Storytelling Matters

The Live Art and the Power of Words

The Arts for Whose Sake?

While performing recently in a small theater with my storytelling partner, Barry, I noticed a seasoned, powerful, storytelling producer in the audience. As much a critic as a storytelling aficionado, my nerves quivered like a teenager meeting the dour road test examiner for the first time.

“Would he like our work? Were we on our game?” My internal dialogue merged with my stories, and this caused thoughts, images, and emotions to assault me in a poly-rhythmic fugue.

Typically, when that producer attends storytelling concerts, he sits apart from the audience, in the sound booth or theater wings. This is not unusual behavior for producers. Barry and I do it when we run the open air Story Grove stage at Pete Seeger’s beloved Clearwater Festival. While artists perform under tree and sky, we hunker down in a market tent that is sandwiched between the back of the audience and the poison ivy. The tent functions as backstage, green room, and sound booth rolled into one. There, we do countless tasks while trying to listen to the performers onstage. Although we make a mighty effort, we are keenly aware that we’re set apart from the spell being cast by performers and audience.

But the seasoned producer that day was in plain sight, not secreted away in the shadowy wings. He attended the performance like a typical audience member. I saw every detail of his facial muscles. A disapproving frown, the crinkle of a smile, and I would know if he was happy or bored with our work. To salvage soul and show, I focused on everyone else and pressed my jitters, Panini-like, to the bottom of my being. Then, after a cleansing breath, the stories bubbled free to the surface, untainted by my parochial concerns.

After the show, the producer emerged from the crowd, beaming. “That was a great show. And it’s such a different experience to be in the middle of the audience! What a wonderful feeling, I felt so connected to you and everyone.”
My first reaction was “Phew! He liked it.” But as we chatted on, my internal dialogue, like a desperate puppy, licked and nuzzled me for attention, saying, “He seemed surprised at the power of being part of a live audience!” That was much more meaningful to me than whether he liked our work; it raised important questions.

If a seasoned arts producer can forget the power of attending a live performance, what about the rest of us? What else is forfeited when we miss the mood and emotions that sizzle and soar among performers and audience members? What do we forsake by not being fully present at a performing arts experience?

What we lose is the vibrancy that springs to life during shows. It happens between artist and artist, artist and audience, audience member and audience member. Connections are forged with shared smiles, ripples of laughter, and knowing nods to neighbors. And those connections build community. Regardless of politics or background, everyone feels as though they hold hands and heart, mind and spirit, with each other.

Sitting alone in the wings or under a separate tent, choosing a seat apart from the group; these are choices that create a gulf of separation. They block that untouchable, yet vitally felt part of a face to face performing arts experience. That’s what struck the seasoned producer that day in the small theater. Fully present for the fleeting moments of one show, he was reminded how precious and human those moments are.

Lest we forget too, let’s immerse ourselves in the vitality of live performances. That way, we can support the arts for art’s sake, and ours.


Copyright 2013. The Storycrafters.

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6 thoughts on “The Arts for Whose Sake?

  1. Barbara Burns on said:

    Beautiful thought, beautifully stated

  2. Ed Hotaling on said:

    The jitters you described are what I felt the time we did the Haiti fund-raiser with you in the audience. The later part of the post, about the connections of a live performance, totally explains why in the age of TV, movies and streaming video, people still make an effort to get to live shows. Whether they realize why or not, there is something that simply cannot be packaged and shipped to a video viewer.

    • I agree. As video and big screen life kept growing, people said that the movies would go away. Uh- uh. People like that crowd thing – and that feeling is even more intense when the performance is a live one. But though people still go to the movies in droves to get the big screen and all that good stuff, do they all still attend live shows? And no need to be nervous around us Ed! Though I totally get that feeling 🙂

  3. Jeri, beautifully written! Thanks so much for your own sharing too. It helps to know that sometimes, even seasoned tellers can feel doubt, as if they have been thrust into the “center ring” with the critical eyes of the Ringmaster, seemingly waiting for the foot or hand to slip.

    • Thanks so much for reading the blog!!! And the critical ringmaster eye is present at other performances too – when the principal walks in to see if that PTO arts program is worth the time devoted to it, when there is a reporter in the audience who doesn’t get storytelling, or when there is a disgruntled parent at the back of the community room who isn’t interested or present or engaged – not all of those situations make high stakes jitters, but they make something! And I would be very surprised to hear if any teller (seasoned like you too, and otherwise) doesn’t get serious jitters sometimes. Thanks for reading my blog Mark… I hope to grow it. That you are here suggests it could be growing 🙂

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