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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Spars

Pre-Workshop Planning!

Second book from the Live to Tell series

This year, Coyote Tales will feature a workshop prior to the Story Slam. I have eighteen parents signed up in what is being called a "Master Class." The title is a bit intimidating, but I find I am actually excited for the chance to give some input before the actual event. 

While I have taught several storytelling workshops for middle school students and high schoolers, even college students, I haven't done an adult workshop. This is a first. 

I will start with some stories, of course. I want to talk about true stories a bit at the beginning, and use the example of "Indians up Brush Creek." The aim here really is to set the tone for storytelling, but also get the tellers to focus not just on factuality but also on some of the bigger, more abiding truths of their stories. 

From here, I want to highlight George Dawes Green's message at the workshop I attended, and that is to really focus on a difficult choice that the storyteller has to make in the story. He used the example of a teller who was describing a traffic accident. The teller focused on the kinds of cars involved, the distances they skidded, and... George was actually bored even though what was being described was extraordinary. He didn't get drawn into the story until the car had plummeted into a river and the teller/driver had to make a decision: should they open the door to escape and risk drowning? Or, should they stay in the car and breath the air that was trapped with them until they were rescued? George said that the audience couldn't help but ask themselves what they would do in this situation... and that, according to George, is the most compelling form a true, personal narrative can take. 

I would like to tell two stories that feature this aspect. If I could muster up a version of the Konsuma story (Tipping Point) and pair it with the Monkey Story (Leaps), I could ask the workshop which they think is stronger, and which they think is a winner (Leaps won; Tipping Point scored poorly even though it was told without any mistakes, pauses, etc.)

George Green was kind enough to give me access to a set of one-minutes stories that he solicited from his favorite tellers. He used these to highlight the decisions at the center of each of the stories. There was one told by a young man from Sierra Leone, for example, who was returning home after living in the United States for many years. He was a vegetarian, but he told himself that he would suspend his vegetarianism so that he could return to his culture -- even if that meant eating monkey! His decision was to suspend his vegetarianism, and this decision was tested when his friends decided to slaughter a monkey and prepare a feast. In another story, a woman had a loose tooth, and it came out in the cup of wine at her first communion. What was she to do? She grabbed the wine and drank it all so she could get the tooth back in her mouth. These are two examples in which I understand the clear connection between a decision and the tension of the story. 

From here I want to talk about the change that a good story brings. For this the best exercise really is "In a world..." In this exercise, the teller imagines making a movie trailer for their story, which sets up the change that is to take place. For the story "Leaps," I would model this exercise by stating: "In a world full of unexpected surprises (vomit... monkeys... a man slamming tables with a baseball bat on tables), one young man learns to let go and embrace life outside his comfort zone..." I think a good follow up would be to try to do this activity for the weaker story about Konsuma and Isha. "In a world in which a man lives as a hunter gatherer in a modern society, a witch gives shocking displays (of her own vagina) to anyone who dares approach the supermarket, a young man..." Hopefully the tellers will see this is more difficult. 

From here, I want to use a worksheet to help the tellers map out their stories:

1. Describe the world before the action starts

2. And then one day... (What sets the motion of the story)

3. What is at stake? What does the teller have to lose?

4. What is a difficult decision that the teller must make?

5. What is the world like after the events of the story?

I know this year, I have many more hopeful tellers, so, inevitably there will be those that are disappointed. I should prepare them for that. 

And, of course, winning... This is the part of a slam that I don't particularly care for, and that many people tend to focus on. I have heard from tellers in the past that they were disappointed they didn't win. One said, "I thought it was a winner." Another asked me what it would have taken for her story to have won. Some have theorized that it is the funny stories that win, or the converse... that it is the sad and tragic ones that win. 

Recently, at the National Storytelling Network (NSN) Summit, I witnessed some of George Green's theories in action. There was an excellent story about a mother and her baby in a post World War II camp. A German soldier was standing over the baby, and, at first, the mother, who was headed to the states, thought he seemed like a threat. Then it was clear that he simply missed his own child in Germany. The mother allowed the soldier to hold the baby. It was a beautiful story, but it didn't even come in third place, and I suppose it was because the storyteller was actually the infant, and wasn't the one who was making the decision to allow the soldier to hold the baby. I believe I wrote about this in the last blog. 

Of course, the part of the workshop that will be the trickiest is when the tellers begin to jump up and tell their stories. I hope I can give useful feedback!

Coyote Tales Storytelling Master Class, Sonoma Academy on September 19, 2019


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