Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Tender stories and storytellers

Here we are, March first. I know that winter may not be done everywhere, but the beginning of March has always felt like the start of spring to me. Here in Kansas City, green shoots are nosing their way out of the ground. The crocuses are in bloom and the first forsythia showed yesterday. I know, some of this is unfortunate, due to climate change, and those tender buds are likely in for a chilly surprise, but still, these glimpses of spring help lighten my outlook. We have survived another winter and can loosen our armor, we can be revealed again as tender beings.

I've written before about storytelling and vulnerability, pointing out Brene´ Brown's beloved TED talk. I wanted to take a moment to remind myself that tenderness is vulnerability's sister, and just as important.

It's easy to focus on the negative connotations of tenderness. Easily hurt, weak or delicate, immature. Yet the word has other meanings that I think have relevance to performance storytelling and art making in general. Not tough. Gentle. Moved to emotion easily.

We all enter the world as tender beings. We are vulnerable, soft, delicate, moved to emotion easily. As we grow we toughen up, hiding the tenderness that still exists under the skin because it is too risky, too vulnerable to let it show.

New stories are tender things, like babies or those new shoots poking out of the ground, requiring a gentle touch to grow into the rugged moments on stage. When we recognize the tenderness at the beginning we are less likely to be frustrated when the story grows at its own pace - you can't hasten a flower by pulling on the stem. When we remember the tenderness of the beginning we can approach each telling with joy in the creation, with wonder that it even exists. When we let glimmers of our own tenderness show - say the affection we hold for the villain, the truth that a story still has meaning to us - the audience may be more likely to let themselves experience it all more deeply.

How do you allow tenderness into your art? Here are some possibilities.

  • In early development, let yourself feel how a story affects you. Ask yourself why you are drawn to it, why you feel how you feel about it. Understand your own tenderness.
  • Appreciate the tender moments in the story. What happens when the protagonist sees their love for the first time? What about when we remember the shame linked to part of a personal narrative? If we let ourselves feel those things as the story develops we can more easily communicate it to our listeners.
  • Let yourself feel tenderness for your characters and narratives. Sure, your bad guys may be utterly reprehensible, but if you understand where they are tender they will be that much more believable and maybe just a little bit sympathetic. When your audience can sympathize with the villain they fall more deeply into the story and are left with more to think about. Even Disney villains have a tender spot we can feel for - Jafar has been overlooked for his brother his whole life. The wicked queen has only her beauty for comfort and is deeply betrayed by the mirror's honesty.
  • Honor your own tenderness throughout the process. Don't think you need to become hard and cynical to become an effective teller. Leave room for your own heart and the hearts of your audience. Some of the best, funniest storytellers I've ever heard have tenderness at the core of their narrative. 

I'd love to know how tenderness helps or impedes your art. What do you think?

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

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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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