As I was reading my friend Csenge’s blog today, I was taken back to a middle school gig I had several years ago. I was hired by a PTA Cultural Arts Liaison to tell stories to 7th and 8th graders. Based on what she had heard me do, for the 8th graders she booked fractured fairy tales from my “Groundhogs Meet Grimm” collection and for the 7th graders she booked my long story about the First Battle of Fredericksburg, “What Was Civil About that War…” The programs would complement curriculum guidelines for language arts and Virginia history. Public education in Virginia is all about adhering to curriculum guidelines.
This was several years ago. I was still new to freelance performing. I came to the work with polished stories, but I didn’t yet realize that a storytelling concert consisting entirely of stories is a lot like a work of art thumbtacked to the wall. Chances are good that people who approach the work looking for art will see what they came to see; but someone accidentally wandering into the room is likely to miss it or disregard it.
The 8th graders were escorted into the assembly space under the glaring eye of the lead language arts teacher, who told them to be respectful and polite — or pay dire consequences. Then, choosing a seat where she could keep an eye on them and glance occasionally at me, she took out a folder and started grading papers.
No one was there to introduce me. So I introduced myself and launched into my stories. Half of the kids were tuned in. Half were tuned out. Nobody made any noise, though. The teacher praised them for their good manners and marched them back to class.
Time for the 7th graders. Instant replay. This time with the social studies lead teacher.
I don’t remember ever feeling more exhausted as I driving home from a gig.
A few weeks later, the PTA Cultural Arts Liaison sent me copies of the evaluation forms some of the teachers had submitted. All the comments were tepid, teetering toward the “favorable” end of the spectrum, but just barely. Except for one teacher’s, whose comments went something like this: “Last year we had a dance troupe that got some of the kids up onstage with them. The magician who came used kids to help with his tricks. I would have thought a storyteller could have involved them, too, instead of making them just sit there for 45 minutes. Heaven knows they get talked at enough.”
That’s when I started learning just how important emcees are. That’s when I began to see that no matter how strong a story is, not matter how solid a program, sometimes the story, the program needs support — support in the form of a commercial message on behalf of Storytelling.
Now, whenever I address a new audience, I open with a short commercial. I make sure all the grownups in attendance know that what I am about is not passive entertainment. Here’s an approximation of my 45 second spot:
“I’ve brought some stories for you today, but as you can see, I didn’t bring any books. That’s ’cause I’m a storyteller. I don’t read my stories. I tell them.
“Now, let me explain something about storytelling. See, if I’m standing up here telling a story in an empty room, that’s not storytelling. I call that rehearsing. You might call it ‘an old woman talking to herself.’ There’s no storytelling without storylistening. I gotta have you all with me in order for it to work. It’s like magic. When you listen to the words of my story, you start making pictures in your imaginations, and I can see it, I can feel it — we’re all inside the story, together.
“You know, if you were the assistant principal standing there in the doorway and all you could see was the backs of your heads, it wouldn’t look any different than if you all were staring slack-jawed at a TV screen. But this isn’t like TV, because I can see you, too. If your assistant principal came up here where I am and saw your faces — she’d know just how busy all of you were inventing your own story inside your heads.
“It’s something called ‘collaborative art.’”
That’s my frame. Keeps the art from spilling. And you know what? It really works. Teachers will voluntarily put down their grading pencils and let themselves into the narrative.