Sunday, November 15, 2015


In the summer of 1977, a year out of college, I joined up with a fun-loving theatre troupe performing on the streets of Milwaukee, calling themselves The Friends Mime Theatre. I was a juggling, clowning, busker in those days, and this was my summer of running with the circus. Barbara Leigh and Mike Moynihan created the FMT in 1974. Their mission was to raise awareness and inspire action on social issues. Over time the company evolved into The Milwaukee Public Theatre and continues under the direction of Barbara Leigh, providing increasingly diverse, egalitarian, multi-disciplinary arts programming for the entire community.

For me, that summer of '77 with FMT proved to be a seminal experience informing the next 38 years of my life.
We created a giant puppet showof the Japanese story, The Stonecutter. As a juggling, clowning, ensemble, we performed the many changes the dissatisfied Stonecutter goes through in search of his true place in the world. The story goes full circle and he finds contentment at last in his original role of stonecutter.

As a boy I greatly enjoyed stories. My mother lured me into the Hundred Acre Woods by reading me "The House at Pooh Corner." I discovered the winding roads of OZ in the many books that followed "The Wizard of Oz" and I repeatedly sailed with Jason and his heroes in Padraic Colum's  "The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles."

Over the years I pursued various careers involved with stories: Acting, Playwrighting, Television Journalism, Directing, Pantomime, and Clowning. My experience with FMT showed me that all those special interests and skills could come together into a single pursuit: telling stories. It took a few years, but I eventually came to discover that I  could be a storyteller. The first story that I took to the storytelling stage was the story of my life, of going round in a Great Circle to recover my original passion for stories. I told The Stonecutter.

In reflection now, I can see that the mission of FMT and MPT not only works its magic on the local community but also on the artists who are lucky enough to be touched by their magic for these 40 years and counting.

Thank you Barbara Leigh and FMT/MPT for the gift of your vision, integrity, and creativity.

Monday, September 14, 2015


On this excursion in Poland, I did not want to take snapshots or selfies. But as the group moved on, I stayed back to listen at the retention pond.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Purple People, Europe, and Syria

The children of Europa are seeking asylum in Europe.

"One of every five displaced persons in the world is Syrian." –CNN was a princess of Phoenicia carried off to Crete by Zeus in the form of a white bull.  The myth tells how Europa becomes a queen of Crete and bears three sons: Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Sarpedon. Each of these becomes a great king and, after life, they become the three judges of the dead in the underworld, Hades.

Though inconclusive, much of ancient tradition holds that the continent of Europe gained its name from Europa.

"As for Europe, no one can say whether it is surrounded by the sea or not, neither is it known whence the name of Europe was derived, nor who gave it name, unless we say that Europe was so called after the Tyrian Europa, and before her time was nameless, like the other divisions. But it is certain that Europa was an Asiatic, and never even set foot on the land which the Greeks now call Europe, only sailing from Phoenicia to Crete, and from Crete to Lycia." ––Herodotus, The Persian Wars

 The myth still haunts the modern world. 
A performer depicting Europa, a Phoenician princess rides a white bull representing the Greek god, Zeus during the Opening Ceremony for the Baku 2015 European Games at the Olympic Stadium on June 12, 2015 in Baku, Azerbaijan…Credit: Michael Steele
Phoenicia was a maritime civilization from about 3,200-300 B.C.E. The Phoenicians formed a collection of city states along the Mediterranean coast of what is today Lebanon, northern Israel, and Syria. They were excellent traders, sailing throughout the Mediterranean and as far along the north Atlantic as Cornwall in England. They cross-pollinated the ancient world with many raw materials such as tin and copper, essentially supplying the Bronze Age. As well, they were excellent craftsmen and famous for fine, manufactured goods, including purple dye from Tyre, which is how they came to be known as "the purple people." Phoinikes is 'purple' in Greek.  Phoenicia came to be known also as Canaan, which name comes from the Hurrian language for 'purple.'[ For more, see Joshua J. Mark's articles on Phoenicia for the Ancient History Encyclopedia.] 
Compare ancient Phoenician trade routes (above) with today's refugee migration (below).

Traveling to Europe by land is very difficult, so most Syrians begin their journey in northern Africa, where smuggling networks send them north by sea.Joe Burgess/The New York Times

 This is the sad, mythic, irony of the present migration of Syrian refugees north in search of sanctuary: they are the ancestors of Europa.
The Europa myth is likely a reference to the migration of cultural cosmology. Europa is closely related to the Phoenician Astarte, 'Queen of the Stars,' and associated with the moon. The bull cults of Crete derive from earlier goddess worship in the Middle East. The moon-cow and the maiden spread throughout the ancient world and left their traces in shreds and tatters of modern memory.

The cow jumped over the moon....

Today's refugees are being followed by that moon-shadow of Europa. If we can remember our mythic past, we might begin to see through the false separations of our ethnicity and into the true union of our humanity.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Thesis - Antithesis-Synthesis

In my recent course on Advanced Storytelling at East Tennessee State University, we discussed a variety of ways to organize story programs. One such way, is to use Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis as a schema for a storied discourse. [This dialectic is often mis-attributed to the philosopher, Hegel, and seems to trace back at least to Kant.]

One of our storytellers, who works in a corporate setting, sent me the following query:

"What appeals to me about this one is that it seems to exemplify one of the critical skills of collaboration - that of reconciling (synthesizing) two seemingly contradictory positions (thesis and antithesis, of course).

I've got a business workshop concerning Adaptive Skills coming up in a few weeks, and I've been asked to talk about "The Power of Storytelling".  I was thinking of launching into a T-A-S story as an illustration of the kind of behavior we're looking to encourage.

So – I was wondering if you can direct me to any stories (or collections!) that have this sort of organization?"

In answer to this request, I suggest that you consider any story as being maleable enough to serve a storyteller in any way he/she wishes.
To paraphrase Humpety Dumpety:
"When I tell a story it means exactly what I want it to mean, neither more nor less."

So, take a fable and turn it into an exercise for Thesis-Anthesis-Synthesis. Here is an example:

Friday, August 7, 2015

Cinderella's Coach

David has a brilliant mind and memory. His recall of people and their stories is flawless and he nails it for observation. A fantastic listener. ––– Elaine Dull Muray (Thanks Elaine!) 

Q: When is a pumpkin a coach?
A: When it carries someone to The Ball.

Where are you going? Do you want to craft your story? Improve your art? A coach can carry you closer to your destination.

When a small group of storytellers gather to work on their craft with the aid of a coach, there is no set curriculum. The combination of artists forms a unique opportunity for discovery.

Serving as a coach for fellow storytellers is an opportunity to practice listening, discernment and discovery.

When coaching, I bring the following premises concerning storytelling:

1. Storytelling is a conversational art form.
This is where we begin, in conversation. There must be a dynamic relationship between the story-teller and the story-listener. This is where we look for the involvement strategies to engage and manage a listener’s attention.

2. The art begins with listening.
It is easy to think that the role of the listener is to pay attention and the role of the teller is to receive it. But keep in mind that a currency is being exchanged. If the listener  “pays” attention, what are they paying for? Often, they are paying attention in order that attention will be paid to them: the story is for them, it concerns them, it is relevant to them. This is where we look for the teller to make choices based on an awareness of the needs of the listener.

3. The storyteller is a living body-of-text.
The "living literature" of the modern storyteller includes narrative, anecdote, poetry and song. Are you drawing fully on what you know? Understanding how your story fits in with your body-of-text strengthens your personal authenticity.

4. Storytellers must be concerned with the context of the telling.
Where are you? Why are you here? What just happened? Who are these people? What is this place? The storyteller is concerned with telling the right story at the right time for the right reason. We must learn to associate our body-of-text with our awareness of place, time, society, and circumstance.

5. All stories change value when put in relationship with other stories.
What do we discover about your story when it is shared between one story and the next? This is where we have our greatest opportunity: discoveries revealed to us in a group process. No matter how random the assortment of stories may appear, we will find lines of relationship within and among them that will reveal new considerations of the individual story and the story program.

6. To tell means to discern.
We often think that the story is the most important concern. But “story” is the object, “telling” is the action. Telling is, in part, tallying: the recounting of events. But the more important function of telling is discerning. Discernment makes the art of telling distinct from other story art forms. The storyteller practices this in choosing stories and in finding latent values in those stories to serve the present discourse.

Finally, each person in a group coaching session has something valuable to offer. Coaching is neither auditing nor judging. But there is evaluation.

Evaluation is the act of finding value. A coach listens for the particular opportunities your work presents and from that, creates a valuable experience for the entire group.
For me, coaching is a way-finding art, an improvised curriculum for getting us to The Ball.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Sweet is the Silence

I just spent a few lovely winter days with the students at Moorestown Friends School. MFS is a Quaker school and, as such, appreciates the beauty of silence. The 200+ yr old Meeting House is a deep well of silence, and according to their custom, each of my programs began with a moment of silence. The gentle strength of the silence that follows the scurrying and noise of a full room is enchanting.

I am reminded what Jean Louis Barrault wrote in his autobiography, Memories For Tomorrow, that "the greatest moments of drama happen in silence."

In storytelling, silence is dynamic. The creation and quality of a silence is determined by the qualities of the sounds that precede it. A large sounds yields a large silence. 

Additionally, silence finds its corollary in stillness. 

Stillness is to silence what movement is to sound. They are the dual forces that sculpt experience. A partial silence might occur if I stop talking but keep walking. Likewise a partial sound exists if I stop walking but keep talking. Mix them and match them to conjure silences. Raise the volume, increase the action, then abruptly stop sound and action. What follows? Resounding silence.

Enter the silence like diving into the depths of a clear pool.
Drift there a moment.
Feel the surrounding universe.

Sillence is where we fully enter the feelings of a moment. No matter how emotional my story may be, if I am still talking, the brain is still working. The  words are demanding thought and intellect. If I want you to feel fully a moment in my story, I must stop talking altogether.

I must stop moving as well, so that the seeing eye is not distracted.

Then we dive out of the head and into the heart.

I often judge the quality of the storytelling experience by the quality of the silences we achieve together. I listen for those moments when, out of the action, out of the words, we achieve still and silent communion.

Thank you Moorestown students for sharing that communion with me.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Spherical Storytelling

Imagine a sphere, a bubble. Imagine you are inside this bubble, arms and legs extended in a 4-point star. The bubble is clear and you are free moving on all axis lines: forward and back, left and right, and so on. Your turning form defines the sphere you inhabit. You can look out from your bubble in every direction.

Now imagine your bubble is in a story. Let's select a story from Western Culture that many people know: Hansel and Gretel. Imagine you are in the humble home of our main characters. You turn about in your bubble to survey the scene:

A gaunt man slumps in his seat at a rough hewn table. He  stares at his hands. His hands are hard and cracked. His palm shines with a fallen tear.

Turrn again and see a woman standing across the room, looking out a cracked window onto a frozen woodland. Her face is drawn, her eyes are fierce with fear. She thinks, as does he, "how did it come to this?"

Turn again and see a far wall. A boy lies next to his little sister on a narrow palette. Her feet are beside his head, her head at his feet. He looks at her sleeping calmly. He surveys her clear brow, long lashes, red cheeks. He is afraid. Something is wrong. Trouble is coming.

From your position in the center of the scene, you can experience the surrounding landscape of the story: the dim house, the chill wind rattling outside, the smoke-tinged air. You can look as well into the hearts and the minds of the characters; into the wide world stretching out in every direction from your pivot point; into the past events and histories of those now gathered for the scene. You are the omniscient narrator.

To tell the story from here, you must move your bubble along a line; listing details, sequencing events, and composing images. Your bubble begins moving along a story line. Story lines move across the topography of the story world, like water flowing from the mountains to the sea. But what creates that topography?

Let's sink our bubble deeper into the world of the story, to the story's core. We are not in any scene. Instead, we are beneath the scene, beneath all possible scenes. From the story's core we can look out in any direction along radial lines that will lead to the emergence of scenes and the opening of pathways. As we look out from our bubble, we see considerations of story development. What are the motive forces pushing the story to the surface? Along one line we see the complex layers of jealousy, greed, and fear urging a mother to wickedness. Along another line we see the forces of apathy and indolence reducing a father to desperation. Along another line we see naive childhood selfishness awakening to disillusionment. The story's core is the realm of emotions, intentions, issues, urgings, fears, hopes, and longings that manifest the surface details of the story. Along the line of the wicked mother, we compose a scene of entrapment and control, a weak father and helpless children. Along the line of fecklessness, we watch a man fail to stand for his family and slide into immorality. Along the line of naive thoughtlessness, we find a scene of entitled children, taking what they want, unaware of others. Each of these lines reach the surface and inform the topography across which you delineate your story. They inform the mood, the season, the color, the sensation, the depiction of character and the character of the action. 

A story is more than its text. A storyteller goes deep into the story's core, finds a line of development and from it describes the world and lines of the telling experience that yield a text, a "textile," a sinuous thread which is this particular iteration of the story.

At the core of the story world we are at the juncture of all stories. We stand where many lines converge. That deep place is, paradoxically, here and now in the moment before telling, before weaving the text. We face the place we have entered: the room, the people, the season, the  circumstance, and from them find lines-of-relationship that inform the path we will follow as we emerge into the story world and find the story line.

Like a spherical railway roundhouse, the storytelling place, the place where teller and listener meet, is at the intersection of possibilities. Look out and see who is there, what is happening, and why you are gathered, then enlarge your bubble to embrace them all and begin the journey.