Kentucky Storytelling Association Conference – a treasure in the neighborhood

by Mikalena Zuckett

It’s such a blessing to have such a wonderful storytelling conference just a few hours drive from many of our West Virginia members. This was my second time attending the Kentucky Storytelling Association’s Conference and again, KSA exceeded my expectations with an awesome conference experience.

For the pre-conference I was thrilled to be able to attend a full day workshop with Noa Baum. I had first encountered Noa Baum at workshops sponsored by The Healing Story Alliance’s pre-conference before the National Storytelling Network’s Conference several years ago. They also sponsored several workshops with Noa Baum during the conference that year and I attended them all.  Now to have a full day workshop, rather than for just for an hour or two, seemed like a well-timed blessing.

Noa’s stories are geared to peace and healing. She was raised in Israel and her life had bought her back and forth between Israel and America. Part of her journey includes using storytelling as a way to bring Palestinians and Israelis closer to peace. Her smile and her joy are just as infectious and healing as her stories.  

This workshop was Stories Old and Newa Path to Healing and Resilience. In it, Noa presented us with two short old teaching tales, then she walked us through how to relate one of these tales to events in our own lives, drawing out of each teller deep and powerful stories. Though out the day we learned different ways of weaving these old and new stories together, further deepening the story with each telling.  It was a powerful workshop. I strongly encourage you to attend any workshop or performance by this storyteller. For more about Noa Baum check out her web page http://noabaum.com/

This year’s featured teller for the KSA conference was Megan Hick from Media, PA. Megan also provided a variety of workshops including one that I attended called Crack Me Up! How to tell Fractured Fairytales. During this workshop, as a sample of how to tell a Fractured Fairy Tale Megan told Groundhog Godmother. I was delighted to find that she has a sample of this on her web site because this was one of the stories which has stuck with me since the conference. https://www.meganhicks.com/live-audio/     Check out this clip and more of Megan’s work at her website.

There was also an interesting panel discussion Creating Successful Storytelling Events in which Louisville Moth program organizer, Tara Anderson, House Concert organizer, Megan Hicks and Storytelling Coaching Retreats & Intensive Storytelling Workshops organizer, Cynthia Changaris discussed how they created and maintain their events. With so much in flux for storytelling in our region, I was interested in hearing more about options. Megan, for example, has created a successful house concert series in her home. By being able to provide a regular audience of about 30, she has been able to attract national level story tellers as they pass through her area. Part of the program also includes a chance for her to tell for at least 30 minutes per event, which keeps her own skills sharp. This event is by donation. 

Cynthia Changaris’ Coaching retreats, which she had done with Mary Hamilton, where highly spoken of. Several that attended this session had been to one or more of these coaching weekends and had lots of great things to say about them. 

The Louisville Moth program offers a very different style of storytelling, one which particularly attracts young adults. Their program opened in 2010 and runs monthly story slams. They are affiliated with TheMoth.org, the National program out of New York City and, yes, it’s the one that you’ve probably heard on National Public Radio. www.themoth.org

Each monthly story slam has a theme. Themes are published six months in advance. Story slam contestant are judged by how well they keep within the five-minute limit. They are given a one-minute buffer. After six minutes, points are deducted. They are judged by how well they adhere to the theme of that evening. The story must have a clear beginning, middle and end. The story must show a shift in perspective or some kind of change. Judges look for, “Is this a true story?” These stories are supposed to be first person narrative, though they do allow for “truth as the storyteller sees it.” 

The tellers for each monthly event are chosen randomly from the audience. Just because you attend, doesn’t mean you’ll get to tell. For more information about The Louisville Moth check out this article https://www.louisville.com/events/moth-storyslam

One of the greatest features of the Kentucky Storytellers conference are the numerous Story Swap opportunities scheduled throughout the conference. These always provide delightful surprises!

All conference attendees are given a slip of paper to write their name on and encouraged to place it into one of the three Story Swap hats: “Never Told,” “Tells Some,” “Tells a Lot.” During each story swap sessions, a name is drawn from one of the three hats and the teller is given 5 minutes on stage. 

If you aren’t able to finish your story in 5 minutes, audience members are encouraged to check with that teller later to get the rest of the story. A time keeper holds up a warning card to alert the teller on stage when they have only a minute left, then 30 seconds, then “Stop!” This is good practice as many story competitions limit tellers to certain time limits and keeping within that limit is essential.

For me, though, one of the greatest delights of the conference was to hear one of Kentucky’s Torchbearers program winners. The Torchbearers program is a student storytelling competition. Winners are selected to represent Kentucky at the National Youth Storytelling Showcase and then serve as storytelling ambassadors for the following year. http://www.nationalyouthstorytellingshowcase.org/NYSS/About_NYSS.html

Although seven had been selected, only one student was able to attend this year’s conference. Her name was Sky Byrd and oh what a delight she was! The tale she told you may know as Jack and the King’s Daughter. Although I have heard this tale told many times, this child found a fresh way of telling this old tale. She had the audience participating and spun the magic of storytelling over a room full of storytellers. Now, I need to note that Sky is a second grader! If this is how well she tells in the second grade, well, we’ve got a master in the making! Her performance made me all the more determined to establish some kind of youth storytelling program here in West Virginia. I just kept seeing one of my first graders who I know would have loved the opportunity that Sky Byrd made such great use of.

In addition, many of our WV Storytelling Guild member have been presenters and emcees at KSA’s conference. You may be surprised by how many West Virginians you’ll encounter at KSA’s conference. As I said in the beginning, KSA is a treasure of a neighbor. If you haven’t paid them a visit, then I hope you’ll consider doing so next year. You’ll be glad you did!

Br'er Rabbit's Legacy by Ilene Evans

Let me introduce you to an old friend of mine, Brer Rabbit. Brer Rabbit is a little piece of leather, but he’s well put together, winning with his wit against the mighty and the cruel.  In these folktales, there are creatures who are larger and stronger who could easily overwhelm and prey on the smaller and weaker ones. Without claw and tooth, hoof and fang a defenseless animal like a rabbit is the favorite meal for wolf, fox, cougar, stoats, weasels, bobcat, coyotes, snakes, crows, red squirrels, hawks, falcons, owls, eagles, raccoons, and badgers. With so many enemies, who can Brer Rabbit rely on to help him in the time of need? Who are his friends? Alliances are essential to survive, but which alliances? 

I learned about the wisdom of Brer Rabbit from my Alabama born mother, Ms. Ida Belle, who adored the trickster and placed him between Major Creek, Slaughter Branch, and Pine Log Creek in rural Alabama. “People are not so different from the wild animals of the forest and fields, swamps and rivers, from mountain top to the hollers. People can be just as power hungry and cruel as the animals. Animals could all live together and help each other, but just like folks, we get to a certain point and then get selfish again.” She was sure to add, “That’s what Christ was aiming for – unity and helping each other.” 

I live in the backwoods of West Virginia at the headwaters of the Potomac River. On a daily basis, I see the hawks, possums, raccoons, beavers, mice, wood rats, and deer who brush up against the human invaders and dare them to stay. I have lived long enough to learn that the laws of the wilderness apply to humankind. Many of us grew up on tales about Brer Rabbit and the other animals, both friend and foe; sometimes switching sides: changing times call for a change in allies. 

The wilderness is a useful metaphor for people facing struggle. It is an apt setting those of us who feel like we live in a place that is still wild and untamed, not quite civilized, where mercy is rare and wickedness and self-interest often prevail. Folktales about Brer Rabbit are often set in the wilderness, a stage upon which important warnings and teachings for young and old can unfold. 

The folktales of Brer Wolf, Brer Lion, Brer Rabbit and Sis Possum helped me identify the people in my life who behaved like the animals of the rough country. There were lessons that I could learn to help me move through the unknown, the overwhelming, the frightening, the mean, and cruel things that I saw around me -  and finish it off with a laugh. You didn’t have to be big and tough to win! Someone who was underestimated could prevail and thrive. I didn’t grow up with the quaint servile Uncle Remus in Joel Chandler Harris versions of Brer Rabbit. I had the hushed quiet, “don’t let anybody hear me telling you this” kind of stories. ““Brer Rabbit was smart; Brer Rabbit was clever! You know what Brer Rabbit would do?” My imagination understood the message. The world was not safe for a little girl but there was something I could do about it. 

These are dangerous times for many of us: women, children, people of color, single, coupled, straight, gay, and otherwise. My traditions use folktales as a way of making sacred spaces and holy ground -  to inspire and remember our courage, our strength and what we have to be proud of. They are about any time the power hungry go running wild; when the strong abuse the weak; when we forget the strength of our unity and our collective creativity.

Neighborhoods have been violated before, children targeted before, houses bombed, people tortured, access prevented.  This is not new. Some people are itching for a fight while others want to hide. I take lessons from age old folktales and proverbs, from other times past, when hate was not disguised and our ability to fight back was even more limited than it is now.  For people of color and immigrants, prejudice, suspicion, discrimination and fear have been woven into the very legal fabric of American social culture. This includes the history of Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, the Dred Scott decision, the Chinese Exclusion Act (I could go on and on). Folktales serve a purpose to help us shake out the issues in societal conflicts. They help us picture the forces at work that damage our humanity and dull our compassion. They help us build new language about our perceptions, predicaments, dangers, and prescriptions. Brer Tales show us how to resist the kind of hate and lies that fuel prejudice, suggesting when to fight and when to run, and give council on how to keep our souls intact.

Brer Rabbit has many ancestors and not all of them are tricksters, not just about racial injustice or slavery times. Brer Rabbits’ forebears appear all over the world.  In India, the moon is known as hare. In South American folktales, there is Uncle Rabbit. In East Africa, Sungura. In England, Peter Rabbit. In Asia, Central America among the Aztecs there is the Moon Rabbit. The Cherokee and Algonquin have their Rabbit tales. In Louisiana there is Compere Lapin (Godfather Rabbit) among the Creole. In all these cultures, Rabbit doesn’t always get it right; sometimes he is selfish and just a little too cocky for his own good. We were to mind his errors as well as his wisdom. Brer Rabbit is an old friend to the poor, the weak, the young and old, who have always had to use their wits to thrive in a hostile world. 

Brer rabbit has a lot of kinfolks. Here are just a few: 

Cherokee: Tsistu (Rabbit)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KjOI8AQH1bELouisana 

South American Folktales: 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ay8_yzutPzM

Mexican:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LOOc_U9-X6Q 
This book was written by Tony Johnston and illustrated by Tomie dePaola. The Tale of the Rabbit and Coyote is from the town of Juchitan, in Oaxaca, Mexico. 

From India:  
The Rabbits and the Elephants
http://www.culturalindia.net/indian-folktales/hitopadesha-tales/rabbits-and-elephants.html 

The Foolish Lion and the Rabbit
http://www.culturalindia.net/indian-folktales/panchatantra-tales/foolish-lion-clever-rabbit.html 

Japanese/ Chinese  - The Rabbit in the Moon
http://www.uexpress.com/tell-me-a-story/1996/8/1/the-rabbit-in-the-moon-a

No Peeking! A Christmas Tale from Judi Tarowsky

The first Christmas I can remember was when I was a little over 2 years old, and we were living in a two-story house on Fairmont Street in New Castle, PA. I was a restless sleeper, so I was still in my crib. My mother was afraid I’d toss myself onto the floor if I were in a “big girl” bed.

Although I’m sure I had heard all the excitement about Christmas, it hadn’t yet registered with me about Christmas morning and a visit from Santa Claus. My memory is of my older brother coming into my room when it was still dark outside, and waking me up.

“Let’s see what Santa brought us!” he said, as I climbed out of my crib and followed him into the hallway. “Shhhhh!”

Our house was two-story, with a landing halfway up the stairs. We stopped there on the landing, to look out over the living room. All was dark, except for the streetlight shining in the front window. And there, below us under the Christmas tree, something was reflecting the streetlight. Something shining.

Handlebars! Handlebars on a two-wheel bike for my brother and a tricycle for me!

We scampered down the stairs as quietly as we could to inspect the marvels that Santa had left. A bicycle!

A tricycle! Oh, the wonder! So, this is what Santa Claus did while we were sleeping! There were wrapped packages under the tree, too, but our attention was focused on the bikes. My brother wouldn’t be able to ride his bike outside until spring, but I could wheel my tricycle around the first floor of the house.

 My brother’s curiosity was satisfied, and my newly-awakened curiosity realized it was satisfied, too. We tip-toed back up the stairs – our parents were still asleep – and my brother made sure I safely climbed back into my crib.

It’s a memory. It’s a story I’ve told to our son, so now it’s his story, too. May this Christmas, and all those hereafter, bring wonderful memories to your family.             

Share yours. Make stories.       

Judi Young Tarowsky holds a BSJ from WVU and a Graduate Certificate in Storytelling from the University of North Texas. She formerly worked as a newspaper reporter in Wheeling and Steubenville, OH. Among other venues, she has performed at Three Rivers Storytelling Festival, the WV State Folk Festival, and many other venues. She was one of the founders of the Grand Vue Storytelling Festival and the Pricketts Fort Storytelling Festival.

Contact Judi at: 
Judi Tarowsky
www.tellerjuditarowsky.com
740-391-1576
mtarowsky@gmail.com