Recently on the French storytelling listserv, there was a discussion of the “tyranny of themes.” At first, my response was “Yes! À bas les thèmes! Down with themes!” I immediately threw myself into the discussion, but since then have been refining my thoughts.
I thought back to my days as a children’s librarian. While two of the other librarians always had a theme to their preschool storytimes, I knew that wasn’t my style. Rather, I chose the same theme every week: “Stories I Like.” By chance, another theme might emerge, such as food stories or stories about talking animals, but I wouldn’t use stories just for their theme-appropriateness. Stories chosen for the fit to the theme often seemed to me to be mediocre.
It seems to me that the tyranny of themes arises if the theme is imposed on the storyteller, as opposed to coming from within an existing repertoire. When I first began performing and my list of stories was small, I’d get calls asking for themes. “Can you tell Norse myths for first graders?” or “We’re looking for a storyteller to tell about the Oregon Trail.” I’d say yes to themes I wasn’t interested in, because I wanted to work, and invariably I regretted it. I’d scrabble around, searching for stories to crowbar into place, finding so-so stories that fit the theme precisely or wonderful stories that didn’t fit at all. Because I’d be lukewarm about the theme, I’d put off working on the stories, instead spending way too much time dreading the performance and whining. The performance then would be lukewarm. My integrity and consequently my reputation were in danger.
Fortunately, I learned that I could say no to a theme for which I didn’t have stories. I began to recommend other storytellers who would do the job better. I suggested alternate themes that I knew I could do. Even if the rent was due, I felt better refusing work I wouldn’t do well.
In fact, I have programs built around themes, but these themes come from within, from my existing repertoire. I looked at the stories I told and said, “Hmm, look at all these folktales from different countries. How about a program called ‘World Tour’?” or “These Medieval stories fit together well. I think I’ll offer ‘Medieval Medley’.” When I find new stories to tell, sometimes they fit into one of these programs. I also have a catch-all program: “Storyteller’s Choice,” which means that I look at the listeners and decide what I think they’d like in that moment.
Occasionally, a new theme will emerge, or I’ll consider one suggested by someone else, but only if I’m deeply intrigued by it. I have a program called “Stories from the Old Country,” which is really just “World Tour” with a little more focus, stories immigrants might have told. In Kansas, the “old country” would be Germany, Russia, Sweden, Ireland, England, Mexico, Vietnam and a few other countries. When I told stories in southern Vermont, Poland and Italy were also on the list. When discussing this with the librarian hiring me, I promised to do my best and proceeded to find a fabulous Polish story that has become a favorite. In this case, the theme presented me with a chance to expand my creativity.
I’ve come to understand that themes are most useful for those who hire storytellers. They want to have a way to explain what the stories will be, and often they need to justify the program to the administrators: “We’re having a program called ‘What Book Is That Story From?’ for Read Across America Week.” It’s likely they’ll need to fit the theme to the curriculum.
What I know, from watching and listening to audiences over the past 15 years is that in the end, what matters is telling a good story, not the theme. There is, to my mind, only one hard and fast rule to storytelling: only tell stories you love. No need to suffer the tyranny of themes, as you try to fit stories you don’t love into somebody else’s theme. Tell what you love. You and your listeners will be happier for it.