Wednesday, September 26, 2012

How to make Stone Soup


A traveller comes to a small village. Producing a large pot, and a stone, he asks the village folk for some water with which to make stone soup. The reception is sceptical. Stone soup? But someone brings the water, and the stranger sets about making a fire for the pot. Word spreads. A crowd gathers. Soon the stone is bubbling away in water. The unlikely cook asks, might someone be willing to spare a dash of salt or pepper for flavour? The villagers, now intensely curious -- the soup is nearly ready -- scrounge for a sprig of this, a scrap of that, and slice of something else. All go into the pot; simple garnish for this absurd meal being coaxed from a stone. Yet before long, everyone has eaten their fill, and they can but wonder at the stone that has somehow managed to feed them all.

***

Storytelling, in all its forms, has been a central interest of mine for a long time. More recently it has become clear to me that it's the fundamental and age-old artform at the heart of futures practice. But this post is about something else.

On moving back to Australia from the US late last year, I'd been thinking about running a regular event, built around the sharing of stories from personal experience. I asked around, and didn't hear of anything already going on in Melbourne quite like that.

The seed had been planted by the example of some friends in San Francisco. They have been running something called Fireside Storytelling every month for about eight years. I'd also attended its younger, lewder cousin, Bawdy Storytelling, as well as Porchlight, a series similar to Fireside. All are enjoyable and popular events; an evening's theatre founded on a participatory ethos and community atmosphere.

The month after settling into my current apartment, I was finally established enough to make things happen. Intending first to try it out at my place after work on a Thursday, I figured people would be hungry, and that the gathering could feel awkwardly stagey if stories were the only component. So I folded a potluck dinner into the invitation too, thinking that ingredient could drop away after one or two rounds, and we might then look at scaling up to a more professional performance-type affair at a real venue.

The first night was themed 'Far From Home'. Almost everyone has a travel story they enjoy sharing -- the makings of a nice, novice-storyteller-friendly start to the experiment. A dozen people came, and five or six of us shared stories. It was a wonderful evening, more than enough encouragement to do it again. The home setting and potluck dinner (mostly vegetarian for maximum shareability) worked beautifully, and so they stayed. We've now held this event six months in a row, and it has been terrific every time.

This is Stone Soup. It is a community potluck and storytelling evening: bring a dish, and, if you like, a story to share inspired by a given theme.

Between a dozen and 20 people attend. Twenty seems sort of a practical upper limit due to the size of my kitchen table. It might go well with smaller or much larger numbers; we'll find out at some stage.

Stone Soup deliberately does not work or feel like the usual informal sharing of stories at a dinner party, or down at the pub. Nor is it as formal as an evening's theatre. It is a mixture; light-touch ritual. The storyteller stands at the head of the table, so is 'on stage' a little bit. The dynamic's on a borderline between that of a gathering of friends and one of strangers. As the host and primary guest-wrangler, I'll already know most -- but not all -- of those around the table. Because of an invitation only and word-of-mouth approach to filling seats, some of the participants always know each other too. So there's a baseline of familiarity, and also a getting-to-know-you element, bridging towards each other.

It's interesting to me how Stone Soup seems at once both new and old. The breaking of bread together and sharing of stories speaks to instincts at least as ancient as humanity itself. We've found also that it touches on something quite contemporary, a lack or even a longing many of us feel; for connection to those around us by startlingly simple and direct means. Although this event is by no means unique in doing that, it does seem to do it in a unique way. A variety of people have taken part so far, and all remark on how different it feels from the rest of their social calendar. Even my most socially active friends and dinner hosts find Stone Soup intriguing and, somewhat to my continuing surprise, novel.

It is a pleasure to listen to other people's stories, and a different kind of pleasure to tell one's own. Sharing like this, it seems we ennoble and elevate one another. In particular, there's a species of focused attention that is striking to experience as an audience member -- and especially as a storyteller. Having done a little bit of stage acting, and quite a lot of public speaking, I find Stone Soup significantly different from both scripted performance and intellectual improvisation. It's intimate, empathic, communal, and personal. Aspects of the storyteller's personality are telegraphed with startling clarity to the room; ways of thinking and feeling, their presence, amplified. On the other side, there's also a sense of rediscovering your own story in the telling, with reactions revealing things as comical or strange in a way you may not have recognised before.

A couple of participants (Kaila Colbin, Julian Waters-Lynch) have written about what taking part has taught them. As the name suggests, Stone Soup is not hard to make, yet the results are highly gratifying.

***

What follows are principles that have emerged from the experiment so far:

Anyone can tell a story, but no one has to. We've thought about making it "everyone brings a story". That'd be a fine event too. But sometimes you just want to listen. This way accommodates differential levels of comfort, energy, and extroversion, and makes sharing a story an option rather than an obligation. It also tends to awaken on the part of passive listeners a desire to 'pay it forward' by sharing a story at future events.

> There's a theme. This is provided in advance, with the invitation, say 2 or 3 weeks ahead, so people can be thinking a bit about stories they might share. The theme lends a cohesion to the evening, pointing it in a different direction each time, so it's worthwhile to keep coming back. Even if someone decides not to share a story, their thinking about the theme in advance lends a certain alignment, and to the actual procession of stories the delight of now complementary, now mutually resonant interpretations - "I never would have thought about that angle". Our themes so far have been 'Far from home', 'That was when I realised', 'Three', 'Mystery', 'Magic', and 'Unfinished Business'.

Half-prepare, half-improvise. In almost every case, I have had no idea what stories people were planning to tell, just whether they have something ready to go or not. Lining up the first batch of storytellers in advance, generally as they arrive, helps it run smoothly, so as the host I know we have at least the beginnings of a program. The first storyteller is especially important to set a tone. The break after the first half is a good time for people to serve themselves seconds or switch to dessert. Once people are relaxed, have had some wine, have heard a few stories and begun to get a sense of the theme, then the other half takes care of itself.

> Stories come from personal experience. This is a very accommodating principle. One person brought a poem. Another read out some love letters she'd received via Facebook. One distributed props he'd created especially for the occasion. For the evening 'Three', a trio of attendees jammed together during the break on musical instruments they'd brought along. Stories can be any length, but around ten minutes seems a good time to aim for.

> One storyteller at a time. At Stone Soup in Melbourne, I invite storytellers to a 'stage', standing at the end of the table. By design, this sounds a mildly formal note against a congenially informal backdrop. I introduce storytellers by their full name, and we applaud to welcome them to the stage as well as to thank them for their story. I'm told it's slightly intimidating -- but only slightly; and usefully so, as it makes the telling of a story just enough of an accomplishment. Stories delivered while seated at the table are great too, and we've done some of that as well. It has a nice informal air, but the inevitable backchat and ensuing conversation tends to spin focus away from the storyteller's moment, which is paramount. The other day we had a double act - one storyteller, accompanied by a first-timer who turned out to be an absolutely mesmerising violin player. But the focus of the room was not in doubt for a single moment.

> New blood is important. We aim for a third to one half new people each time. This is part of what gives the creation of group intimacy its significance. Each month we send invitations out to the growing list of previous attendees who have expressed interest in coming back. The fastest RSVPs get the seats, and all have the option to bring along any guest who hasn't come before. This growth of our little circle means demand is quickly coming to outstrip supply of seats at the table. This is good. Supply exceeding demand makes the event more special - and sooner or later may motivate people to run Stone Soup events themselves. Friends in Christchurch, Sydney, San Francisco and Chicago already have plans in the works.

> Participation rules. Stone Soup is people (cf. Soylent Green). It is more than the sum of its parts -- but it does need parts. As I've said once or twice during an expectant silence around the table in the improvisational phase: for the soup to work, you have to put something in the pot. As a host this means being willing, not to dominate, but certainly to share yourself: open up the space, and then if necessary, set an example. I'm far from being the best storyteller to have taken the stage at Stone Soup, but I am learning a lot by running it, and the willingness to share my own delights, embarrassments, and reflections has proven altogether broadening.

> The best stories are the most generous. It's not necessarily the event-driven fireworks of a death-defying experience that make for a compelling story. A moment in the midst of everyday life, experienced in a certain way, sets itself apart as extraordinary and powerful revelation. Related evocatively, it can become that for the audience too. The best story is in the telling, and the best telling is in the revealing. So the most important ingredient for any storyteller to bring, I've come to suspect, is generosity. As a storyteller, if facing a choice between two possible stories, the one that shows more of myself -- though possibly more uncomfortable to tell -- is the more meaningful.

So there's one way to make Stone Soup, subject to change, of course, as we experiment and learn.

***

'Stone Soup', an old European folktale, has always appealed to me. It's about a situation where the whole amounts to more than the sum of its parts. It's a parable of community. It is also, I now think, a trickster story* -- a trick of the most wonderful variety, the scam for the greater good. It is in that sense a tribute to the commons. The stone is of course a pretext for bringing other elements together -- a MacGuffin -- and the substance of the story, the magical synergy that transcends additive arithmetic, as of our eponymous event, is in the way it elicits a willingness to contribute and to commune.

And Stone Soup has led me to think more deeply about storytelling. Thankfully, and contrary to my earlier concern and impression, I no longer think of it as a dying art. But it has in short order, historically, become a latent one: we're more passive than ever before in the face of narrative artforms professionalised and commoditised in the space of just a couple of generations. Don't get me wrong -- I am myself an avid lifelong consumer of such products. But at the same time we owe it to ourselves, I think, to tell our own stories, to develop this most basic of human capacities, and thereby to connect more closely with the people in our lives.

Let me invite you to try making Stone Soup for yourself. And then, please; come back and share your story.


Related posts:
> The act of imagination
> Future food for thought
> The MacGuffin Library

* This is Lewis Hyde's influence: having read Trickster Makes This World and The Gift back to back last year, these two wonderful books continue to rework how I see things.

Thanks to Julian Waters-Lynch and Rolf von Behrens in particular for their encouragement and involvement in getting this event up and running. Cheers to Fireside Storytelling and especially Tim Pratt for the inspiration. Stone Soup snapshot at header courtesy of Erick Mitsak.

6 comments:

Lorenzo said...

Great idea Stuart, I'd love to join you guys but perhaps and better I will start something like that. It made think about the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian story of the creation, its value as a chant, as a genealogical map and as a projection of the future. Last week during the equinox, few Hawaiians climbed the Mauna Kea to mark the end of a cycle of 2600 years that survived within oral stories passed through generations.

Keep it real

ciao

Lorenzo

Stuart Candy said...

Absolutely Lorenzo! This would work beautifully in Hawaii - to 'talk story' over food is as deep in the cultural DNA there as anywhere. If you like I can put you in touch with some others who have expressed an interest in getting Stone Soup happening on Oahu.

Meanwhile - yeah, come and visit Melbourne, you can do a trial run here first... :)

Joan Ko said...

That sounds fantastic fun, Stuart. Story telling is the ultimate transferable skill.

I wonder how people feel before they take the 'stage'?

Stuart Candy said...

Good question Joan.

Mileage varies. I've later heard from a couple of people about nervousness they didn't seem to show at the time... but it's a very friendly atmosphere and people often do tell a story on their first night. Interestingly I've also heard from one of our storytellers, an experienced actor, that not knowing the audience made telling his first story easier.

Maybe you just need to try it?

chat sohbet said...

Wery nice thanks

Sandjar said...

Wonderful post Stuart and sounds like you had a great event.
Just wanted to let you know that there is an interesting Russian variation of the Stone Soup story except it's an Axe Soup. I think we talked about it in class last year.

Also, you probably know this but themoth.org is a great storytelling platform and i really enjoy listening to their podcast of stories from various events.