For this installment of Maine, Thankfully, I talked with Donna Galluzo, Executive Director of Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Salt is a non-profit school in Portland, Maine that offers semester-long intensive programs in documentary writing, radio, photography and new media.
I have long been an appreciator of Salt. I have had many friends who have been through the program, and I have been a fan of the work produced there. I also appreciate that the school uses the documentation of the state of Maine as a training exercise for documentary storytellers. For many, Salt remains an undiscovered gem. If you have not visited their gallery on Congress Street, definitely make doing so an immediate priority.
Galluzo told me why storytelling remains an important and valuable craft and what she continues to find magical about working at Salt.
The Salt Fall Student Show opens tonight.
Why is working with students to keep the craft of telling stories alive—to build upon this craft—something that you are passionate about?
In terms of the structure of the program here, I am a long time expeditionary and experiential educator and so the style of the program we offer fits my educational style. But most importantly I love what Salt stands for. The idea that we find the extraordinary in the ordinary is something I love. I think since Salt started in 1973, that’s been what we’ve been trying to do. We tell the stories of regular Mainers as a way of debunking myths about Maine but also to talk more about what is already known about the state and its traditions. I love how Salt has evolved into this place of going way beyond that objective and seeking out all walks of life and all kinds of populations here. We take stories of regular people and show the diversity of this place. Whatever you think of a place, it is the diversity of it that makes it really exciting. There is always so much more diversity than what we tend to see on the surface.
There is the slow food movement, you know, and I think that what we’re doing is part of the slow journalism movement. There is a place for daily journalism in society—we need that—but I think that slow journalism and creative narrative journalism is really important. With the technology that we have access to, there is such a great venue for it now.
Especially in a time when schools appear to be leaning toward stripping craft down to the barest elements of the trade, what is the argument for teaching storytelling?
What we have tried to do is to retain that slow journalism and creative narrative but at the same time try to teach hard skills so that the students feel prepared to be able to work in the world they’re launching into. From what we hear, the people who come here realize that at some level and that’s why they came to Salt. Especially with the resurgence of radio, storytelling is huge right now. There are so many great radio programs—there is The Moth and This American Life and others introducing that format of storytelling to listeners. Ira Glass really got America thinking about re-imagining storytelling. Even in this crazy, fast paced world, people realize that stories are important. There is nothing like a good story.
Storytelling itself is an art and an art form. Now it occurs in so many different forms of media. It is so important for us to honor and recognize that. And people crave that. I think it’s an age old idea and so simple, but everybody loves a good story. That’s the skill part. I think anybody with hard work, dedication and practice can learn the technical parts of storytelling. There is actually a skill to being a storyteller. I think there is a group of people who realize that and realize that it’s something to be practiced. That’s what is so important about Salt. We are committed to helping people practice that. We are dedicated to educating and promoting storytellers and therefore storytelling. That’s what we’re dedicated to and that’s what we’re about.
What parts of your day and work do you consider to be magical?
Here at Salt it is always very magical. In addition to the gallery shows and events we host, for four months people are buzzing around here. The group of those 27 students currently enrolled created 110 stories. Those stories come in different forms of media and have different lengths and different points of focus and they look at different parts of the state. Even in other places in New England. That’s magical. Watching a group of people literally create a story arc over four months and watching the joys of it, the disappointments in it, the successes and the struggles… That’s something that is a well kept secret here at Salt. The concept of percolating on an idea for 15 weeks itself means something. The student is going to go through this process of highs and lows and frustration and jubilation. They’re going to have all of these feelings on an emotional spectrum as they get to know people, as they build trust, as those people start to reveal their stories to the student. It’s a really beautiful process.
I don’t have children, but it’s like this birthing of a thing. It happens 100 times a semester here. It’s that kind of magical thing, of watching something get birthed over this four month gestation period. To have people come and see the student shows and to see the reaction of participants in the pieces, and to have the public come in and to feel their reaction to the story or piece for the first time… It is amazing. Strangers will come here on opening night and they’ll be sobbing while reading a piece. When pieces are emotional, there isn’t a dry eye in the house. When pieces are humorous, you feel the energy of the response in the room but times 100. It’s almost like you can’t talk about that experience unless you have been to a Salt student opening. There is something really powerful happening there. It is pretty fabulous to watch and to be witness to.
Photo Credit: Zack Bowen / Knack Factory