fauxklore (fauxklore) wrote,

The National Storytelling Conference

Thursday morning I was off to the National Storytelling Conference. In the past, I have sometimes gone in earlier for master classes (or sightseeing excursions), but vacation time is tight and life is hectic and it just wasn’t going to work. The travel was only mildly irritating, especially the grand tour of every single street in downtown on the way to the hotel (which was near Country Club Plaza, which may be a prime entry in one of my urban planning rants of the future, the short version of which is that fountains are not adequate compensation for chains with no local character).

Most of the point of the conference is, of course, hanging out with other storytellers and I have various scribbled notes to follow up on trying to connect some people with one another. There isn’t much I could write about that which would be at all coherent or interest. So let me move on to the actual program.

Things started with assorted thanks to various folks, followed by a proclamation from some city councilman on behalf of the mayor of Kansas City. Then came Donna Washington’s keynote, which mostly focused on the various paths people have taken to storytelling. The strongest part of that was a personal story she told, about an experience she had while with a USO show in South Korea. Overall, I’d say she was entertaining, but that the actual points of her talk were pretty much preaching to the choir.

I try to balance my time between workshops, fringe presentations, and story swaps and, on those grounds, went to the Laugh Out Loud swap. There was a surprising amount of bathroom humor, but I stuck to what I do – namely a piece with a particularly atrocious pun (and a few slightly less horrible ones along the way).

Friday morning’s keynote was by Kendall Haven and was titled Your Brain on Story: What Adventures in Neural Science Reveal that Benefit Every Teller. He was involved in some research funded by DARPA and, unfortunately, used that funding to make fun of the Department of Defense. Yes, he was funny and, yes, some of what he said while imagining Army storytelling training may have seemed to make a better story, but it included offensive stereotypes. Sorry, but I deal with this in my day job and I know a lot a lot about how DoD funds things (or tries to – there is this little obstacle in the way called Congress). I was peeved. He also commit one of the cardinal sin of scientists talking to a lay audience and threw up slides with data he didn’t talk to – which always comes across to me as "oh, don’t worry your pretty little head about all this." (Rant on the two worlds theory, which has been discredited for longer than I’ve been alive but all too many people still believe, available on request. Or whenever I feel like it.)

Anyway, he did redeem himself in the rest of the talk. The basic point is that we are hard-wired to interpret the world in terms of narrative. That makes it important to understand how to create context and use story structure to communicate what you want to. His examples were interesting, e.g. people preferring the familiarity of brownies from a Betty Crocker mix to the "best" brownies (rated by objective criteria). I’d still like to see functional MRIs of people listening to stories versus listening to random words.

Next up was the Fairy Tale Lobby swap, which was (as always) enjoyable. After that came the state liaison meeting. I wish that had been after the general membership meeting as I believe there would have been some additional things that would have come up. In short, I think it’s important to be able to answer the "what’s in it for me?" question when talking up NSN, both to individuals and affiliate organizations. And I don’t think I heard a good answer to that.

I started Friday afternoon with Community Crossroads: Where Storytelling Audiences, Advocates, and Sponsors Meet, a workshop taught by Marilyn McPhie and B. Z. Smith. This was focused on understanding resources, including publicity and sponsorship, and how to tailor programs to the community. There was a lot of great material, including detailed handouts. But they needed a lot more than the hour and half they had. (That is, of course, a common problem.)

I followed that with Alan Hoal’s fringe show, Death and the Horn of Horror, which I think anyone who ever stayed up too late at night watching scary movies would appreciate.

The Fairy Tale Lobby dinner at Kona Grill was lively and the food was reasonably good, though a bit pricy. We made it back just in time for the story slam, which had baseball as its theme. Since the slam required a true (or truish) personal story, I didn’t put my name in. There was a wide mix of stories, with some fairly broad interpretations of the theme. Overall, it was fun. But, let me briefly use this as an excuse to inflict this on you:

When Seiji Ozawa was conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra, he ran into some trouble with the string section. You see, they were doing Beethoven’s 9th, and there is a lot of time there when the bass players have nothing to do, before their dramatic reentrance towards the end of the piece. This was during the summer and they decided they could just pop across the street to a neighborhood bar and indulge in the favored activity of all true Bostonians, namely watching the Red Sox game while drinking a few beers. In order to make sure they got back in time, they tied a string around the score in such a way that, when Seiji turned the page, the tug of the string would tell them it was time to go back and take their places. That was all going really well until one night when the Sox were playing the Yankees and the game got so exciting they just couldn’t obey the call of the tug of the string. So they were late getting back and Seiji was furious. And, you know, he was perfectly justified. After all, it was the bottom of the 9th, the score was tied, and the basses were loaded.

Anyway, getting back to the conference, I finished off the evening with Priscilla Howe’s fringe show of Bulgarian trickster tales. Not all of the stories she told were trickster tales, but they were all interesting and amusing.

I started Saturday morning with a workshop on Collaboration, taught by Sue O’Halloran and Beth Horner. I thought they had a lot of great tips, but what I especially appreciated is that we did an extended exercise (in small groups) to see it all in action. I am unreasonably proud of myself for having persuaded my group that space colonists are going to need storytellers – and, who better than us? Thanks for indulging my wild idea factory of a mindset. Some of the issues we worked through (via the game that Sue and Beth had all the groups playing) included finances, the inner child erupting, communications, and maintaining energy. Overall, it was a lot of fun and I felt like I actually learned some useful things.

The general membership meeting was the next item on the agenda. There was a bunch of legalese related to the headquarters move from Tennessee to Missouri. The other significant item was the announcement that next year’s conference will be July 21-24 at the same location (including the same hotel). And that the conference will be in Kansas City for the next 3 years. There is a slight ambiguity in whether the intent was for this to be treated as year 0 or year 1. My initial reaction was annoyance and, frankly, a feeling of betrayal. The board had previously said that the plan on relocation included having the conference at the headquarters city every other year. My biggest concern is the impact on attendance. I want to do a bit of analysis there and, hence, will write up a separate blog post on that subject.

That was followed by the tech committee meeting (over lunch). I found that frustrating, largely because I think things are moving too slowly. But there’s some follow-up that should happen via email and I’ll be happen to be proven wrong there.

Then I went to Barbara Schutzgruber and Dorothy Cleveland’s workshop, Beyond the Sword Maiden - the Heroine's Journey as Story Structure. The key point of the workshop was that the difference between the hero’s journey and the heroine’s is not gender, but the focus on the public versus private transformations. There are some interesting concepts there, but I’d have liked an opportunity for some exercises to enforce the concepts. I’d also have preferred it if the primary example modeled were a woman’s story. Barbara’s story about her father was a strong one and I do think it enforced the point that it isn’t about gender. But we need to hear more women’s stories!

Next, I went to one of the Showcase sessions. This is where several tellers from the region the conference is in perform (and how this will be handled in the future is one of the obvious questions, but not for right this instant). There were 6 tellers, only 2 of whom I’d heard before. Overall, I’d say there was a good mix of stories and it was certainly worth my time.

After going out to a lovely dinner with a few folks down the block at Café Trio, with a notably amiable waiter, it was time for the annual Oracle awards. I won’t go over them in detail because I will inevitably forget someone inadvertently. All I will say is that they are proof that lots of people are doing great things with storytelling and it is good to see them recognized.

I closed out Saturday night with going to part of the Storytell listserve swap. I was too tired to stay through the whole thing, alas. Which also means I was too tired to go to the room concert (like a house concert, but in a hotel room) that Megan Hicks and Robin Bady were producing. I’m sure it was wonderful – and what I’ve seen about it on facebook confirms that.

I’ve enjoyed several of Jo Radner’s workshops in the past, so went to her session on Giving Place a Role in Your Story on Sunday morning. It was, indeed, both entertaining and educational. I particularly appreciate her skill at keeping things moving. I also thought it was valuable that she addressed performance skills (e.g. not mixing the narrator with the character) as well as story structure.

There was a closing panel but I’m not sure I can pin down exactly what its subject was. There were a few young tellers and a few older ones who talked about pathways (that theme showing up again!) to being a storyteller. I did write down a comment Beth Horner made about someone who "models his emceeing on Kermit the Frog" but managed not to write down who she was talking about!

And then there was lunch and then I went home and I have a million ideas – both new ones and old ones to follow up on – and I have a list of "real-life" things to do that is as long as my arm and at least writing this blog post is one of them I can cross off.

I’m hoping to get through what I want to figure out re: conference location issues in the next few days, but suspect it may well be next week because I have this unfortunate addiction to a middle class lifestyle and actual work work to get done.
Tags: storytelling

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