Monday, April 19, 2010

Storytelling Excellence Part 2

Last week we began to take a look at Bill Harley's questions for storytellers. Today we'll look at his next few questions storytellers should ask themselves as they work on their craft; please take a look at the original article, it's a valuable piece. This closer examination may be of use for slammers preparing for the Big Mouth Off: I hope it will be useful for everyone who practices the fine art of oral storytelling. Regardless of whether you're an experienced teller or a novice, there are points here to consider. I certainly found myself cringing here and there as I wrote this piece.

Let's tackle the next few topics one-by-one, Harley's comments in italics.
Does the storyteller have command of the language used? Does the storyteller have an adequate vocabulary, and use the right word? Is the style of language consistent throughout the piece? Is it authentic – especially if it represents some culture other than the performer’s own? If it is a caricature of a culture, is there an understanding of what that means? In the context of the choice of language used, is the grammar and vocabulary consistent and authentic? Is there a consciousness of it being an oral language, rather than oral presentation of written language? Is there breath in the words, or do they sound as if they are coming from the page? (c) 2010 Bill Harley

  • Don't use an accent or modified speech pattern (street language, for example) unless you can do so authentically and consistently. If done poorly few things are more distracting to an audience or insulting to the culture you're trying to evoke.
  • If you memorize your stories make sure the rhythm of the language sounds spoken, not read.
  • Choose your words wisely - and watch out for ums, uhs, ands, he said/she said.
Voice and physical instrument

Does the storyteller have command of his/her vocal instrument? Is s/he understandable? Does the vocal instrument serve the story, or does it attract attention to itself? Is the voice flexible in its presentation of different aspects of the piece, varying in timbre, pace, and dynamics?
Does the physical movement of the storyteller serve the story? Is the storyteller conscious of how the use of his/her body is serving the story? Is the performer in control of his/her physical instrument, using his/her body to serve the presentation, or does the movement distract from the story?  (c) 2010 Bill Harley

  • Please try not to mumble, speak in a monotone, yell constantly, etc. Remember, as a storyteller your voice is your instrument. How you use your voice matters. Try recording yourself in practice and make modifications based on what you hear - would you want to listen to you? And listen to recordings of other tellers you admire, think about how they use their voices.
  • Use your body appropriately. Videotape yourself and determine what kind of body language you want to use; too much inappropriate movement can be distracting as can no movement.
Performance skills
Are all skills integrated into the story? (e.g. – music, movement, juggling) Are the skills used developed enough so that they are not hindrances? Are skills and technique transparent so that the story is served, rather than the demonstration of technique? Does the storyteller use different modes of presentation in the performance? Is there a spectrum, or vocabulary, of content and presentation? If the storyteller has committed to characterization in a piece, are the characterizations consistent throughout? (c) 2010 Bill Harley

  • If you choose to integrate other skills into your performance please make sure that they equal your storytelling chops. Struggling for chords or singing off key may distract your audience. 
  • The underlying work should be extensive (practice) and invisible. 
So what does this all come down to? Practice your craft. Don't be afraid to make artistic choices that will better serve your story and audience, even if it means editing out bits you might love - if it's not in service to the story and audience then it doesn't belong. Be honest with yourself about your skills and abilities; stretch, but don't do things that will knock the audience out of the story trance because they exceed your reach.

This weekend I'll finish up Harley's list with Relationship with Audience, Show Structure and Aesthetic. I'd love to hear what you think about today's post.

Have fun, practice those stories and I look forward to seeing you at the Big Mouth Off on April 20 at the Boston Public Library!

(c) 2010 Laura Packer

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True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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