Adventures in Storytelling: Why Flexibility is Essential

In my work as a storyteller, I have performed in many different settings and conditions. In fact, if you would like to undertake this work, flexibility and a willingness to roll with the punches will serve you well. I have performed on state-of-the art stages, in cozy library children’s rooms, and in cavernous school cafeterias. But some of the more interesting and/or challenging places I have performed include:

  • Atop a flat-bed truck (where my biggest worry was not that I would be able to tell the story, but that no one participating would fall off!)
  • In a Ghanaian classroom, packed to the gills with over one hundred 4th and 5th graders (strangely enough, when I showed up, the teacher decided to take a walk around the building!)
  • Under a canopy of trees in Haiti (where students were using tents for classrooms in the aftermath of the earthquake)
  • In a wide open field under the hot sun (The patrons sat in the shade while I performed in the sun, sweating profusely. Despite the tough conditions, this is still a place I enjoy visiting.)
  • On a dirt floor in front of an outdoor pavilion stage which upon arrival was covered with bird poop and a dead bird! (Needless to say last minute adjustments on my part were made in order to keep my props from becoming contaminated!)

Under the trees in Haiti

While the performance venue can be a surprise, so too can the audience. To rephrase Forrest Gump’s famous quote, “Audiences are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” Some are quiet and reserved, others wild and raucous. For me, this is some of the fun of it. Yet it can also pose a challenge.


Recently, my husband accompanied me to a performance for toddlers. While the toddlers sat on the floor during the presentation, their parents sat at tables. And instead of modeling good listening behavior for their children, quite a few of them talked throughout the performance. The children were wide-eyed and excited, and on a few occasions disruptive, but very few parents got involved to correct their behavior. While this is not the norm, it happens more than it should; often enough that it no longer phases me.


Well as soon as I had finished the program and we got in the car to leave, my husband sat there staring at me for a good minute, his eyes as round as saucers. “Wow!” he said. “I don’t know how you do it! That was amazing.”


I think he was referring to my ability to not become phased by all of the external factors at play in the room, many of which had made him want to creep into a corner and disappear. He was surprised that I could stay engaged with the story and engaged with

It’s a long fall from atop this flat-bed truck!

the children despite the number of distractions. And perhaps most of all he was surprised that given the above factors I could actually enjoy myself doing it!


Now my husband has always supported my storytelling work, but that was one of those moments where I knew that he had a genuine respect, even awe, for my work and the flexibility that it requires. Sometimes it’s easy to get wrapped up in all of the difficult circumstances surrounding a performance, and when there is a good opportunity to change the scenario, I will try to do so. But mostly I try to keep myself focused on why I’m there. And despite any adverse conditions that might exist, I remind myself that someone there needs that story, and I am there to tell it to them.

What difficult circumstances have you encountered in your own line of work?

How do you overcome and/or stay focused in the midst of them?

Ascribing Value to Diverse Cultures through Storytelling

As I discussed in my previous post, telling multicultural tales to the people to whom those tales “belong” can be a humbling experience. However, I have also found it to be deeply gratifying. In fact, some of my favorite moments as a storyteller have happened on such occasions.


A few years ago I have the privilege of telling the famous Indian folktale, The Monkey and the Crocodile, at a local library. When the performance concluded, a woman of Indian descent came up to me with her young daughter in tow. She thanked me profusely and said, “My grandmother used to tell me that story when I was a little girl. I had forgotten all about it, but as soon as you began to tell, it all started coming back to me. I came today thinking that this was just going to be for my daughter, but I have received something special as well. Now we can share this story together.”


Her words were a great gift to me. Not only had the story transported her to her homeland for a brief time, it had also brought to memory a story of cultural significance that she could continue to pass on to her own children. I am married to an immigrant and have many immigrant friends here in the United States. I have noticed that while some people hang on to their cultural traditions here in their new country, it seems that just as many remove themselves from them altogether in an attempt to assimilate. I have found that when the foreign-born see someone from outside their culture ascribing value to their traditions it often reinforces their pride in their cultural heritage and creates a desire to share it with others.


A good example of this occurred while I was doing some work with an after-school program for fifth and sixth grade students in the Akron area. Over a four week period, I would work with three different groups of students, telling multicultural stories. One of the groups in particular was very diverse with students from Mexico, Thailand, Burma and beyond.


On one occasion right around Halloween, I happened to be telling a Mexican folktale, The Perfect Madrina, that introduces the Mexican holiday, El Dia de Los Muertos (The Day of the Dead.) The Mexican students were very eager to participate and quite a few of them ended up taking on roles in the story. Since I use some Spanish language in the telling, they were excited to respond to me in their native tongue. At the conclusion of the story, I showed some pictures from a book which allowed the students to see more about how the holiday is celebrated.

The non-Mexican students in audience were very intrigued. “Is it really like that?” they asked. They also pointed at some of the pictures and wanted to know more. This gave the Mexican students a chance to be the “experts” and to answer their questions. Suddenly, the things that before the show had singled them out as different from their classmates (language, customs, food, etc) became a topic of great interest and appreciation to their peers. This is a moment that I will cherish for a long time. (For classroom teachers working with diverse student populations, the use of folklore is a great way to foster unity and develop respect for foreign-born students.)


Most recently, I was performing my Chinese New Year Celebration program. At the conclusion, a girl of about 13 years old of Chinese descent came up to thank me for coming. Later on, two other girls, one Chinese and one from the US, joined her. They were followed by a woman who went right up the world map that I use in my performances and began to look for some particular Chinese cities on the map. What I came to understand was that she was the mother of the three and was pointing out the places from which the two Chinese girls had been adopted. All three girls looked at the map with great interest.


Then the American-born sister put a hand on the 13 year old’s shoulder and said, “Today we’re celebrating her ‘gotcha’ day! It’s kind of like another birthday!” The mother explained that the “gotcha day” was the first day that this family had been able to hold this child in their arms after the long adoption process. The whole quartet beamed proudly at the thought.


“Thank you,” said the mother. “I try to take my children to a lot of different cultural events, but this is the first time that we’ve heard these stories. It really means a lot to know these beautiful tales.” I couldn’t help but smile. Theirs was a beautiful tale in and of itself.


For me telling multicultural folktales is an opportunity to ascribe value and worth to cultures and traditions different from my own. While we can be proud of our heritage as Americans, we lose nothing by learning about diverse traditions. Instead, this enriches our own understanding. In fact, I don’t think I ever really understood American culture until I started traveling and living abroad and having a wider lens from which to view it.


Telling multicultural tales is particularly meaningful in areas where diversity is lacking, newly growing or misunderstood. I have found that my multicultural audiences have been appreciative of my attempts to shine light upon their positive cultural contributions and to encourage others to learn more. This had made the experience of telling these tales both humbling and deeply gratifying for me.

Do you have a favorite experience of telling a multicultural story?

Telling Multicultural Stories to Multicultural Audiences

One of the most humbling experiences that I have as a storyteller is telling stories from diverse cultural backgrounds to people from the culture to which the story belongs. Amongst storytellers and folklorists, there is a wide array of opinions as to whether or not people who are not of the culture should even attempt to tell such tales. Each teller must make their own decision one way or the other. Whatever they decide, if they choose to tell tales from other cultures, it is wise to do the research necessary to give an accurate telling and to choose appropriate material.


Care must be taken not to tell the story in a flippant manner or to make light of cultural traditions that we may not understand. For example, some cultures have stories that are only supposed to be told at certain times of year. In other cultures, certain members of society earn the right to become storytellers, and they alone are entrusted with the wisdom of special sacred stories.


I have chosen to tell multicultural folktales because I feel that the wisdom that they contain is something that our world needs now more than ever. The reason that I became a storyteller in the first place has a lot to do with a short Zen story that I came across in a collection of folktales back during my college days. That story taught me so much about myself, and I can’t imagine never having learned the simple, yet profound, truth that it taught me. In our modern era, many young people and adults are missing out on the opportunity to be exposed to such wonderful wisdom that leads to self-understand and self-discovery.


Another reason that I tell multicultural tales is because they reinforce the idea of our shared humanity. As people of all ages hear tales from around the world, they are struck not so much by how different we are, but by how much we have in common. Humans across all space and time share the same hopes, dreams, needs, desires, struggles, disappointments and frustrations. No matter how different we may dress, eat or speak, we all experience life’s ups and downs.


At the same time, the cultural differences that folktales highlight often lead to a healthy curiosity in my listeners. I have had the chance to travel widely, and it’s something I recommend to everyone I meet. However, I understand that many people may never get the opportunity to leave their home country. In that case, I can encourage them to learn more through books or by reaching out to the foreign-born in their communities.


Last Saturday I had the opportunity to perform my new program, A Chinese New Year Celebration, at a local library. I was surprised to see that nearly half of my audience that day was of Chinese descent! Despite the fact that I had carefully researched the stories I would present, even going so far as to meet with a Chinese professor at the local university to discuss their cultural context, I found myself a bit nervous. How could I even think of standing before this crowd in the role of “expert” when there were many in my audience who could claim these stories as their own while I could not?


Well, I decided that I didn’t have to. Given the circumstances, that approach did not feel appropriate to me. So instead of simply sharing the facts that I had gathered as rehearsed, I decided to open it up to the audience, calling upon them to share their understanding of some of the symbols and traditions tied to the holiday.  I then allowed their answers to springboard me into the stories I’d selected to tell. I found that this approach worked beautifully. I loved the give and take that it allowed for, and I was also glad to see that their answers checked out with the research that I had done as well!


Similarly, in many of my stories, I like to say or teach a common phrase in the foreign language. Well, despite my practice, I don’t consider my Chinese pronunciation to be as accurate as say my English or Spanish. So in this case, it was wonderful to be able to call upon a handful of people for whom Mandarin Chinese was their native tongue. Not only did I come away enriched by this experience, but so too did the audience.


As a storyteller, I highly recommend making use of the audience members and the wealth of knowledge that they bring. Ask questions. Engage them in dialogue. Find ways to creatively build this interaction into your program. This is by no means an excuse to be lazy and not do the necessary research ahead of time. Neither, in my mind is calling upon the audience a display of ignorance. Instead, I consider it a way to show deference and respect for your audience while at the same time showing them that you are open to learning from them. It is also a way of empowering audience members to become storytellers in their own right.


In my next post, I will continue on this theme, sharing how some of the responses that I have received from audience members of various ethnicities have been instrumental in furthering my motivation to tell multicultural tales.

New Program, “A Chinese New Year Celebration,” Debuts in 2013!

Last fall the Beachwood Library called to ask me if I had any programs based on Chinese folktales for a Chinese New Year celebration they were putting together at their library. At the time, I didn’t have any completed programs based on Chinese folktales (although it had been one of my goals!), but I told them that with so much advance notice, I would have plenty of time to research and develop something that fit their needs. They agreed, and immediately I went to work.


Through my research, I became acquainted with many of the unique symbols and traditions that are part of the Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival. These symbols and traditions led me to dig a bit deeper and try to uncover the origins and meaning behind the traditions. In the end, I came up with a program comprised of three different stories, each unique and each explaining a different facet of the Chinese New Year celebration. Appropriately enough, this new program is called A Chinese New Year Celebration. Below you will find a small taste of the stories included in the program.


The Nian Beast

The first story surrounds the legend of the Nian beast, a horrible man-eating monster that used to come out of hiding to terrorize the Chinese people on New Years Eve. Many different versions of this tale exist and provide explanations for how the people were able to scare him away and live in peace. Many of these methods are still put in practice today during the New Year celebration as the people wear red colors, set off firecrackers and engage in the ever popular Lion Dance.


The Four Dragons

I have been fascinated by dragons ever since I visited Hong Kong when I was fourteen years old. I became obsessed with finding a dragon necklace made out of jade to take home as my souvenir. While I never found that particular combination, I did find a dragon necklace that I still have and wear to this day. The Dragon Dance is another popular tradition of Chinese New Year. Unlike their western counterparts, Chinese dragons are not seen as being evil or scary. Instead, they are powerful and mighty but they use those powers for good. The story of the four dragons explains how these magnificent creatures used their powers to help the Chinese people during a time of terrible drought. It is a beautiful story of compassion and self-sacrifice that also gives insight into the geography of China.


Happiness Upside Down

This is the first Chinese New Year story that I ever came across, and this was long before I’d been asked to develop this performance. The story stood out to me as having special wisdom, and I was thankful for an opportunity to come back to it and share it with others. During Chinese New Year, the Chinese character symbolizing ‘happiness’ and ‘good fortune’ is hung upside down on the door. The Chinese word for ‘upside down’ sounds just like the word for ‘to arrive.’ So Chinese people hang the ‘happiness’ character upside down on their door to say that happiness has arrived in the new year. A story from the Ming Dynasty explains how this tradition came about. It follows an angry Emperor and his wise wife who saves some of her people from her husband’s wrath while teaching him an important lesson in the process. The manner in which the Empress deals with both her husband’s temper and the difficult situation is particularly insightful.


A Chinese New Year Celebration is now available for booking. While the holiday follows the lunar calendar and falls on February 10th this year, the program will be available year-round and is a great introduction to some very interesting facets of Chinese culture. The program is approximately 45 minutes in length. (However those with time constraints may adapt it to fit their needs, electing to have only one or two of the stories included in the performance.)


*I also encourage you to check your local community’s calendar to see if there are any events planned which will give you a glimpse of the holiday. If you’re in the Cleveland area, the Asia Town Center and Asia Plaza both have activities planned. In addition, many Chinese restaurants plan special entertainment, including Lion Dances, during the holiday. So you may want to call to see if/when the Lion Dancers will be making a stop at your favorite restaurant and plan your next dinner outing accordingly!

Eyes of Wonder: Storytelling for Older Adults (including Grandma!)

Today I had the opportunity to perform at a local facility which provides adult day care services. My own ninety-five year old grandmother spends three days out of the week there, playing Bingo, taking field trips and learning how to do Wii bowling among other fun activities. My grandmother enjoys it so much that she calls it “the club.” (Owing to the associations that that word has to people of my generation, it’s pretty comical.)


At any rate, yesterday when I reminded my grandmother that I’d be coming to perform, her first response was, “Oh! Are there going to be children there?”


When I said, “No, Grandma. There won’t be any children there,” I saw a confused look come across her face. Clearly she was picturing my work as a storyteller as something reserved for child audiences, and now she was concerned that I was going to come in and embarrass her in front of all of her friends with some sort of juvenile entertainment that was above her and her peers.


I tried reassuring her. “Grandma, I tell stories to all different ages, not just children.”


She smiled, but she didn’t look convinced. Probably too busy imagining her social status and carefully manicured reputation taking a nose dive after her peers saw what a crazy woman she had for a grandchild! At any rate, she smiled again and said, “I’m sure that you’ll make me very proud tomorrow.” But I wasn’t so sure if she was trying to reassure me or herself of that fact!


Well, as I began the performance, I would catch glimpses of my grandmother whose face had that slightly-scared look on it. The kind that says, “Oh boy! What’s she going to do next?” We tend to think of peer pressure and image-consciousness as a larger concern of teens and young adults, but honestly, it affects us throughout our lives, whatever our age as my grandmother has taught me on more than a couple of occasions.


However, as I continued the performance, the crowd warmed up quickly. And as they did, my grandmother began to relax. Maybe I wouldn’t embarrass her after all!


One of my favorite things about my job is being able to look out at an audience and see the wonder in people’s eyes. And there really is nothing more magical than seeing a crowd of older adults whose eyes are filled with the wonder of a child. It’s a good reminder that all of us, whatever our age, are waiting to have that place of wonder in our hearts and minds tapped and brought to life.


When the performance concluded, the audience asked me some questions about my work and my travels, and I, in turn, asked them to share some of their own stories. I was then gifted with stories of one woman’s experiences as an American living in Iran. A man’s journey to the Holy Land. A whispered comment about a visit to a nude beach in Puerto Rico. Several recommended that I make a trip Hawaii. Later another woman spoke to me at length about her difficult living situation, the husband she greatly missed and her diagnosis of dementia. She asked me to say a prayer whenever I thought of her.


As I was finishing, a woman next to my grandmother with tinted glasses and a red-tipped cane turned toward me and said, “That was beautiful. I’m sure that your grandmother is very proud.”


I couldn’t help but smile. “Thank you,” I said. And at the back of mind, I thought, “I hope so. I really hope so. Because I can’t imagine doing anything else.”


* As a side note, I must share that since my earliest days as a storyteller all the way up to the present day, I have practiced many of my stories on my grandmother. She is always willing and eager to listen, and we have a good laugh as I dress her up in some of the costume pieces used in the story. It was during one such practice session years ago that I first realized how wonderful telling for older adults could be, and I have looked for such opportunities ever since. Today when she comes over to my house to visit, I like to sit her down in my comfy rolling desk chair and bring her along to whatever room I’m going to be in. And of course, if there’s a new story that needs polishing or on old one that needs practicing, I know just the person to listen!