Tuesday, November 14, 2017

LEARNING FROM THE SLAM POETS

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

THE PRINCESS MASK AND ITS TRANSFORMATION - PART 1 OF 5

A WORLD STORYTELLING DAY 2017 PRESENTATION

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.




THE PRINCESS MASK AND ITS TRANSFORMATION - PART 2

By Rita Grimaldi                           

Removing The First Enchantment

In my revised version of the story, when the Prince first views the Princess, I will say -
        
When the Prince opened the door of the Troll’s castle, 
he saw me – a maiden alone -
and I was black as soot from head to toe.

The Princess had been enchanted by the Troll. This enchantment has caused her to become black as soot. However, the Prince, looking through his key, sees her real form.

He asks -
How can I free you from this enchantment?

She replies -

If you will abide three nights
and bear all that shall happen to you without a word
then I shall be free.

I decided to allow the darkness of being ‘soot black’, to be represented by my costume - the soot black dress - and to wear this costume over my Princess dress. Here is what I look like ‘soot black from head to toe’.


The soot dress, black gloves, and veil

The story then says that each night the Troll comes and beats the Prince. The Prince does not say a word. The Troll leaves before sunrise each of the three days and the Princess weeps over her Prince. Her crying makes his pain and injuries go away. Her crying restores part of her body to being ‘white as silver’.
I will show this by first removing my right black glove and having the Princess say -

And when I looked at the right side of my body,
it was as white as silver.

All this repeats on the second night. After her weeping, I will remove my left black glove and say -

And when I looked at the left side of my body,
it was as white as silver.


The soot dress with gloves removed.

Finally, after the third night, I will remove the black lace veil covering the Princess mask and say -

And now my face was as white as snow and
my cheeks were as red as an apple and
my eyes were a blue as the sky.

It was important when deciding how best to costume and perform this story, that I spent time considering the meaning of dark and light. The analogy of sunlight and dark night comes to me. Sunlight and dark night are two opposites. It is of interest that a Troll cannot tolerate sunlight because they burst apart when they come in contact with sunlight.

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 my performance of the Princess story, I want to illustrate the dark times – not just by the Princess’ actions and tears - but also by the visual symbolism of her dark clothing.

Transition To The Second Enchantment

The original story says that after the first enchantment “the Princess had little or nothing upon her.” This certainly was not viable for my performance so I opted to keep wearing the soot dress.

The original story also says that the Prince finds a ram’s skin to cover the Princess. As I do not need the covering, I will say that the Prince finds a sheepskin (I change ‘ram’ to ‘sheep’ as I have a sheepskin in my costume collection) in the Troll’s castle to protect the Princess from the cold.

At first, I considered leaving out the sheepskin - allowing the audience to just imagine it being on. But then I realized that I needed to physically show the sheepskin as being removed. It’s the removal of the skin that causes the Princess’ second transformation – becoming a red bird.

So here is the Princess as she and the Prince leave the Troll’s castle. She still wears her soot dress but now has the sheepskin to protect her from the cold.


The Princess wearing the sheepskin over her soot dress.

In Part 3, I will explore the making of the Red Bird mask and how the Princess’ bird enchantment ends. Finally, I will explain how I will end the story.





THE PRINCESS MASK AND ITS TRANSFORMATION - PART 3

By Rita Grimaldi                           

Transformation Of The Princess Into A Red Bird

Just when the audience comes to believe that the Princess is finally safe, she meets an old woman and her daughter driving the King’s flock of geese. The King’s castle is in sight, so the Prince goes off to find a suitable dress for his beloved to wear when meeting the King.

However, the Goose Woman wants her own daughter to marry the Prince. So she takes the sheepskin from the Princess and puts it onto her daughter. No sooner does this happen, then the Princess transforms again - this time into a Red Bird.

Making The Red Bird Mask

I wanted the Red Bird mask to sit on top of the Princess mask. In past performances involving a transformation, I would always remove one mask and put on another. So doing this kind of layered mask was a new design, making and performance experience for me.

Luckily I had kept the plasticine form I had used in making the Princess mask. So I sculpted the Red Bird mask on top of this plasticine form, ensuring that both masks would fit easily and comfortably together.

Here is the sculpted Red Bird mask almost finished.


  
And here is the Red Bird mask shell ready to remove. The plasticine area below the bird's beak is the original Princess mask mold. The Bird mask is designed to be half a mask and to fit over the Princess mask.



In the photo above you see the finished masks - the rice paper Red Bird sits on the top of the plasticine Princess form and the rice paper Princess mask sits alongside on the right. Of special note is that I removed the round cheeks from the Bird mask and added a raised area to allow the two masks to fit together as one.

  
The Red Bird mask over the Princess mask

The Meaning Of One Mask Layered On Another Mask

I decided to layer the two masks in order to keep the Princess as one person in spite of her transformations.

My message to the audience is that, through changes to our clothing and facial expression, each of us transforms all the time, but in truth, we are always the sum of our parts. The Red Bird mask layered onto the Princess mask tells the audience that the Princess is still there even though she has now transformed into a bird.

The Character Of The Transformed Princess

In terms of the development of the Princess’s character, it should be noted that she is far freer than she was in the Troll’s castle. She has the freedom to be able to choose what to do when she is transformed into a bird. She chooses to fly to and land in the Linden tree outside her beloved Prince’s window.

How The Prince Again Restores The Princess’s Human Form

Transformed into a Red Bird, the Princess flies over to the Linden tree. For three nights, from her perch in the tree, she sings to him. Finally, on the third night, the Prince hears her singing.

Here is what I will sing in my layered Red Bird mask.
        
I wept over you three times.
And three times I made you well.
Why do you sleep, my beloved?

On the third night, after hearing this, the Prince takes out his key and looks through its ring. He sees the Princess - not as a bird but as she really is. He ends her enchantment by throwing his knife over her head.

When this happens I will remove the Red Bird mask, the bird shawl, and the soot dress and return to the Princess dress and mask. Then I will tell the end of the story.
  
  

                The Princess as she will look telling the end of the story.

 The End Of The Story

Here is what I will say at the end of the story.

And our wedding was the grandest wedding ever seen in the world. Everyone was invited. And there was enough for all to eat.
In fact, everyone could choose what they wanted to eat.
And there was even enough for them
to take home for their little children.
And if I had known all of you then,
I would have invited you also.
So that you could share in the happiness of me and my beloved.

In Part 4 I will tell about the rehearsal experience and the discovery of changes that must be made to the mask, costume, and story.










THE PRINCESS MASK AND ITS TRANSFORMATION - PART 4

By Rita Grimaldi                           

Rehearsing On My Own And With Others - Changes In The Mask, Costume, and Story 

·       The Mask

A new mask often needs adjustment to make it who it should be. As I rehearsed wearing the Princess mask, I came to both feel and see that it was not quite right.

One morning, in order to soften the expression of the mask, I decided to repaint the mouth and above the eyes.


The Princess mask before painting


                             The mask after repainting

See how the repainting makes the Princess’s lips look softer and happier. And how the red lines above the eyes make the eyes clearer.

·       The Costume

The soot dress segment of the story (see Part 2) is a difficult section to tell. I realized that one of the difficulties in telling it was that with the veil over the small holes in the Princess mask’s eyes, I could not see the audience. So I decided to make a second veil - one that I could see through. I did this because as a storyteller it is really important for me to see and respond to the expressions on the faces of the audience.

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

Here are the images of the two veils. The second veil has very little obstruction to seeing the audience. For me, this makes for much better communication of the story.


The original veil


The new veil

I discovered that I needed help with changing the costumes.

In our first group rehearsal, the other storytellers suggested I have help with the costume changes. The story requires three changes of clothing which is also layered. This layering is difficult to do on my own. So I decided to have a table and mirror set up at the side of the stage. And to have one of the other storytellers be my dresser while another of the storytellers plays music on her harp.

·       The Story

The section in which the Troll beats the Prince needs to be told with emotion. But fairy tales don’t usually use emotionally laden language. But for this version of the story, my feeling is that the audience needs to know why the Princess weeps over the Prince after the Troll leaves. And equally, the audience needs to know what she feels when the Troll beats the Prince.

So based on my rehearsal experiences,  here is what I now have the Princess say –

There was nothing I could do but stand and watch.
I was afraid for myself and for the Prince.
I was afraid that the Troll would kill him and then I would be left alone in my soot blackness.
But when the sun was about to rise, the Troll left.
And I went over to my beloved the Prince.
And seeing his wounds and his pain, I began to weep over him.

And by some magic, as soon as my tears touched his wounds,
They were healed and his pain went away.

Looking at the right side of my body,
I saw that it was as white as silver.
Now I had some hope for the future.
And my Prince and I rejoiced at this hope.

Now I feel that the mask, my costume, and the story are ready for performance.


Part 5 will tell about my experience of performing my version of ‘The Bird In The Linden Tree’. 

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

THE PRINCESS MASK AND ITS TRANSFORMATION - PART 5

By Rita Grimaldi                                  

The Experience Of Performance

Doing is far different than making. All assumptions are off. In my first performance in Warkworth, I assumed that the Bird section would be easy for me. But when I got to it, I stumbled over the words and the mask. Even though the Bird mas was on properly over the Princess mask, it did not feel right. So, preparing for the Peterborough performance, I rewrote again what the Bird says and sees. I also made some changes to the fitting of the Bird mask.

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. Ehen I was restored to my real Princess appearance and my Prince was restored to health, my joy was real.

The Clothing And Its Effect On Me And On The Audience

Here is the introduction I wrote for another storyteller to say before I appeared in front of the audience to tell the story.

The story of The Linden Tree contains both beautiful and positive times and difficult and dark times. Rita will represent these times with both mask and costume.

The beautiful Princess dress, worn at the beginning and end of the story, will symbolize positive times. Dark times will come in the middle and these will be represented by dark clothing. But these times will not last. They will give way to hope and a positive future.

So you see that I wanted the audience to know before I began that the effect of costume linked to mask was a prime exploration both for me and for them in presenting this story.



Above is the Princess dress and her mask at the beginning of the story.

Can you feel the peacefulness and abundance of dress and mask?

Now here is a powerful picture of my feeling of fear when the Troll enters and I say “The door opened and in came a huge, ugly Troll. His head was as big as a bucket.”


And here I am as the Bird. Again feeling sad and needing the Prince’s help as I sing “I wept over you three times and three times I made you well. Why do you sleep, my beloved?”


Changing In Front Of The Audience

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 synch with the emotional changes, helped the audience feel the emotions with me.

Here is a picture of my transformation back into the Princess dress at the end of the story.


You can see that I have already removed the Bird mask and Bird cloak and I am in the process of removing the dark soot dress. The sheepskin lies on the floor where I dropped it when I became the Bird (see Part 2).

The Experience Of Mask And Costume Together

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.

Here are two comments from audience members watching me remove one of the gloves of the soot dress clothing.

When you took the glove off, in the dark environment of the (Warkworth) stage, your hand really did seem to glow.”

And from someone in the Peterborough audience who knows me.

“I never realized that you had such long fingers on your hands.”

Both these comments indicate that when the body went from the total dark covering of the soot clothing to the whiteness of one uncovered hand, the contrast made the uncovered part of the body extremely visible.


If I were to see this transformation clearly, I would say that the face, the body and the clothing read together to form an outside person’s view of our identity. And in mask storytelling, the mask, the storyteller’s body and the costume form the audience’s view of the story persona.

The Message Of Mask And Costume

Here is the final question.

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 the soot clothing helped me to feel the difficult and fearful times. The Bird mask and shawl fall between these two extremes. Although the bird is free to fly she is not free to return to her human form. She needs the help of the Prince to do that. This is why I originally decided not to remove the soot dress when I put on the bird shawl. Look at the Bird picture again and see how the head is tilted to the side showing her need for help. In some way the Bird acts as a transition that goes this way: soot dress > Bird mask and shawl > Princess dress.

What I Have Learned

Overall the exploration of clothing and mask together has taught me a great deal as a person and as a storyteller.


> It has taught me that emotion does not rest only in the mask face but in the body and clothing of the storyteller wearing it with the mask.

> It has taught me to be careful what clothing I wear to tell stories both in and out of mask.

> And maybe most of all, it has taught me to look more carefully at my own and other people’s faces, bodies and clothing. This act of looking might perhaps tell me what my own story is and what their story is as well.


Rita welcomes your comments about her mask articles.

Contact Rita - peterboroughstorytellers@cogeco.ca