In a previous posting, I made a list of ten “Roadblocks to Your Success” for the professional storyteller. With this article, I am starting to explore those statements more in depth.
I said number ten was: “Especially for U.S. and Canadian tellers, you are telling too many disconnected and without-context personal stories.”
I believe that when we say “storyteller,” the general public usually thinks of either a children’s entertainer or a stand-up comedian.
So, what does the average stand-up comedian do? They tell stories about the people they know, the situations they have been in. Most of them are funny, some of them a little touching. A comedian interacts with the audience, without the fourth wall, talking right to them and sometimes using what the audience says as part of the things the comedian says on stage. Sometimes they use “naughty words” that offend anyone over 21 but those words are part of the culture the comedian comes from and it is to that culture they want to speak. Maybe when the comedian uses those words, someone from outside that culture will gain knowledge about another way of thinking.
Storytellers are quick to point out that we’re not stand-up comedians.
So, what does the average storyteller do? They tell stories about the people they know, the situations they have been in. Most of them are funny, some of them a little touching. A storyteller interacts with the audience, without the fourth wall, talking right to them and sometimes using what the audience says as part of the things the storyteller says on stage. Sometimes they make cultural references that are lost on anyone under 21 but those references are part of the culture the teller comes from and it is to that culture they want to speak. Maybe when the storyteller uses those references, someone from outside that culture will gain knowledge about another way of thinking.
Oops. Perhaps those two careers are not so different. When I speak in some “Storytelling 101" classes at community colleges, every student in that room wants to be a comedian, so they take the storyteller class. They hope I can teach them how to “make it” as a comedian. Why? For them, the choice between storyteller and comedian is this: one pays better than the other and will get you famous and the other will give you warm fuzzy feelings and get you booked at birthday parties for children. We have so much work to do in education people about our craft. To do so, we must be categorically different than other performing arts. At the moment, we are not.
What’s wrong with telling personal tales?
In the U.S. in particular, too many professional storytellers are telling too many personal tales and further blurring the line between our art form and the work of comedians. If storytelling continues on this path of telling personal tales over the classic tales of myth, legend, tall tale and fairy tales (aka world tales), we are going to see our art form continue to slide off the radar. If storytelling and comedy were to arm wrestle right now, they would appear evenly matched to the storytelling community. But, an audience-centered art form is not about what we want or what we see. Due to the way the world moves, comedy is going to win that arm-wrestling match and be the most-listened to voice while deep, rich world-tale storytelling will go and join the broom makers at the “Old Tyme Country Renaissance Faire.”
Why the over abundance of personal tales? From my couple of decades experience, I see several reasons:
First, some storytellers are fearful or just don’t want to work hard on their stories. Perhaps they are simply uneducated in how to adapt a world tale. So, they are abandoning classic world tales because they are afraid of violating someone else’s copyright. And so they should be wary. But, if you are doing the work of storytelling and building your own versions of world tales, then you have nothing be worried about. Are you doing the work of storytelling or are you echoing the style and choices of storytellers you have seen?
Second, personal tales do take some work to dredge up but overall are easy to tell. I know this will cause some to sputter, but personal stories are easier to tell as the audience has no benchmark against your experiences. If you tell “Beauty and the Beast,” that will elicit comparisons to other versions. That is scary for some tellers. However, who can benchmark your story of “Uncle Ted and the Big Green Snake?” I think the proliferation of storytellers who have invented family members and stories who then use them as the basis for their presentations speaks to the general ease of developing personal tales and the ease of telling them to modern audiences.
Third, some storytellers are seeking therapy in telling personal tales. I’ve been in discussions where storytellers talk about “clearing out their emotions” through personal tales. Sounds great for therapy or for support groups and visits to your shrink, but it’s wrong to do that to your general audiences or otherwise force support-group status on the unsuspecting.
Should we tell personal tales. Yes, we should. There is a place for personal tales. An occasional tale in the midst of other world tales is a good break and can create an affinity between audience and teller. It is also possible to interweave personal and world tales in the same telling You can see me do this in this video at YouTube. This creates the same stand-up sense that audiences flock to but also gives the audience an exposure to the greater gifts of the story and storyteller. Some personal tales are for used for historical purposes and education. Again another valid use in the correct setting. What better way is there to teach the culture of the “old southwest” than a family story passed down from storyteller to audience?
So, I suggest the following for the working storyteller:
Research, learn to tell and use at least one world tale for every personal tale you develop.
Tell your world tales to an audience that is not composed of children locked into a school classroom, a public library or to an audience of just your storytelling groupies. So, find some 19-30 year olds and start telling.
Develop one interlocking world tale and personal story and tell those stories as a singular experience. I am not talking here about framing: “My Uncle Ted once was bitten by a snake so that is why I am telling you now about the story of the Snake Leaves.” Go beyond framing and interweave the stories. You’ll learn more about both stories in the process.