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Some Practical Experience

In a certain land, in a certain kingdom, that is what they say in old Russia...


January gone, the shape of my semester is turning out to be the trifecta of stories that I had hoped it might be. Through the independent study I am undertaking, I am learning the ins and outs of adaptation, and in particular as it stems from Welsh traditions (whether or not they are truly 'oral' or 'bardic' at heart remains a matter of debate); through the creative writing course, I have the opportunity to practice my skills and get feedback; and through my applied study with the Storytellers-at-Large program, I am both getting the chance to try my hand at actually adapting traditional Welsh stories for the entertainment of children (via the academic 'deliverables' written for my academic supervisor) and learning the tricks of the trade of oral performance by re-telling adaptations of folk tales and mythology in elementary schools (facilitated by my applied studies instructor and the City of Lethbridge Public Library). Throw in some Shakespeare (and hopefully examining the sources of those plays), and it's a pretty well-rounded semester.


My first piece of adaptation is from Jane Yolen's re-telling of the Russian folk story (and noted Stravinsky Ballet) 'The Firebird.' The first consideration was the age range of the children to whom the story will be told -- in this case, due to combat, death, demons, and magic, the story was deemed by myself (and subsequently by my supervisor) as suitable for older children, in the Grade 4-6 range. Next, as I would be reciting the story from memory, no book at hand to reference, the plot needed to be broken down into the key beats*, and was not essential to be discarded (e.g. what kinds of animals our hero Prince Ivan was hunting, which are never mentioned again). This sort of gratuitous detail might be re-included when the storyteller's skill (i.e. mine) is enough that longer tales can be memorized and fully delivered; those details can also be altered to cater to children's knowledge of animals (e.g. a boar might be less familiar in Southern Alberta, so a bear or moose could be substituted).


Small adaptations to the story beats can be considered. For example, the ten maidens held captive by our villain 'Kostchei the Deathless' (written as 'Kushay' in my notes for pronunciation purposes; his name also has many variations in traditional folklore) would be freed and celebrate at the end, but not handed off to Prince Ivan and the revived heroes as prizes to be won -- this particular trope, of 'winning' the women, is not in favour currently, and it does no harm to the story to simply have them rescued and happy. Prince Ivan also becomes Young Prince Ivan, so as to provide a hero that children can better identify with. Toning down the violence of the story, Kostchei is no longer killed in combat by sword (which was itself a change by the author from the most common story, and to which I partially return), but by finding his soul trapped inside a golden egg, that when broken dissipates his power and body. As Hutcheon notes in 'A Theory of Adaptation,' many facets can be adapted (seeking "equivalences in sign systems" for motivations, events, consequences, POV, etc.), but themes are the easiest to do so, and I would argue that fidelity to themes is the among the most important factors regarding adherence to stories of old -- so long as you can identify the pertinent themes, and the audience agrees with you. Murray Smith suggests that the characters of a story are often critical to rhetorical and aesthetic effect, and thus would be least flexible in terms of adaptation. Hence, we have the Firebird, the Prince, and Kostchei remain almost entirely as they are in terms of plot function and personality. I changed Kostchei slightly by having his villainous features described as green (e.g. long, green fingernails) rather than black, to subvert the trope of black = evil (and similarly, the demons' features described as green rather than yellow, as the text has hints of anti-Asian racism), but he remains the combative and villainous obstacle to Prince Ivan finding food.


Hutcheon states that the audience necessarily experiences a story in its material mode. Going from a picture book to an oral tale divorces the story from its visual elements, and so I worked in gestures, body language, and tone in order to convey some of the actions and moods present in the illustrations (by Vladimir Vagin). Chasing body motions, a pinched hand held high, gives the children visual cues when Ivan chases the demons with the Firebird's feather. Clutching at my chest or stomach to show cold or hunger. Slow, low, rough words when Kostchei materializes from a dark cloud enhances the words with a sinister mood. However, moving to the oral mode allows for an interactive element usually seen with media such as video games, as having audience participation and feedback lets the storyteller adjust the track of the story, focus on an area of particular interest, or elicit suggestions for content to increase engagement (e.g. "What do you think Young Prince Ivan was doing in the woods? What kind of fruit might be on these magical trees?"). In the end, my adaptation has a fair amount of thought put into exactly what to change about the story, and how to break it down in a way that my fractious mind can accurately recall and recite, but as the instructor has told us in our training sessions: the children are there to be entertained, and won't notice any major deviations from the adapted story (unless they are familiar with it, which would lead to post-structural intertextual dialogue, words that are still far less important than what is for lunch). Any errors in the telling shall be claimed as intentional, and may even lead to further adaptational development. Children deserve credit for their intelligence, yes, but most of all they deserve a good story.


...and, as they used to say in old Russia, there's a tale for you, and a crock of butter for me.

 

*The tale of The Firebird roughly goes:

In a dead forest, there is a garden of golden fruit and petrified heroes, owned by Kostchei. The Firebird steals this fruit daily.

Prince Ivan is lost while hunting, captures the Firebird, then sets it free in exchange for a magic feather. He then follows the bird to the garden.

In the garden is a house; Ivan knocks and ten maidens answer, and tell him of the garden and Kostchei's secrets.

Ivan picks a fruit, demons appear and attack, but Ivan scares them off with the feather.

Kostchei appears, Ivan asks the Firebird for help and is given a sword, and Ivan then duels Kostchei. In the adapted text, Ivan kills Kostchei, and then the statues come back to life. In text, Ivan and the heroes marry the maidens.

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