Tales from the Body
January 25th, 2009
New York Society for Ethical Culture

The Center and the NSN teamed up for a groundbreaking afternoon.


Tales from the Body was an enormous success for The Storytelling Center and our generous co-sponsor, the National Storytelling Network (NSN)!

Approximately 90 people, a mix of storytellers, people with disabilities, people affected by illness, and people simply interested in the topic or in storytelling itself came together at the New York Society for Ethical Culture on January 25th for an afternoon of surprising and fascinating stories about physical and mental differences and ailments, and about the physical vulnerability that is one of the conditions of life for all human beings.

The event, supported by a grant from NSN and the kickoff event for the NSN's Year of the Regions program in 2009, was one of the most diverse gatherings The Storytelling Center has produced in recent years, as well as one of the largest. We did lots of outreach to organizations for people with disabilities and people with specific illnesses, and that outreach really paid off. The NSN's vigorous promotion of Tales from the Body to its members also brought in many attendees, including one from as far away as Seattle! (and others from Connecticut, Albany and Long Island).

Our two gifted emcees, Laura Simms (for the concert) and Reverend Malika Lee Whitney (for the Story Swap), worked very effectively to create a tone that welcomed our wide–ranging audience. Laura started us off with words that provided just the right context for an event about the commonality between people with disabilities and the currently able–bodied: "All of us have a body."

Puma Nancy Donoval Matt Mitler
Left to right: Puma, Nancy Donoval, and Matt Mitler.

Then we proceeded to hear from storytellers with disabilities, able–bodied, undefined or in–between! Puma, a Cree/Seminole shaman from New York City, told Native stories about the death that waits for us all. Kenny Fries told a story about climbing with his short, disabled legs and being able to get in difficult spots his able–bodied boyfriend couldn't. Nancy Donoval told "Death by Shampoo," the poignant and funny story about how she acquired her greatest talent and her greatest disability in the same month. Actor Matt Mitler (Dzieci) told "Scar Stories," showing us and telling us about every scar on his body starting with his feet, including some acquired from an irate mobster who had hired him to perform. And writer Robyn Ringler told "Singing and Counting," a hilarious story about her own encounter with obsessive compulsive disorder.

bodytales_kennyfries bodytales_robyn
Left to right: Kenny Fries and Robyn Ringler.

Tales organizer Donna Minkowitz led the panel of five storytellers, along with two others — Columbia University narrative medicine professor Dr. Sayantani DasGupta and journalist Paula Kamen, who writes about women in chronic pain — in a wide-ranging discussion about the politics and aesthetics of storytelling about illness and disability. We got to hear, among other things, about the 10 days Robyn Ringler spent caring (as a nurse) for the recently–shot President Ronald Reagan, whose policies she abjured but for whom she came to feel empathy as a man who came close to dying.

We ended with a hour–long story swap, moderated by Rev. Lee Whitney with the able help of Barbara Aliprantis as mike–runner. An interesting mix of attendees told five-minute stories about physical vulnerability, their own and other peoples': Peter Lubell, who has performed at The Moth and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, told about attending the Bodies exhibition, in which the bodies of deceased persons from China are preserved and placed in rather sensationalized poses of dancing and playing sports. He contrasted his his own living, vigorous body — with a mobility impairment — with the sad, frozen poses of the bodies in Bodies. Vicki Nevins told a story about her own experience with Repetitive Strain Injury, which, in a world that increasingly depends on computer use in all facets of life, renders her "ineffective" at many currently socially important tasks, like searching for information on the Internet.

Many of those who attended Tales from the Body expressed interest in having future events on the same subject, which the organizers will try to make happen!

Thanks again to the National Storytelling Network and the New York Society for Ethical Culture for their commitment to this event. And thanks to the marvelous volunteers from inside and outside the Storytelling Center who stepped up to the plate and helped us: Barbara Aliprantis, Robin Bady, Bobaloo Basey, Mark Horn, Marilyn Iarusso, Karen Lippitt, Philip David Morgan, Vicki Nevins, Kristen Piedemonti, Regina Ress, Mary Anne Schmidt, Mike Seliger, Thelma Thomas, and Vandra Thorburn.

Donna Minkowitz.

Barbara Aliprantis and Gerard Fierst Ellen Shapiro and Mary Ann Schmidt Philip David Morgan
Among those Center members who came, left to right: Barbara Aliprantis, Gerard Fierst, Ellen Shapiro, Mary Ann Schmidt, and (behind the mini DV camcorder) Philip David Morgan of Promenade Digital [Mediaworks].

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