July 17th, 2012

storyteller doll

The National Storytelling Conference

This is one of the longer items in my catch-up list. I have at least three more entries to write, and am hoping to finish them this week.

This year's National Storytelling Conference was in Cincinnati. Well, actually, it was in Covington, Kentucky, just across the river. The area was fairly dead on the weekend, alas, but I did manage to utilize my homing instincts to find a combination used bookstore / coffeehouse a few blocks from the hotel.

I would have normally used Thursday afternoon for a good long walk, but it was beastly hot out, so I spent the time hanging out in the lobby chatting. Here are a few choice quotes, all taken completely out of context for amusement value:

"She got attacked by a spider monkey."

"If you don't ask, they can't say yes."

"My grandma keeps a box of eyes in the basement."

I'm not going to attempt to summarize all of the talks and workshops, but will just hit a few highlights. The theme was "A Conference to Remember" and a lot of the talks were about the history of the National Storytelling Network, including the split from the International Storytelling Center and the ill-will engendered in how that shook out. It's a complicated story and I won't dwell on it because: a) what is done is done, b) I pretty much agree with Joseph Sobol's comment that it was "a great divorce and near death experience", and c) I think NSN is stronger for it. I will add that the strength of NSN was particularly highlighted for me at a part of the membership meeting where people who had gotten different sorts of NSN grants spoke about their experiences.

My favorite part of the conference was Kevin Kling's keynote on Saturday. He focused on outsiders and how subversion is healthy for society. That's very much in line with my world view. I jotted down a number of quotes which would entirely fail to give you any idea of how entertaining and how true I found his talk. But for sheer amusement value, "the only place that looks like its map is Nebraska" is good enough. I should also note the story he told in the Sunday afternoon concert, which turned a baseball game into a chapter of The Odyssey. (The connection should be obvious as, after all, both involve homers. You may blame me, not him, for that groaner.)

I usually try to mix up going to story swaps, performances, and workshops. The swaps I went to were "Folk and Cultural Tales" (where I told a story from Mongolia) and "Fairy Tales" (where my name was not pulled out of the hat, but I still enjoyed listening). I went to two fringe shows to support friends who were performing and both Ralph Chatham and Les Shaffer did fine. I also went to one showcase, highlighting regional performers. There was a story slam early one evening, which featured some reasonably amusing material. I might also categorize the Gamble Rogers tribute (by Willie Claflin et. al.) as a performance and a highly entertaining one. And, of course, the Sunday afternoon concert featured a fine assortment of tellers. In addition to Kevin Kling's piece which I mentioned above, I particularly liked Charlotte Blake Alston's version of "John Henry."

Of the workshops I went to, I will highlight Sara Armstrong's on "Telling the Stories of the Heroes Among Us." She had some interesting exercises and particularly good handouts. There were also useful ideas in the workshop on touring that Loren Niemi and Kevin Kling did. I particularly appreciated Loren's insights on what producers are looking for in a performer.

I was a bit disappointed in a workshop on "The Wisdom Path: The Future of Folk Tales and Tellers" because I thought the emphasis was too much on racial diversity and not enough on the commonalities between folk tales from different cultures, which is one of the things that drew me into storytelling to begin with. It was still an interesting discussion, but I didn't think the focus was particularly relevant to my specific needs. There's a lot I could say on the whole subject of folk tales versus personal stories but the short version is that I firmly believe all stories are personal.

My other disappointment was in an evening presentation by Rusty McClure. He talked about the history of Cincinnati and was interesting enough, but what he had to say was not particularly related to storytelling.

Of course, the biggest disappointment was my inability to be in multiple places at the same time. I deal with that by feeling satis fied with going home with a few gems. In this case, those came from informal conversations in the hallway with other storytellers, validating the feasibility of a couple of ideas I have been playing with. (Time to execute those ideas is, of course, always an issue.) The value of those conversations can't be overstated and is one of the reasons I go to the conference whenever I can. (I've missed a few years because of travel conflicts.) I will certainly be at next year's, especially as it is going to be in Richmond.