Monday, February 20, 2012

Stories in the Ark – Storytelling Festival in Ann Arbor, MI

One sentence: I shared a greenroom with Maynard Moose.
I am still a little starstruck.

Being invited to the Ark as a featured teller was a real honor, and I had been looking forward to traveling to Ann Arbor. I have to say right away that it was an extremely well organized event. It was also their twenty-fifth storytelling festival, so they probably had time to work on the details. They really treated us like royalty.
I flew in Friday afternoon and was invited for dinner to Judy Schmidt’s. We sat together in her beautiful home decorated with hand-made quilts; they even had another guest, Sándor, who was all too happy to talk with me in Hungarian. We spent long hours talking together about Hungary and Hungarian culture; we also talked about history, music, languages, and anything else that came to our mind. Then, when I was about ready to fall asleep, I was taken to Beverly’s, who was going to be my host for the weekend.
Saturday morning we went to Willy Claflin’s workshop at the local library; the workshop was about character voices, and we had great fun coming up with different emotions, personalities, and different voices for all of them. We also had huge bags of puppets to play around with, and we got to meet some of Willy’s own entourage, among them Maynard, whom I have been hearing about for more than four years, but somehow I never managed to catch him on stage (I even have some of his CDs). It was a great workshop! And we got cookies in the end.
Saturday evening was the big concert for the festival – four tellers, three hours straight, and the house was full! We all gathered in the green room of the Ark, with its walls covered from floor to ceiling with signatures, drawings and messages from the various artists who have performed here in the past decade. Whenever I was not doing something, I kept reading the walls.
As for the concert: Barbara, our emcee, did a wonderful job, both with introducing us and with looking after us backstage, making sure we were all set and we had everything we needed to be happy little storytellers. Lyn opened up the concert with an amazing part-historical, part-family story; I was listening from backstage, waiting for my turn, but even her voice alone was delightful to listen to, even with such a serious story.
I was up next, and I had a full hour for Hungarian stories. I decided I was going to do a show of Pályuk Anna tales – I can’t get enough of her stories, and I have been practicing them at the University School, so I thought it was time to introduce them to grown-up audiences. I told four stories: The boy who walked on the clouds, The Dream of the Fairy Queen (that one I have not told in English before, but I greatly enjoyed it now), The Dancing Princesses (Anna’s version is full of little details that I love), and Where have all the fairies gone? (which Anna used to tell in first person, and so did I). The hour was over before I noticed, and it was time for intermission.
(By the way, the greatest thing about the Ark? The audience has popcorn. I felt like a movie star!)

In the second half, Allison opened with song and story. I can see why she was so successful at the Moth; her personal stories were exquisitely crafted and hilarious at the same time. She also has a beautiful singing voice; before we left, she caught me in the hallway, and sang me a Hungarian song. What a surprise!
Willy Claflin, of course, was the hero of the evening. He had us laugh until we cried; he brought out Maynard, and a squeaky lobster, and a short tribute to Gamble Rodgers, and songs. Time flew and none of us noticed; bass started booming under out feet from the ground floor, but nobody cared. Everyone agreed it was a great evening.

Sunday afternoon we had a performance for family audiences, which in this case meant about 150 people, mostly kids (and even more popcorn). Allison, Willy and I had 20 minutes each, and we made good use of it too. Even though standing on a well-lit stage makes audience participation a lot more complicated, the kids were great. I told my Ragnar and Thora story (dragons are always a success), and they guessed all the right answers right away; I also told When elephants could fly, and they seemed to enjoy it a lot. They sang along with Allison, and participated in her Indian folktale, and of course, no one is loved more by the kids than Maynard (even though I also greatly enjoyed Gorf the frog’s version of Froggy-went-a’-courting, accompanied by a turquoise flyswatter).

We signed the walls; we exchanged cards; we talked and laughed before and after concerts in the green room. The great thing about storytellers is that they are such amazing, friendly people, even with someone like me who is just starting to experience the big stage. And the people of Ann Arbor really made us all feel right at home.

I returned from the Ark filled with experiences, ideas, and enthusiasm. This should keep me going for a very long time.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Changeling: the Dreaming

Changeling: the Dreaming (CtD) is the roleplay game of infinite creativity, and the importance of imagination in everyday life.

The game in a nutshell: you play a character who has the mortal body of a modern day human, and the immortal soul of a fairy tale creature (such as a Troll, a Satyr, a Sidhe, a Pooka, etc.) Mortals see you as just another guy on the street - but other Changelings like you see you for exactly what you are, butterfly wings, goat legs, magic swords and all. You desperately need Glamour ("the stuff dreams are made of") to survive in the boring mundane world - you need the company of people who hope, dream, create and imagine. You feed of their creativity, and that's what keeps you alive; if you have to live without that, you slowly fade away and forget what you really are. You can also cross over into the world of the Dreaming - the collective world of imagination. But if you spend too much time wandering the landscape of folktales and legends, you might forget that you are also human, and with that, you lose your sanity. All your life (many lives, actually, since immortal fae souls are always reborn in a new mortal body) you balance on the thin line between fantasy and reality, and if you do it well, you are able to heal both worlds, so close to each other and yet forever apart. You are something more than just mortal; you are strange, and unique, and many times downright weird; you see things nobody else can, and the only thing that can really hurt you is Banality, the power of boredom and lost hopes.

It really is a fascinating game. It resonates especially well with storytellers (who basically live the Changeling life to begin with) and gamers (who like knowing that strange can mean good things too). At first, it can be a bit hard to grasp, but once the game really starts, it is more fun than any other RPG I have ever played. The best thing about the "Storytelling system" is that it has a huge emphasis on creativity, to the point of giving up scores and dice altogether to create a better story together.

We played 4 sessions of Changeling, adding up to about 5 and a half hours of gaming time. We had to split the class into two groups of seven; both groups played the same story, but with different Game Masters, and different characters in each.
Without further ado, here are some highlights of our Changeling game:

They are the tech masters of the Changeling world. Remember the Grimm tale about the elves who sneak into the shoemaker's shop at night and fix the shoes? We are talking about the same guys here, except evolved into the 21st century. They can create virtually anything, using Glamour and an appropriate pile of junk, and their special ability is that the more they swear while doing it, the better the result. No Nocker creation is flawless - there is always something wrong with them in the end. Artists know what I'm talking about.

Our two groups had 3 Nockers: two guys and a lady. They supplied machines, weapons and ideas all through the adventure. One of them turned a TARDIS they found into a DeLorean (still bigger on the inside) by a collective swearing marathon; one built a portal gun from a six-barrelled gun (and he had to spin it every time and hope that he would get the right barrel at first try). Two of them together built a mechanical rooster (for hunting down a basilisk) from the collective contents of the group's pockets: duct tape, a student ID, a credit card, two bazooka shells, half a dozen fairy arrows, 1 dollar's worth of change, and Santa's hat. The lady remodeled Robocop into a motorbike. McGyver's got nothin' on these guys.

They are big, they are strong, they are blue, and they are the noble knights of the fairy world. We had two of them, one in each group: an ex-cop with a bazooka and a greatsword, and a bartender with a baseball bat and a sawed-off shotgun. They had simple yet effective solutions to every obstacle that stood in the group's way. The ex-cop would yell "It's science time!!!" and fire off a warning shot. With the bazooka.

We had four of them, and they were nothing alike. Eshu are the spirits of storytelling, constantly traveling, constantly looking for adventure; our team included a chick fashionista, an Arabian warrior, an Indian diplomat with a British accent, and a traveling magician from East Tennessee. They were out for the stories, and lead their teams across the world of the Dreaming that only storytellers can really navigate without getting lost forever. They also had very neat ideas, like building the portal gun out of a Nocker weapon and a legitimate fae spell, or killing the basilisk with a rooster's crow (the good thing about playing with storytellers and Harry Potter fans: you don't have to explain what you are talking about).

Spells in Changeling are called cantrips. Basically, the player has to come up with an idea for a ritual that makes the magic happen. It can be classic spellcasting, like drawing runes and magic circles - or it can be something completely different, like standing around a snow castle, unraveling a sweater, and singing a song from Spongebob while holding hands. The better the ritual, the more dice they get for rolling for success, and the more likely the spell will actually succeed. Returning to the portal gun example, the ritual included our British Eshu running around the gaming table at breakneck speed, screaming "speedy thing goes in - speedy thing goes out!!!"
(Yes, I know it all sounds ridiculous. News flash: it sounds like a bunch of people playing a game and having fun together. We need a lot more noise like that in the mundane world...)

All in all, the adventure was tons of fun. Everyone was creative, enthusiastic, and engaged; there was a lot of laughing, a lot of applauding each other, a lot of excitement, a lot of dice, and a lot of "hell yeah!!!" moments along the way. We all soaked in a bunch of Glamour. It should last us for a while.