"Year of the Adopted Family" book release

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Virtual Storyteller: Going in Blind & Telling Clearly

Thanks to JJ Drinkwater, virtual Caledon Librarian on Second Life, for making this article possible through the invitation to tell stories in a different kind of venue as well as for sharing the snapshot below of my premiere performance on July 5, 2008.

Being a couple weeks new to Second Life (SL), a 3-D virtual world found on the Internet for social and business purposes, I accepted the chance to tell stories at the virtual Caledon Library for the first time. A couple minutes before showtime, I stood beside my computer with headphones and microphone in place and wrung my hands. At least this audience wouldn't see me sweat.

Tips known before my premiere Second Life performance:
1. Include website and/or blog addresses in your avatar profile
2. Join Storytelling Guild in SL and search for storytellers
3. Ask sponsor about audience and tip jar
4. Perform at least two sound checks
5. Practice walking and sitting and/or standing to stage area
6. Ask someone to take snapshots
7. Dress as you would for any real life performance
8. Keep eye on chat box so can respond to audience before, during, and after show
9. Remind audience that you are not reading
10. Become online friends with those who attend your SL events

Despite being prepared, I wondered if I would leave the experience with a satisfied feeling similar to when sharing stories for live audiences. In many ways, I would be blind to audience reactions just as the audience would not be able to see my usual facial expressions and body language involved with the telling.

I stared at my computer screen at what seemed like a video game scene. Twenty-eight human avatars and even a mouse sat on cartoon-looking pillows assembled in a semi-circle on the great lawn of the virtual Caledon Library, anticipating the program. Finally, the emcee introduced me and my avatar named Rachel Pevensey dressed in a Victorian dress walked to the storyteller's pillow and sat down.

With the attention on me, I talked through my microphone much like I would for any live gig. People would have a radio-like experience listening to me only they could respond through a small chat box to the left of the screen that I watched through the corner of my eye. This allowed me to see the acronym "LOL" for the term "Laugh Out Loud" when audience members thought story moments were funny as well as the common sideways smile made from a colon and a parentheses of :). Sometimes the typed words "clapping wildy" amused me as no sound could be heard except for when the button was pressed to trigger the recording of applause.

During an Ojibwa story called "Forsaken Brother" in which there is a transformation from human to wolf, one of the audience members created a soundbite to reflect a wolf's howl. The timing and tone was perfect and I felt chills as storytelling truly became interactive at that point. The audience and I were creating these stories together.

At the end, I left out a tip jar and earned $3,660 and a red chamber pot (due to a story told about a white chamber pot). Before all storytellers jump at the chance to earn such a sum, you need to know that Second Life has its own currency, the Linden Dollar, that can convert to real money. In American dollars, I earned $13.18 at the show.

While face-to-face storytelling is the vehicle of choice for professional storytellers, Second Life has created another opportunity for the art to be respected among people who may not normally attend a live storytelling event such as conferences, festivals, and even coaching sessions.

Include website and/or blog addresses in your avatar profile
By moving your mouse and right clicking the avatar, then you will see a circle with "Profile" to choose. Besides several tabs, you will discover your avatar's birthday, which reveals when you first entered Second Life. In SL my birthday for Rachel Pevensey is May 25, 2008 despite my real birthday being in August.

Make note of the tabs "2nd Life" and "1st Life" (aka real life). Keep your profile brief with a one-liner or more on your purpose being there and give your website and/or blog address.

My own profile shows the following:
I am a professional storyteller in Real Life who loves to take everyday events and share the adventures inside them.

I have a blog "Voice--A Storyteller's Lifestyle" that shares how-to articles on the art as well as marketing and trends in storytelling at http://storytellingadventures.blogspot.com twice a month.

I look forward to when there are live storytelling events streamed into Second Life and encouraging others from the storytelling community as well as story appreciators to join us inworld.

Join Storytelling Guild in SL and search for storytellers
You can find this guild by clicking on the "Search" button on the bottom of your Second Life screen. Once this box is opened, then click on "Groups" followed by the name of the guild.

Once you have requested to be part of the guild, you will want to send a message and request to be online friends to at least the following: Gilbert Sapwood, Lehua Lamington, and Raymond and Mary Lee Frog.

Sapwood, aka Dale Jarvis in Real Life, is the founder of the guild and introduced me to people and places of interest to the storyteller. Lehua Lamington is a Hawaiian storyteller who prepared me on dream and nightmare performances that are possible through Second Life. She warned that the sound may not always be smooth and to be ready for distractions, especially if audience members are instant messaging during the show. Besides Lehua, there are Raymond and Mary Lee Frog, aka Frank and Mary Lee Sweet, who tailored the look of their avatars to look like their tandem team in real life. They run their own theater and sometimes have storytellers join them for sessions.

You could always contact my avatar, Rachel Pevensey, though I am still learning the ropes.

Remember that there are "cousin" groups that may be interested in following your storytelling path in Second Life so introduce yourself to them. Several people from the Poets of Zarahemla came to my premiere performance, especially as they posted the event to all their group members.

As you meet people and invite them to be online friends, you could also give personal invitations or instant messages.

Ask sponsor about audience and tip jar
Almost all the types of questions you would ask for a real life performance could help in Second Life. At the the age of your audience is easier to figure out as someone needs to be at least 18-years-old to create an avatar. Most likely you will not give children performances unless you happen to lead a conference among adults on how to connect with the younger audiences.

These are the kinds of questions I ask:

1. How did you learn about me?
2. What is the name of the program? Are you promoting a particular theme with your event?
3. Why are you having this event?
4. What type of group(s) is/are you most interested to reach?
5. How many people are expected to attend? How many people have attended similar events?
6. What experience(s) has the intended audience had to storytelling?
7. What is the general set-up of the intended performance space?
8. Do you have any special requests of me?

Beyond the basic questions, you will want to check if the sponsor will provide a tip jar to have close to your avatar while performing. JJ Drinkwater from the virtual Caledon Library was kind enough to give me a tip jar as a gift. He encouraged me to change the color or texture of the tip jar to fit my style. Otherwise, I could have kept the tip jar in its original form.

When people place their mouse on your tip jar and right click, then they can choose how much Linden dollars to give to you. You will hear little "cha-ching" sound effects as people give tips, though all focus must be on the stories. You can always click "OK" to accept all the money at the end of the program. Feel free to announce at the end that you have your tip jar in case someone forgot to show their appreciation.

Perform at least two sound checks
Two different options are available for storytellers: voice and streamed audio live. Test your comfort level with them as well as get used to the feel of the headset and microphone (most people recommend Logitech brand). Sound checks are recommended at least a day before as well as about 30 minutes before showtime.

Though you could type your stories, especially as Second Life began as a type-only arena, this would require fast typing or having smooth cut and paste skills for any written stories you have. Most storytellers do not have their stories in the written version so it is easiest to use the easiest version available on Second Life: voice.

Once the headset is plugged into its USB port, you need to check that your voice chat is enabled or at least labeled as "active". If there is another avatar nearby, then ask if they can hear you and perhaps share a piece of a story to determine if the volume works. (Please note that the person must have check marked the option to hear voice, which tends to be a default setting.)

Normally, the microphone is placed by the mouth. I discovered that I became so energetic in my tellings that it was best for the microphone to be aimed toward my eyes. This may seem strange except the audience will not see the position of the microphone. Other tellers are soft-spoken and so most likely will place the microphone as close as possible to their mouths.

Streamed audio live is a partnership with whatever virtual stage you are performing on and and Internet radio station such as Radio Riel. You will need to download Winamp, including the Shoutcast application, so that you can enter the proper passwords given by someone from the Internet radio station. Streamed audio tends to be more reliable than using voice except there is about 10-15 second delay as to when you talk and when your listeners hear you. This means delay in audience response as they sometimes type their reactions in a small chat box to the side of the main screen with the stage.

Originally, streamed audio was the way I was going to deliver my program "The American Way: From Sea to Shining Sea". The lady with Radio Riel was patient as I put in the passwords and addresses through the Winamp, however her software was incompatible with my computer as it had Vista. Despite hours of attempts, we went with voice. Audience members told me after the show that the sound was loud and clear. I was lucky as voice can breakdown when you least expect it.

Practice walking and sitting and/or standing to stage area
Unless you are an avid video game player, you will want to familiar yourself with how to walk as an avatar whether by using the mouse or through the up, down, and side arrow keys. The emcee or host will announce your program so your avatar needs to be to the side until the introductions are given. Even in real life, the moment we walk on the stage is really the start of telling our first story.

At the Caledon Library, I appreciated that a pillow was on the ground for my avatar to sit upon. When I walked close enough to the pillow, I could eventually place my mouse on the rock, right click, and choose the option "sit". I face the audience correctly and I am ready to delve into stories.

Wherever will be the intended stage area, go into your Inventory and place the tip jar on the ground nearby. Audience members will know to play money in it even if you do not announce its presence.

Ask someone to take snapshots
At any point, you can click on the button "Snapshot" on the bottom of the screen and have a picture of your avatar and anything else in your computer screen at the moment and email the image almost like an online post card. During the show, you will be too focused to capture the moments so ask someone before the show to take some snapshots and have them email you the results. I had JJ Drinkwater to thank for the pictures I have of the event.

Dress as you would for any real life performance
You could tell stories in your pajamas with the headphones on your ears, but this could result in a lower quality performance. Although the audience will only receive the audio part of your story, the way we dress often reflects our attitudes toward the stories. I had on my usual slacks, plain blouse and Dutch cap on while people in Second Life saw my avatar in a green Victorian dress and bonnet.

Your avatar will simply stand or sit during the entire show unless you have learned how to do gestures like bowing or blowing kisses. For my premiere performance, I pulled back the office chair to make sure I had enough room to stand and make gestures as if I was performing in real life. This builds the necessary energy that transforms in the tone and attitudes of my voice.

Keep eye on chat box so can respond to audience before, during, and after show
Besides the main screen, make sure you have the small chat box to the side. Though the host will usually remind other attendees to be mute so others can hear you, the storyteller, there could still be conversations or reactions that are typed.

In real life, it is nice to shake hands with people before the show starts or get to know people. You can do the same by typing message in the chat box or even mixing a sound check with welcoming expressions through the microphone. During the show, you will receive acronyms like "LOL" for "Laugh Out Loud" or words like "wilding clapping" and "bravo". Other times, people may mention if the area where your story is from is connected to their life in some way. Sometimes, you may decide to respond to these messages within your program to prove how interactive storytelling really could be despite being in a virtual world.

Remind audience that you are not reading
The audience cannot see you and most performances they are used to them being readings of some kind. Let them know that you are a storyteller versus being a storyreader. You will remind people that you are professional and could be hired just as well in the real life as in SL.

Become online friends with those who attend your SL events
Always thank your audience for being there including offering to linger after the performance so you can chat, as in the written sense. Take this chance to announce your website and/or blog.

Let people know that you would like to be their online friends. For each avatar in the area, right click with your mouse on them and choose the option to "Add Friend". They will then have the choice whether to accept or reject your invitation. Upon acceptance, you will be able to click on their profile and keep notes of what event of yours they attended. This way you can remember and acknowledge them in the future as you jump from place to place in SL.

So meet new people and explore the possibilities on Second Life. You may be surprised at what technology can do to introduce storytelling to more people.

Perhaps you will receive notes like what JJ Drinkwater, the SL Caledon librarian, said of my July 5, 2008 premiere performance--
"I just wanted to thank you again for the extraordinary story hour you did for the Caledon library yesterday. It was a delightful event, wholly enjoyable, and carried off with such admirable aplomb I scarcely have words to describe it. You are clearly a thoroughgoing mistress of your craft! If you ever wanted to tell again at the library, we would be thrilled to host your performance. I will certainly, with your permission, pass your name on to other libraries that I know host story hours."

Technology/Second Life Resource for Storytellers:

Until we tell again,

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

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Tall Tales: Bigger than Before by Youth Finalists

Thanks to the 2008 Youth Tall Tale Finalists (from left to right across the two pictures) Alyssa Hansen, Brenna Barnson, and Spencer Parkinson for sharing their thoughts as well as their parents for consenting to post their pictures and comments on Friday, June 13, 2008. The action shots were provided by Carol Esterreicher.

How a youth comes to tell tall tales could be a tall tale itself, as much of the nation focuses on the Internet and other devices that keep people from sharing stories on a person-to-person basis. Yet, the 2008 Youth Tall Tale Finalists Alyssa Hansen, Brenna Barnson and Spencer Parkinson have accomplished feats that would make Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan smile.

These youth may not carry a snake lasso or a 20-foot long axe, but they do have a talent or two in their belt that makes them storytelling heroes.

When the call for youth tellers was sounded in Utah, Alyssa, Brenna, and Spencer answered it with original tall tales that reflected the awe and grandeur of the nation’s mountains, lakes, plains, and forests as shared by pioneers and frontiersmen from the 1820s to the 1860s.

From Fish Lake to the Great Salt Lake to Goblin Valley, the audiences learned how such fantastic features came to be in Utah. Three finalists were chosen to perform along six professional storytellers as part of the 2nd Annual Frontier Fest in Gardner Village of West Jordan, UT and were judged a second time to determine the champion.

Alyssa, the 2008 Youth Tall Tale Champion, admitted, “I almost created a story on how green jello was created but it evolved into something else.” As so many people from the honey state bring this refreshing dessert—filled normally with shredded carrots or any number of fruits and vegetables—to countless gatherings, it is only natural that someone would wonder its beginnings. Instead, Alyssa introduced us to Strong Willie and how the dinosaur eggs came to hatch in Fish Lake.

While reading about Paul Bunyan, the 8th grade homeschooler Alyssa envisioned that this giant must not have been the only one to roam America. Though having one experience with storytelling before the Youth Tall Tale Contest, she had discovered that participating in eight plays previous was enough to give her the desire to experiment with other arts. She had developed characters before, such as in the play “The Summer Garden”, a version of the Beauty and the Beast story.

Her favorite drama teacher, Mrs. Kelly Johnson, allowed her to evolve one of the goblins, Garmangarbis, with a character sketch and background that transformed a once intended sinister male character into a comic-relief female role. “She’s like a friend more than a teacher,” shared Alyssa when thinking of Mrs. Johnson.

Though Mrs. Johnson could not make the performance, Alyssa’s brother, Peter, was dragged to the Frontier Fest event “against his will”. After hearing his sister perform, he stated, “I liked listening to it” while Alyssa’s father noted, “She became a totally different person up there.” Grandma, grandpa, mom and three other siblings were among Alyssa’s cheerleaders.

Fourth grader Brenna Barnson also had family support to include her grandma, mom, and older sister. Brenna’s mother, Julie, beamed, “I didn’t have to push her or prompt her to write the story or to practice. I was pleased at how motivated she was to try this new thing.”

Known for her involvement with “Up with Kids”, a nonprofit musical theatre program to teach basics of acting and choreography, Brenna had graced the stage for several productions such as “Little Mermaid and Her Adventures with the Pirates of the Caribbean” and "Shrek 2 3/4" in which every kid gets a speaking part. Performing evolved into playing musical instruments including the piano, recorder, clarinet and even her nose (perhaps not as often as she used to do).

Brenna’s creativity is prime when in the backyard. She revealed, “I think the best when I am on the swing. Best time to think—all calm, swinging back and forth—except when I want to jump off the swing!” One of these moments outside inspired her “Sally and the Tricky Tiger” story. A tiger is delivered to a girl in Utah and a riddle match ensues. Eventually, the audience understands how the Great Salt Lake came to exist.

Brenna often drove past the lake on the way to her cousins in Tooele and the lake reminded her of a snowy land because of all the salt on the shores. One of her cousins warned her, “The worst thing you can do is walk into the Great Salt Lake with lots of scrapes!” There was also the time when Brenna used to live in West Valley City and the wind would blow the smells of the Great Salt Lake to her home. Brenna exclaimed, “It smelled like a skunk had died and I’d say ‘I’m playing inside!’”

Despite nervousness of using a clip-on microphone for the first time, at a certain point in the story she forgot she was wearing it. Brenna tapped into the confidence displayed by her professional storyteller inspirations: her mom and Grammy-award winner, Bill Harley. A couple months previous, Brenna won along with her class in the Bill Harley’s poetry contest. Her poem and another classmate’s piece were posted on his website and the class received signed CDs.

One of Bill Harley’s stories was the official beginning to 6th grader Spencer Parkinson’s involvement with storytelling. While driving to Goblin Valley, part of a former annual or bi-annual family tradition, then five-year-old Spencer listened intently to Bill Harley’s “The Teeny Tiny Ghost” story in the car.

By the time the tents were set up and people gathered around the campfire, Spencer could recite the story word-for-word. Some people had joined the gathering besides his family and several were known to ask, “How can such a little kid tell a story so well?”

Such comments catapulted Spencer’s creativity as he created stories such as a boy who had a name that sounded like a girl and wanted to avoid being a dork for such a name to a story about a guy known as the Abraham Lincoln Woodchip Genie.

Spencer loves telling tall tales as he explained, “There is no limit to what I can say. I can expand the truth beyond what it is expandable to.” With medieval characters like King Utah and Prince Wasatch, a magic ping-pong paddle and ball comes to be main focus for the story “How Goblin Valley was formed”. The ideas did not come so quickly to him as for a while he didn’t like the story. Then Ginger, Spencer’s mother, noticed, “It took 30 seconds, once he decided it was a magic ping pong ball, the whole story changed and it finished itself.”

When drawing medieval scenes or goblins, somehow a kid with a ping-pong paddle always crept into Spencer’s pictures. Earlier in the day while working on his tall tale, he also saw a television show with some made-up creatures. One of these creatures was named Blue who was horrible at playing ping-pong. Thus, the idea stuck and Spencer was ready to audition.

When he became a finalist, his sister’s Kindergarten teacher, now working on a storytelling masters at the Utah Valley University, was quick to invite her current storytelling class to watch Spencer perform at Frontier Fest. At least five of her classmates were there along with Spencer’s mother, brother, two sisters, granddad and grandmother. Dad had been there for Spencer through the practice times and gave appreciations for his work.

Spencer as well as Brenna and Alyssa dedicated much to give wonderful performances. They all had some advice for future youth tellers. Alyssa said, “You can think about your story too much before you perform it. You have to relax and let it flow through you.”

Sometimes, as Spencer commented, it is best to “just do it.” He liked the experience because he had a chance to make up stories. “And I’m good at it,” he expressed, “—at least that’s what my mom tells me.” Ginger quickly agreed and mentioned that when it came to participating in the Youth Tall Tale Contest, “This is really fun. . .but it’s an easier thing not to do it—but just go for it and do it.”

In case any doubt lingers, Brenna urged, “Jump in head first. I jumped head first into it without thought of any challenges I would face. Leap before you think. If I would have thought about it, I might have said ‘not this time’.” With a smile she added, “I’m glad I did it.”

For details on the rules or live audition dates for the Youth Tall Tale Contest, feel free to contact Rachel Hedman at (801) 870-5799 or at info@rachelhedman.com.

Until we tell again,

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