Proposing Lao American Storytelling Festivals: Initial Thoughts and Processes

In my work as a writer, one of the frequent requests I see from families and elders is the preservation of Lao tradition and culture. Taking these requests as genuine, one of the significant methods to do so is to reduce the barriers to sharing the traditional stories and histories we’ve passed on and preserved for over 600 years.

This is accomplished in part by videos and recordings, in part by books, but the science largely demonstrates that what will take hold most is children and adults learning the stories from one another, particularly from people they care about and who care for them. In the course of our journey as refugees in diaspora in many nations, and even back in Laos itself, access to these traditional stories told in a quality fashion is frankly not quite robust that our society can largely benefit from our heritage. I believe one of the ways we can resolve this problem is through organizing Lao storytelling festivals.

What follows then are some initial notes I’ve been working on with my colleagues across the country to design approaches that be cost-effective but culturally enriching and challenging, inclusive, and innovative to renew our collective enthusiasm for the stories, and to see how all of our families and friends can add to the greater whole so that our dynamic traditions survive.

I believe a good festival could almost be organized for free, but I also believe that we should all feel confident in investing in the process and in our heritage, and that a budget between $1,000 to $10,000 in most states would be able to deliver a sustainable annual event where the community will look forward to convening it regularly to affirm our roots and our future. If the costs became to prohibitive, our various donors might well balk at the prospects and support only one in their city and decline to support later projects. The communities that will most likely be able to benefit from these festivals are going to have between 1,000 to 12,000 in the realistic area to attend, with a likely participation of 100 to 400 people in the initial years.

I would strongly encourage communities not to overproduce this festival but to keep it something focused on quality, rather than quantity. Session sizes of 12 to 30 people, rather than 100s crammed into an auditorium would work best, based on our prior experience.

Implicit in this proposal is that we value the work our culture builders do in terms of their practice, research, and time they commit to share their wisdom, knowledge, experience and skills with others. Teaching artists are particularly valued because they grow our community capacity to meet multiple goals including cultural preservation, engaging our community histories, and innovating new techniques to understand ourselves, our challenges and our opportunities in diaspora.

While a festival could be conducted over a single weekend in a single space, the current line of thought among our fellow artists is that a 2-week festival in multiple community spaces would actually be less stressful and driven by keeping things running on a tight schedule. It would ideally allow community members to take in sessions at their own pace. Some might take it all in, some might only catch a handful or just one story they’ve dearly wanted to hear.

Typically, there would most like be one to two sessions a day after school and after work along one of three types of events: Artist Training, Performance, and Educator training. The opportunities to also do digital storytelling and Lao documentary film screenings would also be an ideal component throughout the festival, in addition to other traditional arts based on the local expertise a community has access to. However, this proposal is grounded in the idea that Lao stories in and of themselves can provide intriguing content and community engagement.

For the community, in order to create better Lao American storytellers, we will make an effort to provide both introductory and advanced sessions covering up to 42 topics along 3 core areas our community has consistently discussed. Sessions would typically be 18 minutes of presentation followed by 10 to 15 minutes of audience questions, leaving typically 10 to 15 minutes for the next speakers to arrive and set up.

Can we fill a weekend or a several weeks with content for Lao storytelling? Absolutely.

In the cultural fluency track, for example, emerging and experienced storytellers would be familiarized with issues of Lao Food & Drink, Music & Dance, a closer look at the Lao Ethnicities, Lao Geography, the histories of Lan Xang, the 3 Kingdoms Era, French Indochina, The War for Laos, Modern Laos, Lao Folk Sayings, Lao Riddles & Jokes, Lao Weddings, Lao Funerals, and Lao Etiquette. Many other ideas are possible, and each session can easily be retooled for youth, general audiences and professional or academic audiences.

In a Lao language track, newcomers and experienced Lao speakers would be welcomed to focused vocabulary and grammar sessions to explore topics such as Introductory Lao; Place Names; Time & Seasons; Jobs, People & Nicknames; Love and Romance; Arts Terms; Education Terms; Military Terms; Business Terms; Temple Terms; Architecture; Nature Terms; Government and Justice Terms; and Ancient Ideas and Philosophy.

Throughout the festival, both prospective and established Lao American storytellers could improve their skills in Verbal Presentation; topics in Non-Verbal elements of their storytelling; Planning Events; Publicizing Events; Lao Keyboard Skills; Research; Photograph Documentation; Video Skills; Audio Recording; ADA Access; Grant Writing; Book Making; Visual Art & Illustration; and other Advanced Topics.

If we dedicated one day to each of the major Lao traditional stories, as well as the emerging oral histories of our community, we might well see it broken down into the following sessions: Xieng Mieng; Jataka Tales; Phra Lak Phra Lam; Sinxay; Manola & Sithong; Kalaket; Phaya Khankaak; Phra Kangkham; Phadaeng Nang Ai; Phi Stories; Animal Stories; Thao Chet Hai; Lao New Year; Origin Stories; and Keo Na Ma. The oral histories could examine the stories of Lao Mothers; Lao Fathers; Veterans Voices; Monk Journeys; Teacher Tales; Artist Stories; American Arrivals; Elder Voices; Musicians Voices; Student Voices; Doctor and Nurses Voices; Lao Laughter; Unheard Stories; and Lao Entrepreneurs. Different communities of course are free to identify their preferred focuses and areas of expertise, but the above are offered as a possible list to start with.

Each of the traditional stories could, if desired, have two to three additional sessions connected it. The primary presentation being done in Laoglish, with a conversation on traditional meanings, present-day meanings for the communities, and a question on what it could mean for future generations. A secondary session could be a Lao-only session with youth tested to see how much they can remember and express about the story in its original language. A third session could be convened with the Experimental track, which might try presenting the stories in a Fractured Fairy Tale mode where storytellers and the community can experiment with radically alternate re-tellings to see if the tale can be framed instead as comedies, tragedies, musicals, game shows, or something else completely unexpected.

The education tracks for the festival would primarily be for scholars and teachers interested in incorporating Lao traditional stories into their curriculum. Depending on the community’s capacity, an extremely ambitious approach would be to have tracks for K-12, college level, and also tracks for non-academic adult or lifelong learners. Given that less than 13% of our community graduates college, and many dropped out of high school, creating opportunities for this segment of our community is not a waste of time. Could we fill these tracks for 14 days? We might consider sessions that demonstrate to educators how to connect Lao traditional stories and oral histories to topics such as US History; Math; Science; Technology; Art; Engineering; Social Studies; World History; Geography; Economics; Writing; Critical Thinking and Philosophy; Health; and Improved Study Skills.

It will depend on your state’s community, but continued inclusion for the Khmu, Tai Dam, Iu Mien, Hmong, Lue, Lisu, and others who’ve shared our journey with us would be ideal, so that they too can begin taking steps towards preserving their underdocumented stories and histories.

The biggest case we’ve successfully used to push for support of the Lao arts is drawn from the consideration that as we approach the 45th anniversary of the Lao in the US in 2020, we had less that 45 books by our community in our own words, on our own terms for a community of 230,000+ across the 50 states. This, despite the Lao culture tracing its heritage back over 600 years as a society whose arts valued the search for enlightenment and harmony, education, courage, family, compassion, healing, and responsibility, which is deeply reflected in almost all of the classic Lao stories, as well as our oral histories.

As we watch our present generation of elders passing away, many of those stories of who are families are, and what our origins are, will be lost, and many will have to turn to the stories of strangers to understand who their parents and grandparents were, what they believed and what they dreamt for us. If there was ever a time for our communities to take action to preserve what we can, it is now.

The nice thing about the Lao American Storytelling Festival as a concept is that communities can scale it up or down based upon their capacity. This is not an event where we would be asking for entire college or huge auditoriums with state of the art sound and light systems. (Although if you CAN get those for free or at least an substantial discount, by all means, go ahead.)

This is a festival that would simply require regular spaces such as 1-3 meeting rooms for 2-3 hours most days. Local libraries, community centers, coffee shops, art galleries, bookstores, restaurants, parks, or similar spaces would be among those who could be good partners in such a project, limited only by your imagination.

Ideally, for those of you raising funds for this festival professionally, you’ll develop your budget to address the following 6 categories at a minimum: Personnel, Supplies, Printing & Postage, Space & Equipment Rental, Transportation Costs, and ADA accessibility.

Your proposed income will most likely come from 4 sources: Individual donors, foundation grants, admission fees (it is recommended to use a sliding scale for elders, students, and economically disadvantaged participants.), and advertising sponsorships.

Your biggest personnel costs to plan will include your preferred artist honorariums (Suggested range $20-$100/hr), and tech support (sound & lighting) and administrative coordinators (especially for accounting and box office.)

Space rentals will typically be around $100/day for 1 room for most cities, so anticipate a budget need of $1,200 to $2,000 to comfortably put it all together. Professional printing and postage costs will typically be between $500 to $1,000. Supplies should likely be estimated at $50-$100 per day for a festival including signage, art supplies, etc. Your transportation costs will vary. ADA accessibility will vary, but we recommend budgeting at least $30/hr for many of your events to have sign language interpreters.

With good planning, you can put together an excellent festival within $5,000 to $10,000.

Each community organizing a storytelling festival will of course have to identify their own local standards for success, but we can consider some basics that would apply for everyone with few exceptions.

This project would seek to create an artistic space that allows the average person in the US, both Asian and non-Asian, to see themselves and their journeys and how they connect to events, values, and traditions in Southeast Asia. We wish to create dialogue within and outside of the Laotian community to promote civic engagement.

Audience feedback will be vital to this project to determine its future in later years. To that end, surveys after performances and focus groups will be part of an intensive process review to determine what were the most effective methods of publicity, development of community interest, satisfaction and areas for improvement. Success will also be evaluated by an increase in volunteers or requests for similar programming, and identifying previously unidentified culture bearers with distinctive knowledge and/or skills of interest to the community.

Good luck, and let me know if there are any questions you have about possibly organizing a traditional storytelling festival in your community.

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