathering more than 200 hours of footage. They showed us snippets of this great project, and the familiar faces - Ray Hicks, Kathryn Windham, Dovie Thomason, Gioia Timpanelli, Olga Loya, and many others - were greeted with sighs and smiles and nods from the audience. They definitely had a lot of important things to say about stories and storytelling.

Kay Stone's presentation on the Grimm tales and their legacy was also fascinating. I have not heard Kay tell before, but Kevin drew my attention to her part in the program, and I was glad he did. Kay is a folklorist and a storyteller, and a great combination at that too! She told interesting variations of Grimm tales to illustrate her point: Japanese Hansel and Gretel, Native American Cinderella, original Snow White etc. It was as enjoyable as it was thought provoking, and especially appropriate for 2012. Grimm tales are in this year!

Another highlight of the event was the panel with the creators of Treme from HBO. If you have not seen that show yet, go home and watch it! It's a lot of fun, and one of the best shows I have seen since the Wire, which is no coincidence. I personally enjoyed the talk with the creators, writers and producers a lot more than if the actors had been there: it was interesting to get a glimpse of how such a story, in the broad and true sense of the word, is created by a team. Also, they were all very friendly, and fun to talk to.

All in all, my first folklore conference felt like a success. I have been to archaeology conferences before, and had my fair share of storytelling gatherings. Folklorists are generally less talkative and sharing than storytellers, but as we have seen, there are exceptions on both sides, and plenty of crossover between the fields.

Also. New Orleans. Nuff said.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The first Story Slam in Hungary!

Well, technically, the second. The first one was in September.
Now that we have had two, and the second one bigger and more successful than the first, we can officially announce that the story slam movement of Hungary has begun!

I am so incredibly excited about this I can't even put it to words. I am over here in the US of A, and yet, I get to be a part of another great moment in Hungarian storytelling history. Go figure.

Here is how we do the slams, for those of you who are interested in comparing notes:

1. Every month we have a theme (the first one was "bawdy", the second "antique", and next month it is going to be "twilight", no pun intended)

2. Every month we have a featured guest (first it was master storyteller Berecz András, next Dr. Németh György, everyone's favorite Classics professor who can fill an auditorium at 8am on a Monday)

3. First, the featured guest has 30-45 minutes to tell some stories and break the ice, while everyone else drinks and enjoys the show

4. Then, we draw names from a hat, or, in case we lack enough names, we mercilessly bully the audience until someone gets up to tell

5. Audience votes for the best at the end, and we pass a hat around for donations that become the winner's prize

6. Stories has to be personal and relatively true (although at this point our people need some training because this is a difficult concept for Hungarian storytellers to grasp, through non-storytellers got it just fine)

As I have said, personally I did not attend the slams (even though I am rapidly developing spontaneous teleportation skills, I'll keep you posted on my progress). I had to ask people over chat and Skype and Facebook to tell me about their experiences, and I have gathered a lot f second-hand knowledge and positive feedback. Despite all my worries and doubts, slams seem to appeal to Hungarian audiences just like they appeal to everyone else. Yay!

The success of the slam genre fascinates me, by the way. I can't quite put my finger on it. Is it the competition? Is it the setting? Is it the real life, uncensored personal stories? (the latter needs a nudge, we still have people showing up and telling folktales, but they at least show up, and tell, and that is what counts!) Whatever it is, people seem to like it, and we had folks in the audience who would not have shown up for traditional telling.

We hope to keep going with the slams, and make them a chain of events that leads up to the Holnemvolt Festival. The plan is to have a mini-slam during the weekend of the festival in April where the winners of the monthly slams can perform for everyone's fun. Traditional telling and personal stories will come together to make a more diverse, and, hopefully, more popular festival.

In the meantime, I will be sitting here once a month, waiting for the photos, videos and feedback to come in. I will keep you posted!

Monday, October 8, 2012

VIP - Very Inspired Person

I have known most of these people for years, and I still feel like a fan that has just crashed a VIP party.
On top of all the unforgettable stories, all the amazing moments, all the meetings and the conversations and the laughter, my favorite part of Jonesborough is still the after-festival party. When everyone has gone home and the tents are empty, the storytellers gather in a house on the hill for a last evening out of time before we have to return to reality.
Storytellers are wonderful people. And a lot of fun. Winding down after three days of non-stop performance work, that would be excuse enough to pull a Sleeping Beauty and not wake up for a week, they sit around the house sipping wine or beer, eating delicious food, and talking about... stuff. Contrary to popular belief, storytellers don't talk about stories all the time. Surprise! What we do talk about is everything else, and mostly, life in general. We talk about our journeys, our experiences, our families and friends and past moments and future plans. We talk about kings and cabbages and pets, and places we want to go. I mingle with a passion, walking from one group to another, picking up conversations that started this same time last year, and starting new ones that will last till the next spring. In the meantime, tellers gather on the porch, despite the chilly evening, and suddenly there is music everywhere, and whoever is not playing an instrument is stomping, clapping, snapping, or outright dancing on any clear flat surface. It feels like family.
Every time I have the privilege of spending an evening with a group of storytellers I rediscover why I would not do anything else in the world rather than tell stories for a living. You don't get this sense of community in any other art form. It lights up the map with small colorful dots, and every dot means a person that you know, a person who shared stories, and music, and wine with you, and when you see each other on the road, they will do it again. You learn more from these meetings than any amount of lecture or research.
Once again, it was quite the crazy blur of an evening, much like last year, much like anywhere else in the world where I have been. I was glad that I got to talk to people I have seen on the stage over the weekend, just to thank them for their stories and tell them they were amazing. Storytellers need to hear that as much as any other artist. Plus, secretly, I was very proud to be in their company.
Then, the next morning you wake up and you are back in the real world, with storytellers traveling the roads in all the directions of the wind. The Festival is over, for now. We'll see each other on the road.

Shining highlights

Despite the gloomy weather and the drip drip drip at the edge of the tents, the Festival marched on with unbreakable momentum. Thousands of people warmed the tents with sheer enthusiasm (and additional body heat). Here is a quick and completely subjective list of the highlights, round one.

Jay O'Callahan's Forged in the stars has been one of my favorites. NASA did right to commission him. He told his true stories with a passion, and chose just the right stories to tell. All through the performance I kept thinking about Helga, my ex-roomie and friend, who is studying Astronomy in Australia right now, and who used to do a "star stories" program with me back in Hungary. If I ever get a chance to work with her again, and get to create something 1% as awesome as Jay O'Callahan, I will be extremely pleased with myself.

Michael Harvey got on this list (on top of being a kickass storyteller) because of his story choice: I would endure cold rain and picking up tent garbage any time any day if I get to listen to a full-hour telling of Taliesin. Insert heart flutter here. Taliesin was one of the first stories I started telling as a completely green little storyteller, and I have a soft spot for it in my heart. Especially when someone has the time to do it justice. Michael has a great sense of humor, by the way. Just sayin'.

Hannah Harvey amazed me with the depth and breadth (see how I can spell 'breadth' at 11:30 at night!!!) of her telling. She put years of work into collectiong coal miner stories and crafting them into performance, and it shows; she took us on a journey on a road she knows well, and entertained us in her mischievous and at the same time deeply caring ways.

Alton Chung was another big favorite for me this year. His one-hour show, Life is the treasure, about Okinawa and its people during and after WWII, went to places where not many storytelling performances dare to go. It was dark, and shockingly real, and at the same time still uplifting, as it transcended the reality of war and told stories that stand the test of time. Alton puts on characters and faces like the demon is his ghost story, which is slightly unnerving to think about, but absolutely amazing to watch.

Gay Ducey's tribute to Kathryn Windham on Sunday morning floored me. I have only heard Kathryn once, five years ago, but I have heard so much about her, she has been constantly present in the background of my storytelling journey. Gay is an all-time favorite of mine. I loved the little story she told about Kathryn setting out on a quest one day to find a snake handler, because she had a sudden urge to have a conversation with one. I feel like that level of child-like curiosity and energy is something that should be a mandatory part of the curriculum.


Right now I am falling asleep on the keyboard. I'll be back with more shameless fangirl ranting bright and early tomorrow. Good night everyone!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A recipe for complete terror

1. A park with a creek, a gloomy old weeping willow, a pavilion lit with an eerie pink light, burning torches all around, bundled up bodies lying in heaps all around. Location, location, Jonesborough.

2. Kim Weitkamp. As a host, you evil minded people, not as an ingredient. We have always known Kim has a thing for the dark side, and on top of that, she is also a wonderful emcee who carries the storytellers on her palm as if they were incredibly rare, delicate treasures... that she likes to juggle.

3. Lyn Ford. Her girlish smile and sweet voice make any ghost story eerie by default. That she also weaves a masterful mystery is, naturally, a plus.

4. Beth Horner. She is as enthusiastic about the scary as she is about the funny. She takes both of them very seriously, and gets completely absorbed in them like a child playing with her favorite toy (notice the underage theme here? Can't help it, storytellers are young forever). She told the Austrian tale of the girl and the skull, which was also a bonus flavor for me, since I use that story to teach kids about bone structure. Gotta love putting the science in fiction.

5. Alton Chung. Nobody beats the Japanese in horror. Nobody. Alton froze the living daylights into everyone. I saw groups of five attempting to go to the porta potties together. I don't know if they ever made it.

6. Hannah Harvey. She is graceful, delicate, bubbly, and, as Kim put it, "one sick puppy". Both her Scottish ghost legend and her traditional Little Red version were as creepy as it gets - take the former with murder and a smiling ghost chanting a cheerful curse, and latter with slightly sexual werewolves, grandma's intestines hung around the room, and Red drinking some blood. Nuff said.

7. Syd Lieberman. He is an experienced player in the field of horror, even though he reminds me of a Papa Smurf that you just want to hug forever. He told Beowulf today, a fitting ending for an awesome concert, and we got to see Papa Smurf in the torchlight roaring at the night sky, wrenching Grendel's arm from its socket with his bare hands. It was slightly disturbing, and thoroughly awesome.

I (together with about a thousand other people) am sleeping with the lights on tonight.