Monday, October 31, 2016

Scary Story Festival at a haunted opera house, and other Halloween fun

This year I really managed to cherry-pick the best Halloween gigs.

It all started on Friday, when I participated in the Friday Folklore Tour at the Wood County Historical Museum in Bowling Green. The tour had several stops, all centered on creepy and eerie things, such as a Day of the Dead educational display, a haunted trail, the former asylum, a magician... and yours truly, who set up shop in the cemetery behind the museum. And by "set up shop" I mean I camped out all alone in a dark cemetery in the company of a lantern, some blankets, and a box of Halloween chocolates (because someone trusted me to be a responsible adult and not fish all the Reese's out) (I did not fish all the Reese's out).
Over the course of three hours, we had 9 tour groups passing through. I told one story to each of them; because I would have bored myself by repeating one of them over and over again, I ended up randomly rotating 5 different stories, depending on what I felt like telling, and who was in the audience. I told a Hungarian folktale about a brave princess and a haunted castle (our version of Mr. Fox) mostly when kids were around; one girl still stood with her hands over her ears until I promised her that there would be no jump scares in the story (I hate jump scares). One little boy told me that princesses were booooooring - but took it back at the end of the story. My favorite part was when I asked a group what happens to fairy tale princesses when they grow up - and one little girl immediately answered "They become queen!" Girl power.
Next to the magic castle, I also told Princess in the Coffin, and all-time favorite of mine, as well as the Burning of Tara (it's almost Samhain, after all), and the legend of Erzsébet Báthory. I also handed out candy (or rather, held the box out and let people take a handful, because I'm Hungarian and I don't know how to trick-or-treat). All in all, it was great fun, the cemetery setting was perfect, and the groups were all very appreciative. Someone even asked me about how they can become a storyteller...

The Halloween roll continued on Saturday, when I took a trip to Howell, MI to their tenth (!) annual Scary Story Festival. The event takes place in Howell's very own haunted opera house, which is a perfect setting for scary stories. They have a children's scary story show at 7, and then an adult one at 9. I only caught the end of the kids' show, but it looked like it was great fun.
The adult performance took place in the actual opera house (which was built in the 1880s, shut down in the 1920s, and functioned as the attic of the building for several decades). It was an amazing setting, all gloomy and mysterious, decorated with spiderwebs and candles. The floors creaked, the shadows stretched, and there was coffee, hot cider, and pastries available to make everything perfect.
And, of course, there was the lineup.
The show was opened by Robin Nott, who sung us the ballad of Resurrection Mary (a version of the Vanishing Hitchhiker), and then told a story about the ghost of a mother who returned from the grave to feed her child. Both were sufficiently eerie, and touching at the same time. Next, Leif Larsen told us his version of Grimm's Bearskin, set after the American Civil War (I really loved this twist on the tale). Yvonne Healy brought us a terrifying Irish tale of dark magic and revenge, and Jeff Doyle told a Kentucky ghost tale that sent shivers down our spine.
After a short break, Barbara Schutzgruber graced us with singing Childe's ballad of the dead lover (fittingly, the oldest known version of the Vanishing Hitchhiker), and then telling her amazing, rhyming and eloquent version of an English lullaby about a vain lady who turned into the first mole. I am always amazed by Barbara's elegant performances... it was a tough act to follow. I told next; I chose the Princess in the Coffin, since it is a fairly creepy story but also has some humor in it, and it is tons of fun to tell, especially in an eerie setting. The concert concluded with Steve Daut's twist on Rapunzel, with some very graphic and gory images about what could go wrong when one gets tangled in so much hair...

The festival was a superb experience, and a perfect place for some Halloween storytelling. I am happy that I got to be a part of it this year. We did not encounter Meredith, the opera house's resident ghost, but I am sure she was listening...

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Epic-Lovers Reunite!

At the end of my one-year mentorship with Cathryn Fairlee, we celebrated with a storytelling concert showcasing some of our favorite epics. It was almost exactly a year ago. Last November, I got to premiere my one-hour show based on the Persian Book of Kings - but little did the audience know at the time that Cathryn helped me work on not one, but two epics over the course of one year, and the other fringe performance was yet to come. We scheduled the Epic-Lovers Reunite! house concert for the day after Epic Day, and I was both excited and grateful that I got to share the stage with my mentor once again. We had a completely full house: 50 people bought tickets for the show!

If you have been following this blog, you probably noticed how much I posted about my research on the Dietrich Cycle. The full-hour storytelling show born from all that work is titled Roses in the Mountains: German legends of Dwarves and Men, and this was the very first time I told it all in one swoop. It was an intense, but very rewarding experience.
The show is made up of two of the prominent legends about Dietrich and his knights. The first part is the legend of Virginal, Queen of the Mountains, and her war against the evil sorcerer Ortgis. She summons the human heroes as her allies (since, according to the Book of Heroes I quote at the beginning of the show, humans were created by God to protect the Dwarf kingdoms from giants and dragons). At first, Dietrich and his men try to take care of the threat themselves, but they fail miserably, and the whole story ends in an all-out epic battle between the forces of darkness and the allies of the Dwarf queen. Dietrich marries Virginal, who proves herself to be a wise ruler. I really enjoyed telling about all the fights and monsters, and the kids in the audience listened with wide-open eyes.
The second half of the story mirrors the first in many ways. It is the story known as the Small Rose Garden, the tale of the Dwarf King Laurin who allegedly abducts a human maiden. Dietrich and his men travel to Laurin's legendary rose garden in the mountains, trespass on his property, and effectively manage to start a war between Dwarves and humans. What saves the day in the end is the love of the maiden, Künhilde, for the Dwarf king, and her joining forces with Virginal to set things right. Yes, this story passes the Bechdel Test.
The story came together beautifully in the end. It is a fast-paced tale with a lot of intense fight scenes - but it also has humor in all the right places to break up the tension, and the audience responded well to those scenes. I added a couple of sorter Dietrich tales to round out the narrative (such as the story of the rose garden itself from a Swiss legend, or the scene where they drag a knight out of a dragon's mouth). I also tweaked the tales a little to give more play time to the women. The Dietrich Cycle does have several powerful women in it, so the changes did not feel out of place at all.

The second half of the house concert was the best reward I could have hoped for after such an exhausting performance: Cathryn told some of the legends of the Fianna. She knows that I live and die for Fionn Mac Cumhail, and as I curled up on a pillow in the corner with my well-deserved dinner, she told several of my favorite tales - and even one that I have not hear before! It was equally amazing to watch her, and to see the audience's reactions. Many of the heard the Burning of Tara, or the Birth of Oisín for the first time, and I was happy to see that the stories had the same effect on them as they did on me almost twenty years ago.

Epic-Lovers Reunite was definitely a success. I hope that I will get to tell with Cathyrn again (at the next Epic Day at the latest), and I also hope that I will get to take Roses in the Mountains to many other stages around the world. These stories deserve to be told...
(King Laurin's story is included in my book of tales about superhuman powers)

Once more to the graveyard: The Tales of the Golden Corpse 2. (Epic Day 2016/2)

The whole reason I was in San Francisco last week was to participate in the year's second Epic Day performance. As you probably already know, our epic-loving crowd tells a full story twice in one year (usually in February and October). We have done Tales of the Golden Corpse from Tibet once already, and it was time for the repeat performance.

Our group was a little smaller this time - merely 17 tellers, and we got through our stories in a little under 4 hours, not counting the breaks and dinner. While some people had to cancel at the last moment, the lineup was still very much impressive, and all of my favorite stories were still there (Tales of the Golden Corpse is a string of folktales in a frame story, much like the 1001 Nights). We ate delicious snacks and listened to awesome stories for most of the day, sharing our enthusiasm and fascination for Tibetan tales. Once again, the frame story took the cake - everyone had their own version of the loquacious corpse, and the ways it managed to cheat the boy to let him fly back to the graveyard. The moment when the boy accidentally spoke up at the end of each tale, breaking the spell, was always a comedic highlights that everyone appreciated, and executed creatively.
(If you have no idea what I am talking about, read the book. It's worth it.)

Since this was out second performance for the year, it was also the time to vote on what we will be telling in 2017! Cathryn piled several options on the coffee table in the form of books, and people spent the breaks browsing through them, discussing the stories, sharing what they knew about them, and why one or the other would be cool to tell together. The lineup included well-known classics such as Beowulf and the Iliad, epics of great cultural importance such as Journey to the West, Tales of the Heike, and Sunjata, and a few last-minute contestants such as Tales of the Narts (courtesy of our Silk Road House concert the night before). At the end of the day, we all voted on our three favorites, to narrow choices down for the online poll. We ended up with Sunjata, Journey to the West, and Orlando Furioso as our top contestants. They are all very significant stories, and they all have their exciting and alluring qualities. I personally am hoping for Orlando - I have told parts of it before, but I have never read the entire epic, and I would love to.
The poll is still pretty much tied - I can't wait to find out which one we'll be telling in February!

Epic Day tellers, October 22nd, 2016.

"If our lives be short, let our fame be great": Nart sagas at the Silk Road House

For those of you just tuning in: I have fallen in love with the Nart sagas a while ago. I worked with them for a museum program for Archaeology Day, told them for MythOff, read them for Epics A to Z, and have been waxing poetic about their greatness for quite a while.
Which is why this storytelling event at the Silk Road House in Berkeley was such a perfect convergence of passion and storytelling. 

This summer, John Colarusso's translation of Nart Sagas (the Circassian and Abkhazian sagas) got its second edition, and Tales of the Narts (the Ossetian sagas) was published in English for the very first time. Since I was in San Francisco for Epic Day just in time for 3rd Friday, the traditional storytelling day of the Storytelling Association of California, everything came together for a concert celebrating the Nart sagas. On top of all that, it turned out that John Colarusso himself also just happened to be in town, and he did not only graciously accept our invitation to the event, but even agreed to present a short opening lecture. I was more than a little star-struck. He told us about what makes the Nart sagas unique and important, talked about their connections to European traditions, and pointed out some linguistic curiosities about the languages they have been translated from. It was a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of how these books came to be. Professor Colarusso also very patiently helped me with the correct pronunciation of Ossetian names when I cornered him in the kitchen of the Silk Road House before the performance...

Since I have been working with the Ossetian sagas for a while now, I was given the honor of filling the first half of the event with the stories of my choice. I opened with the saga that first made me fall in love with them - it is called the The Narts and the Wadmer's Bones, and it talks about the Nart heroes unearthing the giant skeleton of an ancient hunter, and bringing him back to life to ask questions. As an archaeologist, I have always loved this tale, and now that I am (finally) reading First Fossil Hunters by Adrienne Mayor, it has become even more fascinating. 
Following up the giant's story, I told a short anecdote to introduce Shirdon, the Narts' trickster. He is like Loki, except he is treated worse, and, in Colarusso's words, he is more motivated. In Who deceived whom? the Narts try to cheat him out of his one fat ram, saying the end of the world is near - but in the end, Shirdon gets the last laugh. This story led me to the longest and most elaborate tale of the evening, A Nart Expedition, in which the heroes take Shirdon along on an adventure just to bully him for entertainment... until Shirdon decides to take revenge by tricking them into mortal danger, and then saving them in the last moment. It is a fun story, but also has a lot of very human moments. I especially like the fact that it has a very close parallel in the Irish Fianna stories (The Hostel of the Quicken Trees), and I have not found a similar tale anywhere else so far.

The second half of the evening was dedicated to Shatana (or Setenaya), the great matron of the Narts, a powerful and wise woman who keeps showing up in many of the tales. She is "the mother of one hundred", the matron of the war band of the Narts. I shared this set with two amazing storytellers. First, Cassie Cushing (the great matron of the Kaleidoscope storytelling café) told the story of the hero Shoshlan's conception and birth, elaborated with a shorter story about Shatana's golden apples. She wove several versions of the tale into one, making it sound like an enjoyable piece of gossip ("Some say..."). Since that story exists in so many versions, her solution to picking one was on point... Next, Tim Ereneta told the story of Urizhmag and Shatana's divorce, the Nart variation of the well-known folktale type of the Clever Wife ("Take from the house whatever is dearest to you..."). He did it with a lot of humor, while preserving the wisdom at the core of the story, and Shatana's character. Finally, I closed the evening with the saga of How Shoshlan rescued Shatana from the Lake of Hell, another long-time favorite of mine. It is a tense story, but it has a happy ending, and says a lot both about Shatana and the Nart heroes in general.

As far as storytelling events go, this was a near perfect evening. It was also a long-time dream of mine to do a concert like this, introducing people to the Nart sagas. We had a full house, and even a film crew from a Comparative Mythology program; people seemed inspired by the stories, and several of them said they will go and read the books now. That is what I consider a true compliment to an event like this: People discovering new tales, and storytellers passing them on. 

Hero, heroine, ally, foe: Ramayana exhibit in the Asian Art Museum

I did not know until I showed up at the doors that the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco is having a temporary exhibit on the Rama Epic. Being in town for Epic Day, I visited two days before opening, and therefore was limited to staring through the doors with longing, like orphans in a Dickens novel. Since the exhibit would be closed by the next Epic Day, I shifted some of my schedule around, and took the BART back to the city on Friday, to catch it on the opening day. After all, it would have been ridiculous to fly all the way to San Francisco for epics, and then miss a museum exhibit about an epic.

Holy crap, was it worth it.

It is hard to put a story - any story - on display in a museum setting. It is even harder to do so with one of the most complex, multi-layered, culturally influential tales humanity has ever told. Presenting the Rama epic in a fashion that showcases it in its beautiful complexity, and makes it accessible to Western audiences at the same time, is a true feat of curating - and something that the Asian Art Museum pulled off with seamless elegance.

Full disclosure: As a trained archaeologist, I am very fussy about signs. They usually lack information that I'd like to know, or provide generic descriptions of items that have all kinds of interesting details. When I took Museum Studies courses, they told us that the average visitor spends 2-3 seconds on an object; cramming written information into that time frame is near impossible. And yet, the Rama Epic exhibition achieved the impossible with care and eloquence. The signs accompanying the objects and displays were concise, well written, and yet they told parts of the story in interesting ways, pointing out small details and explaining things the viewer was likely to ask (such as "Who is that guy in the upper left corner of the painting?").
Displays followed the story in chronological order for the first part of the exhibit. Pictures and other artwork related to certain scenes and narrative highlights were grouped together, so that visitors could walk though the epic and see how different cultures and eras depicted the same scenes differently. In addition, there were several video screens placed throughout the exhibit that played short clips on a loop - scenes from various iterations of the Ramayana (such as a 2008 movie, a 1980's TV show, and stage performances from various places in South and East Asia). Instead of trying to tell the whole story at the beginning, or in one handy pamphlet, the creators of the exhibit spread information out to several signs, and then provided an easy-to-follow outline for the major events and characters of the epic:
The second half of the exhibit introduced four of the main characters (Rama, Sita, Ravana, and Hanumna) in all their various forms and appearances, through sculptures, paintings, masks, puppets, and all sorts of amazing objects in vivid colors. We also learned more about scenes where they take a leading role, and how they fit into the larger cultural context of the epic.
My storytelling mentor, Cathryn, a storyteller friend, Margaret, and I spent almost four hours in the exhibit, completely enchanted. Cathryn has told the Ramayana before for Epic Day (I am sad I did not get to participate in that one, it was before I joined Epic Day), and I have read it multiple times (and told parts of the Ramakien for MythOff). We discussed our favorite scenes at length, marveling at small details; it seemed that our love and enthusiasm for the amazing world of the Ramayana was shared by the creators of the exhibition.
(Also, did I mention that the exhibit is accompanied by actual live storytelling events? How cool is that?!)

TL;DR: The Rama Epic: Hero, heroine, ally, foe is hands down one of the best executed, most amazing museum exhibits I have ever seen. If you can get there, make sure you see it!

Saturday, October 15, 2016

A better way out: "New trad" storytelling workshop by Danielle Bellone

A year ago I hosted Danielle Bellone as a guest blogger, and she wrote a marvelous post about "new trad" storytelling. She is a dear friend of mine, and a former classmate from the ETSU Storytelling MA program. This year, the BGSU LGBT Resource Center featured her as a performer during Coming Out Weeks, and she brought her "new trad" tales and workshops to our campus. It was an amazing experience, and a perfect addition to the program. I took the workshop twice, and you can all be jealous of me now.

Danielle presented her workshop, "After happily: Using 'new trad' stories for celebrating diversity", twice this week - once for the LGBT+ community, and one for the general public. We talked about what makes storytelling important (since the participants were non-storytellers), and then discussed problems of cultural appropriation with traditional tales, as well as topics that are usually missing from folklore. Beyond LGBT+ representation, people also suggested topics such as male-female friendships, diverse body types, differently abled heroes, miscarriage, the Internet, and even student loan debt. Danielle then introduced to us the idea of "new trad" stories - tales that are made up, using symbols and tropes from traditional tales, to fill in these gaps in the oral tradition (see her post, linked above, for details). Her presentation was concise, on point, and very inspiring, not to mention spiced with a lot of humor and genuine conversation. Once we were armed with our newfound knowledge of "new trad", she allowed us to break out into smaller groups, pick a topic, and start crafting a tale. I was amazed at the ideas people came up with; everyone was bustling with creative energy, and instinctively reaching back to folklore to pick motifs and symbols to use. We left both workshops with the bones of stories I truly want to develop into performance. People were inspired and bubbly as they walked out.
(I am especially fond of our idea of telling the sad tale of student loan debt through the story of a school of magic, where students pay for spells by turning into statues for extended periods of time, serving as cup holders and balcony columns for wealthy wizards... until something terrible happens, and they are all needed to protect the kingdom).

Apart from the two workshops, as an illustration of "new trad" work, Danielle also brought us a performance titled "A better way out: An evening of queer storytelling." Every time I hear her, I am amazed at her artistic range: She weaves song, slam poetry, adaptations of traditional myths and folktales, and "new trad" stories, into a wonderful set that is full of color, and wonder, and her endless love for the flavor of words. My great favorite of the set was the "new trad" myth of Soli and Panna, two women in love creating the Universe. She used it as an example in the workshop, so I got to hear it three times in two days, and each time I found new gems in the way she worded it, and each time I loved it more. Danielle is the kind of person who, when listing animals in Creation, uses words like "pangolin" and "limpet" and "sugar glider" instead of plain old "tigers and elephants." Her prose is poetry, and her poetry is lively storytelling.

"New trad" storytelling is an emerging genre, and it is vital for oral tradition to keep moving forward. Danielle Bellone is blazing a trail with her work. Pay attention. Follow along. Be inspired.