Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Ethics of storytelling - the teller

crossposted from massmouth

As storytelling becomes a more established and accepted art form, it’s worth considering some of the ethics around storytelling, just as it's worth thinking about the ethics in any undertaking. This post will explore the ethics of storytelling from the teller’s point of view. The opinions contained herein are wholly those of the writer and not endorsed by any organization.

Storytellers love to tell stories. Standing in front of an audience and telling is a rush like no other. Most of us remember our obligation as performers to practice our work and choose stories that we believe are appropriate to our audiences; we don’t want to embarrass ourselves, we don't want to tell something that would prevent a repeat performance. While I believe that most of us strive to make choices that don't hurt other tellers, I think there some ethical considerations about what we tell, how we tell, what gigs we accept and the financials that are worth looking at. Each of the following questions becomes an ethical consideration in the light of the larger storytelling community. Your individual choices and actions have an impact on the rest of us and how the world views our art and its worth. We are a network of artists; we may have different levels of experience and skill but we are still representing a larger whole. We can help each other by taking these factors into account.

  • Are you the right storyteller for the audience? Do you ever say “no” to a gig? Would you ever recommend another teller other than yourself because they are a better fit? While financial realities and the desire to perform may encourage us to accept every gig we're offered, sometimes we may just not be the right teller for a gig. If you have no stories appropriate for a pre-school audience, would you consider recommending someone else who does? What if you have no stories for an adult audience looking for the history of a particular area? While you could certainly develop something, is it more responsible to recommend a teller who you know excels in that particular genre?
  • Do you craft your sets for the audience? Do you take the time to learn something about the audience ahead of time? What are the lingering notes they will leave with? Each audience is unique. If you learn a little about them ahead of time you can tweak your set to their particular interests. If you end your set with a strong piece they will walk away wowed by they whole storytelling experience, feeling as though they were special, that you took the time to create a special experience just for them, and they will be more likely to want to come to another storytelling performance.
  • Are you leaving the audience with a good feeling about storytellers? Will they want to come to other storytelling events? Do you let them know about other events and organizations that are not personal PR? Let them know about local events and organizations so they can find out about other events. We grow our audiences by being generous with our resources.
Story/Art form
  • Do you work on your craft? Are you striving for excellence? Bill Harley's excellent keynote at Sharing the Fire 2010 raised many good points about honing our craft. I've written further about storytelling excellence in these three posts. When you perform in front of the public and are the best storyteller you can be, you are representing all of us as professional artists, worthy of respect. If you are sloppy and unprofessional it reflects badly on all of us. While we all have bad days, we can minimize the likelihood of that happening by working on what we do with the diligence of any artist.
Other tellers and organizers
  • Are you easy to work with? Will the person who hired you have a good feeling about storytellers in general or will they think we are prima donnas? Professionalism and civility go a long way in building a reputation. A harried librarian, teacher or event organizer may not have time to worry about every detail. If you can be polite and friendly, with reasonable expectations, you leave them with a sense that storytellers are nice people and they may be more likely to hire a storyteller next time.
  • Did you charge appropriately for the gig? If you reduced your rates because it was a non-profit or underfunded group, did you document this appropriately? If you undercharge you create an expectation that storytellers are cheap and that the many hours of preparation we put into our sets aren’t worth paying for. It can be hard figuring out what to charge, so if you don't know, ask a more experienced storyteller in your region. If you're afraid you won't get work by charging a reasonable rate, you can always negotiate, but start from a position of "my time, talent and work are worthwhile." Talk to your tax professional to determine how best to document reduced rates, but do document them. This means the organization knows they got a special deal, so if another teller can't offer them the same reduced rate they won't be surprised, and it may have tax benefits for you. Remember, if you undercharge other tellers, you may get more work, but you hurt the community as a whole and you create the expectation that our work is worth less. 
  • Did you publicize the event? Even if someone didn’t come, if they knew there was a storytelling event that increases the general awareness of storytelling as an art form. Good publicity means the next time there's a storytelling event someone may go to it because it will seem less alien. Publicity over time builds audiences. You want the public to know your name and the art of storytelling. 
These ethical considerations for the teller are all ways the individual can impact the growing network of storytellers. Your actions matter. I'd love to know what you think of these points - remember, this is intended to be a starting point for conversation, not a rigid declaration.

Next week I'll look at the ethics of the organizer. 

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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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