Those new to storytelling often hear the phrase, “choose the stories you like and tell them.” This is certainly a truism, but it is not the entire answer. Finding stories you like is just the first step in developing a personal repertoire and distinct storytelling style.
When I first started to seriously consider storytelling, I spent a lot of time at the library reading folktales, listening to audiotapes and watching every instructional video I could find. I also went on a book-buying binge, since I could not find some of the books I thought I needed on library shelves. For additional hints, I talked with the children’s librarian at my local branch.
I joined a local storytelling group, and became a member of the National Storytelling Network (then known by another name). I also made an effort to see as many storytelling concerts as possible. I carefully evaluated each teller’s style, audience rapport, and story selection. I was not doing this in order to duplicate what they did, but rather to consider what it was that made listeners appreciate their performances.
I found that each teller brings something different to the equation. Some storytellers use props, many are musicians or singers, and others seem theatrical in their use of voice, movement, costumes, lighting or sound. A few storytellers bring origami, string skills or puppets to enhance their programs, yet others prefer a more simple approach to quietly share a thoughtful tale.
Jay O’Callahan is a teller I greatly revere. I have not seen him in person, but I have watched his video workshops and listened to his stories on tape. I could never tell stories the way Jay tells them, but for him, his style is sublime. When he was asked in a video interview about his presentation as it relates to “acting,” Jay summed up his response with, “It’s my way.” He also noted that he has no patience with people who get upset about some tellers “breaking the rules” when they share a story. He reflected that each teller has a unique style, and arbitrary rules often inhibit a story and keep it from coming alive.
In my local storytelling peer group, I revel in how each teller is so different. When we first started to meet, Mary took a cue from two of us who like to stand and move around when we tell. When she stood and tried to move around, it did not work for her. Her “way” is to sit quietly and take us into her world of story through concentration, voice and imagination. She is truly stunning when she tells, and the “stand up move around bit” does not fit her. When we reassured her that she did not need to add bits of “drama” to her style, she relaxed and story magic happened.
All this is to say, if you do not naturally lean toward a theatrical sort of delivery in your own communication with family and friends, chances are that theatre classes won’t be the answer. On the other hand, there are some theatre conventions learned in classes that might serve a teller well. For example, tellers asked to deliver stories from a stage or platform will need to know how and when to use a microphone. Each storyteller needs to discover what works best for them, and what skills they may need to develop in order to “connect” with any given audience.
Over the years, I have learned the hard way that it is really important to tell only the stories that “speak” to me. Whenever I have accepted a gig where I needed to address a specific theme or subject, and I didn’t have enough time to do the research needed to identify and learn a story I really liked, I can only describe the result as a disaster. Save yourself the pain. Don’t go there.
How to Plan a Storytelling Program
Before putting a storytelling program together, there are several other things to take into account: performance time, the ages and anticipated size of each group, what is expected of the teller and where the program will be held.
Presenters are the ones who dictate the amount of time a teller is expected to fill. Once a storyteller has a collection of favorite stories, it’s a good idea to note the approximate time it takes to tell each tale. It is often the case that a storyteller favors stories of an average length because of preference and style. For example, I prefer shorter stories, so most of my tales clock out at five to fifteen minutes. With this information in mind, a teller can see if it is possible to bring together a program of stories to fill a thirty, forty or even sixty-minute show.
Before going any further with program planning, the teller needs to consider the average age of the anticipated audience. Tiny tots might wander away if a story does not allow for audience participation or takes longer than ten minutes to tell. In contrast, adults might want to hear a long story with more characters and several levels of thought and meaning.
The number of people in an audience is also an important consideration. If the event is well attended, and there is no sound system, a teller could have trouble being heard. The type of story told to a small group is often quite different than the one selected to audiences of one hundred or more.
It is also prudent to determine what stories the presenter expects to hear. Be sure to take the time to ask this question, as it is the most direct way to make certain that you have stories in your repertoire to meet expectations.
When thinking about the stories to include in a program, find out as much as possible about the physical set-up of the venue. Will children be on the floor in front of you in the library, or will they be around lunch tables in the multi-purpose room? Will you be working on a flat floor, or will a riser be provided?
Once you have obtained details about the points mentioned above, formatting your show is next. Take a good look at your repertoire and make a list of the stories on your list that will work in this circumstance. Be sure to note the approximate length of each tale as you list them.
The theatre rule of “start strong and leave ’em wanting more,” is a good one for storytellers to remember. When a story program begins with a tale or activity that grabs the audience and makes them want to follow where you take them, the tone will be set for the entire show, and your job as the teller will be easier. The last tale is just as important as the first, since this story represents the final part of the story journey. Think of these two selections as program bookends, and then place the other stories you want to tell within this framework.
Next, evaluate the list and think about how to bring the stories together in a way that makes sense and provides variety. By this, I mean looking for continuity or theme or finding good ideas to make segues between stories so there is a “flow” or feeling of connection in the format. This flow maintains the attention of your audience and holds the program together.
I always prepare a contingency list of stories to use in case my plan does not seem perfect when I arrive at the venue. Storytelling is so fluid, and the audience can be quite different than anticipated, so having a contingency plan is helpful. I cannot tell you how many times my alternate list has come in handy. It only takes a few minutes to do this, and even if you don’t have to use the list, you will be more relaxed for having prepared for possible surprises.
If you have a special talent and think it will enhance the presentation, by all means use it. A graphic artist might want to use markers, a large easel and an art pad to draw a character as a story unfolds. A dancer might want to demonstrate how the fox pranced with joy when he got a fish. A singer might want to add a song of sorrow for the hero. This is the sort of personal touch we each bring to our program plan, and it is a quality that contributes greatly to what is often called a “signature style.” Use your talent, but use it with care; a little is great, but a lot might seem like too much. Each storyteller has to find the right combination, and this can only be achieved through experience.
Finally, be sure to keep a record of each audience and the stories you have shared with them. As your customer list grows, you may be invited back by some groups. Your notes will help you plan for a new and exciting program for your growing list of “story friends.”