"Year of the Adopted Family" book release

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Balancing Act: Old & New Storytelling Traditions

Finding balance on views of how to expand the art of storytelling amongst the elders versus the next generation of tellers of 18-30-year olds is not impossible as some may think in the storytelling community.

Perhaps it is fairer to keep age out and name the two views as traditionalists and innovators. Most people will probably see themselves as mixtures of both. This may already show that we as individuals and as a community must decide our stance.

Let us see how these two groups may fare in three categories:
1. Technology
2. Discovery
3. Coming Together as a People

Traditionalist: Tends to resist mixing the art with other mediums, especially for radio programs, television broadcasts, podcasts, blogs, etc. Narrower definitions of storytelling are common to exclude performers who do not normally call themselves storytellers such as radio personalities, stand-up comedians, filmmakers, etc. Though microphones may be used to perform or recordings may be made on CDs or DVDs to sell as merchandise, this is usually the extent of technology considered acceptable.

Innovator: Promotes the use of technology including downloadable stories on ipods, podcasts, blogs, MySpace, digital stories, or anything that advances the visibility of storytelling to the general public. Theatrical elements such as lights and sounds are more open to use though not always incorporated. There is more acceptance of using other words to describe storytelling such as spoken word, performing art, and narrative theatre in advertising materials.

Traditionalist: Honors stories from all times and cultures and seeks to show respect from which the roots of the stories take place. Any act of irreverence is looked down upon. There is recognition that each storyteller brings something unique in the telling. Often the teller searches for how to build bridges of understanding, peace, memories and information for the audience.

Innovator: Encourages the exploration of the art form in most, if not in all, ways. Respect for the roots of the story are acknowledged though not always respected through use of humor, shock-value or other dramatic tools. Sometimes this leads to riskier or sensitive subjects, which could shake the typical “G” or “PG” material produced for most storytelling audiences. Fringe festivals, story slams, and coffeehouses that support the spoken word are venues for this kind of teller. Tends to invite all as storytellers despite backgrounds.

Coming Together as a People—
Traditionalist: Supports storytelling as a way to strengthen families, communities, and nations through informal gatherings such as front porch tellings (also known as kitchen table tellings), neighborhood block parties, or other spontaneous functions. Other forums such as storytelling festivals, story swaps, and conferences are welcomed. Sometimes seeks others within the art through membership of a guild or with the National Storytelling Network. At the same time, if the organization should disappear, the teller comforts self that the art would continue as it has from the beginning of time.

Innovator: Outreaches through service or action-based projects, as these activities are popular on campuses across the nation. Whenever there is a natural disaster, medical need, or call for peace, several of these college-aged people rush to make a difference. The storytellers of this age group have often put together benefit concerts, like what was done for Hurricane Katrina, without any direction from organizations.

If you are both traditionalist and innovator, then you are not alone.
In many respects, one could say that there is already a balance of tradition and innovation within the American Storytelling Movement. The general mixture of the storytelling community is not split 50/50. My guess is that we are seeing more of a 70/30 with 70% leaning towards traditionalism. As the current 18-30-year-olds age, however, we will see a shift more to the innovation side. There is not a right or wrong percentage for the split to occur. Whatever the balance needs to be at the moment, that is what we will see.

Rather than define the “proper balance” of the American Storytelling Movement and the direction of storytelling, here is what an ideal balance would feel like:

Trust would be placed upon both traditionalists and innovators that decisions are in the best interest of respecting the art of storytelling

Value as a member of the storytelling community would be felt even with the differing views

Recognition would be given to those who uphold the traditions as well as those who evolve the art

Leadership of the art would evoke experience from traditionalists and from innovators

Here are shifts towards the innovator side through some actions by the National Storytelling Network:
1. Desires to have an 18-30-year-old on the Board of Directors
My proposed next step: As every state has a state liaison to represent the area, so could there eventually be a second state liaison from the 18-30-year-old range.

2. Reserves space in Storytelling Magazine for New Voices column
My proposed next step: This column could be offered to colleges across the nation for part of their campus newspapers. This would not be the first time that newspapers glean from other sources. Think of the Associated Press and the relationship with worldwide newspapers. Campus newspapers are no different.

3. Supports New Voices Discussion Group (18-30-year-old tellers and allies)
My proposed next step: With the monthly conference calls that are made for this group, there is small attendance. When goals are established and at least 30 members maintained, then the Discussion Group could transform into a Special Interest Group. Interestingly, membership to a group is not as important to this age group as to action. If the National Storytelling Network desires to see more of 18-30-year-olds, then "make-a-difference" programs need to be in place. Benefit concerts structured on a national level could be one such program.

4. Promotes Fringe at National Storytelling Conference
My proposed next step: Embrace a story slam as part of the National Storytelling Conference. Ever since the Fringe was introduced a couple years ago, the draw increased for 18-30-year-olds as well as for performers who may not label themselves as storytellers. Even so, only 10-15 of this age group attended versus over 250 of mainly 50+-year-olds. Varying the types of events/activities available at the conference serves as an invitation; sometimes all one needs is an invitation and feeling welcome in the storytelling community.

Balance is easier to accomplish if we remember that, regardless of age or views, that we are lured to storytelling for similar reasons.

Scott Russell Sanders lists ten main reasons:

1. Stories entertain us
2. Stories create community
3. Help us to see through the eyes of other people
4. Show us the consequences of our actions
5. Stories educate our desires
6. Stories help us to dwell in place
7. Stories help us to dwell in time
8. Stories help us to deal with suffering, loss, and death
9. Stories teach us how to be human
10. Stories acknowledge the wonder and mystery of Creation

***Sanders, S.R. (1997, Spring). “The Power of Stories.” The Georgia Review, 51(1), 113-126.

Within these reasons, is there room for traditional as well as newfangled ideas?

You know my answer.

Until we tell again,

Rachel Hedman
Professional Storyteller
Co-Chair of Youth, Educators, and Storytellers Alliance
(801) 870-5799


Tim said...

Great to see your thinking on this, Rachel... although I'm going to do some more reflecting too-- I'm not quite convinced on your distinction between traditional and innovator (the main counterexample I'm thinking of is that of middle aged performers who tell ancient traditional tales... and who can't find a place to tell them (at festivals) because of the ascendance of the personal story among festival producers).

A second counterexample: I can't get any of the New Voices (18-30 year olds) to connect on Facebook!

I really appreciate your call for trust, value, recognition, and leadership. Thanks!

Professional Storyteller Rachel Hedman said...

In the beginning, I mentioned that age does not necessarily make a difference whether one is a traditionalist or if one is an innovator. This leaves it open for middle-aged performers. Besides, most people are not one view or the other.

Stories of other cultures and times, to me, includes personal stories. If the ancient traditional tales are not as welcomed in some festival settings, then already we are seeing a shift to the innovator side.

As for the New Voices to connect with Facebook, this falls under my membership comment about this 18-30-year-old age group. They may support technology such as Facebook but may not always feel pressured to join. Whether joining a guild, the National Storytelling Network, or Facebook, being part of a group of any kind is often avoided. One friend must lead the way so that one-by-one you will see more participation.

Tim, I knew you'd have some wonderful thoughts to add. Thank you.

Until we tell again,

Rachel Hedman