Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Ask the storyteller: When the unexpected happens

Welcome back to #askthestoryteller. Today's question is posed by Madeline F. and it's a good one for the performing artist to consider. It's also a question for which I don't have a definitive answer, so I'd be very interested in your thoughts.

Madeline asks, "I would like to know how you handle it when you arrive at a school/library/private home/wherever to tell stories, prepared with a program, and the audience and/or set-up is not at all what you expect or contracted to do. I have had this happen several times where the attendees are much younger than I was told e.g. mostly preschoolers instead of school age kids. Sure, you can adjust your program, but...Ditto, screaming children, ringing phones, people taking pictures, etc."

This is a great question and something that every performing storyteller has or will encounter. I have found it to be far more likely to happen at a public event where I was not involved in the marketing (i.e. libraries, house concerts and other settings where I am hired to draw people into a venue) rather than events where I have some say in (i.e. theaters, festivals, etc). That being said, in my experience it hasn't happened often and when it has happened it's usually not a significant issue. That's why I'm asking for your input; this isn't something I've had to deal with very often.

I start by trying to avoid this situation altogether. When I am hired I ask a lot of questions prior to the event, including who is the expected audience? Have they run this even before and, if so, who showed up? How is it being marketed (which tells me something about who may come)? Will someone be introducing me and, if so, could they please mention muting phones etc? I couch all of this as being in the service of giving them the best performance I can. It's really in the best interest of the person hiring me to make sure I know what to expect. I don't make this about me and my need, but about setting appropriate expectations for all parties involved.

Most importantly, I find out who will be the accountable person onsite. When I arrive at the scheduled time (always well before the performance) I introduce myself and remind them about phones, no recording without permission and whatever my preferences are regarding photography. (Photography is another question altogether. In brief, I think as a public person I need to be okay with having my picture taken.) I smile. I say please and thank you. I am as gracious as I can be so, if there is a problem when I ask for help solving it, I don't appear to be petty.

I think about set design in three ways. 1) If I know there is a reasonable chance my audience will change I try to design my set lists with some flexibility though I remain focused on the announced intent of the show. For instance, if I'm hired to tell stories in 6th grade classrooms and get bumped into the 4th grade, most of the material is likely to still work with a tweak or two. 2) If I am hired to tell stories to adults at a show that is advertised as 18+ but some parents bring little kids, I ask the organizer to remind the parent about the advertised content. I may check in with the parent. Then I tell essentially the stories I was planning on; the parent made an informed choice. I might tone it down a little but not by much; maybe this parent routinely brings their kids to R rated films. 3) Lastly, if it is an event with a specific set that cannot be changed (i.e. Crazy Jane, Woman on the Edge, or another one-woman show) I go ahead with it exactly as planned. These events typically occur in more controlled settings like theaters, where the audience expectation should have been clearly set. I may ask the organizer to remind the audience that this is an evening of stories for adults.

If the audience is radically different from what I was expecting and it isn't an immutable show, I do my best to adapt but I make sure I talk with the organizer, so they know this isn't okay next time. I have a number of standby-sets appropriate for certain audiences, tried and true stories that work with younger people or mixed groups. I'll use one of those if I have to. There are also many, many stories appropriate for all ages and I make sure I keep some of those in my rotation at all times. For example, many folktales operate on the Sesame Street principle - amusing for little people with lots of jokes they won't get but bigger people will.

As far as interruptions and other unexpected events, I play with them. If a phone rings more than once I may step out of the story to ask them to mute it or I may incorporate the sound. If a child is creaming and won't be quiet I may ask a parent to step out for a moment so the other listeners aren't disturbed. Again, having a good relationship with your organizer really helps here; they may intervene for you. In general, I try to remember that life is always happening and we need to be compassionate as performers, Sometimes that means ignoring it, sometimes it means gently incorporating or acknowledging it. Think about the Jonesboro trains; stuff happens and all we can do is dance with it.

I would love to hear what you have to say about this. What do you do when the setting or audience is not what you were led to believe? What do you do when interruptions happen? And I'd love to hear your other questions for #askthestoryteller. Keep them coming. I'm enjoying it and I hope you are too.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

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