A lone speaker walks up to a mike. A spotlight glaring in her eyes, she faces the audience and opens her mouth. She may have note cards in her hands, or even a script of sorts, or she may have nothing at all. Then, out comes a story. Her story, personal, warts-and-all. Shared with a roomful of strangers.
The age-old entertainment of story-telling is experiencing an unlikely renaissance in these techno-saturated times, at home and around the world. Witness routinely sold-out Moth Story Slams and the enormous popularity of its public radio program, The Moth Radio Hour.
Does this hot performance genre offer something special to our demographic? Just maybe. Ours is, after all, the stage for making sense of life – or for rounding it out, filling in the holes – exemplified by the attraction to the bucket list meme (about which I've written.)
Here is the tale of my own launch onto the storyteller stage:
My best storytelling moment to date came as a woman in the audience gasped while I told the tale of my kidnapping. I had not yet gotten to the point of my escape, and the description of my captors’ car skidding around a bend prompted her intake of breath. This was my very first outing as a storyteller, and I was hooked!
That was about a year ago. A relative storytelling beginner, I am not a newbie to life; in fact, I’m the reluctant owner of a Medicare card. Why me, and why now?
Could it have anything to do with being a show-off? Another of my better moments was my first rehearsal, as, sitting on a stool, I felt the heat of a spotlight on my face and heard the sound of my voice amplified by a microphone. During high school, I’d grabbed every opportunity to get onstage, but put it behind me when I headed for college. But in front of that mike, all I could think was I’m back!
A former therapist might have offered another take. “Your standard MO,” he said, “is to leap from the diving board without bothering to check for water.” A fair point. Despite having thoroughly scripted the story, as I exchanged gazes with my listeners for the first time, it came to me in a clammy flash there was no guarantee they’d take to my story – or my telling. Yet that uncertainty was at the heart of the thrill.
An age-old art, the telling of tales goes all the way back to the epic Gilgamesh. And until the Gutenberg press upended their livelihoods, storytellers were highly respected in the Middle Ages. Today, audiences are again being regaled by folk tales and legends, in venues from nursery schools to nursing homes.
But the biggest surge is in “live lit” – the performance of personal, true stories. Something like short memoirs told aloud. Story events, whether in theaters, churches or bars, are often sold out, and their audiences rapt. People cannot connect in a tactile way with their smart phone friends, and there’s only so much digital enhancement to entertainment before it feels fake and the viewer manipulated. Makes that ordinary guy up front telling his story genuinely compelling.
The boom in storytelling is also right in line with the trendiness of “narrative,” now considered an essential methodology for psychotherapists, journalists and management consultants. And neuroscientists have lately determined that to be human, is to tell stories.
To get back to my story, maybe I’ve been bit by the bug thanks to geography. I live in Chicago, at the epicenter of the American story-telling upheaval. Another reason to call the city “windy,” perhaps. The home of Second City and the first poetry slam, Chicago is a long-standing petri dish for developing performance art.
I’m also a writer, another obvious tie-in. What else is storytelling, but the written word delivered aloud?
Actually -- No, and NO. As I’m understanding more all the time, when you tell a personal story well, you bring your whole self into play. You get your meaning across with your face -- as much as your metaphors. Not to mention your arms and legs. How you stand, whether you move around. The pitch and volume of your voice. And the people in your story -- they’re not just there to serve your tale. For it to come across well, they have to become characters.
I’m developing a story right now, which begins with my cell phone call to my father from a plane, snuck in under the glare of a patrolling stewardess. In first run-throughs, it fell flat.
Then, I embellished, hissing:
“Daddy, can you hear me? It’s Pat.”
And then, some mimicry: “Honey! Nice to hear from you!”
Cut short by my imitation of the stewardess’s throat-slice.
Sounds like play-acting, of course. But not quite.
Because it’s more than a stage play. The currency of the storyteller is vulnerability. When you tell a story, you must believe in it, heart and soul. Where readers of literature want fine-tuned prose, story audiences want honesty. And they can smell insincerity way in the back row.
Soon after wading into the story scene I felt the need for advice from older hands, including workshops from Chicago story guru and event producer Scott Whitehair.
“Honor your audience,” announced Whitehair, right off the bat, calling it a cardinal rule. Story-telling is not, he said, all about you.
What?? But I’m telling my personal, true-to-my-life stories.
What Whitehair was hammering on was the interactive aspect of one person telling a story to another. You can’t for sure control how listeners take what you say, nor what response they give back. Maybe the audience frowns in confusion, so you need to amplify, or restate. Maybe they laugh so long you realize you should emphasize one part of your tale at the expense of another. In this way it is similar to stagecraft. Actors talk of how audiences affect their performances, as do comedians. A good audience tonight. I felt their energy.
I find storytelling a great antidote for the isolation of writing; instant feedback. But again, it’s not just my creation; it’s theirs, too.
A few weeks back, I was telling a story about our cat disappearing before a family vacation, and our debate about what to do. The kids and I were for finding the animal; my husband, for leaving out food and heading for the airport.
My spouse was in the audience that night, and I felt kind of bad, making him look unsympathetic. But when I said, “We did miss our plane,” the audience, as one, murmured, “Aww.”
I paused, almost unable to take in the fact that they were on my husband’s side! Afterward, a woman came up to me and said, “You didn’t really cancel your trip because of your cat, did you?”
As a writer, I came to storytelling expecting to craft stories in writing, just-so. And tell them from my just-so script. I hadn’t at that point experienced the contributions of listeners to the telling, and thought of it as one-sided.
I loved being under that first stage-light, in front of my first mike, my first story script securely in hand. My touchstone, I was sure its pages would see me through that first-time experience.
And they did. Pretty well. But it turns out there is real debate about stories told from scripts vs. those delivered without. The famed Moth Radio Hour allows neither script nor notes, and while many venues follow their model, just as many allow and even encourage the kind of literary flourishes achievable via print.
The words on the page, however, can both help and hinder. They remind you what’s next, but also pull you away from the very listeners with whom you’re sharing. I should add that without-script does not mean without-craft, without pondering meaning or message. To work without script requires you tell and retell a tale, until you’ve internalized its pace and order.
That “best moment” I mentioned earlier, about the audience-member gasping – it might have been even more dramatic had I been locking eyes with her when I delivered the line. But I had locked eyes with my script instead. More and more, I see the benefits of facing the audience empty-handed. Imagine. There you are, note-less, just you and the mike, spilling your intimate stuff out loud. Everyone can sense there’s more at stake, more of you in play. There’s the danger that as teller, you may get lost in the tale, or become overwhelmed in the telling. Which makes your story all the more likely to grab them and not let go.
Several months ago, I stepped up to a microphone and described my disastrous first attempt at kissing a boy. Although I’d already written about this for Realize, the effort to perform my teenage persona actually deepened my understanding. At 14, my failure to execute a smooch felt darkly tragic; now, it seemed hilarious, and I relished the huge laughs erupting from the audience.
If only that mortified teen could have known how entertaining she could be! Even a bad adolescence can be redeemed by a good story.