The life of a touring artist is a peculiar one, and it’s easy to feel isolated. I am reflecting on this in a middle school auditorium on an April morning in Santiago, Chile, as I watch a class enter the room. A gentle crowd of chatty girls, they settle into the front rows. They smile sweetly, chatter cheerily, play with each other’s hair, switch seats, and perch on each others’ laps. Flitting about like a flock of birds sharing a sun-lit tree, they are the antithesis of isolation.
I watch from the side of the stage, not far from where my tour manager sits working on his laptop. He is a young Chilean who does helpful things like finding taxis and reminding me to charge my cell phone. Today, he is working on the logistics for upcoming shows. I’m halfway through 58 performances in South America. I’m enjoying the audiences and the schools here. My stories and string figures have been received enthusiastically. From the tone of this first class, there is no way to know this will be my toughest show ever.
The next class arrives: a sprawl of boys who push and jostle, hollering to each other as they rush to the back of the room. More classes enter, following the same pattern: girls cluster close to the front, boys mob to the back. The room is suddenly loud. A boisterous energy dominates.
The last class to arrive is another group of boys, each one carrying a soccer ball. They bounce them off the floor and off the walls, swarm through the crowd, and climb over seats to sit in packs with their pals. The teachers avoid my eye, and when I approach one to ask if the soccer balls could be put aside, he nods understandingly, looks at the clock, and leaves the room. I hope he is going for help, but a sinking feeling tells me he is abandoning ship. The noise continues. Balls arc through the air. It is time to start the show.
I go to the microphone and begin the longest 50 minutes of my career. In the previous year, I worked with 45,000 students in North America and Asia, with nary an incident. In thousands of shows over three decades of performing, nothing has prepared me for this. I was warned by the agency that arranged the tour. “Latin American audiences can be challenging,” they said carefully. As I stand in the din and watch soccer balls fly, I have to forgive myself for not grasping just how challenging.
For 15 minutes I attempt a story, but it goes nowhere. I can’t get the teachers to help round up balls. I can’t get the room quiet. By contract I am to do the shows in English, but comprehension is not strong, and the obstacles go far beyond language. The boys, overall, are loud and disruptive; the girls, overall, appear to be lost in this tempête of testosterone. The sociologist in me is fascinated, but as a performer I am at a loss. Furthermore, I realize now that the teachers have silently slipped out the side doors. The agency warned me about this, too, long ago. All the other shows have gone so well I’ve put this concern aside, and now here I am, on my own.
My tour manager also appears to be at a loss. Should one of us go for help? I consider the maze of corridors, courtyards and locked gates we were led through to get here from the office, in another building far away. My young Chilean lends a classic shrug. This is a nation acquainted with adversity. One does what one can.
So I turn back to the noisy crowd. I’m stumped. For the first time in my career, I simply don’t know how to make this work. And then the crazy irony comes to me: just before this tour, I was selected by Storytellers of Canada for their Storykeeper Award. Somewhere 12,000 km away, a group of dedicated souls decided that my work as a Canadian storyteller was worth honouring. At this difficult moment on this autumn morning on a continent far from home, it is this thought that gives me the courage to carry on.
I size up the group with fresh resolve. I give up on telling a story. I abandon language. I leave the stage, walk up the aisle with my string, and position myself near a boy I’ve pegged as a ringleader. I do a string figure that captures his hand, then seemingly by magic sets it free. He leaps out of his seat as if I’ve just eaten an elephant. His bellow of astonishment (or is it mockery?) is echoed around the room. I carry on, making my way across the rows, up and down the aisles, capturing hands and creating string figures as I go. I make it as dramatic as I can. I slow down the weaving of each figure to build suspense (the kids mutter and mumble, shout guesses, holler demands) then I complete the figure and punch the final shape victoriously into the air with a Canadian attempt at Latin bravado. I make the cool shapes: a turtle, a house, a star, a dog, a bird. And the moving shapes: the snake, a rocket, the dog and bird again. Around the room the kids begin howling and chanting excitedly, Tortuga! Perro! Pájaro! The room is full of yelling, leaping, cheering and the thrumming of bouncing balls.
We manage to keep this going for half an hour. Then I see that the teachers have returned. They stand at the sides, scowling darkly. I conclude the show, and am startled when a massive pack of middle school kids, all larger than I, swarm around and squeeze me in the middle of their crushing mob. “Miss! (‘Meeeess!)” they yell. “Meeeeeess! You are AMAZEEENG!” they holler over and over, reaching across each other to kiss me in the Chilean fashion, cheek to cheek.
I certainly didn’t feel amazing. That was the toughest show of my career. Half a year later, I still don’t know if those kids were sincere in their enthusiasm or making fun of me. But I do know the value of being recognized by one’s peers. It’s what got me through that show intact, and it’s been with me since then, too. My life as a touring artist is often solitary and isolating. There aren’t a lot of people who understand my job. (Typically they picture me sitting in the corner of a library reading to a handful of docile kids.) Being acknowledged by a national storytelling organization has made me aware that even when I’m out there on my own, I’m not alone. Like those middle school girls, I actually belong to a flock, even if we aren’t all hanging out in the same tree. And I’m not much with a soccer ball, but I am part of a team.