Sunday, June 2, 2013

Reflections on the Creative Leadership Award

Introducing Maria Tatar at our first "Grimm and Twisted" fairytale slam - also the 200th anniversary of the Grimms

Reflections on a Creative Leadership Award

by Norah Dooley
Photos by: Paula H. Junn
This Tuesday, June 4th, 2013  I am honored to receive a Creative Leadership Award at Puppet Showplace Theatre at the Garden Party Gala, celebrating the occasion of their 39th birthday. See details at their website and let me know if you would like to come.

When we first approached Puppet Showplace, in 2010, with the idea of a collaboration, massmouth was just over one year old. We had long known and respected Puppet Showplace Theatre as a venue that supported the art form of puppetry which,  much like storytelling,  it is an art form with ancient roots that evokes rather than replaces imagination. We also knew that Puppet Showplace Theatre were successful. They had a history that showed grit and commitment that we could admire and aspire to; they had survived as artists and had maintained a continuously operating theater right in the heart of Greater Boston for over 3 decades.

Three years ago,  we were whippersnappers, who had just finished our first season of story slams and believed we had a some social capital to share. And if leadership is boldly asking for what one needs, whether  appropriate or not, then I have earned some part of this honor -  although Cheeky Monkey Award would be a name better fitted to my style. We were beggars at the Puppet Theatre gate and  very seriously in need of inexpensive or free office space because our operations had outgrown bedroom/living room arrangement. I suggested a collaboration based on our needs. Ultimately and not surprisingly, the first date between massmouth and Puppet Showplace Theatre did not lead to a relationship.

Skip ahead to this spring.  I am reading ( more precisely, skimming)  the email announcing I was being honored with this award. At first glance I thought that I was being asked to write a recommendation for Roxie Myrhum.  She was the one who helped us find a way to work together.  How perfect, I thought. Roxie is someone with vision, passion and drive. She really deserves this kind of award. I was so delighted to be able to do a small favor for Artistic Director of the Puppet Showplace Theatre that I started to read the email, just to be sure I knew when the deadline for my recommendation might be.

This closer reading revealed a mind-blowing truth - The Creative Leadership Award was being given to me and Roxie had been my nominator. I know. It was crazy!  Immediately I was on the phone asking Maria Finison if the award could be expanded to include the other organizers and founders of massmouth who are still active in Boston. Specifically, Doria Hughes who co-hosted and planned the series at Puppet Showplace Theatre with me and Andrea Lovett, who is always actively promoting the art of storytelling.  They both are leaders in the very best in contemporary performance of traditional material. But, no dice. This is an award for one person and Puppet Showplace Theatre wanted me. They cited the other areas of my work as fitting their criteria; my picture books, workshops, curricula etc. and so, although it is awkward to be so honored, I realized that I had to man-up and take one for the team.  So I accept this award for me as a representative of the art of  storytelling.

Last summer after a different kind of overture we shared a proposal with Puppet Showplace Theatre and created a project that worked. It had been a dream at massmouth,inc. that we would one day be able to entice a theater or another arts group to support traditional storytelling.  This was an area of storytelling that we had mastered and worked in for decades. When we saw all storytelling on the wane, we started massmouth. When we saw the new energy slams brought to the art form we came up with an idea to mimic our successful 1st person story slams only using traditional content.

Doria Hughes, storyteller fabulosa,  traditional storytellers from Greater Boston and the region and I presented a monthly series of folk & fairy tale slams events right here. Our Slamming the Tradition: Six traditional storytelling events for adults were part open slam, where tellers presented stories no longer than 7 minutes, that were fiction and in some traditional form and part featured performer. Unlike our other story slams, tellers could include props, costumes and music BUT no notes. We secured the prizes and the audience chose winners: A bag of magic beans, magic wishing stone and a small bale of hay were award each month along with a gift card, donated by the Brookline Booksmith. Our first event was written up in ArtsFuse OCT 21 2012.

Performing with Susan Miron on February 14th, 2013
Audiences and performers enjoyed the project and you can read more about specific nights here. One of the highlights of our series for me was that I was able to create a program and present a feature on Feb 14th,  2013, telling longer stories from Boccaccio's 14th century collection of tales, The Decameron. Giovanni Boccaccio, a favorite of mine. He was an Italian author and poet, and an important Renaissance humanist. Boccaccio is particularly noted for his natural, his skewering of hypocrites in high places, witty dialogue and his sympathetic female characters.

My stories ranged from naughty to lusty, and included romantic tales that came from ancient story traditions of India and the bards of the Holy Roman Empire. Susan Miron accompanied me on the harp. She drew on various ancient folk melodies and dances from Southern Italy. The music comes from authentic folk songs of Campagnia, Calabria, Puglia & Napoli as transcribed by John LaBarbera, mandolinist.

Some traditional stories 'back story below and more at this link: Folk tales: the TV of preliterate culture Folk tales: entertainment for adults & the TV of preliterate culture

Since we announced our Folk and Fairy Tale Slams, all sorts of people I thought would know better, have been perplexed. "Traditional stories? Huh? What is a traditional story?"  In the paragraphs below I have tortured and twisted a wikipedia article into illustrating a Miller Analogy Test type statement. My main intent was to explore and hopefully explain the difference between traditional storytelling and contemporary 1st person narrative in performance. Secondly, I hoped to save time by lifting lots of the material for my explanation. This process is sometimes called slapdash, and, when less transparent, also known as plagiarism or "lack of artistic integrity". The statement I am working with is: traditional stories are to contemporary 1st person narrative stories as traditional folk songs are to singer-songwriter's songs. Imagine an acoustic performance of Arrow, by Cheryl Wheeler next to a performance by Simon And Garfunkel "Scarborough Fair"  or any other traditional ballad of Great Britain. 

From a historical perspective, traditional/folk storytelling has these characteristics:
    •    Traditional stories were transmitted through the oral tradition. Before the twentieth century, most people were illiterate. They acquired stories by listening and memorizing them. Primarily, this was not mediated by books, recorded or transmitted by any media. Contemporary yet traditional storytellers may extend their repertoire using picture books or CDs, but these are secondary enhancements when they are of the same character as the primary stories experienced in live performance.
  • Storytelling is typically culturally particular; from a geographic region or culture. In the context of an immigrant group, storytelling acquires an extra dimension for social cohesion. It is particularly conspicuous in the United States, where immigrants and  oppressed minorities strive to emphasize their differences from the mainstream. They may learn stories that originate in the countries their grandparents came from.
  • Stories may commemorate historical and/or personal events. Religions, spiritual traditions, and religious festivals may have a storytelling component especially a set of teaching stories. 
  • Stories at communal events bring children and non-professional storytellers to participate in a public arena, giving an emotional bonding that is unrelated to the aesthetic qualities of the  performance.
  • Traditional stories have been performed, by custom, over a long period of time, over many generations. 
Other characteristics sometimes present:    •    Fusion of cultures: In the same way that people can have a mixed background, with parents originating in different continents, so too, storytelling is often a blend of influences. A digital element can be added to an old  story creating a new genre for the art form of storytelling.
    •    Traditional storytelling is non-commercial in that no one can own a traditional story and we are within our rights to say, "Back off, Disney! Put the law suits away, and the folktale collection down and no one gets hurt."

All the performers at "Love, sex and heads may roll."
Thank you so much to Andrea, Doria and Stu, the co-founders of massmouth, to Paula Junn and Hannah Lapuh the staff, the Board of Directors and all the volunteers at massmouth. Thanks to all my friends and supporters especially Sheila Leavitt and Susan Miron. Thanks to all the storytellers and listeners. Thanks so much to all at Puppet Showplace Theatre. You are our artistic cousins and have treated us like family -and you all have been delightfully collegial and fun to work with besides.  And, saving the most important for last, thanks to my family for their support my art and endurance of my absences, rants and excesses as I follow a quixotic quest for a path that leads to right livelihood through work as an artist. Thank you, all.

Meanwhile...six months later, a post.

Robert, with ice on his knee and staff by his side.
It has been a very long six months and I am happy to say that I have loads of good news to share! Here is some personal and organizational news all in a jumbleFirst, our new massmouth, inc. board of directors helped us launch an Annual Appeal which raised nearly $3,000. This helped us meet the challenge of Mass Humanities our main funder. They had asked us to raise over ten thousand dollars more than we had raised last year to be able to run the StoriesLive® high school project for a 3rd year.  In order to demonstrate that our organization is worth supporting ( they loved the program) and that we had the infrastructure to be able to go on after our last $10,000 grant we had to really put the pedal to the metal. Our appeal was timely and really appealed to the Three Apples Storytelling Festival which was dissolving and as a nonprofit had to bestow it's remaining assets on some other nonprofit. Susan Harris, the treasurer and 'keeper of the flame' chose us and we received our first $5,000 outright gift on Dec 31st, 2012.

During the holidays my husband and I locked knees while dancing and I tore the meniscus of his right knee. This was just before we would leave to see our eldest daughter graduate from her PhD. program at Durham University in the UK.  So proud! She is a scholar, a gentlewoman and now, a Doctor of Philosophy. Despite hurting him so badly that he needed a wheel- chair for part of our travels, he managed to forgive me and recover enough to use a cane and have some fun in Merry Olde England. It was a lovely and brief trip. The man is an animal. I would still be on crutches but Robert heals quickly. And credits PT with his near complete recovery.

We both returned from our 5 whirlwind days in the UK to a load of
work. At massmouth we had sold out shows and the teaching of over 1,200 high school students in 9 weeks to pull together. Then it started to snow - a lot! And while it was snowing and everyone was home during the main blizzard in February and our schedule for StoriesLive® was taking a pounding from the weather... both massmouth and my personal bank cards were "skimmed"  and $2,500 was taken from our accounts before we realized what was happening. Think of this kind of theft is the gift that "keeps on giving." The disorganization and disruption of your daily life goes on for quite long time. I still get bills or cancellation notices from accounts that bill every every quarter, 6 months or yearly and were connected to those two cards. We are so thankful that the bank give us back the money that was stolen. Phew! We would've been in deep deep trouble without it!

We managed to complete a hugely busy season IV of story slams, sell out the Coolidge Corner Theater for a third year in a row and raise over $5,000 for the StoriesLive® program which, in its 3rd year, taught over 2,000 high school students to tell their stories. 

It was a near thing since the terrorist attack on April 15th made it hard for live events  that week - ours was on April 17th yet we filled the theater. But the high school regional slam was at the Boston Library and all of Boylston Street was closed, including the Library right up until a three days before the high school event. Luckily enough of the students still came and even though it was half the number expected the nearly 30 who performed were enough to make it an event to remember.

This spring I managed to remember to complete a syllabus for a course proposal in storytelling at Tufts University, my alma mater. I was delighted to learn last week that the course will accepted and will be listed and if enough students enroll, I will be teaching EXP-0003-F: Performance Art, Podcasts, and Slams: Storytelling in Theory and Practice to undergraduates at Tuft's Ex-College on Tues nights this fall.

This summer I will again be telling stories all over the city, three public sites a day, for Read Boston in late July and early August.  And in early July,  I will be leading a storytelling workshop for activists as part of the Camp Commons Week - Building Community Resilience at the World Fellowship Center in Albany, New Hampshire and the week will end with my new friends Mary Hannon and Chuck Collins leading a story slam, using the knowledge they have gained from massmouth story slams. This makes me very happy. Our inclusive, spread the joy,  each-one-teach-one is working and there are more  and more places where storytelling is known and respected.

One more bit of good news, this June I am being honored with a Creative Leadership Award at Puppet Showplace Theatre and will write about that in my next blog.

But the best news of all is that I finally have the time to write some of it down! Enjoy your summer!