Storytelling Matters

The Live Art and the Power of Words

Archive for the tag “audiences”

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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Copyright 2014 The Storycrafters. All rights reserved.

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.

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Copyright 2013. The Storycrafters.

You Never Know

Yesterday we performed in an elementary school for several classes of kindergartners. They were a lively bunch. In fact, they were livelier than usual for several reasons.

First, they were visiting the cafeteria at the wrong time of day. Second, they were attending a storytelling assembly. But the third and most prominent reason for their excitement was that it was Pajama Day. Almost all of the children were dressed in pajamas.

If our assembly occurred later in the day, their excitement would have dwindled and the children would have forgotten about their ‘evening wear.’ But there was not enough time that morning to properly determine who was wearing what superhero pajama top before they were led away, single file, to the cafeteria.

They streamed in like a hive of busy, buzzing bees. After settling down on the floor, they were very attentive. They sang when invited to do so, they moved when asked. It was an interactive performance with a responsive audience.

As we were telling our first story, though, we noticed one child. It was hard not to notice him. He stood out because he suddenly stood up. But even after his teacher gathered him in and sat him down next to her, it was hard not to notice him. He called out during our stories. Sometimes he guessed what was coming next in response to our prompts. But mostly, his words came at random moments. He seemed to have a hard time controlling his desire to talk along with us.

Over all the years that we have been doing our work, we have seen students like him. He is not like Jakey, a child whom we wrote about last month. Jakey’s exuberant ‘outbursts’ were completely connected to the narrative and in sync with our invitations for audience commentary. This child was different. He was not always in tune with the social niceties of audience behavior, his comments weren’t always invited or on point. Lovingly, his teacher quietly redirected him when she could.

To the observer, it might seem like the child’s frequent interruptions displayed a lack of interest in what we were doing or betrayed his desire to sabotage the show.

Does this sound irritating?

When we started our work years ago, it might well have irritated us. But over the years we have seen how difficult it is to read individuals in an audience.

For instance, when we performed for the first time in England, one carefully coiffed lady sitting front and center drew our gaze. She appeared to be annoyed with us. She scowled continuously, as if her most recent cup of tea was served with curdled milk. Throughout the show her pinched face suggested displeasure. Like two toddlers trying to get the loving attention of a surly aunt, Barry and I both felt like we had to get her to smile. But that scowl was etched on her face for the duration.

When the show was over, we expected her to hightail it to the nearest exit. Instead, she hurried over to us. We cringed in preparation for an attack. Instead, she shook our hands until our forearms were vibrating, and said, “Brilliant. That was just brilliant!”

Who’d have thunk?

That was the first of our many lessons about how challenging it can be to read the minds of an audience member through body language alone. Sometimes what appears to be a downright rude expression is merely a concentrated effort to take in all that is offered in a live performance. It is hard to know.

That was why, in the school cafeteria, we didn’t take the child’s interruptions personally. We didn’t know his story and were in no position to make an accurate judgment. Instead, we acknowledged his comments when they made narrative sense, and focused in on the rest of the audience when they did not.

After the show was over, the teacher approached us. She said the boy was very connected to our storytelling and it had touched him in ways that she didn’t usually see.

We said, “Does he have any challenges?” Her nod and widened eyes spoke about just how many issues there were.

“He hardly connects with anything. Even if he doesn’t say what he should, the fact that he says anything shows that he is connecting. I am so delighted and I want his parents to know.”

Although she was complimenting us, we understood that it wasn’t due to our skills alone, but rather the live connection that we were making with him. By shifting our performance on the fly to accommodate some of his comments, by looking into his eyes and responding to his gaze, we gave him the raw materials of connection.

So you never know. The rude one out there may be the one who is most heartily listening. The one who interrupts may be connecting in the only way she knows how. Even if it is not ‘appropriate’ in one set of standards, it may hugely appropriate for the person in question.

You never know.

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