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.”

And You Thought Developing A New Performance Piece Was Hard

Watching the latest webinar on the Creating Connection initiative from ArtsMidwest, I am pleased to see the progress that is being made. The Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs has embraced it and has made it a central part of their efforts, organizing seminars and training sessions throughout the state.

I don’t mean to gloss over and skip quickly past the work that is going on in Michigan, but the second organization featured in the webinar, Mixed Blood Theater had some challenges rolling out a project that echoed my post yesterday.

Mixed Blood’s neighborhood in Minneapolis has a large Somali population. Like the Oakland Museum of California I spoke about yesterday, Mixed Blood has ambitious goals of improving the well-being of their community. They created an initiative they named Project 154 with a aim of:

“bridg[ing] cultural gaps between residents, health providers, promote preventative care, increase trust of health providers and promote personal narrative to boost personal confidence and increase community self-advocacy, using theatre as a core tool to achieve this.”

They had initially hoped to record 154 stories of residents discussing their health. They quickly realized that they didn’t have the degree of trust from the community required to achieve that.

They decided to move to story circles where they provided food, tea and a financial incentive to participants. While they had more people interested in participating than was practical if they wanted to limit the circle size, they ran into some cultural barriers. Women wouldn’t speak with men present, especially in regard to their health; younger people wouldn’t speak in the presence of elders; and interactions were somewhat burdened by the need for translation.

The next attempt at hosting story circles, they had the assistance of a Somali speaker recently hired as a project coordinator. He helped them better understand the cultural nuances of the neighborhood residents. These story circles were lead by a member of the community who had knowledge of the health care system. The circles were separated by gender and age. The groups were smaller and the conversations were more extensive. This allowed Mixed Blood to develop better relationships and trust with participants.

It was at this point they were able to move to the stage of recording the stories of community members. Their goal is 20 instead of 154. Mixed Blood shared these videos with healthcare providers to help them better understand the concerns and perceptions residents had about health care.

As you can see, there was a lot of work involved getting to the point where people would be willing to participate in a video recording. Ten of the 20 have been shot and Mixed Blood has only just recently had women agree to being recorded. All this is part of an ongoing effort much broader than I have described here.

Much as the Oakland Museum did in the article I referenced yesterday, Mixed Blood has identified a problem in the community and how they can contribute to solving it.

In some respects, what they have tried to accomplish has taken a similar amount of time and effort as developing a new performance piece from scratch, workshopping and revising it. The difference is that many of those participating in the many stages of development are generally invested in cooperating toward the same goal. Mixed Blood had to overcome a number of barriers to get to where they are today.

Webinar below. Michigan Council starts at about 8:45 mark, Mixed Blood Theatre around 30:30 mark.

 

In Order Have Social Impact, They Had To Kill The Social Impact Statement

If you haven’t seen it already, it is worth reading Joanna Jones’ piece on Medium about how the Oakland Museum of California developed and then abandoned their social impact statement.

One of the central identity problems non-profits face is generating statements of mission, goals, etc that are meaningful and alive for the organization. Creating these statements is seen as a necessary evil for strategic plans, grant applications, etc and are filed away until it comes time to revise them for the new strategic plan or copy it down on a grant application.

But people join non-profit organizations with the hope that they can make a difference. Even if it is contrary to whatever is written on the reference document gathering dust in the filing cabinet, every organization should have some aspirational statement of purpose they are telling new hires that actually aligns with the organizational practice.  (Making enough money to meet payroll doesn’t count.)

Now, the thing that everyone thinks they are doing that keeps them coming to work every morning still may not be the most practical and realistic. That was the issue that Jones says the Oakland Museum quickly came to recognize. In 2017, they created a social impact statement that, “OMCA makes Oakland a more equitable and caring city.”

Focus groups asked whether a museum could really solve the problems contributing to the lack of equity and caring in the city. The museum’s internal stakeholders also questioned the viability of the statement.

The museum invited six experts on social impact to spend two days participating in convenings and museum activities. While these experts were excited and energized by the reach and inclusion of museum events, they too were skeptical about the social impact statement. They wondered how the museum could ever meet the myriad concepts people would have about what equity and caring looked like.

After a lot of work, conversation and introspection, Jones writes that they realized they didn’t actually need a social impact statement,

Rather, we simply needed to articulate the problem our community is facing that we are uniquely suited to address, the best solution we believe exists for that problem, and the concrete and tangible outcomes we’re going to measure that will demonstrate our positive social impact.

The problem we’re trying to solve is social fragmentation.

The community of Oakland is presently undergoing significant fallout from inequities within institutions, the state, and civil society resulting in a decline in social cohesion and an increase in social exclusion.

Our contribution is facilitating greater social cohesion.

[…]

We will know that we are achieving that impact–creating greater social cohesion–when our Museum visitors say that they:

  • feel welcome at OMCA
  • see their stories reflected at OMCA
  • connect with other people at OMCA, and
  • feel comfortable expressing their own ideas and are open to the ideas of others at OMCA

What I valued about this piece was the discussion of the process they went through to come to this realization. There are statements of purpose non-profit organizations are obligated to have. There are some statements/actions organizations may feel self-obligated to enact in order to adhere to trends or to remain relevant. But these may not be relevant or constructive to the developing organizational identity. I was glad to see they recognized that while it was valuable to enunciate a clear purpose, their statement didn’t necessarily need to conform to a specific definition.

Things To Ponder When Endeavoring To Tell Other People’s Stories

There is a lot of conversation about the need for people to see themselves and their interests reflected in arts and cultural experiences if arts and cultural organizations were going to remain relevant.  I saw an article on Arts Professional UK that gave examples of what organizations across the Pond were doing along these lines. Many of the observations about the challenges involved which are just as true in the US as the UK.

Tamsin Curror opens by citing, Glenn Jenkins, who has collaborated on projects with her organization,

“Imagine a scenario where all of the creative choices in your own home, the colour and style of the decor, the music you play and the films you watch were all up to somebody else to decide. This would be pretty disempowering, yet in our neighbourhoods or collective homes this is exactly how it is…”

This is the perception people can have when entities create a work purporting to reflect the experience of a group of people without the involvement and input of those who are/were part of the experience.

As much as we in the arts and cultural sector believe that what we offer contains a degree of universality with which everyone can identify, that may not be the perception in every community.

Project Director, Nancy Barrett, says: “A lot of touring work didn’t ‘speak’ to diverse urban communities and we needed to create something that would resonate with the intended audience.”

As I was reading that I wondered if this has always been the case and the greater arts and cultural community hasn’t recognized it because the focus of work has been so oriented toward a middle-class, Caucasian experience. Or if perhaps the isolating effect of social media has magnified the feeling that no one else shares your experience.

If you are only seeing the best selves of those around you rather than engaging in conversations about the boring, difficult situations they face, and therefore don’t feel you have much in common with your neighbor, it may be doubly difficult to discern shared universal themes in a creative work.

It isn’t saying anything new to observe that the time and energy required to build an authentic relationship with the communities with whom you wish to be involved in telling their stories is pretty prohibitive for most non-profit arts and cultural organizations. Added to that is something I hadn’t fully considered – the disconnect between relationship building and the funding cycle. (my emphasis)

“You need to build good relationships with people on a permanent basis, not just be pulling people in…. because if they think you’re just someone that comes in and then goes… you’re a one trick pony,” said a resident of Mereside Estate in Blackpool.

We’ve learnt that you can’t underestimate the time needed to really listen, facilitate and build mutual trust and respect. Being transparent and open about the process and budgets is also key. There’s got to be a genuine, long-term approach, and this raises questions about responsibility to the communities we work with and how to sustain this work over long periods within shorter-term funding contexts.

Send this to a friend