Sunday, March 29, 2020



Rita Grimaldi, my friend and storytelling mentor, died unexpectedly on the evening of March 28th, 2020.

When I first approached Rita to write about her storytelling experiences with masks, she declined. She said she was a very private individual and did not wish to share snippets of her personal life or thoughts. She said she could sometimes be awkward and clumsy with her written words, so anything she’d write would perhaps not adequately convey the power of her masks to connect with audiences. Finally, Rita said she was skeptical about whether anyone would be interested in what she had to say about this unique genre of storytelling.

Several months passed. I persisted, but Rita remained firm. 

Finally, I offered to read her first drafts, suggest edits, ask questions about her ideas. I said we’d ‘fancy it up’ with photographs and better formatting. Rita said she’d write a couple of articles and see how it went. 

Her early posts were very well received by an international readership. Rita was delighted. So she wrote a couple more. And then, a whole lot more.

In telling you about Rita – the artist and the woman – I’ve decided to use her own words as they appear in her blog posts, to reveal a very special person, an accomplished storyteller, and ultimate master of the challenging art of mask performance.


I remember once hearing a famous storyteller who told a story with his eyes shut. When he was done, I put up my hand, and I asked why he told with his eyes shut. He answered that he told this way because it allowed him to better concentrate on the text of the story.

But this is not my way of storytelling. I don’t want to only concentrate on the story.  I want to concentrate on making the story a shared experience between the audience and myself. 

Seeing the audience’s facial expressions tells me how they are experiencing the story. Always my goal is that the story will reach them on an emotional level. By seeing their faces – especially through the focused holes of the mask – I will know if I have reached my goal of emotional involvement.


One of the audience members in Warkworth came up to me after the performance and said that it was very powerful that I changed in full view of the audience. I felt I wanted to do this because the visible change allowed the audience sufficient time to adjust their emotions. And as I changed, the harp music playing softly and in sync with the emotional changes, helped the audience feel the emotions with me.


Clothing affects us more than we know. And changing my clothing affected the emotion of my mask persona immensely. I did not feel the same while wearing the soot dress, veil, and gloves as I felt when wearing the Princess dress. And I am going to guess that watching me, the audience did not feel the same either.

Does clothing have a message to tell the storytelling audience and the storyteller herself?

My answer after this experience is ‘yes.’ My experience wearing the Princess dress helped me feel the positive times and wearing soot clothing helped me to feel the difficult and fearful times.


Here is what I feel during the mask performance of a story containing conflict.

o   I feel the threatening, negative energy of my adversary.
o   I feel my fear of his rising power.
o   I feel the relief of my escape or the pain of my death or sometimes the rightness of just walking away.

These feelings teach me about life and about what it is like to live with conflict in the real world.


Mask work requires the teller to enter into the story far more than in regular storytelling. Mask requires immersion on the part of the teller – giving up part of oneself to become the character in the story.

This is the magic of mask. In the plot of the written story, transformation happens through the power of an external person. But in the performed story, the masks and costumes invoke a transformation experience equally as powerful.


But as soon as I put on Monkey mask, to rehearse ‘Molly the Monkey’ - one of the stories I planned to tell - my whole being came alive. The story came alive. Energy welled up in me and poured into my experience of the story.

It occurred to me that this was not right. My own face must be as valuable a storyteller as my mask face. My energy out-of-mask has to be as deep and available to audiences as when I’m in mask.

The key factor is emotion. Mask automatically brings emotion out of me because mask automatically bonds me with the feeling of being part of the story’s reality. The story’s reality becomes my reality. I see the story from inside rather than from outside.

It is not that I like the stories I tell in mask any better than I like the stories I tell out-of-mask. It’s that the stories I tell in mask I know better. They are part of me in a different way. They belong to me, and I belong to them. 

The transformation of using the mask causes this belonging experience. When I put on the mask, it is as if I no longer belong to my regular life. I belong to the reality of the story.


In my experience, there are always two kinds of times in life - those marked by the hard learning of dark times and those that are marked by the ease of sunny times.


In the second performance, I had no stumbles. For me, it was a purely emotional experience. I felt everything. I saw everything. Looking through the key, I saw as things really are and not how things appeared to be. When I saw the Troll beating the Prince, my feelings of fear and helplessness were real to me. When I was restored to my real Princess appearance, and my Prince was restored to health, my joy was real.


I began to feel old - too old to make such a mask. Then I decided that it was necessary for me to re-acquire my own feelings of strength, innocence and beauty, as you cannot create what you do not feel inside. So doing this and not anticipating either success or failure, I began to re-sculpt the Princess’s face once more.


Twice during rehearsal, at the point where the young man runs away (thus not honouring his side of the bargain), my rehearsal came to a dead stop.

The first time when I was stopped, I took off the mask and walked out of the room.

A friend of mine said that two stories were going on – my story and Wolf’s story. 

Reflecting on my story, I realized that this is perhaps the truth - that in real life, I cannot tolerate bargains not being kept. And equally important was my realization that both Wolf and I have to learn that there are times in life when you just have to cut your losses.


Once, for Halloween, in mask, I told the story of the Duppy Bird. This is a bird that kills a boy. It took me days to get over telling it. I realized that it is not in my temperament to transform into a killing monster through mask. So this time, I wanted the safety of being one of the other story characters.


My father died when I was 22. Perhaps the truth is that because fathers are always a generation ahead of their children, everyone sees their fathers die.

And if you had a good father as I did, it may be true that you want to confront and defeat the death that killed him.

For it is true that in all of us, the young child sees our father as invincible.

After the performance, I think my father should not have died.
I should have been able to kill death for him.
Just as the boy kills the Monster Bear.

I know that this is not a rational thought. But the child part of me who believes in the invincible good father still believes it.


Because in the first and last segments, Brown Bear was not part of the action of the story but only a reporter of the action and words, the actions and words of the story had a greater effect on me. I don’t know why this is so, but it was.

I became a witness too. I was one step behind Brown Bear, one step inside Brown bear, one step beneath Brown Bear. The role of witness engulfed me. And what I was witnessing had direct relevance to my own life.

When I went home from the performance, a great line of memories of my father’s life and death came to me. So I could say for myself:

“All this, I Rita, saw, and, I Rita, remember.
For it is good to remember what happens.”


Early this morning and for several early mornings previously, I reflected on my Small Bear mask telling experience. I came to realize that Small Bear’s drive to find what is necessary for his survival is, in truth, a deep part of my own life.

Like Small Bear, I too lost my mother at a young age. The survival drive within me is similar to that possessed by Small Bear. Mine has led me to search for ‘food’ and find it. This search is not only just a part of ‘story land.’ It is part of this world as well.


Living these events through mask helps me face the possibilities of resolving conflicts in life. Facing threats in this way is not at all like the abstract reading of psychology texts; it puts the options of how to react to conflict into concrete, felt experience.


I would like to conclude this memorial post with some personal observations and reactions to a remarkable mask performance featuring Rita’s mask character – the Kaha Bird. I wrote this post the following day - May 30, 2016. For those of you who never had the opportunity to experience a mask storytelling by Rita, I hope this helps bring it all to life for you.

First – the overall design of the mask. It is imaginatively detailed in its features and how it was accessorized. The spiky hard feathers radiating out from the face were startling. The bird’s long, finely shaped beak over a lower beak jaw that moved in sync with the teller’s words – seemed both predatory and cunningly charming all at the same time. Masks that possess the moveable lower jaw are not common, but the movement during speech impresses the listener and watcher as if it is a living creature standing before you.

Second – the carefully selected accessories. A mix of feather types and subtle colours are dramatically interspersed between the hard spike feathers. The use and placement of these feathers softens the Kaha Bird’s overall appearance while silently encouraging me to see and experience the mask as a living bird.

Third – the colour scheme. Colours were artfully chosen and painted onto the moulded features of the Kaha Bird mask. In particular, the brush strokes surrounding the eyes and the ochre-coloured patches directly beneath and beside each eye served to capture my attention, directing my thoughts and aroused feelings toward and into those mesmerizing eyes.

I know that Rita is not just wearing the mask. She is not just performing in the mask. She is just not speaking the words for the mask.

Rita is the mask. For her, it’s an inclusive, transformative process and experience.

Each of her masks invites Rita to tell its story.

In some ways, the story is her real-life story too.


The End …
I leave the performance area.
I remove the costume and the mask.
I become Rita again.


“I am tired. Now I go to sleep.”

At her home - March 28, 2020

Monday, January 29, 2018


By Rita Grimaldi

Who are our allies (our Rescuers) and who are the villains (the Rogues)?

For me, the story of The Long Leather Bag explores these two questions.

Who are our allies?

Shaman stories are probably the first stories in which animal allies appear. In these stories, animals both support the shaman and in return are supported by the shaman. This is also true in The Long Leather Bag. The youngest sister is kind to the animals – she rubs the horse, she sheers the sheep and she milks the cow. In return, the animals help her by not telling the villain Hag where she is.

Sometimes in shaman stories, a form of animism occurs to enrich the storyline and the actions of its characters. What is animism? It’s the belief that everything has a soul or spirit, including animals, plants, rocks, mountains, rivers and the stars. Animists also believe that every anima is a powerful spirit that either helps or hurts in some fashion. Therefore, it is to be paid attention to in some way.

In the old stories, animism allows objects to come alive. One of my favourite stories to tell is the story of Drakestail. In this story, a duck called Drakestail goes to a villain King to get his money back. On the way, he meets a ladder who asks to come with him.

Drakestail says to the ladder, “You will have a hard time to walk on your stiff wooden legs. Make yourself small and climb into my gizzard and I will carry you.” The ladder does this.

Later, the villain King throws Drakestail into a well. Drakestail says, “Ladder, ladder friend so true, Drakestail needs to climb on you.” The ladder comes out of Drakestail’s gizzard, makes itself big again and Drakestail uses it to climb out of the well to safety.

This same reciprocal help happens in the story of The Long Leather Bag. The youngest sister is asked by the mill to turn its wheel. She is kind to the mill and does what she is asked. In return, the mill grinds up the villain Hag. The grateful mill also tells the youngest sister where to find the Hag’s wand and how to return her sisters from stones back into their human forms.

Re-thinking why the story has three siblings

Many of the old stories have three siblings. There might be three brothers or three sisters. In all cases, it is the youngest sibling who usually behaves better than his or her older siblings and in the end, often saves them from some calamity or malicious act.

In The Long Leather Bag, the two eldest sisters behave badly toward both the animals and the mill. In retaliation, the animals and the mill tell the villain Hag where to find the two sisters. The villain Hag turns each of them into a lump of stone.

For me, the story shows a pattern of two siblings who behave badly and get their comeuppance while a third sibling behaves well and succeeds in defeating the villain.

In this way, I can look at the story as an important behavioural lesson for all of us navigating our way in the modern world.

If you behave like this, this is what will happen to you.
But if you choose to behave like that, this is what will happen 
to you.

In The Long Leather Bag, kindness pays off in the end.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017


By Rita Grimaldi 

November 7, 2017

I am a traditional storyteller. I also tell traditional stories that I write. Storytellers often wonder why the Slam Poets have such a following particularly among young people while few young people are attracted to storytelling. So when the Slam Poets had a national conference in my city I wanted to go and find out why so many young people were attracted to slam poetry. Here is what I learned from the events I attended.

1.      Young people are the majority of Slam Poets.

The first event I attended was a panel discussion - a moderator and five panelists. One woman gave her age as 41 years while the others appeared to be in their 20’s. There was a diversity of ethnic backgrounds and physical appearance.

For my question of why young people are attracted to slam poetry, two statements struck me as important.

One member of the panel observed that competition trumps community: competition trumps all.

And the 41-year-old woman said she’d observed that white male poets received higher scores in competitions.

The Difference: In our storytelling community, competitive storytelling is generally not available. However, there are occasional events such as The Moth or Story Slams featuring tellers of personal tales who are competing for points or prizes. In my community, these competitions are not available. And for traditional storytellers there are no competitions.

Our local Slam Poets, on the other hand, meet monthly and compete for marks with a three-minute poem which may be either recited from memory or read from notes. It may be the case that competition brings rewards that storytelling in our community cannot give.

2.      Slam poets write themselves into their stories

The second event I attended at the Slam Conference was a master class by legendary Canadian storyteller Dan Yashinsky.

Dan talked about many things but my key take away was the critical importance of increasing audience attention by writing into the story, people and characters who may in everyday life, actually be in the audience’s environment. For example, when he’s telling stories to children in a hospital setting, Dan adds in the doctors and nurses that provide care to the children. In his experience, this definitely increases his child audience’s attention. I take this as a form of ‘writing yourself in’.

It is very appealing, Dan observed, to write content about those in your environment who are in a relationship with yourself.

                             Dan Yashinsky storytelling

So as a traditional storyteller that uses mythic content to tell stories, here is how I write myself in: I use carefully selected mythic content to represent my life experience and myself in the stories I tell.

Rita in mouse mask and costume storytelling

Last fall, myself and two others from the Peterborough Storytellers went to a Montessori school to tell stories. As I prepared my traditional stories for the children, I decided to tell a traditional Baba Yaga story and follow that with a Baba Yaga story I had written. After telling both stories, I planned to teach the children how to write their own stories using the traditional content.

But this version of ‘writing yourself in’, it is not the form commonly used by the Slam Poets. Their version of ‘writing themselves in’ has a certain, easily recognizable presence, rhythm and cadence.

My final experience with the Slam Poets will explore rhythm and cadence.
3.      Slam Poets use Body and Rhythm to write themselves into their stories

I have put Jamaal’s workshop ad above because it tells of his intention for the workshop. 

Jamaal’s principle is that writing helps control extreme environments. Jamaal calls the deep experience of telling a personal story in rhythm and cadence an ‘outer body exchange’. He emphasizes that the first step toward the experience of this exchange is to know the intention you want to communicate to your audience. To illustrate how intention works, he asked us to use only one word to represent our intention for a whole poem.

Each person performed their word for the workshop audience. During this part of the exercise, Jamaal often repeated that only one word, embedded in a poem, can affect people a great deal.

Here is Jamaal’s full pattern is - Intention, Ritual and Exchange.

Ritual is involved in preparing for the exchange. Part of the ritual of preparation is to see the exchange of your story or poem with others as a gift. But, as in all gift giving, you must always feel you can say yes or no about sharing it with others.

The final ‘exchange’ is a performer to audience. Perhaps that is why he uses the term ‘outer body exchange’ because the performer’s intention is carried out through the ritual of performance using the movements of his or her body and the sound of the physical body’s voice.

Speed and Exchange

Back at my home, I watched many videos of Jamaal. I observed that he always spoke in cadence but the speed of the cadence changed. When he was competing, he spoke very quickly, probably to fit the complete text of what he intended to say into the 3-minute rule of the competition. But when not competing, he slowed down the exchange, often adding music to it. Each speed in its own unique way was powerful.

Conclusion – Here’s what I learned about the Slam Poets

·       Competition and marks are important to people engaged in the slam poetry art form.

·       Writing yourself into a personal story is essential to this art form.

·       The speed of the exchange depends on the competition rules.

·       Jamaal’s pattern of intention, ritual and exchange was powerful.  I am still absorbing its truth. At home, I wrote a poem using the Slam Poet cadence. Part of what Jamaal had demonstrated in his workshop came to me. But I know that it will take a very long time and many poems to reach Jamaal’s level of skill in audience sharing.

As a traditional storyteller, the art of the Slam Poets gives me a lot of techniques and concepts to think about.

As to the question of why the young people are attracted to slam poetry and not to storytelling perhaps the answer lies in competition or the cadence of the words or on the ability to choose to read poems from cell phones or paper. In my world of storytelling no reading is allowed.

Which leads me to further questions:

Could there be competitions that involve traditional storytelling?

Could we sponsor Moth competitions for personal storytelling in Peterborough?

Could traditional stories be told in the cadence of slam poetry?

Sunday, November 5, 2017



By Rita Grimaldi                           

The Princess’ Dress And The Meaning of Clothing

In Canada, the 2017 World Storytelling Day theme is ‘Transformation’.

In keeping with this year’s theme, I’ve chosen to tell my own mask version of a story called ‘The Bird in the Linden Tree by Howard Pyle.

This story will require two masks and several costumes. The costumes will physically represent changes to the plot and to the evolution of the character of the Princess. Just as the audience reads the masks, they will also read the clothing changes as having meaning within the story.

I began by making the Princess dress and mask. The Princess dress came from a used clothing store. Originally, it was a dancing dress from India. It was much too small for me. So I took it apart and added gussets and darts to each side. I will wear this dress at the beginning and end of the story. It will represent the times of abundance and plenty in the story.

Here is the Princess dress ready for the performance.

The Princess dress - I will wear it at the beginning and end of the story.

The Princess As The Storyteller

It is always very important for a mask maker to decide which mask or group of masks will tell the story. For this story, I wanted the audience to hear it from the Princess’ perspective. But the beginning of the story happens before the Princess even enters the story, so having her tell this part of the story presents a problem. I solved it by appearing in the Princess mask and dress at the beginning of the story. I tell the audience - “Now I will tell you about my beloved the Prince before I knew him.”

The Princess mask as a storyteller.

Then I will tell the story as I have summarized it below.

The Pre-Princess Story

This story begins with the Prince speaking with his father. The King is old; he wants his son to find a wife. The King offers three suggestions about whom his son could marry. But the Prince rejects his father’s suggestions. He says that he will marry a woman -

Whose brow is white as milk.
Whose cheeks are as red as apples.
And whose eyes are as blue as the sky.

The Prince then sets out to find this woman.

After walking a long way, the Prince comes upon a cold and hungry old woman. The Prince gives her food and clothing.

After taking these things, the old woman says - “One does not give something for nothing. Take this key. Look through the ring at its top. You will see everything as it is and not as it seems to be.”

Her words will be the ‘key’ to the Prince knowing what is enchanted and what is not. As so often happens in fairy tales, such understanding of the truth comes from an elder who has been shown kindness.

The Prince sets off again and comes to the Troll’s castle. It is here for the first time that he sees the transformed Princess in her enchanted state. He takes out his key. Looking through its ring, the Prince sees the woman he has been searching for. A woman -

Whose brow is white as milk.
Whose cheeks are as red as apples.
And whose eyes are as blue as the sky.

But in her enchanted form, the Princess looks very different. She is black as soot from head to toe.

In Part 2, I will explore how the Prince and Princess work together to end the Princess’ enchantments. I will also explain how the changes to my clothing will tell the audience that the first enchantment is over.