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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Spars

Storytelling Month is Here!

November was kicked off this weekend with the SAC annual conference. Friday, November 8, featured a concert by Antonio Rocha, for which Ruth Halpern and I were the warm-up acts.

I have departed on my new path of blending folktales with personal narrative. My debut performance last Friday featured a personal anecdote about battling the Balinese dogs with a folktale that was passed on to me by the beloved Cathryn Fairlee. The tale was about a Balinese demon or leyak losing its tail. I modified this story with a lot of input from my Balinese wife, who knew several variations on this story. Of course, she and I have our own experiences with these mythological (but maybe extant) beings.

Ruth, a fellow teacher, told a story about the power of story. As I was listening to the folktale about a young man seeking out the answer to why he is the unluckiest person in the world, my wife, who was sitting next to me, had already guessed the ending. She loves to do this, and then, when she has figured it out, she can barely contain herself. Squeaks and sighs come from the tension that is built up inside of her... like a balloon that is ready to burst. I see this as a sign that it was a fantastic story. When we know what is going to happen, but we are still totally invested in the outcome, that is a sign that the storyteller is clear and engaging. And that is Ruth in a nutshell. It is no wonder that her students, once a rowdy and uncontrollable bunch, were transformed into attentive listeners.

And then there was Antonio. My goodness. I had caught glimpses of his performances at the BASF and the International Festival in Jonesborough, but I had never gotten such a full, concentrated dose of his energy and talent. As he told his stories about racism and immigration, he did so in a way that we never lost sight of the beauty in all people. I felt like I grew as a person as I let his stories right into the heart of my soul. He somehow managed to make each person in the audience feel that he was giving them their own private performance. He is magic.

The conference the next day featured three workshops: Ray Engan, Muriel Johnson, and Antonio. I missed Ray's workshop, but I heard wonderful things about it. Muriel began with a folktale and then let her audience take her where they wanted with questions and observations. She led us in two wonderful drills: saying a line like "I lost my tooth" in different ways (sad, excited, etc); also passing an object around the circle. The object changes as it goes, from a heavy rock to a kitten, to a dead mouse, and so on. I am going to steal that one!

Antonio... Antonio, Antonio, Antonio. He held us rapt for two full hours. He explained something that I have always wondered but have never been able to articulate. It was the real difference between theater and storytelling. Theater places the energy between the characters who are on the stage, whereas the storyteller places the energy between themselves and the audience. Their eyes should be in three places: watching the "silent film" that is the story playing behind the audience (the teller describes what is happening to the audience); making eye contact with the audience to emphasize something or to report dialog; on stage, using correct sight lines, between imaginary characters (this is like theater). One place a teller should never direct their eyes is downward. This breaks the connection with the audience.

It was a workshop that I wish every storyteller could have been privy too. Such a gift that he gave to us. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Antonio as a storyteller was his graciousness. He was so kind and respectful to the other tellers, including me. Antonio is a giant in the world of storytelling, but he tread as gently as a newborn deer among us, meeting each of us with curiosity and kindness. I left feeling like I was enveloped in his warm, strong, kind energy, void of anxiety, jealousy, and competitiveness that can plague the craft of story.

SAC Pre-workshop concert with Antonio Rocha, November 8, 2019 at Hotel Petaluma


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