Saturday, August 3, 2019

Tricky Borders: FEST Storytelling Conference, 2019.

"Tricky Borders" - this was the title given to the 2019 FEST storytelling conference by the organizers, who represented three countries together: Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The conference this year took place in the Euregio, where the borders of those three countries meet. Our headquarters was on the Netherlands side in Rolduc Abbey, and we took short trips to Aachen and the Belgian countryside. No wonder that in a place like this our main focus this year was borders - and tricksters who tend to cross them.

The day of arrival was mostly spent by talking, meeting new people, and greeting old friends (while consuming lots of cold drinks in the scorching heat). I was happy to see George Macpherson again - I met him at my first FEST conference in Lausanne in 2009, and I have read all of his books. Next to old friends I also made some new acquaintances from exciting places such as Luxembourg, Lithuania, and the Leprechaun Museum in Dublin (it was their first time at FEST, and I was happy to see them, as I am a big fan of their storytelling work).
On the first full day of the conference we had an all-day General Assembly which was smooth and well organized. We voted on the site of the 2022 conference (hello, Vilnius!) and a new Executive Committee member (hello, Agnieszka Aysen Kaim from Poland!), learned about the current and future storytelling projects FEST is supporting, and got a glimpse of the storytelling competency system that is being developed (more about that later). In the evening there was a performance titled Nowhere Lane, by Belgian storyteller Joe Boele who told stories about the life of Roma communities in the mid-20th century. The show was based on a book written by another white person who traveled with the Roma, and it was a well constructed performance, although there were some parts of it that made me feel uncomfortable about the authenticity of presenting these stories twice removed from the original source.

On the second morning of the conference we took a bus to a modern art museum in Aachen, where we spent the morning with lectures on the intersection of science and storytelling. George Macpherson told us a legend about Dian Cécht and related it to modern medicine; Giovanna Conforto talked about the importance of storytelling in science communication; Dr. Anke Groß-Kunkel from the University of Cologne introduced us to a fascinating multisensory storytelling project for people living with Profound Intellectual Multiple Disabilities. Over lunch break we wandered around downtown, visited the Aachen cathedral, ate ice cream, and talked, and then we got back on the bus and went on a short tour around three countries. We briefly ventured into Belgium, circled back to the Netherlands, got off the bus, walked across to Germany (visiting Charlemagne's huntingchapel on the way), then got back on the bus, and returned to Rolduc Abbey chased by a thunderstorm. It was a lovely trip, peppered by frequent text messages from my cellphone service provider, pinging "Welcome to Belgium/Germany/Netherlands" every few minutes... 

Friday afternoon was filled with various workshops and talks. I went to George Macpherson's "Traditional storytelling" session where he told us stories and we listened in awe, and occasionally asked questions. After that I migrated over to Sam Cannarozzi's "Science and Storytelling" talk, which was a delightful surprise: Sam decorated the whole room (including himself) with various versions of the periodic table. When we entered, everyone got assigned an element (by dice or by cards; I got Phosphorus), and Sam told us interesting facts and stories about each of them. We hunted for mythology references in the table together, and learned a lot about the history and discovery of many of the elements, from alchemists to chemists. Lots of fun!
The Friday evening presentation was brought to us by Chris Adriaanse, a storyteller and linguist from the UK, who told us about the various trickster-tools Trump and his campaign apply to manipulate people. The talk was peppered by trickster stories about Tyl Uilenspiegel (by Regina Sommer and Tom van Outryve), and sparked intense conversations among storytellers about whether or not Trump qualifies as a trickster. For the record, in my opinion, HE DOES NOT.

Saturday was another day full of workshops. In the morning I joined Regina Sommer's "The Tricksters of Tomorrow" circle, where we spent three hours brainstorming about what makes a trickster, what tools tricksters have in the modern world, and what role tricksters can/will play in social and historical change in the present and future. We came up with some fascinating ideas and systems, and we even considered organizing a trickster-themed gathering to work on them more.
In the afternoon, instead of going to workshops, I participated in creating videos for FEST's new storytelling competency system. The plan was introduced to us at the General Assembly by Veva Gerard. It is a great idea for organizing and outlining what competencies play an important part in training storytellers, and is detailed and organized enough to be the basis of accrediting storytelling programs in the EU. It contains competencies grouped by aspects of a storyteller's work such as Artist, Performer, Researcher, Team Player, etc. It is still in its testing phase, but it is flexible enough to be useful, color-coded, and the creators even brought us some games so that we could test and discuss it. In addition, they set up a studio to record short video snippets of storytellers talking about the importance of various competencies. I recorded three of them, and while I was waiting for my turn, I played around with the colorful little cards outside the door. The idea was to pick my eight most important competencies out of forty, and see what colors (themes) they represent. Here is my "storytelling fingerprint":

Purple: researcher, Blue: craftsman, Orange: team player,
Green: artist, Yellow: performer
I also shuffled them around and picked the eight competencies I personally deemed most important to teach to beginning storytellers. Here is my "teaching fingerprint":

Grey: entrepreneur
The system is still being tested and refined (they just put Tradition Bearer back into it, after some convincing from Irish, French, and, er, Hungarian participants), but I think it is a great system and a very useful idea. Congratulations to the developers!

All that was left for Saturday evening was the closing ceremony. First, we got to witness the performance of the people who participated in the mixed reality storytelling workshop. It was great fun to watch them tell stories and use virtual reality technology to illustrate them. After the show, the organizers of this year's conference handed the torch over to the Turkish delegates, who will host us next year. The evening concluded with a surprise: Paola Balbi, accompanied by a jazz musician, presented us an excerpt of a historical storytelling show about early feminism in Northern Italy. Paola is a storytelling powerhouse, and despite the late hour, her performance was utterly captivating.

Of course FEST conferences (like all storytelling gatherings) are a lot more than just workshops and presentations. In-between sessions there was a lat of talking, laughter, dancing, singing, debating, getting to know each other, and solving the great philosophical questions of our time (usually with beer). It was a fun, well organized, informative conference - in three countries at once.

We shall meet again next year in Turkey!

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