Saturday, November 27, 2010

Once Upon a Slam

Last night I continued my foray into competitive storytelling by showing up for the second ever Once Upon A Slam. I told the same story as last weekend - got it down by about a minute and a half, coming in at something like 5:47, I think - and was pleasantly surprised by a couple of marks over 9! Besides, I got to go first this time: it's like they say, I guess, 'the last shall be first'... So, once my story was over with, I could go get a Beau's and relax.

It was a small crowd, really, but then the series is just getting rolling. Once again the stories (and tellers) were varied: there were seven tellers, doing everything from folktales to mythology to personal stories to a fairly wild bit of surrealist comedy. I'd been joking around with a couple of the other tellers about running over time, because I knew I was going to: one of the other slammers said he was thinking of calling himself "Captain Overtime," so I swore I was taking that title. We were all completely eliminated in the time-deduction wars, though, by Festrell, who clocked in at just under 16 minutes, gaining herself the biggest time penalty I've ever seen: a final score in the negatives. (There was an infatuated, drunk and gender-switching Loki involved.)

In the end, Keirsten Hieber headed home with the championship for a story involving her father, mother, tractors, and some ill-advised suntanning, and we all hung out a bit longer to talk stories before heading out into the (rather impossibly gusty) evening.

Now I've got to come up with a new story for the next one. Although I may not make the next: it'll be December 31 and I think I may well be in New Brunswick. But for January? I think there's an action/adventure autobiographical story waiting to happen.

Funny: I've never done poetry slam - I was always quite intimidated by it - but this story slam thing is, for me, far less scary. I wonder why?

Friday, November 26, 2010


I know the lululemon bag says to do one thing a day that scares you. (It's such a good sentiment that I'm really annoyed at its ubiquitousness in mainstream platitude-culture.) I did that last weekend. Twice.

The Ottawa Storytellers Festival, which wrapped up on Sunday, had a really stellar lineup of workshops. Instead of packing in a ton of short workshops, which it would be easy to be tempted to do, they went with a single indepth workshop each day. I hang out with storytellers - so I had been talked into/nudged toward/skootched into signing up for the workshop on Saturday afternoon: How to Tell A Story In Five Minutes. The idea of the workshop was to get you prepared for the Story Slam the next afternoon. So, with no previous (formal) storytelling experience and only a day between workshop and performance, I was pretty much leaping into the deep end without a lifejacket. I mean, I already know that shorter doesn't always mean easier. Getting a story down to five minutes is a challenge for experienced storytellers. But, in for a penny, in for a pound.

The workshop was held in the foyer area in the basement of Saint Brigid's, with about 20 people there to start with. Most of them, like me, had no storytelling experience, and all came with different reasons for being there, from plain curiosity to wanting to be able to do movie pitches, to literary or mythological interest. Me, I was there for the challenge.

Ruthanne Edward and Kim Kilpatrick tag-teamed the workshop really well: they started with a story told by Kim, and a discussion of what constituted a 'story,' as opposed to an anecdote, monologue, or rant. They got us to think about the elements of a story, and did some practice with visualizing all the details of the story - even if you aren't going to tell all the details, they said, it helps to know your setting and characters and themes intimately, so that you can be more vivid in your telling.

There were a couple of exercises that pushed me a little way out of my comfort zone: One involved telling the story of Little Red Riding Hood in first five minutes, then three, then one, then ten words, to get down to the bare bones of the story. It was a lot harder than I thought: I had the advantage, though, of being paired up with a more experienced storyteller, so I could watch what he did in the exercises and try to learn from him.

The other exercise that kicked my ass was to try and speak continuously without using any filler words like "um," "er," "so..." or "well..." I lasted a grand total of sixteen glorious seconds.

But I did walk out of the workshop with a sense that maybe I could do this. And, more importantly, I walked out with an idea of the story I wanted to tell: something that had been triggered by one of the exercises. It was, surprisingly, a completely different story than the one I'd thought I was going to work up. But I thought it would work.

So, I went home. (Well, I didn't. I went to a friend's place for the last half of a Doctor Who marathon. Then I went home.) And I sort of thought about my story, but I didn't really work on it much till the next morning. And I kept thinking: am I really going to do this? I imagined myself stopping on stage with the words just trickling to a stop, getting lost, forgetting whole chunks of the story, finding myself in one of those wandering aimless sentences that you suddenly discover you can't bring to anything like a satisfactory end. But I wrote out the story once, and recited it back to myself a few times (what with this, and my rehearsals for the Chasing Boudicca show in January, I hope my neighbours are starting to get used to me talking away to myself in my living room.)

The story I chose worked well, I thought: it was about getting yourself into something that you're not really prepared or qualified for, and soldiering on through it even if you know you're going to lose. It was about doing a thing being more important than winning a competition. And it was about a humiliating moment in my junior high career when I momentarily, deludedly, thought that signing up for track and field was a Good Idea for a pudgy, bookish seventh grader like myself.

Whatever I did, I couldn't get the story under 7 minutes. I ran it through a few times but nothing I did would get it down. And I started worrying about whether I'd be able to pull it off. But, I had promised a bunch of people that I was going to slam. So I talked to myself on the bus most of the way downtown, and got to the venue early enough to do a quick pre-slam interview with a guy from CBC Radio who was interested in doing a piece following a hapless newbie like myself through the workshop and slam process.

The audience wasn't huge - there were more audience members than competitors at least - but they were keen, which was good. I put my name in, and took my seat in the front row. Then, I proceeded to wait in agony as storyteller after storyteller was drawn from the hat. I kept thinking to myself, "Come on, John, pick me, get it over with... won't it suck if I'm the absolute last name drawn?"

Guess what.

So it was kind of hard to pay close attention to the other stories, since I was still occasionally being pulled off by my brain, which was busy trying to remember everything I wanted to say, all the points that were in the story, the bits I could cut to try and shave down my time... but I did still manage to relax and listen to a few of the stories - personal stories, folktales, tall tales, literary stories, a caper. I was impressed at the variety of stories, and tellers. And then I'd find myself thinking, Come on, me next, please... 

But yes, I went last. I got up on the stage. I took a moment, like Kim and Ruthanne had suggested, to set up the mike and take a breath and look out and realize I couldn't see the audience at all through the lights. And then the first sentence came out of me. "No one would have accused me, when I was in seventh grade, of being an athletic kid. . . "

Seven minutes later it was over. I hadn't forgotten anything, my sentences hadn't wandered away from me, I hadn't stopped and realized I didn't know where I was going. I'd told the story, got a few laughs, choked a couple of people up, bowed, and gotten my relieved ass off the stage.

After the show a couple of people came over to give me spontaneous hugs and tell me how much they enjoyed it. I got some really nice compliments on my telling, from people I really respect. And I was told to keep doing it. (The ever prolific Faye Estrella even posted a poem mentioning my story on Facebook that afternoon: I was pretty chuffed about that.) I got a six point time penalty - I missed going the longest by one second exactly - and I kind of crowed about that: hey, half the point of the story was that it doesn't really matter if you come in dead last, if just doing it in the first place is the challenge. Once Upon a Slam is tonight... I think I may have to sign up!

Oh yes. The winning story was a rollicking sort of tale about thieves in love (and what happens when the world's greatest thieves have a baby.) And the prize?

Saturday, November 20, 2010


Oh, the trouble with wanting to write about a festival while it's happening is that there's a great bloody festival going on, distracting you from writing about it by being fantastic and unmissable!

Friday night I hit the Mayfair Theatre to see Ivan Coyote's marvellous show "You Are Here," featuring Ivan (seriously, Canadian National Treasure) telling stories about her home in the Yukon, accompanied by songwriter and musician Rae Spoon, and with the screen behind them being used for projections of still photos and Super 8 footage. If you haven't heard Ivan tell, or read, find out when she's next in town and GO. There's something about the informal, easy way she tells her stories, and the simple, beautifully observed humanity of the people and moments she describes. Oh, and then there are the seemingly effortless, crystal clear images and totally original turns of phrase that she just drops in, in passing, while going on to tell you about permafrost and family and what it's like to drive north and north through hours of sunset, chasing the light. Those amazing, single lines that grab me by the guts and remind me that damn, she's also one hell of a great writer.

Then last night I headed out to Saint Brigid's to see Tim Tingle's "Rolling Way the Rock" and the late night Vernacular Spectacular, which featured Anita Best, Marie Bilodeau, Ivan Coyote, The Copper Conundrum (Kevin Matthews, Danielle K.L. Gregoire and Rusty Priske), Charlie Chiarelli, and Alan Shain.

Tim Tingle blew me away. He had me mesmerized for at least an hour and a half while he told what was billed as "the story of the youngest man ever sent to Alcatraz" but what was really the story of a couple of Choctaw kids on a nearly inevitable steep slope to disaster, and about the tragedy that is the prison system, and about, finally, how there is goodness in the hearts of everyone. It was heartbreaking and gorgeous. I was astonished at the fact that he managed to maintain, through the whole thing, three very specific vantage points. One was himself, talking to a man, Cecil, who had spent thirty years in prison. One was the man, telling his story, and one was a third-person recreation of the experience of Cecil's friend Clarence, who was the teenager sent to Alcatraz. And you never lost sight of those three vantage points, even though when he was speaking as Cecil it was so intense - so clearly visualized, so vividly told, and so emotional - you believed he was teling his own story. It was hard, on the breaks and at the end, to haul myself back out of the world he'd created and into the present day: I wanted to stay and sit with it for a moment.

The 'Vernacular Spectacular' late night cabaret started out at 10:00, with dirty ballads from Anita Best (and Marie's sexy ghost story, which I always love), ended with a moving poem done by the Copper Conundrum that had the whole audience singing the refrain of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," and in the middle taught me about Sicilian farmers and Yukon men, and finally gave me a chance to hear Alan Shain do his standup comedy (which was hilarious.) I wish there was time to talk about all of them in depth. It was a smaller, but not insignificant, audience, and we only left the venue at about 12:30 AM. There was a lot of cheering: a rowdier audience than at the earlier show, which was just perfect. And some Really Good Food being passed around by the youngest wait staff ever (I think she was about ten.)

I'm off this afternoon to the workshop "How To Tell a Story in Five Minutes," to get ready for the Story Slam tomorrow afternoon. I've never done any storytelling before, so this should be... enlightening. I'll report.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Storytellers Festival starts tonight!

I'm off tonight to the Mayfair to see Ivan Coyote's You Are Here (also performing: Rae Spoon) - the first event of the Ottawa Storytelling Festival. The Storytelling Festival's been revamped, rethought, rejiggered and relaunched for the 21st century, and the program is a great mix of traditional and nontraditional tales. They'll be featuring everything from a retelling of Frankenstein to a celebration of traditional Newfoundland stories, and taking in spoken word poetry, history, personal stories and native legends on the way.

Storytelling is a rapidly reviving art in this town: at least, I'm seeing more and more of it. The Shenkman Centre hosts a series of outside-the-box telling, the Fourth Stage series continues at the NAC, the Billings Estate series brings history alive with storytelling theatre, and this upcoming Festival looks like it's going to kick it out of the park. The city's first Story Slam, Once Upon a Slam, just got rolling last month - and there will be a story slam workshop at the Festival for anyone who's curious about that particular kind of short-form, competitive storytelling. (Think competitive storytelling is a brand new wacky modern idea? Think again, and go find a copy of the Canterbury Tales.)

Storytelling isn't like reading, and it's certainly not just for kids. This isn't going to be 'storytime at the library.' (Not that I need to tell most readers of this blog that.) There is something immersive about live storytelling - more so than readings, I find. It's part of a storyteller's job to interact with the audience, to gauge her listeners and shape the story to fit the room, and that has the effect of making the whole experience that much more intense. If you haven't had someone tell you a story in a while, I highly recommend it. I'd be inclined to argue that it's built into our brains to listen to a voice weaving a story. It might even be good for our brains. It certainly feels that way to me.

Anyway, I can't wait to hear Ivan Coyote tonight. I've been a fan for years. Mayfair Theatre, doors at 6:00, show at 7:00: you can't get tickets in advance - sales at the door only - so expect to line up!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Can you help me get published?

It's funny because, scarily, it's true. I see these people everywhere. Thanks Rhonda for posting this on FB!