Tuesday, April 27, 2010

More about storytelling

by carol

I've gone to events which have featured "professional storytellers." It's an interesting experience which I hope you will try if you haven't heard a story told this way before. Your kids might find it difficult to stay interested without explosions and CGI special effects, but it's probably not a bad idea for them to learn how to listen to a story.

What Makes Storytelling Artistic?
by Mary Hamilton *

There are some ideas about storytelling that have concerned me for quite some time. Those ideas are "...the power of storytelling lies with the story itself, and not the storyteller, dramatics, or any of the trappings of theater" and "A good story is a work of art all by itself."

Yes, "a good story is a work of art all by itself" and I contend that work of art is writing, not storytelling. When the story can stand alone and loses absolutely nothing by standing alone, that is writing not storytelling. So what makes storytelling artistic?

Storytelling demands the intersection of story, teller, and audience. Yes, the story must be a good story worthy of the time given to it by teller and listener, but what distinguishes storytelling from the writer and reader relationship?

For storytelling to be artistic something must be happening that would be lost without the presence of all three - story, teller, and listener. (I agree with this...a good actor/teller needs a good story. As wonderful as Alex is, he needs the writing and the other actors to be good as well to bring out his best.) I believe the words should not be able to stand alone (as they do with the writer/reader relationship). The teller should be conveying something through body and/or voice and/or gesture and/or timing and/or facial expression that is not conveyed if one only had the words. Note, this does not require screeches and flinging oneself all over the stage "a gaudy framework" but it does require more than simply speaking the words. I think the story for telling should be constructed with sensitivity to the mode of delivery which, with storytelling, is more than the words alone, so there's more to storytelling than "a good story."

In storytelling the presence of the listener should impact the telling. Unlike reading, where the reader can slow down or even turn back and re-read a passage for increased clarity or begin skimming if a section seems to warrant a faster pace, the story listeners receive the story at a pace set by the teller. A good teller watches the listeners and makes changes during the telling to match how the specific group of listeners present see to need/want the story to come to them. (This is why I would love to see Alex in theater, to see how he responds to the audience as he's acting.)

Unlike reading, where no matter how many times a reader returns to a story, the delivery will always be the same (the same words and same punctuation), storytelling is dynamic, not frozen. Each telling of a story should be a new event because the listeners are not exactly the same, the environment is not exactly the same, how the teller feels that day is not the same, the teller's voice and body will not be exactly as they were in the previous telling of the story. (I think Alex would thrive in this environment. Each time he steps onto the stage, it must feel like the first night.)

This relationship between teller, story, and listener is the heart of our art. Storytelling suffers when any one of the three is seen as over-riding the others. All three must be given importance in the act of storytelling. An excellent delivery cannot make up for a poor story. An excellent story cannot make up for a poor delivery. The presence of the listeners allows the story to be told in the first place; excellent story and excellent telling cannot make up for the absence of listeners (I'm not talking about size of audience; I'm referring to the presence of a listener.).

In fact, I think there is no way to duplicate what happens when story, teller and listener come together. Moreover, I believe we practice an ephemeral art. It's here; then it's over, and it's gone. I'm not saying the telling of stories has no lasting impact; I'm just saying the art as a whole (story, teller, and listener together) cannot be duplicated. This has been the source of both great joy and great sadness for me over the years.

* Mary Hamilton, from Frankfort, Kentucky, tells stories in her straight-forward “just talking” style, serving up an eclectic repertoire of Kentucky tales, world folktales, true stories, myths, tall tales, and original fiction. All ages listen, imagine, and create worlds. You may learn more about her by visiting http://www.maryhamilton.info

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