That Story Was Old When Gilgamesh’s Grandpa Told It

One arts marketing phrase I have always hated, and thankfully I seldom see it these days, is “…illustrates what it means to be human..” I often dislike the rationale that something tells a universal story as a justification for programming the classic works.   The themes may be the same, but the context in which they are presented determines how easily people can relate to and receive the material.  Sometimes new stories have to be told in order to remain relevant.

There is a pretty fascinating essay in Harpers about storytelling which illustrates how core stories get reframed to suit the needs of different times and cultures. People have been researching the linguistic DNA of stories like Red Riding Hood and have discovered some of them are incredibly old. Variations on a theme split and converge across geography. Other times, the same story persists relatively intact for a very, very long time.  While the context of the stories differs in order to emphasis different cultural values and mores, there is an argument to be made for the commonality among humankind. (my emphasis)

The results provided a new resolution to decades of debate regarding the origins of “Little Red Riding Hood.” An ancient story preserved in oral traditions in rural France, Austria, and northern Italy was the archetype for the classic folktale familiar to most Westerners. On a separate limb of the tree, the story of the goats descended from an Aesopian tale dated to 400 ad. Those two narrative threads merged in Asia, along with other local tales, sometime in the seventeenth century to form “Tiger Grandmother.

[…]

Tehrani and Silva discovered that some had existed for far longer than previously known. “Beauty and the Beast” and “Rumpelstiltskin,” for example, were not just a few hundred years old, as some scholars had proposed—they were more than 2,500 years old.

Another folktale, known as “The Smith and the Devil,” was astonishingly ancient. Multiple iterations—which vary greatly but typically involve a blacksmith outwitting a demon—have appeared throughout history across Europe and Asia, from India to Scandinavia, and occasionally in Africa and North America as well. “The Smith and the Devil” became part of Appalachian folklore, and it’s a likely forerunner of the legend of Faust. Tehrani and Silva’s research suggests that not only are these geographically disparate stories directly related—as opposed to evolving independently—­­but their common ancestor emerged around five thousand years ago, during the Bronze Age.

Anthropologist Jamie Tehrani says that when he is reading bedtime stories to his children, it occurs to him that the stories are older than the language he is using to relate them.

For those in the arts and cultural sector that don’t necessarily feel that the work they do is particularly valued in society, there is some anecdotal evidence that points to storytelling being something of core value in society. In 2014 anthropologists working with the nomadic hunter-gatherer Agta of the Philippines conducted a survey.

To their surprise, storytelling topped the list—it was even more prized than hunting skills and medicinal knowledge. When they asked nearly three hundred Agta which of their peers they would most like to live with, skilled storytellers were two times more likely to be selected than those without such talents, regardless of age, sex, and prior friendship. And when they asked the Agta to play resource allocation games, in which they could keep bags of rice or donate them to others, people from camps with talented storytellers were more generous, giving away more rice, and esteemed storytellers were themselves more likely to receive gifts. Most profoundly, Agta with a reputation as good storytellers were more reproductively successful: they had 0.5 more children, on average, than their peers.

“There is an adaptive advantage to storytelling,” says Migliano. “I think this work confirms that storytelling is important to communicate social norms and what is essential for hunter-gatherer survival.”

Authentic Air Safety Kabuki Theatre

Okay, a little break from my weighty opining on the value and philosophy of art.

I caught this on the Forbes site recently. All Nippon Airways (ANA) has employed kabuki actors to appear in their safety videos. The video showcases a lot of the characteristic elements of kabuki performance, including, as Forbes notes, male performers in female roles.

I always think it is great when countries showcase their traditional arts for a broader audience. (Which by no means diminishes New Zealand’s Lord of the Rings themed air safety announcements). The internationally familiar context of an air safety announcement assists in the sharing of this cultural practice. You need not speak Japanese or English to understand what is occurring.

Andrew Bender does a good job in the Forbes piece pointing out some of the common devices from kabuki performance, including the places where they diverge from tradition. Read the article if you are curious to learn more about what you are watching.  There are a ton of other symbols present like color and gestures, the meanings of which I once knew more about but which are pretty vague in my memory now.

If nothing else, perhaps people will stop randomly labeling activities as kabuki theatre after seeing a sample of what a performance actually entails. (Okay, so yeah, probably not.)

Bender mentions there is a behind the scenes video which is shown upon deplaning. I tried to find it on the ANA YouTube site in order to learn a little bit more to no avail.

 

 

 

Kids Might Be Motivated To Learn If They Aren’t Always Stuck In A Classroom. Imagine That

Last month there was an article in Forbes about the benefits of field trips and arts education. It started out in a way I dislike, discussing test scores and neurological development as if arts and cultural experiences were a special fertilizer you sprinkled on to get stuff to grow better. However, it soon moved on to discuss how field trips and arts education provide a broader context and relevance for learning. Essentially, acknowledging that learning doesn’t occur in a vacuum.

Author Natalie Wexler notes that reading comprehension especially is greatly facilitated by life experiences that provide context to a passage. For many children this experience is gained in after school and family activities. For children who don’t have those same family opportunities, in school education and field trips are important for filling the gaps.

The focus of the latter part of the article isn’t that arts and cultural experiences magically help raise test score but help solidify abstract concepts. It isn’t miraculous that children learning about watersheds or historic events have greater mastery of the subject matter after visiting a river or historic site.

While the Forbes piece doesn’t acknowledge this directly, one of the articles Wexler links to does,

In the Woodruff Arts Center experiment we actually found an increase in math and reading test scores for students who went on multiple field trips after the first year of the experiment. I’m not sure I fully believe that result given that it is simply implausible that students learned significantly more math and reading when they saw a play, visited an art museum, and heard the symphony. My only explanation for the test score increase, if it is not a fluke, is that test results are partly a reflection of what students know, but also partly a reflection of their motivation to acquire that knowledge and to show it to us on a test. Feeding students a steady diet of math and reading test drills may not nurture student motivation to learn as well as these enriching activities. And as Core Knowledge proponents have long emphasized, students become more advanced readers by having more content knowledge and knowledge about the world. Field trips clearly provide that.

For arts people there might be some value in learning that a live performance about a topic seems to connect better with students than watching a video on the same subject. Not to mention, they are more likely to bring their families back with them.

We also see that students absorb a high amount of content knowledge on these field trips. In the theater experiment, for example, students learn the plot and vocabulary of the plays much more fully than if they watch a movie of the same story. Lastly, we find that students have a stronger interest in returning to these cultural institutions in the future. In the Crystal Bridges experiment, for example, we tracked coded coupons that we gave to all participating students and observed that students who visited the art museum on a field trip were significantly more likely to return with their family over the following half year.

You Are Never Too Young To Start Producing Shows

So given the context of all the deserved gushing over a North Bergen, NJ’s stage version of the movie Aliens with a $5,000 budget and recycled materials,  Ken Davenport’s suggestion that high school productions have general managers and press agents doesn’t seem terribly unreasonable.

Davenport’s  motivation is to get as many kids involved in a production as possible. Everyone knows the larger cast you have on stage, the larger an audience you are likely to have as friends and family show up to support students. But he also notes that being involved in administrative roles opens people’s eyes to a much wider range of career opportunities than just actors and technicians. (his emphasis)

Because whether a student decides to pursue a career in the theater or decides to be a lawyer, I firmly believe that there is no endeavor in the world that teaches collaboration better than putting up a musical.

[…]

They’re probably the type that thinks putting on a musical is just a hobby.  Because no one has told them any different. But you and I know it’s a business . . . just like any other.  And that businesses need all sorts of talents to make a show a success.

He outlines the following as tasks students could pursue in the different roles.  Davenport encourages everyone to pass the post link on to any high school teachers who might be interested in pursuing this. He says he will even write up the job description and list of duties so the teacher doesn’t have to.

The Producer would be in charge of overseeing the production, of course, as well as fundraising.  Yep, give him or her a goal of raising $X and let them find a way to do it (car washes, bake sales, Kickstarter and more).

The General Manager would learn how to put a budget together for the show and keep everyone on a budget.

The Press Agent would try to get articles written in the newspapers, online, and even invite people like me to come to see it.

The Advertising and Marketing Director would get the word out to sell tickets, get a logo designed, manage the social media, and more.

The Casting Directors would schedule the auditions, run them, put out the offers and maybe even convince the high school quarterback that he’d make a great Teyve.

Send this to a friend