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Sunday, September 16, 2012

Spinning Stories into Gold

The Alchemist
from The Wind's Tale
"Gold! Gold! he shouted."
by Edmund Dulac, 1911
Jake’s Head
Gwen Bonilla © 2012

One of the most wonderful things about being a storyteller is the shared connection between the audience and the teller.  There is something truly magical about the giving and receiving of a story that allows everyone -- those hearing the story and the person telling it -- to grow and be enriched by the experience.

I began as a storyteller in schools, telling to elementary children -- mostly as a volunteer, but occasionally would luck into a paid gig.  I dreamed of one day making my living doing this thing I loved, creating worlds of words.  My heroes were the magnificent performance storytellers who have been talented enough and fortunate enough to make their living creating these story worlds: Bill Harley, Kevin Kling, and Elizabeth Ellis to name a few.  I loved to watch how they could hold an auditorium, a tent, a noisy gymnasium, utterly captivated with the tales they wove.

A few years ago, I discovered multi-sensory storytelling.  Multi-sensory storytelling is the use of sensory elements -- sound, smell, touch -- to enhance the story experience.  I was drawn to multi-sensory storytelling as a means to share stories with people with developmental disabilities such as Autism or Down’s Syndrome

For people with developmental disabilities, isolation and a sense of separateness are too often a fact of life.  Without language to receive, or to share conversation and communication, they are often left out of their communities.  Stories have always been a tool to connect people with their communities.  I wanted to bring specialized stories to these special audiences. I wanted to help them be a part of the story.

Two years ago, I formed the non-profit, Touching Stories, in order to bring multi-sensory stories to adults and children with developmental disabilities.  

Multi-sensory storytelling looks a little different than the storyteller at the campfire.  Different than the work of Bill or Kevin or Elizabeth; or the wonderful storycraft on programs like The Moth or This American Life.  In multi-sensory storytelling, the stories are simple -- short on plot and character and long on sensory experience.  They are told as the teller guides the audience, one-by-one, to explore items to touch, to manipulate, or to smell.  These stories are more snapshot than portrait.

And yet... that special connection still occurs.

Recently, I was telling at a day program for adults with developmental disabilities.  My audience on this day was a combination of non-verbal individuals, who required a great deal of hand-over-hand assistance to explore the sensory elements of the story, and others who were much more able to communicate verbally and to explore the sensory elements in their own way.

I was telling the story of The Monster on Grandma's Bed.  In that story, young Sarah, at Grandma's house for a sleepover, is awakened by a terrifying sound in the middle of the night.  When she reaches out in the dark to see what's there, she encounters something furry.  The sensory item for this part of the story is a canvas board covered in short, thick faux fur.

As always, I asked the participants what they thought it was.  Usually, the responses I get are "a wolf," "a bear," or "a monster."  But on this day, all the participants were in agreement:  the board felt like "Jake's head."

“Jake” was one of the audience members that day.  A young man in his early twenties, Jake was engaged and enthusiastic.  He had a bright smile and a lot to say.  As the board was passed from audience member to audience member, each said that they thought that the thing that Sarah was feeling in that dark room was Jake's head. Even the non-verbal participants, when asked, would point to Jake.  Each time, Jake’s smile grew wider.

The audience laughed on cue when the story went on to reveal that the furry thing was Grandma's fuzzy bathrobe and the terrible sound was Grandma's loud snores, but at this telling -- different from any other time I've told it -- that punchline was not the best part of the story. The sparkle had happened when they had made the decision to make that furry thing Jake's head. I had a lot of fun with it, but didn't really understand.

After the story was over, and I was packing up, Jake came to talk to me.

He told me that he is a cancer survivor, and had only in the last few months finished his course of chemotherapy.  His hair had just come back.

And in that telling, in that delightful, spontaneous improvisation, the whole room had celebrated the return of Jake's hair.

It just goes to show, no matter how simple, there's a whole lot of connecting that happens when a story is told.
 


Gwen Bonilla has worked with people with intellectual disabilities as a Human Services Professional for the past eight years. 

She created the StoryCrafters program to bring multi-sensory storytelling to children in elementary schools.  In addition, she has presented her stories to literacy programs, after school clubs, and charity fundraisers. She has served on the Rocky MountainStorytelling Board of Directors since 2008. Two years ago, she launched the Touching Stories program for children and adults with developmental disabilities.

Gwen's passions for storytelling and for working with people with disabilities have informed every aspect of the Touching Stories program.


Gwen Bonilla is a guest blogger for Karen Chace and Catch the Storybug blog. All rights to this article belong to Gwen. Distribution, either electronically or on paper is prohibited without her expressed, written permission. Of course, if you wish to link to the article via Facebook or Twitter, please feel free to do so. I you would like to be a Guest Blogger contact Karen at Storybug@aol.com for the details.

3 comments:

Monica Davis said...

Gwen, Big smile on my face...What a wonderful story!

Gwen said...

Thanks Monica -- it was one of my best days storytelling!

Glenda said...

I've been a bit behind with my reading, but I am so glad I saved your blog post for a day when I could fully enjoy it. Thank you so much for sharing such a memorable experience!