Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Surrounded by Excellence

 Blog 26: Surrounded by Excellence
Reflections on the VASA Virtual Gathering 2021

The Virginia Storytelling Association (VASA) had its annual Gathering virtually this year, and even though I am truly “Zoomed-out”, I was blown away by the caliber of this year’s event.
The event was organized and coordinated by Mylinda Butterworth, who graduated with me from East Tennessee State’s Master’s program in Storytelling.  Organizing, coordinating, and marketing conferences is Mylinda’s strong suit.  In fact, her Capstone Project was a how-to guide for such events.  Even knowing her for the last 14 years didn’t stop me from being blown away.
The talent that Mylinda brought together for this event was astonishing. As the event was not limited by its geography, Mylinda was able to reach across the country to find incredible storytellers. Featured tellers Laura Packer, Adam Booth, and Carrie Sue Ayver gave us a smorgasbord of stories, taking us to lands and times that spanned the entire range of time and space.   Their skill, their joy, and their connection to the audience (via Zoom, no less!!) were inspiring. I had the privilege of being the opening act for the Friday night concert and I was humbled to be in such company.  Jane Dorfman, another VASA member had the same opportunity Saturday evening and her performance was the best I have ever seen her give.
Artists Standing Strong Together (ASST) partnered with VASA to bring other regional tellers to the conference, increasing the depth and breadth of the stories we heard. Thanks to Sheila Arnold, we were introduced to 10 more tellers, some of whom were new to me which is always a treat.  
AND…there were 14 workshops!  
Everything I attended was beyond my expectations. The level of excellence in the workshops was mind boggling.  I was humbled by the standard of excellence that was demonstrated in each and every performance and workshop. I was blown away by the degree to which everyone had honed their craft. Truth be told, I was just a tad intimidated by the company I was keeping last weekend.
Andy Offut Irvin always says, “Show me, don’t tell me.” The presenters showed me what excellence looks like. The workshops showed me how to get there from here. There is something incredibly wonderful about being surrounded by excellence. It felt a bit like a warm embrace.  
Thanks Mylinda. Thanks VASA.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Blog 25: Coaching for VASA

 Blog 25: Coaching for VASA

It’s all about trust.
Personal stories are precious to us, well, because, they ARE personal.
When I am moved, or inspired, or cajoled into creating a personal story, the story that emerges from the creative cocoon is my baby.
Precious to behold, with no real thought about when, where, or why it would be told.
If I bring this new creation to a coach, it is with the hope that the coach will not only get the point of the story, but will treat it (and me) with care.  I trust that the coach will know how to grow the story into one that is performance worthy. 

Recently, I had the privilege of coaching members of the Virginia Storytelling Association (VASA) and honestly, I did not consciously go into the coaching session preparing myself to handle anyone’s “baby.”

I listened to each teller, being present to the story. The glorious thing about being present is that I disappear, and I become part of that creative vessel from which we all drink.  
It is my absolute favorite thing to do, and is immensely satisfying.
I hope the tellers realize what a gift they gave me when they gave me their trust.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Horticulture and Storytelling? Who Knew?

 Horticulture and Storytelling? Who Knew?

It never occurred to me that I would be doing a storytelling workshop with students in a horticulture class, but I really did that and the results were amazing!

My friend, Jerry Kelly has been teaching Horticulture for the last 5 years and has turned the program into an award-winning one with national recognition.  He and his students (like everyone else) are struggling with pandemic fatigue and online schooling.  And then Jerry had an idea.

Why not integrate the arts into their activities? Let’s invent some Eco-literacy Crosswalks!


Journaling, Mindfulness, Poetry, and Storytelling were integrated into the curriculum.  There were two storytelling classes.  The first was an abbreviated Storytelling 101, which ended with photographs I had taken in my travels.  We brainstormed about the kinds of stories each picture evoked and had great fun doing so.  There was a 2 week break, during which the students crafted a story drawing on images from Nature.


Today there were brand new stories waiting to be told.  There was a      Por-quoi story, several fairy tales, a story from the point of view of a seed being planted by a toddler. There were poems that had imagery that was astonishing, considering the ages of the students.  And I had been asked to take one of the stories “from page to stage” which I did with a bit of hesitation and trepidation.

I told “False Holly,” a myth about protecting the planet and had everything any self-respecting myth would have - Battle between good and evil forces, a beneficent emperor, a loyal warrior who held a powerful secret, the daughter who was the secret and held the health of the planet in her hands, and a bittersweet ending.  It was an easy tale to tell, and I was able to demonstrate the power of storytelling one more time to a new audience.




Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Who is Molly MacGregor?

Blog #23
Who is Molly MacGregor?

Molly MacGregor tells the very best folktales and fairy tales.  I inhabit her body and soul each month when she tells stories to the tiny humans and their grown-ups at the local library.  She has evolved over a period of years to become someone I am quite fond of, and she has asked that I tell her story.

Molly is a storyteller from Once Upon a Time, a place where there are heroes and dragons, fair maids and feisty ones.  She was a cook by trade, before she was summarily dismissed by Old King Cole because he is not a “merry old soul.”   She lives with her son, Jack, who you might think you know because of that story about a giant and some magic beans. Molly swears that story is “poppycock and balderdash!”  Molly will tell you a story about Jack that is true.

Molly also tells tales from the far corners of Once Upon a Time, not because she has travelled, but because the stories had.  Learning about a new place, or a new story brings joy to Molly’s heart.  Sharing stories with you makes her soul sing. She is a figment of my imagination, but her evolution was not a single act of creation. 
Molly burst forth after collaborating with The Muse.

Molly is a name I have always loved.  In fact, I wanted to change my name to Molly because my mother always introduced me as, “My daughter, Beth. No, it’s not short for Elizabeth.  It’s just plain Beth.”  I didn’t want to be “just plain anything!”  My parents would not hear of a name change. It was the 1950’s.

My paternal grandmother was from Scotland, and a MacGregor.  We didn’t know much about my dad’s family, much less the history of the Macgregor Clan.  Apparently, it wasn’t considered important.  When I went to Scotland several years ago, I didn’t want to leave.  The Scottish Highlands called to a part of my soul, grounding me and uplifting me all at the same time, which I didn’t understand.  When I returned and was sharing the photos with my niece, I tried to explain this experience.  
Her response was, “Did you forget we are Scottish?”

Fast forward a couple of years.  Although I had been telling stories at our local library once a month for over a decade, attendance was dwindling. It was true for all of the library programming, not just mine. That offered little comfort.  Some Saturday mornings, no children wanted to hear a tale.  Disheartening and discouraging.  Needed to up my game I thought, make it special. So, after conferring with the Muse, I donned my costume, picked up the accent I reserved for Celtic Festivals, and gave my storyteller a name. Molly MacGregor.

Costumes were expected when I began telling at Celtic Festivals. While they didn’t need to be entirely authentic, the costume did at least need to suggest a much earlier time.  As a theatre person turned storyteller, I welcomed the chance to dress up. 
That was many years ago.  

I have since heard storytellers voice opinions about costumes, both positive and negative, and a storytelling uniform versus a costume. I have seen storytellers run the gamut from costume to uniform to “Are you really going to get onstage wearing that???” From where I stand, storytelling is a performance art with at least as many variations on that theme as there are tellers. Each unique, each wonderful, each bringing stories that remind us what it means to be human.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

When things come full circle…

Blog 22
When things come full circle…

Once upon a time in a land faraway, a storyteller named Meliss Bunce said to me, “I see you telling stories of American women who are significant, but not necessarily famous.”  Hmmmm…..
The first piece I developed was the story of Libby Beaman, the first American, the first white woman to set foot in Alaska.  I had stumbled upon her journal from that time that had been published by her granddaughter, Betty John.  I read the journal and was completely captivated by this woman.  

Libby was a free spirited, daring young woman confined by the conventions the Victorian era. She managed to break free of those conventions so that she could use the brains and the talent that were bestowed by her Creator.  It was that daring that allowed her to choose her husband to be and then make that union possible.  It is, indeed, a love story against the backdrop of life in government service during and after the Civil War.

Not long after I had developed this piece, I purchased a biography of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first lady doctor, which held a different appeal than Libby’s.  Her story was inspiring. But then I got busy, really busy, being a single mother and starting over in a land far from home.

Healing story became my focus, and I loved that stories could be a vehicle for it.  It was the subject of my Master’s Thesis, and enriched my work as an addiction counselor. The publication of Distilling Hope: 12 Stories to Distill the 12 Steps, was the culmination of that work, and was immensely satisfying, taking me to the NSN Story Summit to present a workshop.  

At the 2019 Summit, Charlotte Blake Alston gave a truly inspiring keynote about the stories that need to be told right now.  Women’s rights were under assault. Immigration had become politically charged.  Suddenly I realized that Elizabeth Blackwell’s story was very timely. Not only did she live when women were fighting for the right to vote, she was an immigrant.  Add to that the disadvantage of becoming disabled.  A trifecta of issues in one woman’s story.  Charlotte’s keynote, and the conversation that followed it, watered that seed Melissa had planted over 20 years ago. It was time to tell Elizabeth’s story.

The more I get to know this woman, the more I love her. She saw her path to become a doctor as a spiritual journey; doing what she believed her Creator needed and wanted her to do. Elizabeth faced challenge after challenge, persevering despite the odds, trusting her faith. She prevailed. 

As I work to tell Elizabeth’s story, I am reminded of my dear friend Melissa, the seed she planted, her encouragement…and I smile.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Virtual Storytelling

This Brave New World of Covid-19 is weird….really weird.  It has spawned all manner of creative solutions to our shared limitations and has allowed us to stay somewhat connected while sheltering in place.  Suddenly performers, of all types, found themselves out of work…out of gainful employment…looking to survive in this virtual world far, far away from any physical stage or platform on this planet. And thus…Virtual Storytelling became a Thing.

Having performed in several of these venues, I have come to the conclusion that Virtual Storytelling is weird.

For most of my life, storytelling has involved the gathering of people for the purpose of entertainment. Perhaps the story’s purpose is to educate, sell, convince, or affirm as much as it is to give pleasure. A storytelling event can allow the listener to escape into that “Once Upon A Time” where good conquers evil, incredible creatures and adversaries a soundly defeated, and love conquers all. Good stories create empathy, and allow us all to remember we are all part of the human race, with human foibles, dilemmas, and downfalls. As a performer, I depend on that connection with the audience to deliver the best possible experience. Virtual Storytelling cannot deliver that in real time.

I sit at my laptop awaiting my entrance onto a Zoom Platform.  It’s my turn.  The Camera is on me. And suddenly…I am telling this story to myself!  Say What???   But don’t look at yourself!  Look up! Directly into the camera. Yes, look at that tiny light just above your screen, so the audience thinks you’re looking at them, even though the only thing I can see is me! So, there I am, telling my story with all the gusto I can muster from a seated position.  Seated???  Yup, seated.  The computer cannot deliver a decent performance that would allow standing, or any large movement.  Even the small motions need to be carefully rehearsed so that a hand gesture doesn’t leave a trail or is too much out of proportion with the rest of me making me look like some mythical creature from Loch Ness. And then there’s the added annoyance of that virtual caution from Zoom itself. “Your band width is too low.”  Great! Like I can do anything about that while I’m telling!  That low band width pixelates the transmission, or freezes it momentarily, which does nothing good to the delivery of said story.  In fact, it creates a robotic delivery for a few moments, or minutes, which is the antithesis of what I trying desperately to do!
The story ends.  There is silence. No applause. No indicator of how the story played, how it landed. Oh wait! There is a chat room.  Lots of comments from the audience members to indicate my success or failure.  I cannot read them while I am telling.  I can only enjoy the comments after the fact.  The immediacy of a live performance in front of real people is gone.

So, I am left with a choice.  To spend my time mourning that which is gone from my life, or accept this Brave New World and be glad in it.  I can be grateful for the 21st century with all its technological wonders or commiserate with the naysayers who whine that life just isn’t the same. No it’s not the same.  But it surely beats the alternative!

In the meantime, watch for my next Virtual Performance…coming soon to a computer near you!

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Women’s Storytelling Festival

Blog #20:  Women’s Storytelling Festival
Fairfax, Virginia

The first Women’s Storytelling Festival took place March 13 and 14, 2020 in Fairfax, Virginia amid the Coronavirus pandemic.  At that point, people were advised to avoid crowds greater than 250 people. Jessica Piscitelli Robinson worked with the officials in Fairfax to be sure the festival would be compliant with guidelines, should it be allowed to go on as planned.  We got daily emails from Jessica about the status of the festival. 
As of Friday morning, it was on.

So, we went.  We arrived with tempered expectations.  The recommendations and guidelines were changing almost hourly it seemed.  Friday night was held at the Auld Shebeen, which was perfect.  Alas, the crowd was small, and several of the showcase tellers had to back out. That didn’t stop those who were there from taking the stage and giving the audience their best with an interesting mix of material, styles, and stories. I was thrilled that so many local and regional tellers had been included.  It’s so hard to find a way to break out of one niche and leap to the next level, and the opportunities are few and far between.

Saturday, we got a full day of stories, lasting into the evening. Sheila Arnold, Megan Hicks, Jessica Piscitelli Robinson, and Donna Washington, the featured tellers who were able to attend, were glorious.  The size of the audience, which was small, didn’t faze them. We heard historical stories, folktales, and personal stories, each rich and satisfying. There were showcases with different tellers at lunch, and a story swap for audience members who were so moved.   Truly, something for everyone.

It is a relatively small world – storytelling.  The community of storytellers is tightly woven, but never exclusive.  All are welcomed with open arms and hearts. Under the circumstances, we were all careful not to hug and kiss each other as is the way of storytellers.  That part was awkward, and created a longing in me that I hadn’t expected. 
This, too, shall pass.

Here’s what’s really important.  The first, very first, Women’s Storytelling Festival went on as planned and without a hitch.  Jessica Robinson is to be applauded for her vision and her leadership.  I am proud this festival gave the local tellers a bigger audience and a bigger event.  I expect that there will be a second Women’s Storytelling Festival in 2021.

I will be there!