a GRIMM ole time!

After the generosity I received on my WCMT trip, with so many storytellers giving me time, books, cds, and a place to stay, I wanted to have the opportunity to give something back, and so this week I am playing host to American storytellers Judith Heinemann and Daniel Marcotte who are over in the UK performing their show Grimm’s Grimmest as part of Kingston University’s After Grimm: Fairy Tales and the Art of Storytelling’ Conference.

Judith and Dan performing Grimm’s Grimmest

I first met Judith in Cincinnati, in fact I was one of the first people she met when she arrived and Karen Chace introduced us and within the first two minutes of conversation we had established that Judith was going to be visiting the UK in September, performing at Kingston Uni and would be staying with me, and now she is it is lovely. Although Judith didn’t come alone, she brought the very talented musical gem Dan Marcotte with her, who I met for the first time when I opened my front door to them on Wednesday.

I am very glad to be able to host two such warm and giving folks, especially because it would seem they have brought the weather with them! Plus it has been great to be sat answering work emails to live lute playing in my living room. And apparently my flat is Dan’s ideal holiday resort, because I am a self-confessed Geek, so my collection of Sci-fi movies and series, my fantasy and sci-fi collector pieces, and my comic book collection and fiction library have been the subject of much conversation.

It has been wonderful to see so many lovely and familiar faces at the conference too, especially when so many of them graced the stage last night to perform a variety of Grimm stories. As well as Judith and Dan, there was Kelly Kanayama (with whom I appeared with earlier this year at the Taster Tales, as part of the Gathering, the Society for Storytelling’s conference), Janet Dowling with who I work with wearing my Surrey Storytellers Guild hat (actually we had a good representation what with Janet, Jeff, me, Alistair and Paul, it was a shame Belinda couldn’t make it, but she was being all dramatic and taking a week in hospital – feel better soon you crazy lady!), Cat Weatherill – the beautiful and sassy fellow redhead, and the spellbinding and somewhat other worldly Jamie Crawford. Not to mention the talent sitting in the audience with the likes of Simon Heywood and Jack Zipes!

Janet Dowling telling the Sea Hare

The evening of stories was truly mesmerising. First up on the small black stage with plush red curtains falling behind was Judith and Dan and their wonderful dressed stage with skulls and candles, Judith’s long black cape and their blend of story, music and historical periods (as Dan explains: ‘We like to take our 19th Century collected Grimm’s tales set them to 16th Century Ballard tunes using a Renascence lute and 21st Century vernacular’.). Next was Kelly blending the Germany folk tales with her experience of East Asian Mothers. A short break then catapulted us into a second half of strange beasts. Janet’s telling of the Sea Hare will linger with me always, I have seen Janet tell many times, but I have never seen her tell with such… pleasure, by the end of her story every woman in the room wanted race off and find a Sea Hare of her own! Cat’s use of the stage, dynamics and emotionally raw tensions really exploded the characters from ‘Donkey Cabbages’ into the room, always just at the right moment so that a greater understanding of the motives and complex relationships was understood and felt throughout the room, a highly enjoyable and thoughtful performance. And never one to disappoint, the last teller of the night was Jamie who told a modernised version of ‘Bearskin’. Jamie seems to have a elven quality to his movements and facial gestures, with just a look of his eyes you could which character was feeling what, he lept on and off the stage and really used every inch of the performance to his advantage, setting the scene and inviting the audience into every aspect of the story.

Cat Weatherill starting her version of ‘Donkey Cabbages’ with a haunting ballad

By the end of the night I felt fulfilled and exhausted by my journey through those dark woods of the Black Forest, and having met such wondrous creatures, sung along to and be serenaded by a chorus of ballads, mixed with magic and danced with the devil.

For a free event it was one that there was no reason to miss, and is such a shame that so many of the delegates of the conference chose too – especially as so many others had been desperate for tickets and turned away. We had so much top talent giving their time for free crammed into a small converted church-theatre and yet half the seats were left empty. It is an issue that comes up time and time again, and makes my heart bleed every time. Storytelling is such a beautifully powerful art form we should support and cherish and yet the attitude of most is that it can be free or it can be missed… if you had seen what I saw last night, you would never miss a tale, fable or story again, maybe this is why I felt the need to play my Bodhran as we walked into Kingston after the show, ‘The storytellers are coming, the storytellers are coming, listen, celebrate and share!’

I went to Cincy and found Me!

The National Storytelling Network Conference is over, but my head and heart are full. I have met over the past week so many wonderful, beautiful, giving, brilliant, talented, inspired and inspiring people whom I hope I will meet again many times over as I wander the story path. It was a life changing experience (what with temperatures of 100, and tornado warnings) enhancing my concepts, career and calorie intake.
After the pre-conference on Wednesday the pace picked up and the storytellers arrived en-masse, around about 300 or so.

The Master-class on Thursday afternoon with Jane Stenson and Sherry Norfolk, was not only delightful but incredibly insightful, 5 hrs walking us through creating a storytelling classroom from pre-school to secondary school, (or Kindergarten to High school). I loved the new term I picked up in this class ‘Teaching Artist’ which is one it would be great to see used more in the UK because it recognises the artist who works heavily in school as an educator, and of value to the teaching system. The workshop looked at the differences between what the points of view of what the teacher wishes to achieve and what the artist wants and can provide because Jane Stenson was actually a teacher, and Sherry Norfolk comes much more from the performance side. What surprised me but should have been obvious was how similar the issues facing the ‘Teaching Artist’ is between both the UK and US, however due to recognition of the importance of the library system (some which is not so evident in the UK with so many libraries either already closed or under threat of closing) many of the folks I have met are either teachers or librarians or have served as such at one point which then brought them to storytelling. An amazing session which will sit with me for a long time.

After a delightful dinner with Csenge where we discovered we are actually just the same person cloned (watch out world, yes there are two of us, and we’re coming after you bringing our flaming red-haired story revolution!!!!) the opening ceremony began, and the main conference hall filled with storytellers some new some old, but all were recognised and welcomed, during this I met Rachel Hedman, who told me the ‘New Voices’ would be meeting for breakfast the next day, this was to be a gathering of young storytellers, so of course I pounced on the idea. I rounded the evening off with Mary Hamilton’s Fringe show ‘Around the world with Cinderella’ a delightful blending of 11 Cinderella stories and a Norwegian version with a cinderFella.

Friday was a bleary eyed early start to meet the New Voices which incorporates young tellers right up to 35yrs old, but I am so glad I did because as well as meeting around 8 young storytellers, there in the middle of them all was Judy Sima who co-wrote the ‘Raising Voices’ book, a bible for anyone working in the field of youth storytelling. I was so excited to be sat there, just knowing that moments like these are what this trip is all about. Once the group had got their breakfast, very kindly paid for by Judy (many thanks Judy) we all started sharing our stories of what brought us to storytelling, what our hopes and dreams are for the future and our futures in storytelling and the challenges facing young storytellers – which as it turned out is a universal issue of; where do we find the platforms to tell, who do we balance storytelling with school work, getting through exams, going to college/uni, finding jobs, love life, starting families, how do we afford conferences and make time for them, how do we convince established older storytellers that we have voices of value to. It was also really interesting to hear about the way youth storytelling is in America through the eyes of the youth, this was an opportunity I hadn’t expected at the conference.
The rest of Friday was spent going to workshops and panels and a walk up the road to a Korean restaurant for lunch in 100 degree heat. I rounded the day off at a story swap and told my tale of the little tree that wished, which went down really well, and as I left that low and behold but who should have just arrived at the conference but Kevin Cordi, who greeted me with a huge hug (those barrage of emails prior to my trip had worked!!!) and even though by this time it was 11pm we talked for hours until we realised the rest of the lobby was empty and it was 2.30am, I already knew at this point a few days of caught moments during the conference was not going to be enough to capture even a brief snippet of the knowledge and experience Kevin was willing to share, and the support he was willing to give. Return trips and future conversations have already been planned.

The rest of the conference flew by in workshops and panels, one by Judy Sima going through the application of some of the exercises in the book ‘Raising Voices’ and a panel on Mentoring, I gave up Friday lunch period to interview Judy and Kevin, which gave fourth some really interesting material and two very different perspectives on youth storytelling, there are many others I wished I’d had time to interview and so I will be email and skyping to catch up with them either en-route or once I get back to the UK.

It became evident during the conference that 6 weeks is such a small amount of time to achieve all that I hope and it is merely the start of the dialogue rather the whole conversation.
It was interesting to compare the similarities between the NSN and the SFS (Society for Storytelling – UK), and the issues facing youth tellers, and those working in the field of youth storytelling. It was also interesting to note the differences, which for me was that sometimes the conversations, workshops and panels were not focused on stories, but on the relationship the tellers had with certain stories – however I was told by many that this is not the norm and was perhaps due the theme of this year’s conference being about remembrance. I also saw how much more organised things were with early starts (8.30 starts would be unheard in a UK story conference) and late nights, folders and handouts at nearly every workshops, PowerPoint presentations, it was much more lecture style than practical which is what I have grown use to in the UK where content can be flexible depending on the needs and wants of the group.

Kevin Cordi asked on the storytellers Facebook page for those who went to the conference to take some time to reflect and asked themselves; ‘Select one to three things that you learned, questioned, or taught and decide how to use it in your life.’
I learnt that as many better opportunities there are for youth tellers in the US there are also similar challenges to what we face in the UK. Trying to define what ‘youth’ means, where does it start and where does it end? How to approach it – do we ask what they think they need, to give them what we think they need? How do we make opportunities for all despite abilities, locations or skill level? How do we make opportunities to attend conference, what workshops would benefit young tellers?
I have learnt I have many more questions than what I started with!
I question the idea that folktales can be copyrighted as some have been with us for thousands of years, and although a version may have been written down in a modern book, research on the internet get other books and you will find many more versions, which you can blend into your own original work, for isn’t that what storytellers do? Traditional/folk tales have so much teaching in them, they have been crafted over millennia to give teachings and make us question, isn’t losing that denying those that come after us part of their heritage, not just of being from this place or that place, of this people or that people, but of being human and part of this world?
I will use the experience to keep my mind open and remember to (as much as possible) pass it forward, to make sure I leave something those who travel the path behind me.

And lastly I would like to make a role call for all those who made the weekend amazing: Csenge Zalka, Kevin Cordi, Kevin Gerzevitz, Karen Chace, Judy Sima, Jane Crouse, Sherry Norfolk, Jane Stenson, Lyn Ford, Lois, Katie, Rachel Hedman, Holly Robinson, Adam Booth, Beth Horner, Judith Heineman, Elise Krakower, Renee, Heather, Gail Froyen, Sara Armstrong, Noa Baum, Buck Creacy, Brother Wolf, Jim May, Kevin Kling, Rick Huddle, Yvonne Healy, Alton Chung, Michel, Bill Harley, and Marilyn McPhie to name just a few.