Treehouse Shakers

Treehouse Shakers
Hatched, BAM Fisher, Hillman Studio

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Taming the Story: Part II

Last week I posted a piece about Folklore seeming too edgy for youth audiences. This week I want to delve into the bigger issue of the structure of folktales for our youth.

Oral folklore is by nature not a gentle package. There are high stakes, sometimes death, trickery, characters who are greedy, selfish and others who are kind, gentle and generous. Folklore, put simply, is human nature. Every culture has its tie to oral storytelling. Since the invention of the printing press, we have had the unique opportunity to distribute world stories from different cultures, in print. This of course, is a condensed explanation.

Since folklore has so many dangerous story elements, it doesn't always work well within the American psyche. As a culture we want to shield our children, exposing only the goodness of life; even though we know that our children will find violence, sadness, exploitation in other ways. Life will make its way to our kids.

Mara's 2 Year Old Storytelling Class, It is never to young to start telling stories!
As a storyteller, I also know it  is my job to play into the American psyche to some degree. I know that I can't always go into a school and tell the "actual" terrible ending to a story. Instead, I might change aspects of the story, while trying to remain sensitive to the cultural, style, and rhythms of the story. When I rewrite tales for our Treehouse Shakers' dance-plays, I have to rework many of the endings. In Animal Rhythms, for example, one of the stories from West Africa involves a frog and a hen. For most of the story the frog is lazy and refuses to help the hen gather food, make a shelter, build a fire, or even to make a bed. In the end a hawk carries off the frog. Or so is our ending. In the other versions I have read, the hawk rips and shreds the frog into tiny, bloody pieces. This ending warns humans of not doing our part, and how we will be punished. In American society I can only imagine the storm of angry parents walking out from the theater with their young children crying and traumatized in tow. In our ending audiences can imagine what happens. I have also kept the story intact, for the most part, breaking it up with live-drumming, and the melding of choreography. We do a lot of call and response with the audience, in line with the traditional oral telling.
Animal Rhythms: Frog and Hen Here Arts Center 2007
I don't always change the endings though. In Coyote's Dance, we have left most of the story endings intact. Coyote is the masterful trickster who has been given many lives by the Great Universe. Coyote, during one of his foolish, boastful feats, falls from the sky into tiny pieces. He dies not only once, but twice. And then is reborn again. I kept the ending. The show is darker in feeling than our other folklore trilogy. The ending is kept in its sacred format. The response; audiences love Coyote. Young audiences love seeing that Coyote, no matter what, prevails.
Coyote Being Put Together Again in Coyote's Dance
Our children need the darkness. It is essential that they witness characters overcoming great obstacles and succeeding. They need to know that life will give us problems. It is how we manage these problems that makes us who we are. Sometimes it is even our own selfish blunders that get us into trouble. There are messages, deep human messages; treat others with kindness, don't be jealous of your neighbor, generosity can go a long way. As a parent, I love telling my daughter folklore, fairy tales, myths. She eats them up. There is love, death, conflicts, spells, birth, and magic. These stories have become a part of her. She plays stories when she is by herself, working out the conflicts and resolutions, finding the characteristics of the story, learning story structure. She is 3 years old and developing her sense of self through story.

I have also told these stories to children who have seen and felt too much in their young lives; who may have been abused, neglected, and raised in unbelievable poverty and circumstances. These kids need to hear that when when one character takes advantage of another, consequences happen. They can imagine their own path out of the dark shadowy forest, into the sunlight path and home to the warm cottage. They need to hear stories of bravery, success and kindness. These stories become helpful tools in their own survival.

For every critic who tells me that folklore is too scary, too dangerous, an unnecessary tool in education, and not a selling point for the theater, I say this; tell a story to a young person. Watch their face. See their excitement and then visit this child in a week. I guarantee that they will be begging for the story to be told again!
Students after seeing Animal Rhythms

Performance Animal Rhythms Photo: Mercedes McAndrew
Performance Coyote's Dance Photo: Dan Ozminkowski

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Taming the Story: Part I

In American Youth Theater, the trend is to find a book, make a play, preferably a musical, and make an easy sell for audiences, mostly school groups. Welcome to America. We have a bottom line, and that bottom line looms large. We are pushed from all areas to go bigger, increase yearly earnings, and make giant leaps in all ways. For the arts this is nearly impossible. As a culture we don't spend enough on arts programming. The arts aren't a priority. The bigger performing companies and organizations get the bigger funders, while the mid-size get fewer, and the small non-profits usually go out of business from the constant struggle. All organizations, no matter their size are also limited as to where they can apply. It is no wonder that the larger presenting theaters want to book work that sells. As a producer, fundraiser, and non-profit co-founder, I get this. Presenters want to contract work with name recognition, that can sell tickets and prove to their immediate superiors and funders that the theater seats will be filled on the day of the performance.
Animal Rhythms, Here Arts Center, NYC 2007
Treehouse Shakers is the antithesis to this performance model. In 2002 we introduced Animal Rhythms: Two African Folktales. My work as a storyteller was deeply influential to the work we were creating. I was immersed in storytelling residencies, performances, world folklore, and a community of other professional and talented storytellers. It was no surprise that I wanted to make Treehouse Shakers' work with some of my favorite tales; blending our trademark style of dance-theater and live music. I love the idea of introducing young audiences to new cultures, new stories, new parts of the world. I love bridging young minds to new places through story. I also love the deeper meaning within the story. I have watched students of all ages become engaged by story, passionate through story, exhilarated by story. To witness human listening to story is truly magical. Animal Rhythms, I am happy to report, has been one of our most popular shows in the New York area since its premiere. Since 2002 we have also created Desert Travels: Tales from the Middle East, and Coyote's Dance, coyote stories from the indigenous cultures of North America.
Coyote's Dance at The Ailey Citigroup Theater

These pieces are our now part of our older repertory, but even today we often hear from theater presenters outside of NYC, that folktales don't sell. The presenter nods nicely, eyes wandering off to the looming show posters of remade top-selling children's books, citing that the work becomes too edgy when we use folktales. It just won't sell. Really? Edgy? I have seen amazing, even brilliantly edgy work from our European colleagues, but I don't think many any letters to the editor from an angry parent or school board will appear from one of our pieces. I do believe that the work in our folktale trilogy are culturally influenced, original, exciting, and well-done, but I do not think they are edgy.

Over the past 13 years, as a storyteller in residence, I have known many educators in numerous schools. Teachers love folklore. They love to use folklore to tie into their geography, literacy, and even science curriculum. They enjoy connecting the oral traditions of the world to their students. Folktales make sense in education. I believe it is the theater presenter's job to understand the connection between folklore and the educational curriculum. It is also their role to present how folklore powerfully connects to the school curriculum. When I have sold our work to schools directly it becomes an easy pitch.
Mara Storytelling at Stephens College
America, please listen up. If we want to be better, be bigger, be a powerful part of the world, then we need to start thinking of our children as part of the global community. This is the real bottom line. We need our children to have empathy, understand geography, understand story structure, so that they can not only imagine their own story, but the story of our future. Dear Presenter, despite the pressure to sell tickets, please consider the power of one of the oldest elements of human art forms. Give our children access to folklore, and I promise you that the seats will fill themselves.