"Year of the Adopted Family" book release

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Diversity in Storytelling: Bridge still to be Built

Storyteller Jon Spelman stated, "A lot of people do not get a chance to be heard or to tell their story." While presenting at the 2007 East Tennessee State University Storytelling Institutes, he urged us to be willing to listen to others and to build bridges with other groups.

The Bridge
Sometimes a rushing river of misunderstanding and fear divides racial, social, and religious groups so that nothing can be heard except for shouting stories of anger from one side of the shore to the other side of the shore. Rather than raising our voices with threats and hatred from the places we stand, we could build bridges through the stories we share so that we could meet halfway, look into each other's eyes, observe views on both sides of the river, and finally return home with a new perspective.

We may still hold the same views as when we first stood on the shores without a bridge, though this time we would remember that for every issue or thought there are people, neighbors, and friends involved. You can love people and still disagree with their views.

Perhaps you will hear my story and how being part of a minority group:
1. Influences Current Repertoire
2. Contributes to Repertoire Development
3. Determines Goals for Future Public Performances

As you read my answers, please reflect how these relate to your life and feel free to share them with me.

The following thoughts come at a time when I have been attacked verbally for who I am. My experience is extremely mild compared to what many of my friends have experienced in California where death threats and vandalism is rampant.

What minority group is victim to these hate crimes? Those who belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also nicknamed Mormons or LDS.

Persecution is not new to those who are LDS. We have been driven from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois and finally to Utah in 1847. The last few decades have been relatively peaceful as the LDS faith has become a worldwide religion with over 13 million and growing members and has contributed much in the way of humanitarian causes from the 2004 Tsunami in Indonesia to dozens of hurricane rescue efforts in the United States including Hurricane Katrina to donating over 100,000 wheelchairs to developing nations to shipping 142,000 pounds of medical supplies to Myanmar and countless others.

Though the United States is a land known for freedom of religion, unfortunately this does not prevent hate crimes or people who are unwilling to listen so to understand.

I may have more boldness in my personality than those who find themselves as part of the majority. I was one out of a handful of LDS youth who attended my Wisconsin high school that consisted of over 2,000 students.

Ever since living in Utah where over 69% are LDS, it is strange to be considered part of the majority when most of my life I have been part of the minority. I do not have to explain or defend myself as much except for my online involvement as then I am conversing with people around the world.

I have been asked random questions, sometimes sincere and sometimes mocking, from middle school years to the present like "Do you have horns on your head?" or "Are you forbidden to dance?" or "How many husbands do you have?" The answers: No, No, and One.

Influences Current Repertoire
As a storyteller, I see my role as building the bridge of understanding so that others may see the other side of the shore if they so choose to listen to my stories.

Interestingly, the stories that would add most to building that bridge cannot be shared at one of the storyteller's traditional venues: public schools. Mentioning religion, particularly Christianity, seems taboo these days. This fact encourages me to approach other educational settings such as universities, libraries, and museums that are more tolerant. Diversity is often celebrated at these places.

Even among these more open venues, I am in a constant debate if some of my stories would be appropriate or welcome. One of my signature tales, "Shattered Grapes in One Row Too Many" (can be heard on left side of this blog), does not mention the LDS Church specifically though I do have lines like "It was announced over the pulpit one Sunday that volunteers were needed to help harvest the grapes in the vineyard. These grapes would be dried into over 250 tons of raisins to be shipped around the world for humanitarian causes."

Besides lines that reference my background, I merge many personal and original tales with portions of LDS hymns. Those who happen to be LDS in the audience will recognize them. Usually the hymns introduce comedy to the scene as in my story "Ere I Left" when, as a middle schooler who delivers newspapers, I encounter "the dog" and a song comes to mind that starts, "Ere you left your room this morning did you think to pray?"

At times songs mixed with stroies express views on the profound such as how to deal with the death of a loved one like when my cousin two years my senior died on my birthday while away from family at Girls' Camp. Two hymns "If You Could Hie To Kolob" (traditional or rock version found) and "How Great Thou Art" were sung with the other girls at camp in an attempt to comfort my grief.

Contributes to Repertoire Development
Two years so far I have performed at the Scandinavian Heritage Festival in Ephraim, UT. Perhaps a LDS connection would seem strange until one realizes that most of Ephraim's settlers were Scandinavian LDS pioneers. To fill four 30-minute slots of no-repeat stories, I needed to know at least three hours of folktales. Ever since this repertoire development most of my story sets, outside of this festival, include at least one Scandinavian tale due to the number of stories I know from this culture.

Then in 2006 the Cultural Arts department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent out a call for theatre, music, and visual art submissions that reflect different aspects of the church. Though storytelling was not a category listed, I determined this was a chance to introduce another art. You could say that storytelling is a minority art form.

The theatre category seemed best to pursue and rather than submitting a solo piece, I approached two other LDS storytellers, Suzanne Hudson and David Bullock, as well as two youth tellers to combine for the "Growing up Mormon" storytelling program. Part of the inspiration came from storyteller Ed Stivender as he is known for "Raised Catholic (Can You Tell?)", though he is not alone in creating those kinds of programs. Catholics, Methodists, Jews, and many other religions already have storytelling programs that express their lifestyles; people of all faiths enjoy these stories.

Though we did not become finalists with the "Growing up Mormon" program, it did open thoughts as to how my LDS background may become a more prevalent part to which I am known for in the storytelling world.

Many storytellers tell stories based on the Bible. As LDS storytellers also believe in the Bible, then these stories are possible to add to the repertoire. However, I am unaware of any stories based on the Book of Mormon that is out on the public storytelling circuit. Perhaps part of the reason is that whether or not someone is Christian, most people are aware of certain Bible stories about Noah, Moses, David and Goliath, and others. Yet, if someone is not LDS, then most likely the Book of Mormon stories with Nephi, Lehi, Ammon, and Alma the Younger are completely new. This may affect comedic, tragic, or dramatic moments if the audience receives the stories out of context.

A good storyteller could develop the stories so there would be understanding for the audience regardless of how much they know about the LDS faith.

At the annual 2006 Utah Storytelling Guild StoryFest, there was a discussion on why more LDS-related stories were not shared. It was not because there was a lack of time to develop the pieces nor in finding the venues. The most common answer: fear. More specifically: fear of sounding preachy; fear of how to delicately approach the stories in a respectful manner; fear of being blacklisted as a teller. No one voiced the following fear though I expect it was at the back of many minds: fear of being persecuted.

Other tellers who tell stories from other religious backgrounds may have these same fears, though they are strong enough to pursue the stage and letting the stories be heard.

Everyone at that StoryFest meeting agreed that more stories, that reflected our way of living, needed to be shared. Since that discussion I have not seen any results. There are many LDS storytellers inside and outside of Utah. In addition, the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival, one of the most successful and largest storytelling events in the United States, is predominately organized and attended by LDS people. We are not as scarce as some people think in the storytelling community. We only tend remain quiet when there is the chance to accidentally offend others or cause people to be uncomfortable. . .except when a driving force moves us forward.

Determines Goals for Future Public Performances
So what motivates us enough to step onto the stage and share our stories? What motivates you?

In times of fear or uncertainty, I turn to others for support. My husband is my greatest support while I also have my mother, father, brother and sister to cheer me on. I even conducted a one-question survey with fellow East Tennessee State University classmates if they would like to hear stories that connect with the Book of Mormon or everyday living of a Latter-day Saint. The people I approached seemed eager to hear some of these types of stories though I did not feel ready to share any at that time. There was curiosity and the possibility of having more diversity on the stage.

Storyteller David Novak advised me that rather than have programs that focus purely on LDS stories, that it may be smoother to find stories from other cultures that incorporate our values mixed with one or two that are LDS.

This may have guided me in the structure of a narrative production that I will premiere on February 9, 2009 called "Family Famine: Hunger for Love". Though I expect portions of LDS songs may be included in the program as that is part of my style, the focus will be on multicultural tales outside of my tradition. Healthy family relationships can be found in all cultures. A country in chaos sometimes is thought to not have the same levels of love amongst family members. Usually the corruption lies mainly with leadership of the land rather than what is found in the home.

Throughout story development, I will contemplate upon "The Family: A Proclamation to the World", a document presented by the LDS Church in 1995. It is my source of inspiration for "Family Famine: Hunger for Love" and not something I plan to quote or distribute to those who attend the premiere or any future performances. That would be overbearing, inappropriate and harmful to me as a teller and would abuse storytelling as an art form.

Storyteller Elizabeth Ellis warns of the difference between being religious and being spiritual. Any storytelling experience could be a spiritual experience no matter what faith is mentioned, if at all. Sometimes values expressed in everyday tales provide communion.

I hope to create a safe environment for my audience so they can trust that I will not push my views from the stage and that I allow them to take what they will from the performance. In fact, I expect the "Family Famine: Hunger for Love" to be such a program that even public schools would see no issues in having it presented to their students.

My LDS background will always influence, create, and develop repertoire that will reach the stage. The goal is that I will become fearless in presenting the stories that few have heard while creating a safe environment so that people realize that I love and respect all cultures and traditions.

Perhaps one day a LDS program will be as common as the other religion-based storytelling programs out there.

May we build the bridges from one group to another and be willing to step across the rushing river of misunderstanding and fear so to see from both sides.

Until we tell again,

Rachel Hedman
Professional Storyteller
Former Co-Chair and Current Member of Youth, Educators, and Storytellers Alliance
Tel: (801) 870-5799
Email: info@rachelhedman.com
Performance Blog: http://familyfamine.blogspot.com
Other places to find me: Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, Professional Storyteller

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