Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Storytelling declining in Shanghai, too

via XINHUA online ):
The Shanghai Daily is noting a massive drop-off in storytelling theatres in the area, blaming modern media in part, for exposing audiences to fashion trends and pop stars at the expense of the folk arts, like pingtan.

Pingtan, by the way, is a regional form of storytelling (popular in East China's Jiangsu, Zhejiang provinces and Shanghai) that typically involves two storytellers, accompanied by music --or prefaced by sung ballads, telling long serial tales. This art thrived in the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) with many of its stories dating to that time. Here's a summary by Eric Miller, of the University of Pennsylvania:

pingtan is a collective term, denoting two forms of storytelling: pinghua (narration without music); and tanci (narration with music, also known as, prosimetric performance, or chantefable). The prose of pinghua, and sections of tanci, is delivered in a styled form of speaking that is different from everyday speech; it has a recognizable cadence. Both pinghua and tanci allow insertion of commentary, anecdotes, poems, and descriptive set pieces; and both involve long, often serialized, tales. In tanci, the story is told in alternating passages of prose and rhymed metrical verse, plus comic-relief passages, singing, and instrumental accompaniment. In olden days, a story could take three months to tell, with an hour session each day: today, two weeks is usually the limit....

In the course of a performance, storytellers go into and out of multiple registers, voices, and dialects. The plot line is delivered in a formal dialect, while asides to the audience are given in the local dialect. Ancient dialects are no longer second nature to young performers or listeners: many elders say that today the singing is good, but the speech is poor. Thus today the frames, or registers, of language styles that performers shift into and out of are in some ways simpler. Instead of switching dialects, a young performer may just switch tone or accent.

The older performers also speak of the diminished attention span of young people: after all, commercial TV -- which is accessible in cities -- has advertisements every 10 minutes (I wonder if the rate of alternation between singing and speaking in tanci has been affected by such developments). Some older pingtan performers say that today, fewer people come to listen to the art, more just to hear a story. Older, well-known stories are regarded as boring by many younger listeners, forcing the development of new stories. Some young people complain that the pace of the storytelling is too slow, that more action and less of the detail that has traditionally been so characteristic of tanci is desired. These changes are perhaps due to the quickening pace of life in modern China and the difference sense of performance introduced by editing and other aspects of TV, videos, and movies.

Eric Miller, Continuity and Change in Chinese Storytelling

The news from Shanghai documents the decline in the number of theatres, and also in the quality of the performers... but I suspect that like many folk arts, it may disappear from public view but not go extinct.

Friday, October 03, 2003

Telling Tiny Stories

(from's Top 50 list, I discovered LooneyLabs, a "that hippie game company," and it turns out they've got a storytelling game, Nanofictionary.

I haven't bought the game --yet,-- but I can see how storytellers would have a competitive advantage playing in a group of non-storytellers. It seems to be a game that writers could enjoy, and improv folks would certainly find it easy (not sure what the intersection of gamers and improv folks is).

I'd love to see this played among a group of storytellers.

Three potential problems, and I'll confess this right off: I haven't read all the game's rules. This is just based on what I've found at a Nanofictionary fan site.

  1. The "Resolution" card. Given that this is a card game, and you're randomly or strategically collecting story elements (Action, Character, Setting, etc)... a randomly drawn Resolution is going to come across as just that: random. And what defines a story is that its narrative elements belong together (i.e., it's not a random list). A resolution comes out of everything that has gone before. So, yes, a storyteller or improviser could invent a satisfying resolution, given a random list of characters and settings and a problem.... but to leave it up to the cards is like asking a football team to hustle the ball down to the end zone but wait on the 1 -yard line for new instructions.
  2. The "It was all just a dream" card would cause any self-respecting writer or storyteller to have a hissy fit and set the game pieces on fire.
  3. I'll let the story speak for itself (this submitted as a favorite):
    A long time ago, in a submarine below the surface, there was an inner-city school girl, the guy in the apartment upstairs, and the mentally and physically retarded black cat. The girl had a rifle, the guy had grenades, and the cat had a sniper gun. The smart scientists were going to give the girl homework, the guy a life, and put the cat in a mental home, but they got caught red handed. They were never seen again and a statue was built in the girl, guy, and cat's honor.
$17 from Looney Labs.

Thursday, September 11, 2003

Wisconsin Weather Stories

So UW Madison wants to combine atmospheric science and folklore.
The weather narrative - atop the rhymes, charms and proverbs - is a way, for example, to integrate weather into our sense of place and, for the meteorologist, lends an oral history to be explored through the lens of science. Famous Wisconsin stories with a weather pitch include the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, and the Armistice Day storm of 1940, when dozens of duck hunters - trapped on Mississippi River sloughs by a sudden 40-degree Fahrenheit drop in temperature - froze to death in their boats.
Can't say it's a bad idea. I'm all for place-based education. Nothing wrong with introducing kids to oral history in their social studies or science classes. But aiming for a K-12 audience seems a little broad to me. While "Colder than a brass toilet in the Yukon" and "Windier than a peach orchard pig" are no doubt gems for undergraduate folklorists, not sure how well you could maintain order in a third grade classroom explaining those ones.

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Sweet Tooth for Storytelling

Couldn't find the URL, so here's the search results from the Kingsport Times News:

Date Published: July 31, 2003
Krispy Kreme donates $1 million to International Storytelling Center
JONESBOROUGH - Krispy Kreme Doughnuts recently gave the International Storytelling Center a sweet deal in the form of a $1 million donation.

The company's chief executive officer, president and chairman, Scott Livengood, said Krispy Kreme has been working on forming a partnership with the not-for-profit organization located in Jonesborough.

"We've had an ongoing relationship that began about a year ago," Livengood said. "The Krispy Kreme Foundation was just established, and its mission is to focus on people and organizations reaching their potential."

The donation will be given in allotments over a three- to five-year period and will be used primarily for the initial development of a storytelling in education program, operational support, and completion of a theater in the ISC interpretation center.

The donation comes amid a drive to secure funding in an effort to raise $20 million over a seven-year span.

"The ($20 million) is what will help us build the capacity of this organization to be successful," ISC founder and President Jimmy Neil Smith said. "Like any business or nonprofit organization, we need the pieces to be successful."

Half of the $20 million will eventually be placed in an endowment. The interest earned from the endowment would then be used to cover annual operating costs.

Smith said he, Livengood and other ISC officials just completed a three-day tour of the region in which they spent time with potential partners.

"We are introducing ourselves to the region because we want people to know there has been a change in who we are and how we operate," Smith said.

The ISC is well-known for having helped host the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough every year for more than 30 years.

However, Smith said the ISC's new mission is to improve and teach to improve nearly every facet of life with storytelling.

"The festival is the cornerstone of what we do, but we have a new vision," Smith said. "This new vision is one that stories can be used to build a better world."

Livengood said it is that mission to use storytelling in education, business, health care, and peace and understanding that convinced Krispy Kreme to enter into a partnership that he said will last far beyond the three- to five-year donation period.

Livengood lives in Winston-Salem, N.C., the home city of Krispy Kreme, and attended his first storytelling festival last year.

"I did not have to be persuaded about the power of stories," Livengood said. "That event, however, helped to broaden my perspective."

- By Corey B. Shoun

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Byatt v. Rowling

A.S. Byatt takes a clear eyed look at Harry Potter's literary merit, which is minimal. (New York Times)
Ms. Rowling's magic world has no place for the numinous. It is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip. Its values, and everything in it, are, as Gatsby said of his own world when the light had gone out of his dream, "only personal." Nobody is trying to save or destroy anything beyond Harry Potter and his friends and family.
She sees the appeal for children, and doesn't fault the books for that... but takes to task adults who should know better. Read the whole piece here.

Tuesday, July 01, 2003

Storytelling Articles Online

Stumbled across Questia via a Google ad. At first I thought it was a bookstore. Then I clicked on the links and realized it was all content. Online content. It's an online library. Check out their articles on storytelling... Holy Moses! They even have the entire work of Annette Simmon's The Story Factor available. (Doug Lipman's review here or Questia's online version here) (I know Annette is getting her work out there any way she can... if you have the patience to read all 250 pages of her book online, be my guest. Me, I'm happy to plunk down the $16.95 to hold it in my hands.) Reading online gives me a headache. Here's the catch: you only get to see the first page of each chapter for free... to read the whole thing online, you have to subscribe. $9.95 a month for an annual, or $19.95 by the month. Might be worth it for a student.

Monday, June 30, 2003

Tales Retold: Fairy Tales New and Old

A few years ago, I heard a radio show by the Modern Language Association featuring a history of fairy tales in our culture, with Alison Lurie, Karen Rowe, and Jack Zipes. It's available online (Scroll down to "Fairy Tales"). Excellent overview, for a 30 minute feature.