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Storytelling in a pandemic: Humor and perspective will get you through

Storytelling in a pandemic: Humor and perspective will get you through

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The novel coronavirus pandemic is giving local storytellers such as Ron Stacker Thompson and Alice Cunningham an abundance of material to use these days.

Thompson, the chairman of the screenwriting department at UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, recently wrote a song called “Dyin’ in the Street.”

“It’s about COVID and the fact that we’re dying in the street because of this disease and because of what’s being done or not done,” Thompson said.

Cunningham, who likes to be called “Miss Alice,” is considering using a lot of ideas around her experiences while sheltering in place such as eating too much and cleaning her house.

“This thing is going to be really just a collection of all kinds of views of things we’ve had to cope with and how we’ve coped with them,” Cunningham said of the pandemic.

Humor is typically in every story she tells.

“That’s who I am from square one,” she said.

Get it out

Thompson said there are different forms of storytelling and that storytellers are there “to tell stories that reflect what’s going on in the world.”

He wrote “Dyin’ in the Street” a month and a half ago when he noticed what he took as a possible battle brewing between Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and President Donald Trump in terms of the mixed messages around COVID-19.

“It was like there was so much confusion,” Thompson said. “You didn’t know what to do. You didn’t know what the president was talking about. Why wasn’t he listening to Fauci?”

He added, “While folks are talking and not making sense, the result is we’re dying in the streets.”

Here are the first two stanza’s of “Dyin’ in the Street!” (to the tune of “Dancin’ in the Street”):

“Callin’ out around the world/Are you ready? It’s time to defeat/The pandemic that’s here….That’s takin’ lives/We’re dyin’ in the street!

“We’re dyin’ in Chicago/(Dyin’ in the street!)/Down in New Orleans/(Dyin’ in the street!)/Don’t forget the Motor City/(Dyin’ in the street!)”

Thompson has been a producer on various films, including “Sister Act 2,” “A Rage in Harlem” and “Hoodlum.” He was the screenwriter and a producer for “America’s Dream” and is the founder of the Oakland Ensemble Theatre in California.

He is also artistic director of the Willingham Theater in Yadkinville that offers story slam events. The Willingham Story Slam @MUSE Winston-Salem is tentatively planned for Sept. 24 in a virtual format. The theme will be “The Masks We Wear.”

“That’s in terms of our health, in terms of our social responsibilities, in terms of our cultural responsibilities,” Thompson said.

MUSE Winston-Salem is a community history museum that recently moved to 226 S. Liberty St.

“We do a lot of programming and a lot of oral history recording and really focus on storytelling and conversation and being a space where people can connect and learn from each other regardless of their background or perspective or anything like that,” said Alanna Meltzer-Holderfield, operations and program manager for MUSE Winston-Salem.

MUSE has started the MUSE Winston-Salem COVID-19 Community Archive project for documenting COVID-19 at https://tinyurl.com/y8auha5w. People can submit their stories online about how the pandemic is affecting their lives. They can also post their thoughts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter using the hashtag #TellMUSE.

“This is such a unique moment in history that we know that we need to chronicle and document this and preserve these stories so that people can learn from it, understand these stories and teach them to future generations,” Meltzer-Holderfield said.

Because of COVID-19, Thompson is having Zoom meetings with his students who are writing short scripts. He encourages them to write about what’s happening to them right now, particularly with the virus.

“That’s why storytelling is so important,” he said. “It gives you a chance to get out what is happening within you, and it gives people who hear your story or read your story or see your story a chance to get a perspective that says, ‘This is where somebody else is coming from with this thing.’”

Thompson said people might find that there are other people out there coming from the same place they are.

“It affirms on both sides,” he said. “The person tells the story, and it affirms what’s going on within them, and (for) the person or people who hear the story, it affirms what’s going on with them. That’s how we really relate.”

He said that storytelling can inspire and educate people by making them aware of what’s going on.

“When we get it out, it helps everybody,” Thompson said.

He marvels at how there is so much going on in the country at one time: In addition to the coronavirus, there are the Black Lives Matters movement and a presidential election year. “It’s basically saying, ‘Wake up,’” Thompson said.

As a professor of film and a director of theater, Thompson said he is “charged to tell stories about things that matter. Especially when those things, like COVID-19, are a matter of life and death.

“Yes, we’ve got to live our personal lives ... take care of our bills and our families and all the people we love ... but there are greater things going on at this moment in time that we can’t ignore,” he said. He called all that is happening now a big deal.

“We need to recognize that, and, in a sense, live our lives, make things happen to respond to that big deal, be it COVID or Black Lives Matter,” he said.

Although he sees the current situation as a matter of life and death, he said it doesn’t have to be morbid.

“We can still make people feel good, give them hope, give them something to laugh about in the midst of this madness,” Thompson said.

Too close to the fridge

Before the pandemic, Cunningham ran her two businesses — storytelling, and tea parties offered by Alice’s Place in her pink house in Winston-Salem.

She has been doing the tea parties for 23 years. Children and adults visit Alice’s Place to play dress-up, where items include more than 100 party dresses for girls 4 and up, more than 100 party dresses for grownups, and a variety of hats, shoes, pocketbooks and jewelry.

“For the girls, we have a manners discussion at the beginning,” Cunningham said. “Then we sit down and have a tea party with china and real silver and lace tablecloths.

But COVID-19 has put both of her businesses on hold.

She said it doesn’t make sense to do the tea parties if people have to wear masks and sit six feet apart.

When she was able to do her storytelling at retirement homes, she dressed in 1950s clothes and used humor to tell people about how life was for her and her family growing up during that period.

“I talk about how much clothing we used to wear as females, and all the underwear that we wore back then — girdles and stockings and all that stuff,” Cunningham said. “I do some pantomiming along with it.”

One of her favorite stories is about the birthday cake that she and her sister made for their father when she was about 8.

“We thought we were doing great, but somehow we screwed up and left the baking powder out,” she said. “The cake was concrete.”

At 76, Cunningham is looking for other work to do amid the pandemic. She did interior design for 25 years and is now trying to stir up business by sewing pillows and draperies, and hemming clothes.

But COVID-19 has given her a lot of ideas for more funny stories when she can get back to her storytelling.

She thinks most people have been sitting to close to their refrigerators, including herself.

“We all have been overeating because that is a comfort way to deal with something that’s stressful to you,” Cunningham said.

In conversations with people on the phone and through emails, she said, “I say I have a melt down about once a week, a basic boo-hoo, and then I go eat some chocolate or some ice cream and I’m OK again.”

She said that sitting at home is hard for her because she is a social person.

At first, when people were told to stay home, she didn’t go anywhere. Then, as restrictions lifted, she would drive around town a little.

“Then I began to branch out,” she said. “I went to Walmart. I was like, ‘OK this is the high point of my week.’”

She has also done a major cleanup in her house and has gotten rid of clothes and other items she no longer needs.

“I’m a regular church-goer, but, of course, we’ve had to do that online,” Cunningham said. “It’s not quite the spiritual experience that you’d like, but it’s what you can do for now.

“My faith and my humor, which is a gift from the Lord, is what gets you through these times, especially like when I don’t have a regular job anymore because I can’t do my regular job.

“But I’m not starving. That’s obvious. Like I said, ‘You’re too close to the refrigerator.’”

336-727-7366

@fdanielWSJ

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