The Power of the Verbal Delete Button
During a kindergarten residency at a school recently, we visited individual classrooms many times. On one visit, we noticed an injured child. It was hard NOT to notice. Laced with lacerations, one side of his face was every shade of the red spectrum, from pink to purple. Greeting us, he cocked his head to show us the palette of pain that marked his cheek.
“Did you fall on the playground?” we asked.
He shook his head.
Then his teacher approached us and gently set a hand on his shoulder.
“He was bitten by a dog,” she explained.
The boy nodded sadly.
We said something soothing and then headed over to the story corner where all of his classmates were sitting in a cozy semi-circle on the alphabet rug. Finding his place at the letter Q, he joined them and we began the session.
Our presentation carried everyone away from the plastic, primary colors of the classroom into the lush, tropical fruit colors of Southeast Asia and Indonesia. One of our stories was crafted specifically for the residency. Not only was it age appropriate, it fit our curricular goals, and it represented the culture of one of the minority students in the class. For all those reasons, it was important to tell that tale that day.
As we were telling it, we came to the moment when an old woman is threatened by a snarling, sharp-toothed wolf. We thought immediately about the injured, little boy. This was not the sort of image he needed. But there was no way around it. The woman had to be threatened by the animal or the story would no longer make sense.
Such a dilemma is exactly when in-person, live storytelling has one of its many moments of glory.
Because live storytelling is not hardcore and scripted, storytellers have freedom. Because live storytelling has improvisational aspects, it is possible to make shifts in text and image on the fly. So we changed the way we described the threat to the old woman. Instead of telling the story as we usually do (by focusing on a kindergarten-appropriate scary description of the wolf’s teeth), we dropped it completely. By “deleting” all references to the animal’s mouth, we pulled the teeth out of the image, so to speak. We kept the story integrity intact and also preserved our integrity as caring people.
While deleting phrases may sound insignificant, it is not. It is what live storytelling is all about.
Storytellers often change their work in response to their audience. It is part of the magic and allure of live performance art – it is also its brand. Instead of stiffly adhering to a script and leaving the boy with a reminder of a dark memory, we left him laughing and happy like the other kids.
Live storytelling can bring the needs of audience members into sharp focus. Take your eyes off the text and put them on those who might listen to you. You can learn a lot by watching them. Parents, teachers, and therapists are lucky because they know their audiences intimately. But even if you don’t know yours, you can ask about them before you perform. And whether you know them beforehand or not, watch them.
Could the old woman be a role model for the boy, showing him that it is possible to overcome a scary canine? Quite possibly. At the very least, we avoided salting a wound in the service of a script by invoking the verbal delete button.
If you heed your audience, you honor them. And maybe, you will offer the balm of blissful forgetting graced with healing.
Do you have moments where the power of your writing or speaking is amplified by what you don’t utter or write? Let’s have a conversation -if you comment I will respond and visit you back!
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