Doug Lipman has been my teacher over the years, mainly through books, teaching materials and on some rare but wonderful occasions, in person, at conferences and workshops. Below is an excerpt from an article he wrote about our story slams. Most anything Doug writes on the subject of storytelling is well worth reading to deepen your knowledge of our art.Thanks for this thoughtful piece, Doug.
"...I have long opposed competitions in the arts. Can you score a Beethoven symphony over a Brahms symphony? Works of art are unique and complex. The idea of ranking them along a single continuum has always seemed like an invasion of our competitive culture into something inherently non-competitive. After all, if Beethoven had written a tenth symphony, it wouldn’t have taken away the value of his previous nine. Nor did Brahms’ symphonies diminish the value of Beethoven’s. Competitions are zero-sum games, whereas works of art are more like “magic pennies” – the more you send into the world, the more benefit you and others gain.
Therefore, my response to Rachel’s suggestions was this:
To bring in new and varied listeners to storytelling, we will undoubtedly need to make our existing events less comfortable for us, our existing listeners. I am uncomfortable with the idea of a story slam. Therefore, I won’t participate in organizing one.
But I support someone else doing it! Making me uncomfortable is probably necessary to expand the audience for storytelling.
A Story Slam in Boston?
Fast-forward to October, 2009. A group calling itself MassMouth asked me to attend one of their new Boston story slams as a judge. I refused until I could at least visit a slam and decide whether I wanted to support this competitive form of storytelling.
In December, I attended the third MassMouth slam, with a theme of “It’s My Job.” Jackson Gillman drove me into Boston (we both live south and east of Boston). On the way, he told me about attending the past two slams. Three things he told me piqued my interest:
* In one of the slams, several professional tellers told and told well. But a first-time teller told a story that was clearly superior to all the others – and walked off with the prize.
* The atmosphere is encouraging, not at all competitive.
* Because of the judging, Jackson found himself reluctant to tell a story that isn’t highly polished. For a story swap (non-competitive story-sharing event), he would likely tell a story-in-progress. But for this, he worked hard to perfect a story and get it down to the five-minute limit.
Once I arrived at the slam, I discovered some more interesting facts:
* The room – which can hold about 60 people at the most – was packed. There was an air of excitement.
* About one-third the attendees appeared to be below the age of 30 – a much younger crowd than attends other storytelling events.
* Many of the attendees had attended one of the first two slams, and were returning with friends
* Several non-professional tellers told, such as the school secretary telling about one day’s dose of unruly children, worried parents, and frustrated teachers.
All this makes me think that this series is definitely a service to storytelling. It’s bringing in new audiences. It’s improving the quality of stories told by experienced tellers. For me, the element of competition is balanced by an implicit message:
Anyone can tell a story; the stories of ordinary people are worth listening to."