Storytelling Matters

The Live Art and the Power of Words

Archive for the tag “Performing Arts”

Beauty and the Branding Beast

Let’s face it. Faces matter. But why must they matter so much?

The actor Renee Zellweger is facing the music because her face looks different. This has ignited a bonfire of speculation about whether she had “work” done; Ms. Zellwegger indicates that her changed look reflects nothing more than a healthy change in her lifestyle. Jennifer Gerson Uffalossy of The Guardian doesn’t wonder what is wrong with Ms. Zellweger’s appearance, but rather what is wrong with us for making such a big deal of it. Good question.

THE PROBLEM

Steve Rose suggests that a performer’s face can be his or her brand. Consumers expect predictability about brands. We want that boxed cereal to taste exactly the same every time we eat it.

So, generally speaking, by branding actors’ faces, it suggests that those faces mustn’t change.

The only problem with this is that human beings are designed to shift and morph. Change is a biological imperative. The world marches on. And the passage of time is etched into our souls and onto our faces.

I’m on the brandwagon about this celebrity issue because branding performers bothers me in certain contexts. Expecting actors to remain youthful and unchanging saturates society with a desire to freeze the world at the age of 26. The personal and societal consequences of this addiction to perpetual youth, not to mention Photoshopped standards of beauty, has been expressed a thousand times over. The fountain of youth is an unattainable holy grail that distracts us from what is really important. We all know that.

But branding does something more. It can handcuff performing artists by preventing them from exploring new terrain and growing their art.

I know a marvelous storyteller who shares funny tales about his life as a kid. He performs semi-regularly at a particular storytelling festival. One year, he told a serious, long form story about an important historical figure. Though it was a beautifully crafted piece with golden thematic threads linking past and present, the audience didn’t accept it. They couldn’t hear it for the art it was. Not because it wasn’t good, but because it wasn’t his brand. His trademark goofball antics (aka “LOL” moments) were not part of that piece. The storyteller was stuck with his brand, whether he liked it or not. A humorist doing drama? It takes time for audiences to warm up to that, if they accept it at all.

Audiences are powerful. That is why artists strive to connect with their audience. But here is the heart of my concern: Do artists connect to audiences as brands or as people? Can artists be authentic if they are hog-tied to a brand?

It is certainly true that branding is important in business. And the performing arts are a business. Still, while branding can help a performing artist connect with the right audiences, it can also be limiting.

Creativity needs to exist outside the box, inside the box, without the box, and anywhere else it wants to be. If branding locks people up in a box, creativity may not thrive. And if artists are hampered, then what they bring to their audiences suffers.

WHAT CAN WE DO?

Whether people are celebrities or not, we can applaud the changes that life brings instead of sniggering at them.

We can fashion brands for performing artists that incorporate change as part of the brand, so that life and artistic transformations are anticipated and appreciated.

Even though the arts are a product and art is a business, artists are not boxes of cereal. The signature of the arts is growth, development, and change. If artists don’t try new things, their work suffers. So does art. Branding can stifle creativity. It certainly caused quite an uproar when one woman was altered by time, surgery, or lifestyle changes.

Let’s allow Ms. Zellweger, other performing artists, and everyone else to be who they need to be. There’s no need to brand them like cattle. We can remain open to what they have to offer. There is beauty in change and delicious depth in the lines that mark the passage of time. C’mon society! Let’s do an about face and applaud for that.

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Copyright 2014 The Storycrafters

Photo Credit: By Billy Hathorn (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Branding is a hot topic (no pun intended). I was recently on a Twitter chat with independent artists. The topic of branding came up and it sparked a lively debate. What do you think? How do we brand performing artists? Should the arts be branded at all? Any artists out there with an opinion on this? Love to have a conversation…share your thoughts in the comment box down below.

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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.

Strike a Balance

Last week I saw a woman texting during a live performance. She wasn’t in the audience, however; she was on the stage as part of the show. This wouldn’t be so strange if texting was part of the show, but it was a 19th century story done in 19th century style. There were no modern tweaks. It seemed that the woman took advantage of being in the background of the show to connect to her private world. However, she made her private connections in public on a stage as others watched.

Looking around in public places, I often see people with their heads in devices, pressing buttons, focused downward, not outward. Stories of people’s lives and the dramatic moments of living are often mediated by machines. Social connections are not always made person to person, in the flesh. Perhaps you witness the same thing, and like me, are also guilty of being an ostrich with a machine at times.

I read a great piece in the New York Times the other day that spoke eloquently about this very situation http://ow.ly/lZXGc. Novelist Jonathan Safran Foer addressed the importance of striking a balance in all things technological and all things human. He says, “Each step ‘forward’ has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity.”

Being present. People are at risk of forgetting how to do this, and that is why I believe that live performances are so important. Barry and I see that people are forgetting about being present during our storytelling performances: audiences don’t always know how to be audiences. People are not always aware of their impact on other audience members; they are often immensely surprised by their emotional responses to live narrative. Foer expresses concern about this: “I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts.”

Foer also says that making emotional connections takes more time than is possible with the speed of much of today’s communications. He is right. It takes more work to engage fully, to be present, to be open to emotions and emotional exchanges with others than to participate in digital conversations, once removed from the live-and-in-person side of social interaction.

Mediated communications present an interesting tautology. Famous for erecting bridges that connect people to people and information, they also can erect a barrier that separates people from face to face, in person, connections. Remember the woman I saw texting during a show? She wasn’t connected with the narrative unfolding around her on the stage. Despite being physically part of a group, she was apart from them, alone in a way, connected only to what was on her phone.

Technology is wonderful. Building humanity through technology is also wonderful; how many of us become touched or even passionate about social issues thanks to social media and digital storytelling? That is a great good. But face to face humanity is also wonderful and it is essential in fulfilling our human potential. Read Foer’s article, you will see! Here is that link again…. http://ow.ly/lZXGc

Live performance is one way to preserve balance, to build emotional connection and intelligence, to allow the world to touch our fingertips and hearts (tipping my hat to Foer here). So if you haven’t done so lately, attend a live show. Be fully present. Feel it. After it is over, use technology to evaluate it or share it with others.

Strike a balance.

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Copyright 2013 The Storycrafters. All rights reserved.

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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They Should Have Fun

Last week, Barry and I had a little surprise while visiting an elementary school. It wasn’t a pop quiz, but it did make our eyes pop quizzically.

As professional storytellers, we work with every age range – adults, children, teens, families – in almost any place where people gather (including palm tree lined beaches). But in springtime, we often find ourselves in schools, where we usually know what to expect. But on that day, in that school, something was different.

While getting the sound system organized on the stage in the gym, the principal came in to greet us. We were delighted. Rarely do we meet principals in the flesh; they are often in meetings or stashed away like good wine for special occasions.

This principal looked like a male principal archetype:. Dark pants, button down shirt, belt that had more to do with decorum than function. He walked with the relaxed yet sure gait of a leader who feels at home in his skin and in being a leader. He greeted us with a warm smile and hand shake.

After niceties were swapped, we asked him if there were specific school topics that he wanted us to address in our show. Character education “words of the month,” particular literary connections, or social studies themes are often requested. With a spunky, yet earnest glint in his eye, he said, “Forget about that stuff! I want those kids to have fun.”

Have fun. That is a phrase I wouldn’t expect in a Principal’s Conversation Starter Handbook. I was dying to see what Barry was thinking about it, but I didn’t want to be obvious. Keeping my head still enough to win a gold medal in an Olympic game of freeze tag, my eyes migrated to the left. They stretched so far that I feared that one eyeball would sever its relationship with my optic nerve and rudely tumble from my face like a marble rolling off a table. It turned out that Barry was looking at me in exactly the same way. So much for subtlety and the sideways glance.

When our eyes connected, Barry was gazing at me with two dark and shining question marks. I turned to the principal and asked, “Did you say you want them to have fun?”

He nodded and said, “These kids have so many things that they have to do, so many should’s and musts. Children need to play. I want these guys to have a blast with you. That’s all.”

Wow. We haven’t encountered a principal like him lately, one willing to admit that there are too many pressures placed on youngsters. Here was an educational administrator suggesting that children have opportunities in school to revel in the lightness of being.

It’s not that I believe educators forget this. Regulations and extensive testing have tied the hands of teachers, forced learning to fit into a box, and made the fun of learning less of a pedagogical imperative. This is the complaint we have been hearing again and again from teachers. And this is what made the news just days after our school visit.

According to The Albany Times Union, the school board in Saratoga Springs is sending a message back to New York State saying that enough is enough with testing. My take away from the article is that educators in many different areas want to teach to hearts and mind, not to the tests. http://bit.ly/12zA12x

And now, back to our principal. He wanted his students to have fun. We gladly honored his request, but… we did nothing different than what we usually do. We selected stories that were right for the mood of the audience and the age of the students. The tales had laughter, surprises, and interesting images. Educational themes of all kinds were threaded throughout, along with the developmental good things that oral storytelling offers to listeners for: brains, language, emotional intelligence, memory, and listening skills. All of that and more happened, and everyone had fun.

Storytelling makes learning fun, even when there are tests and standards. The students had fun that day in the multi-purpose gym-a-torium, just as the principal wanted, and just as they always do when they hear stories told.

We are so glad that educators are standing up for the teaching they want to be doing, like the principal we met one day last week.

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Copyright 2013 The Storycrafters. All rights reserved.

Why Tell Stories Live? For Many Reasons…Here’s One

Barry and I told stories in a library recently. A multicultural audience of young children and their parents filled the plush, auditorium seats. They were attentive and happy. Everyone sang and clapped along, laughed in all the right places, and were with us, start to finish.

But there was one child who sounded happier than the rest. His laughter rang out over the others. He was always the first to call out an idea, to squeal, to clap. And when asked, the boy always had a guess about what came next in the story.

From the stage, I saw that his mother looked worried. She seemed tense. Sometimes she would pull her son close and embrace him, as if her arms could hold back his bursts of laughter or keep him from piping up with comments. In spite of her efforts, his jubilation always won out. Like a geyser of happiness, exuberance bubbled out of him. His mother would get swept up in his delight and forget her concerns…until the next time.

I have seen that situation before, so when the show was over, I approached the mother. She thanked me for a great show and apologized for her son’s distracting behavior.

Hmm. In all our years of performing, we have seen many instances of distracting behavior. But this was not one of those situations. The boy was engaged. He listened attentively when the situation called for it and was interactive with the performers: laughing, giving ideas when asked, and reacting with pleasure.  He contributed a great deal to the show’s atmosphere.

However, other situations in that child’s life did not always appreciate his liveliness. The mother didn’t tell me this with her words, I could read it in her eyes.

But storytelling values it. Live storytelling is special and unique because it is interactive. By inviting audience members to say things, to comment, or sing. storytellers incorporate their voices into performed stories, underscoring the interactive nature of the storytelling experience. It makes for a one-of-a-kind performance – a wikishow –  shared, in the moment, community-building.

I told the mother that I loved having her son in the audience. At first, she looked surprised, then delighted. “Did you hear the lady, Jakey? She said you were wonderful to have around!” They both beamed. Then, a moment later, the librarian berated the child for something he was doing. The mother sighed and gathered up Jakey. But before leaving the room, she turned, and smiled at me.

But that smile wasn’t really for me. It was for this morphing, amazing, in-the-moment, interactive art.

Live storytelling surely mattered for Jakey and his mom that day.

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Copyright 2013 The Storycrafters. All rights reserved.

Einstein Thought Stories Matter

Storytellers and other narrative artists know firsthand about the value of storytelling.

But we are not the only ones who see it. Albert Einstein, the brilliant scientist, noticed many things about the world. One of them is this:

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

Einstein believed that listening to fairy tales helps develop children’s minds. We believe it too. Research supports it. But it doesn’t just develop children’s minds. It develops community, passes on culture, and connects people. Live storytelling matters.

This blog will focus on the ways storytelling matters to people. It will also explore storytelling matters and issues. With musings and anecdotes, research, information, tips, and guest bloggers, we will dive into the world of storytelling – live storytelling – and explore the ways that storytelling matters. Stay tuned!

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