Last month at Sharing the Fire: Northeast Storytelling Conference Bill Harley presented a keynote that raised worthwhile questions about storytelling as an artform. He challenged the storytelling community and storytellers as artists to strive to be better, to not settle for the label of folk art but to do the necessary work to raise storytelling to the same level as theater, dance and other fine arts. This rings resonant with my work as a producer and performer. I believe that yes, we are all storytellers, because that it is part human nature to tell stories. But as performing artists we have a responsibility to always improve our art, to work on the craft, to not just assume that the label “storyteller” makes it okay to be sloppy.
Bill Harley laid out several questions we can ask ourselves to help us become better artists. If we take ourselves and our work more seriously the world will too. In the next few weeks leading up to the Big Mouthoff I’d like to look at some of these issues in detail with the hopes that it will help all storytellers of every stripe, from slammer to epic performer.
Harley has the following checklist for every performer to consider as they develop a piece (to read it in detail click here. And you should):
- Narrative Form
- Voice and Physical Instrument
- Performance Skills
- Relationship with the Audience
- Show Structure
Let’s start with Narrative Form. Harley suggests every performer ask themselves the following about narrative form:
Is the structure of the piece strong – does it show an understanding of narrative structure, even if only to make it possible to experiment with that structure? Is the structure flabby – are there parts that do not belong? Is there an awareness of narrative tension? Does the piece show an understanding of character’s place in the narrative? Is there resonance in the piece, with elements introduced early bearing fruit later on? Is there an understanding of an underlying subtext in the story? Is it clear that the storyteller knows what the story is about? Has s/he made choices about what material to present to best serve the heart of the story? Is there a dramatic build that reaches some form of climax when a truth is revealed? Is this revelation presented in a way that delights or enlightens or moves the audience? ©2009 Bill Harley
Massmouth slam judges are asked to rank three criteria, the first being narrative form. Does the story have a beginning, middle and an end? Does the story make sense? It makes sense that this is a point of judgment because in any narrative artform we long for coherence. We want motion and closure. Checkov said, "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it." The same applies to storytelling. Every element needs to be there for a reason. If you’ve practiced your piece you have a chance to cut out the narrative fat, the unnecessary elements, no matter how beloved they may be.
Storytellers have an additional burden that most narrative artists don’t have. They work in real-time with a live audience. If you don’t know what the story’s about or you lose your train of thought because you are so busy trying to tie up loose ends, the audience knows. You don’t get to rewrite, try a scene again or rewind the DVD. You must know your story, why you’re telling it and why each part is there.
Slam storytelling provides different challenges than longer form. You have very little time to create a coherent narrative, so your story must be direct. You need to know what you’re saying and why. This may be part of why slams are so effective for newer tellers – they aren’t tied up in trying to get all the little nuances in, they just want to tell the story. The short time limit means you don’t have time to worry about narrative fat.
Long form storytelling offers both more and less freedom than slam stories. While you have more time to spin out your narrative, more opportunity to weave interesting characters and explore the interstices of the story, you also have more opportunities for loose ends, more opportunity to get lost in your own love of a particular detail. You do have more time to build tension and have a satisfying ending but more room for failure. It takes work to build a successful long story. These stories in particular can fool the artist into thinking they know their own meaning. How often have you worked on a piece (anything – story, writing, art, etc) then come back to it years later to find meaning hidden that you never realized was there? This is a particular risk with long, told stories. If you find unexpected meaning in the middle of a performance, you risk violating the audience’s relationship with the story if your performance falters as you have your revelation.
And that’s what it comes down to. Know your story. Know what matters in your story and what doesn’t matter. Tell what matters. Discard the rest. Leave your audience the white space to do the heavy lifting and trust them.
Next time I’ll look at Language and Voice and Physical Instrument. In the mean time, practice your stories and plan to come to the Big Mouthoff to hear storytelling in action!
(c) 2010 Laura S. Packer