Friday, April 24, 2020

A Deathless Wound


We often expect stories to have a meaning. We are mistaken. "A meaning" is a thing, an object. I believe that stories are verbs; active, dynamic, and living. Stories do not have a meaning, they mean. How a story means depends on where it grows.
For many (many) years, I carried this story in my heart and nurtured it to mean. It means much to me. It draws nourishment from my experience and my questioning. Question is quest after all.
Our stories tangle together forming the mysterious fairy tale woods we wander through.
My question: how did my story come to this entanglement?
The story below is drawn from a Scandinavian folktale, which is linked at the end of this post.
How does your story mean?


I fed the hungry wolf, then let him lead me where he will.
He promised a happy ending.

He brought me to a ruin
by the sea,
arrested in time.
A castle containing a maiden,
in thrall to a heartless ogre.

He could not die.
She could not depart,
though the ogre often left her there
alone
for days.
Still, at night, the ogre returned
to take possession of her.

I came to her as the wolf prompted.
I hid beneath her bed
where she lay with the ogre.

Why would he not die?

She asked.
     (It had to  be her question even if it was also my quest)
He answered:
He could not die
because he had no heart
in his body.
In truth his heart was hidden.
She questioned more:
where is it hid?
He answered deceivingly
    (though perhaps he had lost the memory of his heart's hidden place)
it is in the kitchen.

She went to the kitchen while he was gone
yet found no heart.

She questioned again.
It is under the door stone.
Again it was not found.
Again she questioned.

This time his memory awoke - slowly:
it is far away and long ago
my heart was taken
in the church
far from here in a long past place
on an isle in a sea.
In the church there is a font.
Therein lies my heart
encased in an egg
so long ago.

I left her bed then
and once again called upon my wolf
to take me there so distant.

Long years did I travel
until, with the help of animal relations, mentors, and guides,
I found the errant heart.

My wolf brought me back to her
where she lay
in ruins
in the place where she was stuck.

What then?
I placed the ogre's heart into her hands.
Then, as the ogre watched,
begging for his life within her,
she crushed the frail egg.

When the ogre fell,
there at her feet,
lay her grandfather,

dead at last.

So Time began again.
This was the happy end.

The Giant Who Had No Heart In His Body

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Give Voice To The World

Fred was an Anole Lizard who lived in our terrarium and ate crickets. He enjoyed stories. One of his favorites was The Itsy Bitsy Spider. We would often discuss the story, Fred considering himself something of an expert on spiders. He would muse, "Itsy might be a recluse...but, if he is, he's a pretty dumb one. A water spout is a stupid place to hide, as the story points out. I hope he isn't a black widow, for obvious reasons. If he were a Daddy Long-Legs, he'd be a small one and I'd probably wait at the water spout to snatch him up. Might be tasty. They are properly called opiliones by the way, and are not poisonous despite rumors."
Another story Fred liked was The Old Woman Who Swallowed A Fly. However, I could hardly get through the story without him interrupting me on the refrain. "That's ridiculous!" He'd exclaim. "It's obvious why she swallowed a fly. Who wouldn't? Really!"
Fred eventually died and I was broken-hearted. I feel bad for having kept him in my terrarium when he might've had a fuller and richer life out in the wild. But I am grateful to have shared his company and learned from him that we human beings are not the only "people" on this planet.



It is human nature to look out at the world and see the world looking back. The art of the actor and the storyteller puts us regularly in touch with the thoughts and feelings of others. In story, especially, we hear the voices of the world. Lizards, wolves, bears, ants, and all living creatures speak up in our stories. Not only animals, but plants and elements speak too. (Consider Grandfather Stone in the Seneca story of the origin of stories.)

These spring mornings, filled with birdsong, I often think of the Russian folktale, The Language of The Birds, and our desire to communicate with the natural world.

This Earth Day, practice your acting and storytelling skills by stepping out of doors and speaking the thoughts and feelings of the birds, the squirrels, the flowers, grass, and trees. Give voice to all the people of the world and share their stories.

What are they saying?  


PS- To learn more about the mythology of the language of birds (and hear a beautiful recording of the whistling "bird Language" used in Turkey to communicate over distances) check this page on crystalinks: https://www.crystalinks.com/birdlanguage.html )

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Of Mice and Elephants

Many of my peers in the storytelling revival years of 1979-99 will remember the growth of storytelling publishing, evolving from self-published books and audio - first vinyl records, then cassettes - garnering the interests of larger media companies. At one point Disney, in the Eisner years, flirted with Jonesborough as a model for theme-park development, inspiring part of the Disney Institute model. Before that, though, came Rabbit Ears Audio, a "storytelling" audio and book publishing venture that featured big name celebrities reading books for the benefit of our nation's children. The celebrities were crashing our party. Never mind if they could tell a story well, they were screen personalities who could do a decent dramatic read-aloud and command the attention of millions. We rebel storytellers, always a marginalized bunch, stood on the sidelines and felt our thunder stolen.
Or maybe it was just me.
At some point along my path I realized that I had a choice of two business models: the elephant or the mouse. The elephant is the big corporation, big publishing, the media machine, the industry. What it wants, it gets. When it does something, it does so in a very big way. The elephant consumes great swaths of resources and dominates the attention of any audience it seeks to command, and devours whole forests of the economy. The mouse, on the other hand, is the little guy, scampering about between the elephant's feet, trying not to be squished. Mice are not elephants. Mice cannot conquer and control the kinds of territory an elephant can.
But elephants are traditionally afraid of mice. Why? Elephants are slow to move and slow to change. They need large quantities of energy to survive. Mice are quick and fit easily into small spaces. Mice can survive on very meager resources. Mice can do things in small ways that elephants are incapable of.
So when I had an idea for a project, I had to ask myself: is this an elephant thing or a mouse thing? Yes, it would be great to create a nation-wide program for connecting schools and young children with living, breathing storytellers. Yes, it would be a valuable resource to publish a cross-indexed library of storyteller recordings (call it the U.S.A., the United Storytelling Artists) and establish listening centers in every classroom and public library. Yes it would. But... those are elephant dreams.
With the growing interest of big media, I thought naively that if I could become a published recording storyteller and author, I could extend my reach, enlarge my impact, and create a new artistic ecosystem for storytelling. So when I was invited to contribute my recorded work to a publishing house for national distribution, I thought I was on the way to the big dream.
But I discovered that the royalty I received was much less than my self-published efforts, despite the broader distribution. (I still get royalty checks in the absurd amounts of 35-50¢.) I discovered that I became a sales representative for my publisher and was expected to promote the entire catalogue. I discovered that my self-published media, sold at live performances, offered a better cost/benefit ratio. My small (mouse) runs of recordings, while costing more to produce in small batches, were more profitable. I was a mouse.
So I used the elephant/mouse metric to help me decide which dream was worth attempting. I chose to be a mouse, so that I could also be a father, and a husband, a human being, and an artist. I decided that I could get by on enough rather than a lot. I was a gig artist. And gigs were real, present, and cost-effective. I could earn what I needed to earn because the overhead was low, the entanglements were few and the rewards were human and immediate.
Then along came the internet and, with it, the internet "platform." Self-publishing was a media revolution. Publishing was so easy, everyone could do it. The field was overrun with mice. Meanwhile, the elephants took control of the territory. The elephants owned the platforms and learned that they could turn a profit by running mice across their stages for the mere remuneration of "exposure." So the fields of media were feeding elephants more than mice.
But that was okay, because we mice could still be present in ways that elephants cannot. Yes, a producer can create a high-production-value product featuring a Hollywood celebrity, a household name, but they still cannot be present. No amount of virtual reality, online streaming, youtubing, insta-gramming, snap-chatting, could take the place of the truly present person.
So I committed to the idea of being present. I sit on the floor with the preschoolers; I stand in the room with the creative team; I look in the eyes of my audience.  I practice the art of being there.
Then the pandemic delivered that last real platform to the elephants. And now we are scampering across the big platforms, offering our little art from our little lives and in little voices screaming, like Jojo, 'we are here! We are here!'
Now the storyteller mice must yield to the celebrity readers: the Imagination Library, the @Save With Stories, and so on.
In the first days of isolation and loss due to the pandemic, I posted stories and I volunteered my art online to the artist rosters in various school districts and to all the schools I have worked with in the past year. The silence is deafening. This mouse art does not compete with the online net-o-sphere, the media-land of celebrity, brand, and business.
So this mouse is changing. Don't know how, don't know when, but the cheese has moved and the mouse must follow.
Here's a thought from Agnes Demille:
"Science has got us doing cartwheels in space. We have reached the moon. Can we reach the face across the kitchen table? Over the back fence? Across the railroad tracks? Have we ever thought to explore the universe in the seat beside us? Or the constellations locked inside our own skulls? We are in orbit all right. Alone, like no astronaut ever was. Calling out all our lives. 'This is my name! This is my name! Who are you? Speak!'