Next time I’ll know

A couple of weeks ago at Tell (tellfredericksburg.org) the topic was Mistakes. What follows is my story, about a mistake I made in July, 2008…and then again yesterday.

I thought the job might turn out to be a Gig from Hell. ArtScape — an outdoor arts festival in Baltimore. Three days in July, three hundred thousand people. They had art stalls, craft booths, food courts, exhibitions, concerts, film venues, and a small army of people whose job description read “street performer.” I was invited to join that small army.

Storytelling is not street performance. Street performance grabs the attention of passersby and pulls them in. You see a juggler with five balls in the air… You see a guy swallowing a sword or eating fire… You see a clown pulling coins out of somebody’s ear, you go over to them and check out what they’re up to. You see an old woman standing on the curb talking to no one in particular – you cross the street to avoid having to make eye contact.

I was almost certain this job was not a good fit for a storyteller. But the money was really good. And I really needed the work.

I got to the festival and checked in, picked up my map and instructions, and wandered around until I found my performance space. I was pleasantly surprised. They had a tent set up with a little stage in front of about a hundred folding chairs. Closed on three sides, it was a contained space where people came on purpose to sit down and be entertained. It boded well.

Granted, there was a rock concert going on in the amphitheater across the park. And a drum circle on the back side of the tent wall. Next to a car show. And intermittent marching bands in the vicinity. Still… I wasn’t without some attention grabbing tricks of my own: I had brought origami paper, the better to dazzle my audience with paper folding magic in the event my storytelling didn’t grab them by the throat.

Backstage, I got myself organized and scoped out the act just ahead of me. Magic tricks and a little juggling performed by a winsome twenty-something kid with good patter and great rapport with the audience, which was mostly 10-year-old boys. I thought, Perfect! My inner child is a ten-year-old boy, and I do well performing for that slice of demographic pie. No worries.

The magician had come to his finale. And it was a grand one involving a unicycle, a chainsaw, a bowling ball, and an egg. The chainsaw roared, the bowling ball soared, the egg didn’t splatter as he juggled them all while pedaling the unicycle. The ten-year-old boys and I were impressed. And then…

He silenced the chainsaw and tossed his juggling paraphernalia to the stage manager in order to free up his hands for the piece de resistance:

Still perched on the unicycle, he pulled a long skinny balloon – of the sort used by strolling clowns – out of his shirt pocket. It was white, which made it all the more evocative when he started stuffing it up his left nostril. Talking all the while. And then he coughed and sputtered, stuck his finger down his throat and pulled the end of the balloon out of his mouth. Holding onto both ends he then proceeded to “floss” his nostril with the white balloon.

The ten-year-old boys went wild!

But there was more. He pulled the balloon all the way through his nose and out his mouth, then he inflated it and twisted it into a little dog, which he handed off to a little girl sitting in the front row.

The ten-year-old boys were delirious! They leapt to their feet in the most heartfelt standing ovation I have ever witnessed.

Now it was my turn to take the stage. I laid out large squares of bright paper on my little table, adjusted the mike and … looked up to see the ten-year-old boys settle down and notice that their beloved magician had been replaced with someone grandmotherly who obviously brought nothing to the stage that made noise or might be construed as boogers. As a body, they rose up and walked out.

So, yes, that day in Baltimore did qualify as a Gig from Hell after all. And I went home thinking, I’ll know better next time. Lesson learned.

Fast forward 3 years.

Yesterday I worked a triple header. In Baltimore. At ArtScape. In a corner of a huge tent where children were making a dozen different kinds of art with a reggae band playing 50 yards away. My first set got off to a ragged start, but it ended well. The second set actually felt pretty solid. And the third set felt like hard work. As grownups wandered through the performance space to claim the kids I had worked so hard to engage, the back of my mind was saying, Next time, I really will know better. For sure, I have learned my lesson.

But on my way out, as I shook hands with the organizer (who was up to her eyeballs in gluesticks, tongue depressors, and felt-tipped markers), I heard my voice say something like, Great event! Keep me in the rotation. I’d love to do it again.

Deep sigh.

The money’s good. And I don’t foresee a time when I ever won’t really need the work.

(Jack met me in Baltimore, and this morning before we headed our separate ways we spent a few hours at the Visionary Art Museum and brunched at Mr. Rain’s Fun House. On the balcony. Eyeball level with the mother of all whirligigs.)

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About megan hicks

The best parts of my life happen when I pull magic from thin air. That happens with the spoken word. The written word. Reclaiming trash in the material world. It's about recognition. Re-cognition. Learning fresh the truth I've always known. Seeing new potential as a result of a change in context. It's alchemy.
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9 Responses to Next time I’ll know

  1. Mij says:

    I am sure I’m not the only one. Does storytelling seem to cause wet pants with the younger audiances and the ‘old enough to know better’ audiances? They will sit and jiggle and or hold themselves and if I see it, I will sometimes stop a story in a classroom or library but some times, like today at a summer camp – I didn’t see it till it was too late. I love my job and wouldn’t trade it for anything

  2. megan hicks says:

    Bless you all for making me laugh! Dog turds and beergardens notwithstanding, what we do for a living beats punching a time clock and showing up every day for a nine-to-five? Doesn’t it?

  3. Tony Toledo says:

    Ahh, Megan, years ago I was invited to tell stories at the Marblehead Festival of the Arts on the 4th of July. I was to tell in a beautiful shady spot in the yard at Abbott Hall. I was to start at Noon. At noon I started. So did the town bell. In Abbott Hall. So the kids and I counted the dongs to 12 thinking it would fade and I could get on with the story. What I, and the booking person, failed to know was that the on the 4th of July the town bell rings for half an hour. Over which nothing else could be heard. I did mime of sorts. The show went on. Kinda. The check was good though.

  4. Megan,

    As i read, I thought, “Oh, NOOOOOO!” Been in similar gigs, most notably a Pgh Irish Festival a number of years ago, in the “Family/Cultural Tent”, located about 10 ft from a railroad track (freights coming through every 2 min.); beyond that the Monongehela River filled with motorboards, jet skis and barges. About 20 ft away was the Irish Dog Breeds Exhibit (Wolfhounds are not mute when they fight….). About 50 ft away was the Big Tent, filled with vendors, people eating and talking, and oh, yeah, the Main Stage with huge speakers and a Celtic rock band, complete with piper and diggeredoo, and that had the nerve to complain that my 1 very smal speaker was too loud (how could they tell?)…and about 75 ft away a main drag with ambulence and fire truck sirens racketing up and down. I had dealt with this for 8 previous years (except for the jet skis, they were new), and during my 1st set found that a German beer garden had been installed next door, so I got to hear the OOOOO-gAH! of the beer compressors….during my second set the beer gardne had opened and was filled with very loud drunks….It was the last time I did that gig, which has since moved to a nice location. Still not doing it ever again–it’s the same weekend as the Ligonier Highland Games, which are more fun (I play my harp at that too.)

    –Barra the Bard

  5. Sue Black says:

    great post, Megan!
    made me laugh — so there was an upside to the gig after all??
    carry on!

  6. Norah says:

    This is what I wanted to send to you…Wednesday, January 31, 2007
    “More Interesting than Dog Poop”
    Summer 2000 –

    My work sends me to some funky venues.
    This one was a park along side a highway where the planes
    are low overhead in their approach to Logan. It was about 90º F.

    It was also before lunch and maybe after nap

    About 20 kids about 3 years old each,
    walking like somnambulists, holding on to
    clothesline were brought out to me and
    we were all led to a huge tree.
    How primal – how essential !

    Me, a tree and a group of children.

    This is storytelling.
    This is what it is all about!

    The disaffected teen staff were sullen
    and glum. Who could blame them?

    It was so damn hot, humid and smelly.

    But when I pointed out that the broken glass mixed in the
    wet with dew*grass as unsuitable for tender toddler bottoms of my audience they
    became even unhappier.

    We moved around the tree and finally to another tree.
    And I started at last.
    A plane roared overhead. I pushed on.
    Traffic flowed and growled in the background.
    I engaged and cavorted.
    Then a bright and perspicacious little boy noticed a huge dog
    turd about 18″ inches away from my foot.

    God I wished I had seen that first.

    “Wow. Look Dog POOP!”

    20 little heads were snapped around and riveted
    in attention on the brown, perfectly
    formed canine offering by my foot. The teen counselors perked up.
    This became a moment of intense interest. My audience could not get enough –
    Then it evolved into group participation.

    They had to see and share and even wanted to touch.
    This last desire snapped the teen’s into action.
    They had no tools to remove the intruder so the
    counselors worked on crowd control.

    The rest of my gig was spent in shameless competition.
    By god ! I am storyteller!

    I am more
    interesting than dog poop.

    Aren’t I?

    Story is bigger than this!
    Isn’t story bigger than this?

    Apparently not.

    I bought a sound system next year.
    I bring plastic bags.

    I know who I am.
    I am a storyteller and
    that is “the %@$!.”
    Such is the power of storytelling.

    [*dew? – indeed -dog pee more likely]

  7. I’m thinking being in the Visionary Art Museum could pretty much make up for anything….
    Congratulations on getting work, in any case!

  8. http://norahdooley.blogspot.com/2007/10/comic-relief.html

    The above post is not quite the same thing but I could relate to your tales as I had a similar act to follow at the Garlic And Arts Festival in Orange MA. I came on after a guy in a unicycle completed his finale: slicing and eating one of the 3 apples with one of the three knives he was juggling ( 6 total items). Sheesh. That was for free. Am I crazy or what?

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