September 29, 2010

The reason for Just One Story…

I've made some significant changes to the Promenade Digital website, including a much–needed revision of the page about Just One Story… Part of the reason was to elaborate a little on an example of how storytelling met the VHS videotape. I'll expand on that elaboration here.

In 1987, when I was at the National Storytelling Festival, I suffered from a bombardment of marketing overload. Quite a few tellers were hawking VHS videotapes of their work (Ed Stivender's The Kingdom of Heaven is Like a Party ended up being my fave of the lot), but I also saw a monitor playing select volumes of a eight–tape series called American Storytelling.

You see, in 1986, the H.W. Wilson Company (still very much in business) partnered with a new venture called Storytel [sic] Enterprises™ (itself long out of business) to produce the American Storytelling collection.

Made solely for library and school use, it presented some of the best tellers in the United States — including my friend Diane Wolkstein, Heather Forest, Mr. Stivender, Jay O'Callahan, and the late Chuck Larkin and Brother Blue — each telling a different story… but recorded inside a television studio, under standard TV production conditions. (Mme. Wolkstein's segment used her beautiful picture book White Wave: A Chinese Tale.)

Today, I unearthed H.W. Wilson's brochure for the series, which made some rather lame claims for the series, among them being:

"The intimate nature of the video medium is especially well–suited to to reproducing the unique relationship between storyteller and audience, capturing all the flavor and vitality of a live storytelling session. In simple but evocative stage settings, each personal storyteller creates the immediacy of a live performance."

Well, to quote one of the characters in the recent masala comedy Khatta Meetha:

"I'm allergic to bullshit."

As I asked in my revised Just One Story… page, how can intimacy and immediacy be possible when your subject is recorded under studio conditions with the only other human presence being not an audience of ordinary people, but a phalanx of technicians?

One more quote from the brochure, and then I put it away:

"In a recent article in the Wilson Library Bulletin, Augusta Baker, Storyteller–in–Residence at the University of South Carolina's School of Librarianship, noted that 'The purpose of storytelling is to motivate children to read.' Librarians, teachers, and parents can use this series to encourage children's appreciation of literature."

Funny, but to me that doesn't sound like the sole (or even the most important) purpose of storytelling. And the line that "librarians, teachers, and parents can use this series to encourage children's appreciation of literature"… why does this sound like a taste of what would later come with the "edu–tainment" swindle personified by the Disney–owned Baby Einstein® franchise?

Just as toddlers can't (and, according to some very high–profile studies, don't) learn anything from the deluge of toddler–targeted videograms, what made H.W. Wilson and Storytel believe that children would truly be motivated to seek out world folklore because of a rather antiseptically–made series of videos, however well–intended? (Beyond US dollar signs, that is?)

Let's face the facts, my dears: while the series may have helped the careers of the chosen tellers, American Storytelling was in fact an attempt to put a living art "under glass," not to be touched or interacted with, the publishers' claims notwithstanding. You want true storytelling, you gotta go to the tellers themselves. Just One Story… makes no false promises of changing people's minds and tastes, and in any event, that's not why I make the show. I make it because 1) Diane Wolkstein is both a living legend and a dear friend whose art deserves to be documented, and 2) there are others in the same boat with her, and attention needs to paid to them.

No bullshit from me. But then — all together now:

"I'm allergic to bullshit."

P.S.: Diane Wolkstein is one of the Featured Tellers at this year's National Storytelling Festival, with a packed schedule for all three days. If you're going, make sure you see her, and then introduce yourself afterwards. Please tell her that Philip David, your faithful Projectionist and her faithful Webmaster, sent you.

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