Preface from Speaking Out
Professional storytellers and their disciples have come to believe they are one big loving family. Storytelling is more than a profession, it is their religion. They are convinced that if everyone learned how to tell stories to communicate their genuine feelings, the world would be a better place. At least this is the impression that I formed after attending the National Storytelling Network Conference, held at a vapid Sheraton Hotel in Arlington Heights, Illinois, from July 8 to 14, 2003. It was a strangely un-family like place to hold such an intimate conference – twelve miles from O’Hare airport in a dismally synthetic, generic hotel surrounded by an austere industrial complex, about forty minutes from bustling downtown Chicago. Yet seven hundred or more gifted storytellers, who use their art in various fields as therapists, teachers, librarians, community organizers, park administrators, actors, and even professors, flocked from all over Canada and the United States (and a few from Europe) to participate in a lovefest and celebrate the sacred nature of storytelling.
Now, before I continue with my very personal comments on this familial gathering of storytellers, I must be honest and confess that I come from an eminently dysfunctional family and am prone to believe that family life in America can be nothing but dysfunctional. I become suspicious when I see love and care all around me. I was the smallest in my family and was called “the dwarf.” Unlike the famous youngest sons in fairy tales, I rarely won the day but often ended the day hung on a clothesline by my toes. My younger sister, who weighed four hundred pounds and stood six feet tall, won a sports scholarship to Ohio State to play right guard on one of their championship football teams and later went on to run a construction company. My older sister had the nastiest tongue in the Bronx, which is saying something. She was six feet one, lean and mean, and threw the javelin for Texas A & M until she spiked a spectator. She gave up the sport to take up fund raising for the Republican Party in Texas. Nobody ever dared refuse her requests, and now she runs a cattle ranch. My older brother was a giant. At six feet ten and two hundred and eighty pounds he won a basketball and wrestling scholarship to Arizona, but he managed to flunk a special course called Science for Jocks as well as some other similar classes and had to leave school. So he enrolled in the merchant marines to avoid the military draft, but he never boarded a ship because the merchant marines recruited him to play on their basketball and football teams during the Vietnam War. Later he attended NYU business school and learned to bribe the instructors to pass his exams. Eventually he joined my father’s real estate firm and seemed to find tons of money on the streets, especially in front of gambling parlors. As for my father, he is too difficult to describe. Let me just say that he barked when he spoke and walked around his office with a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a cigar in another. His favorite suits were bright plaid, and he always wore blue suede shoes. My mother did not particularly admire my father and didn’t see much of him. After she overcame the trauma of raising three giants and a dwarf, she spent most of her time in the lower East Side of New York City organizing tenant strikes, some of which were aimed at my father’s properties. Eventually she divorced him and moved to Florida to lead the gray panther chapter on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. By the time I graduated college I was disowned by my father because I had decided to study English literature and discarded by my mother because I was not radical enough. My sisters and brother were happy that I got what I deserved.
This brief account of my family background should help explain why I was taken aback by the waves of family love that swamped me when I arrived at the National Storytelling Network Conference. Mind you, this was a conference with workshops on “Creating ‘A Land Twice Promised’: Performance Process of an Israeli-Palestinian Dialogue,” “All Together Now: Communities Meeting Challenges and Creating Healthier Futures,” “Business Storytelling: Adding Meaning to Meetings,” “Stories Inside and Out: Incarcerated Mothers and Family Literacy,” “The House Between the Earth and Sky: Storytelling and Folklore with High School ESL Classes,” “Story Partners, A Way of Life for Teenage Parents,” “Grab the Space, Kids! Teaching Children to Communicate Effectively,” “From Experience to Story: Evoking, Structuring and Telling the Personal Story,” and “Bad Boys of the Bible: From Fortune to Misfortune to Forgiveness.” The keynote speakers were Studs Terkel, famous raconteur and philosopher of the people, who interviewed the dynamic political activist, Tim Black, who spoke about his struggles against racism; Susan O’Halloran and David Hernandez, notable storytellers, who gave a presentation titled “The Illusion of Diversity: Re-Imagining our Community’s Commitment to Change”; Syd Lieberman, writer of many children’s books, who lectured on “Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My: The Storytelling Adventure”; and Naomi Shihab Nye, the remarkable poet and singer, who recounted “The Stories of Our Lives.”
This was not a dull, ordinary academic conference or business convention. People embraced each other incessantly in the hallways. They sung before and after dinner. They told stories late into the night. They danced with uninhibited gaiety to the rhythmic sounds of an Afro-Cuban band. They gave standing ovations to all the keynote speakers and constantly applauded. The storyteller, who introduced Naomi Shihab Nye, exploded with fervent emotion, and Naomi responded by hugging her and greeting the audience with “I love you! I knew as soon as I arrived that I would love you! You are all doing such wonderful and important work.” The audience responded by telling Naomi how much they loved her. In fact, the audiences were always enthusiastic, eager to learn, eager to compliment. I did not hear one argument or disagreement during the five days I spent at the Sheraton. Not even the staff argued. It was as if I were living in Never-Never Land.
But I would be unfair if I were to say the family of storytellers was living in an unreal space. What was difficult for me to grasp – as well as for my European friends who were stunned by the tidal waves of love – was that the unreal atmosphere of love and harmony concealed the real and material contributions that the individuals, probably many from dysfunctional families like mine, were making to various groups and associations. Clearly, most of them were upset and disturbed by the growing poverty in the United States, the collapse of caring communities, the destruction of public education, and the brutal indifference of state and federal governments whose policies are making the majority of people more desperate. Without being explicitly political, most of the storytellers regarded themselves as healers and educators. They insisted that a “good” story had a moral or social purpose and could enable listeners to gain greater self-awareness and a deeper social consciousness. To tell a story, any story, was first and foremost a mode of sharing problems and troubles and of community building to offset the alienation we all feel. Stories, they tried to demonstrate, could be used for empowerment, consciousness raising, self-discovery, therapy, education, and, of course, for the very sensual pleasure one feels in articulating a dilemma or conflict and in presenting a potential solution. The slightest story was to be revered and was meant to touch other souls.
The irony of the entire conference was that the public displays of sincere storytelling that sought to strike a family chord often came across as insincere and self-serving. While the storytellers idealized their art in their workshops or tried to transform storytelling into a sanctimonious art the way priests, ministers, rabbis, and politicians do, they were more realistic and concrete when they talked to each other on a one-to-one basis. At breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I met extraordinary individuals who were down-to-earth and were using innovative forms of storytelling in hospitals, schools, nursing homes, libraries, parks, museums, youth centers, and businesses to bring people together so they might better communicate with one another. Not all their work was meaningful, and many of the “professional” storytellers, sporting their wares, liked to think of themselves as stars and behaved like celebrities. Yet the majority of the people were humble and modest. They had come eager to improve their craft and to make contacts so they might feel part of a movement. And perhaps the effusiveness of their emotions reflected their deeply-felt need for family and support at a time when the idyllic family and community appear to be disappearing.
Perhaps this is why Studs Terkel received such a warm reception. There he was, all ninety-one years of him, gravel-voiced, hard of hearing, swapping tales with Tim Black, who had worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s and had participated in many political movements in Chicago. Sitting down in front of hundreds of storytellers as though they were in some one’s home, they joked and told anecdotes about how they had endeavored to make America a better place. Even when Studs talked about how he had recently been robbed and then pleaded with his naive robber to give him enough money to buy a cup of coffee in the morning, and even when Tim recalled how he had fought in World War II and had been compelled to put up with racists in the army, their words radiated with optimism, and you could sense how cunning and defiant these old rascals were. Their tales were not fairy tales with happy endings. Their open- ended stories were about struggles to overcome oppression and injustice.
The audience was glued to their every word. After an hour, Studs, who was obviously getting tired, stood up and said in a gruff voice, “We’d better quit while we’re ahead.” And they did, but the storytellers, who listened, haven’t quit. They are back out in the world, spreading words of hope. No matter how they gush, I reflect that I would rather belong to their dream-born and idealized family than those real families and governments who spread lies and pretend to believe earnestly in the lies they spread.
This book is dedicated to those professional storytellers, those educators and healers seeking to restore a sense of community in the United States and Canada. It is also clearly dedicated to the non-professional storytellers, especially the young, seeking narrative forms to speak out about themselves. Like my first book, Creative Storytelling: Building Community/Changing Lives, this one is not a self-help book but is self-reflective and critical, intended to complement Creative Storytelling. It is based on my experiences in Minneapolis and St. Paul, where I have been involved in various storytelling projects, especially Neighborhood Bridges, during the past fourteen years. It is also based on workshops and talks which I have given in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Italy and which have brought me new insights into the manifold uses of storytelling.
I have divided this work into four parts to share what I have learned about storytelling, basically as it has manifested itself in the United States. The first part, The Necessity of Storytelling in Education, deals with theoretical reflections about the art and purpose of storytelling. It includes an essay, “The Wisdom and Folly of Storytelling,” which I had previously published in my book, Sticks and Stones, and I have revised and included it here because it is so pertinent for understanding the present state of storytelling in North America and Europe. The second part, Neighborhood Bridges, is a descriptive history of the Neighborhood Bridges storytelling program, which I direct in collaboration with the Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis. This program, oriented to the needs of children and schools, is one of the more unique storytelling programs in the United States. In the third part, Spreading Tales, Opening Minds – Sample Sessions, I present a detailed analysis of several of the sessions in the program, including exercises and tales, in the hope that storytellers, theaters, schools, and other institutions might appropriate some aspects of our work and use them. The final section, The Importance of Children’s Theater, is a critical discussion of contemporary children’s theater and creative drama in the United States. Because the Neighborhood Bridges Program combines creative drama and storytelling in innovative ways, it is thus important to distinguish the type of non-spectacular theater we are trying to develop with young people from the spectacles that, I believe, blind audiences. The sense of storytelling that we try to instill in children cannot be accomplished if we do not explore and use all the arts, especially creative drama which involves all the skills and talents of the children and opens their eyes to their potential.
This book is the result of long and intense collaboration with the children, teachers, teaching artists, and the staff of the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis. Unless otherwise noted, all the tales, legends, and stories in the book are my own or my own translations and adaptations. In the Neighborhood Bridges Program, we use them in a consistent manner to explore genres and modes of narrative, and the teaching artists and teachers who use them are free to adapt them according to their talents and needs. In this regard the texts offered in the book are models for experimental storytelling. Through experiments we learn about ourselves, and through speaking out we learn to communicate and form communities.
The proceeds of this book will be donated to the Neighborhood Bridges Program to further the work of the children. I encourage storytellers and anyone who reads this book to use our methods and stories freely and to experiment with all features of our program. It is through such a process of sharing that we can foster the folly and wisdom of storytelling.