Storytelling. . .It’s a Fine Art!

This issue is dedicated to the storytellers on ARTForce, a hard working, National Storytelling Network (NSN) volunteer committee currently exploring the possibility of encouraging national recognition of storytelling as a fine art. For years, storytelling has been revered as a folk art form responsible for keeping the stories of different cultures alive for hundreds of years.
The catch phrase I am using as the title for this newsletter, “Storytelling. . .it’s a fine art!” was coined by nationally known storytellers Jane Crouse and Mary Hamilton. This phrase has been enthusiastically received by the members of the ARTForce Committee (on which I have been honored to serve), and I hope it will become part of everyone’s vocabulary in the months to come.
In the past, storytellers told stories from a specific culture (usually the culture of their birth), and helped keep these stories alive for ensuing generations.  Others formally studied a culture and immersed themselves the history and beliefs of this group in order to accurately present the stories of specific people in educational settings.  (This is a loose definition of storytelling as a folk art.)
Today, not all storytellers learn their stories from one specific culture, and not all stories told today are culturally based. For this reason, the evolution of storytelling as a fine art seems to be taking place around the world. Many storytellers tell a variety of stories (original, family, personal and adaptations of ancient tales) and practice their art by continuously polishing their work to develop new techniques, refine skills and teach others what they know.  (These characteristics are often found in the definition of fine arts as practiced by other artistic disciplines.)
I believe the time has come for storytelling not only to maintain its recognition as a time-honored folk art form, but also to join the ranks of other fine arts on the rosters of State Arts Councils and State Arts Commissions throughout the United States.
Storytellers have helped keep cultures alive for hundreds of years. In today’s world, storytellers are taking on a new role as fine art professionals. It’s an exciting time.

Storytelling. . .it’s a fine art!
 A Story to Tell
“When Wren Was King of the Birds”
(a Welsh folktale adapted by Glenda Bonin © 2007)
Long ago when the world was new, the birds had no leader – no king. This was fine until problems arose and the birds started to argue. When birds argue, it is not a good thing – such noise, such screeching! They realized that as long as they had no King, they had no one to go to with their problems. And so it was that the birds decided to choose a leader.
This decision caused even more arguments – the birds could not agree on how to pick their King.
“Our King should be the most colorful bird of all,” said the birds with brightly colored wings.
“No,” said the song birds in a chorus, “our King should have the most beautiful voice.”
The large birds wanted the biggest bird to rule, the long-legged birds insisted that the King of Birds should stand tall, above all others. And so it went, until at last the birds agreed that their King should be the one bird that could fly the highest.  It was decided that they would have a contest, and word went out.
On the day of the contest, many birds wanting to be supreme ruler came to compete. The first to arrive was proud Falcon. Then the wise Owl and smart Raven arrived. One by one the hopefuls came: there were many, including Osprey, Hawk, Heron, Gull, Blue Jay, Swan and, of course, Eagle.
Then, just before the race was to start, little Wren took his place at the starting line next to Eagle. All the birds began to chuckle and tease the little bird. “What are you doing here? You are too small and insignificant. You could never be our King.”
But Wren stood his ground and proudly announced that he believed in himself and that he thought he would be a good, fair King.
Eagle teased Wren the most and told him that he would only become famous for being the first bird to give up during the contest.
Little Wren simply said, “I believe I will make a good King. I wish to try, and try I will.”
By the time the race started, no one was paying attention to little Wren. As the big birds spread their wings to take flight, little Wren hopped on the back of the bird that had teased him the most – Eagle.
Up, up into the air went the birds. Their strong wings took them higher and higher, but one by one they started to return to earth until only Eagle remained flying high above the clouds – with little Wren still perched on his back.
Photo courtesy Richard Wilson
Photo courtesy Richard Wilson
Just about the time Wren noticed that Eagle was getting tired and his strong wings were slowing down, he jumped off Eagle’s back and flew a bit above the bigger bird.
“Why, hello Eagle. I’m glad to see we both have managed to fly higher than all the all others,” said Wren.
Eagle could hardly believe his eyes. Little Wren was higher than he was and the little bird did not look a bit tired. “See you on the ground,” Eagle told Wren as he returned to earth.
As soon as Eagle had left, Wren followed. When he landed, all the other birds were waiting and cheering.
“Little Wren,” they happily told him. “Congratulations! It is amazing. You are the highest flyer and now you will be our King.”
Wren savored the moment, and then told everyone what he had done. “I was embarrassed when all the birds laughed at me,” he said. “That’s why I decided to hitch a ride on Eagle’s back. Eagle is really the highest flyer, and he won the race fair and square. He is rightfully our King.”
Eagle turned to Wren: “It is good that you have told us what you did, and why you did it. We should not have teased you – that was wrong.”
The birds acknowledged Eagle as their King and everyone celebrated!
Then Eagle stood tall and asked everyone to be silent. “Little Wren,” he said, “you are quite clever, and I like the fact that you had the courage to be so honest.  I need someone like you to advise me. Will you be my chief advisor?”

Wren accepted the honor, and from that day to this, it is said that Eagle is the King of the Birds, and little Wren is his most important advisor.
Story Synopsis
Long ago, the birds decided they needed a king. After many arguments, they decided to have a contest, and the bird to fly the highest would be their king. Many large birds arrived to compete. A little wren also took a place at the starting line. All the birds teased the wren, and the eagle teased the tiny bird the most. When the race began, no one noticed as the wren jumped on the back of the eagle. Eventually, the only bird to be seen in the sky was the eagle. As the eagle started to falter, the wren hopped off the big bird’s back and flew a little higher. The eagle was too tired to continue, so he returned to earth, announcing to everyone the wren had flown the highest. When the wren returned he was proclaimed king of the birds. Then wren told everyone how their teasing had hurt him, and how he had cheated in the race. The eagle was then recognized as the king.  Then eagle told wren he was sorry to have embarrassed him, and acknowledged the wren’s courage to be so honest. Finally, he asked the clever little bird to be his chief advisor.
How to Tell this Story
This tale can be told in different ways. Before I tell a story, I like to determine what I believe the heart or main point of the narration to be. This underlying belief, while unspoken, is a big help in determining how I tell the story, how it holds together and the way it unfolds in my mind as I share it.
This little story is quite satisfactory if told as a simple narrative, without dialogue or dramatic action. Listeners have no trouble imagining the events in this tale when presented in a simple “once upon a time, then, then, so, and finally” progression. The trick is to know the story well enough to feel confident about sharing it with others. (You will find a few hints on how to learn and remember a story in a related article in this newsletter.)
If you are comfortable adding dialogue and a bit of action as you tell it, I encourage you to give this method a try. When adding dialogue, it is important to picture in your mind the different characters you select to convey. For example, when you speak for the birds with the brightly colored wings, you might want to use a specific tone through the use of pauses, volume or a particular vocal rhythm. As you do this, experiment with a bit of corresponding action (like holding your arms out to display brightly colored wings.) Later, when other birds speak (song birds, the eagle, and the wren) think about making other changes to help differentiate each bird from the others. In some cases, it is important to deliver the line spoken by a specific bird from what their perspective might be. The eagle, being larger than most birds, will look down on others when speaking. The wren, being so small, might best be conveyed as looking up to other birds, except when he is flying higher in the sky than the eagle. When you speak as the narrator (storyteller) you need to use your normal voice and talk directly to the audience. In this way, you will be able to tell the story, and yet be convincing as you become part of it.
Some storytellers like to tell in tandem. When two people share a story, it is necessary to agree on who will do what and where. For example, one person can be the narrator with the other providing dialogue for all the birds. Or the story can be divided to give each storyteller an opportunity to speak different parts.
I believe this story can be an excellent classroom project for grades K-4. Select one or two children to tell the story, and have some classmates play the parts of Eagle and Wren. By asking the rest of the class to make bird masks to represent different birds, it is possible to include everyone in the production. Even the most reticent students will find this sort of a “show” to be satisfying and non-threatening.

How to Learn and Remember a Story 
Most storytellers have different learning styles. Some people prefer visual (written or picture) recall devices, others reinforce learning through auditory (recorded) prompts, and some folks are more comfortable using kinesthetic (physical movement) methods. There is no right or wrong way to learn, just use the style (or combination of styles) most comfortable for you.
Ideally, storytellers do not memorize stories. A good story is told with an audience, not to it.
The following points may help you learn and remember the stories in your repertoire.
1)  Select a story you find appealing and one you think an audience might enjoy.
2)  Identify the bones (framework) of the story. Don’t bother with lots of descriptions, just consider the characters and main events in the tale. These bones can be written as a short paragraph or two, in outline form or on a rough storyboard format with simple (for-your-eyes-only) drawings. This rough document should be kept as story reference for later use.
3)   Using the tool you selected to record the bones of the story, think of the story sequence and picture the tale in your mind’s-eye.
4)  Put aside your notes and tell the story out loud to yourself to get a good sense of the tale. If you learn kinesthetically, use your body to help express the physical parts as you review the story aloud. Continue doing this until you feel the story come together in your mind. (Some storytellers do a rough recording of the story at this point so they can listen to it. This is helpful for auditory learners.)
5)  Review your story reference tool and make changes that might have taken place during the learning process. (For example, a sequence of events may have changed, or you might have altered a character to move the story along.)
6)  Find a trusted friend or friends to listen to the story. Don’t put pressure on yourself to tell the story as a polished piece, just tell the story simply, as you remember it. Ask your listener(s) for feedback to see if the story made sense, or if sections were unclear.
7)  With the information provided by this person (or people), you now have the information you need to start to polish the story.
8)  Once you are confident the story is clear and the events are firm in your mind, it is time to tell it. With each telling, your story will grow and take on a luster that only occurs after telling a story to a variety of audiences.
9)   The most important part of all this is to have fun with each story you tell. If you don’t like the story, no one else will.

10)  Be fearless and play with your stories as they evolve – each telling will reveal new information to make each story grow.

Uncle Sam "disposable washing machine"

Squirrely Shirley’s “disposable washing machine”
Educational Connections to This Story
SOCIAL STUDIES: If the class is looking at Europe and the country of Wales, “When Wren Was King of the Birds” is an excellent way to introduce this unit of study.
NATURE STUDIES: This tale is a fine way to start an exploration of birds in general.
GEOGRAPHY: By adapting this story to a different area, consider changing the names of the competing birds to those found in a country being reviewed in class. (Be sure to acknowledge the Welsh origin of the tale if you decide to do this.)
ECOLOGY: The story provides an opportunity to start a discussion about extinct or endangered birds and animals around the world.
WRITING and SCIENCE:Ancient folk tales were often developed by creative people trying to explain the world around them. Have students use their imaginations to write a story to explore something they have noticed in nature. (Examples: Why the grass is green; How the sheep got a wooly coat; Why the cactus lives in the desert.) When students write such fanciful tales, they can then compare their stories to scientific answers.

Fun at the Oakville, WA library
Storytelling Fun in Oakville, WA
Story Lessons and Applications
I have found this tale to be particularly useful for teachers and others who deal with problems relating to youngsters who tease others. This story gently shows how teasing can be hurtful, and how this sort of behavior might create an atmosphere of retaliation. The issue of self-esteem is also present in this tale, and can be used to introduce a discussion about how the opinions of others might stifle hope or ambition. I also like the way this story provides an example of having the courage to admit to unacceptable behavior.

Storytellers who work with businesses and non-profit organizations will appreciate how this tale of the little wren can be used in team-building workshops or for corporate seminars.
Useful Links:
National Storytelling Network: this is the first and best stop for anyone interested in learning more about the art of storytelling.
It’s not too late! Follow this link if you want to register for the July 29-August 1 2010 National Storytelling Conference at the Warner Center Marriott in Los Angeles, CA. Meet professional storytellers, hear wonderful stories, attend workshops and discussions,  and network with others who love the art of story.
This is Jackie Baldwin’s Story Lovers World home page. Be sure to check this one out. Jackie has been hosting a weekly storytelling show on KSVY 91.3 (fm) Sonoma, California since 2006 (streaming audio show – 5:00 p.m. every Sunday). On Jackie’s site you will find many wonderful resources not found anywhere else.

This website is an excellent resource for stories, audio and video clips, storytelling information and thoughtful articles about telling tales. Storytellers will find many services on this site hosted by Sean Buvala.

Squirrel Update:

Shirley's First MarqueeShirley’s First Marquee
The wacky adventures of Squirrely Shirley continue across the Northwest. Next stop is Kalispell, MT. Check out Shirley’s journal (aka Squirrely Shirley’s Den)
– you’ll be glad you did!