Saturday, June 29, 2013

Extreme sports for storytellers: Archive diving!

As a recovering archaeologist I still seem to harbor some research instincts that came with my college eduaction (that, or watching too much Indiana Jones). Since I am spending some time home this summer, I decided to put a free spot in my schedule to good use and stop by at the Archives in the Hungarian Museum of Ethnography.
Folklorists have been tirelessly gathering Hungarian folktales for more than a century, but only a fraction of them have ever been published and made available for the public. As part of said public, I have been reading and telling those tales, but as a researcher I have always been curious about all the stories hidden in the archives, written down by hand or typewriter, or recorded on tape, and then forgotten. It was a treasue hunt waiting to happen.
One of my favorite Hungarian tellers is called Pályuk Anna. She lived almost a hundred years ago and told stories that I have never read anywhere else. Some of them are folktales, and some of them are suspiciously elaborate, but whatever their origin, they are enchanting. The book that included a collection of them mentioned that twice as many had been recorded but never published. I decided to put on my fedora and strap on my gun belt, and go raiding for the lost tales.

When I walked in, nobody seemed entirely sure what to do with me. It was a quiet Thursday morning, and frankly, everyone seemed surprised that someone even walked through the door. After talking to half a dozen very nice and helpful people someone finally directed me to the office where I filled out a research request form, and then to another where I could fill out a small slip of paper with the name of the storyteller and the title of the records I have been hoping to read. After that, all I had to do was find the library's reading room and wait...
Well, almost. First I had to go down to the basement and deposit my backpack in the cloak room. Because the cloak room door locked me out of the Archives, I had to go through the museum, exit through the front gates, walk around the museum building, and enter the archives through the side door again (where I had to explain to the receptionist what happened to get back in). Then I realized that I can't take digital pictures of the records for free, so once again I had to descend into the basement to find the museum shop and purchase a photo ticket. The door, surprise surprise, locked me out once again, so I did a second tour around the building and asked the snickering receptionist to let me back in once again. By the time I got back to the library, the records were waiting for me on the desk.

If you have not been folktale hunting to an archive before, I highly advise trying it. I felt like I had just stumbled upon a treasure chest of wonders not seen before; stories that no one had told or heard for a hundred years! For me, tales have always been living things that slumber frozen on pages until someone revives them. I spent three joyful hours leafing through the neatly typed, thin pages, taking pictures of all the tales that spoke to me (and then those that didn't, for the record. No tale left behind!) Once I was done with Pályuk Anna's legacy I discovered that another storyteller's repertoire was included in the same old folder, so I took a tour through those too, and collected some more. I can't even begin to imagine the number of stories still waiting to be found again.

My favroite tidbit was the note that another folklorist put on the collection folder: "We cannot be sure how precise the collector has been with the text of these tales. We might suspect that she re-wrote them from memory. Still, I would advise that we do not break her enthusiasm."
I agree. Let's not.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Storytellers: Adopt a school!

I am not trying to re-invent the wheel here. Many storytellers already practice this idea, and we have discussed it in class when Elizabeth Ellis was teaching us Advanced Storytelling. But I don't think I have blogged about it before, and it has been a big part of my life as a storyteller.

The basic idea is that a storyteller should adopt a school as a regular telling place.

It gets tricky when you think about it. Us storytellers spend a great portion of our work time trying to convince people to accept storytelling not only as a legitimate art form, but also as a profession, and as such, pay us for it. One way to support this claim is to not "give away" your storytelling work for free. As promotion it doesn't work, simply because people value stuff more if they have to pay for it - they assume free is "not that good." Quoting the Joker on this: "If you are good at something, never do it for free."

So, why offer a free pass to an entire school?

Because it's good for everyone. May schools struggle to make place in their budget for the arts, let alone visiting artists, and it goes without saying that storytelling is good (I could go for 'essential') for the kids. They could probably not afford to pay a resident storyteller, and even if they could, it would probably take a lot of convincing on everyone's part to do so.
Storytellers, on the other hand, need a solid testing audience.

When I first stumbled upon the idea of storytelling, my mother was the first one to offer a test audience. She teaches ESL in high school, so she took me to her classes and allowed me to tell stories in English as "listening practice," day after day, class after class. I didn't only get to practice my English telling and test my new stories, but I also got an idea of how audiences work, what they like, and how they interact with me. It was priceless in the first year of my storytelling career.

When I attended ETSU, I had a "performance scholarship" - I paid in-state tuition in exchange for regular storytelling work at the University School. It was another of those win-win situations. This time, I got to work with all ages, first grade though seniors in high school, which prepared me for pretty much any audience I can possibly run into (with the exception of seniors).

Regularly returning to the same "telling grounds" works wonders with one's repertoire. You can't tell the same story twice. If you tell to one class once a week, over the course of a school year you will develop a repertoire for that age group that will hold you over for years to come. At the same time, you can tell the same story in different classes, practice and polish it over and over again, and see how far it stretches over age groups. It's. Good. Practice.

And, apart from all the practical reasons and benefits, there is one more very important aspect: Emotional attachment. Storytellers spend their life breezing in and out of schools, libraries and other venues, forming a connection with an audience for a short period of time, and then moving on. We rarely get the chance to really get to know an audience. When one adopts a school, something great happens. After a while, when you walk into a classroom, the kids' faces will light up and they will greet you like the coolest person in the world. They will tell you things. They will follow the stories, and remember them. You no longer have to restrict your story choices to 45 minutes tops. You can do full series of stories, you can do themes, you can take requests for next time. And suddenly, you are working for an audience that is fully invested in storytelling, and they will have a deeper, more permanent understanding of what it is, and why it is fun.

Giving up one's professional convictions for the sake of one very important exception does not ruin one's storytelling career. Quite the opposite. It has given me so much extra in so many ways, I can only recommend it to anyone who has not done it before.

After I worked in a story-deprived environment for almost a year, this pretty much saved my life. The day after I finally quit work my first thing to do was to pick up the phone and call back to the University School. All I had to say was "please give me a class, any class" and I could walk in, get all the hugs, and tell some stories. I needed it as much as they did.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Ain't no Cinderella like Cyborg Cinderella, or, Marissa Meyer knows what folktales are about

I don't usually write book reviews, so when I do you know it is because I have completely devolved into a squealing fangirl. So, this is me squealing.

I burned through Cinder and Scarlet in a single flight from the USA to Hungary and a long afternoon waiting to get my new passport. It was one of those rare and delightful reading experiences when the world can collapse around you, bombs can explode and flight attendants can ask for your attention and nothing gets through the haze of the book. Treasure those moments.
I am not going to tell you how amazing these books are. It's not that kinda book review. They are pretty darn good. In fact, if you ask for my personal opinion, they beat the Hunger Games out of the arena. So there.
What I would like to talk about, however, is the fact that Meyer's trilogy is an entire basket full of Easter eggs for storytellers like me.

(Talking about storytellers, the books were originally recommended to me by Janice del Negro, thank you for that!)

Many people who write "folktale adaptations" do so thinking that they are improving on traditional tales, making them up to date for modern times, modern audiences, 'giving them a twist'. Meyer, on the other hand, seems to take loving delight in playing with them, and does so with serious knowledge of the originals. She drops tiny details and references for people who share this interest just to make them gasp and giggle along the way when they discover another fairy tale clue.
And, at the same time, tells a story that is all of her own.

Cinder and Scarlet (and their sequels, Cress and Winter, which are coming out in the next two years and are already driving me nuts with the wait) are not only "fairy tale fiction" because they are based on Grimm. They are written like fairy tales. People tend to glide over what really makes fairy tales fairy tales. It's not the princesses, or the "happily ever after," not the Medieval setting. It's the story, the battle of good and evil, the adventures, the characters that we love and root for, and the villains that we hate. It's the high stakes, the quests of life and death, and the very dark places (you read that right, read the originals). It's the message and the moral, the layers upon layers of meaning, the symbols woven into the story.

Long story short: This writer knows what folktales are about.

And, finally, here is an additional benefit of these books being on the young adult market: finally something on the shelves that is not labeled "supernatural romance." Thank the Lord and Marissa Meyer for that.