For the 20-plus years I have been performing, I have had the privilege of working with groups of all sizes, in practically every imaginable venue. Every once in a while, though, I find myself in a situation where a great performance may fall flat because of a misunderstanding of the needs of the storytelling program as compared to a musical concert or formal speech. The following information is intended to help anyone involved with a storytelling event, from an organizer booking a storyteller to the storyteller who is booking into a new, unfamiliar venue.
It is assumed, that the booker and the teller have already conversed and come to a basic understanding of the particulars, such as time and date of the event; how many people are expected for the audience and their general age range; theme of the event (if any); street address and directions to the event (if necessary); and, of course, the fee and method of payment (very necessary).
The primary difference of a storytelling event versus a musical concert or formal presentation is immediacy. A great storytelling program is intimate, personal, sort of like the difference between having a front row seat on the 50-yard line, and watching the same football game from the top-tier, nosebleed section. Same game, different results. A storytelling program, then, can be greatly enhanced or impaired based on how well three particular elements are handled: location, visual, and sound.
Location, location, location
No, this is not an article about selling real estate, but it has as much impact upon the "transaction" between the teller and his/her audience. If you want to get a bunch of horror stories started among tellers, you donít have to wait until Halloween, just ask them about their "worst" telling experience. Nine times out of ten, it was because of the impossibility of the setting. Here are some basic principles to observe, where possible, when choosing or adapting a setting for a storytelling program.
If it is an outdoor setting, such as a festival or park setting, reserve a location where nearby activities or traffic noise wonít interfere. If there isnít a stage, choose a location where there will be a minimum of activity going on behind the teller. Arrange the location so that the audience is seated comfortably, or can stand and exit the telling area behind the audience, out of the audienceís view. If the telling location is indoors, such as a banquet room, try to place the teller against the wall farthest away from the kitchen/serving area. This will dampen the aural impact of the servers dropping trays, crooning pop songs as they burst through the doorways, and serving refills at the most critical point in the story (believe me, it never fails).
Think wide, not long. Most audience seating areas are rectangular in construction. It is best, therefore, to locate the telling area, where possible, in the center along the longest wall. This arranges the seating so that there are a minimum of rows away from, and a maximum of listeners nearby, the stage.
The Visual Element
Once you have decided on the area for the teller and the audience, take a brief walk around the room to make sure that the teller and audience can easily see each other. You may need to provide a small stage to elevate the teller a foot or two, so two-thirds of the audience isnít forced to peer through a jungle of ferns or a brace of bouffant hair-dos in the front row. Do this walk-around well in advance of the performance date to allow time to make recommendations to the person in charge of decorations, or to avoid expensive last-minute set-up charges from the stage rental source.
If youíre indoors, adequate lighting is always an important consideration. Unless youíre booking a ghost-story event, most tellers work best when the stage and the audience area are well-lit. Ideally, lighting should be aimed toward the stage at a 45-degree angle downward from the ceiling and from the left and right of the stage. I wear a hat when telling, so poor lighting limits the visual cues I can give to the audience via facial expressions. Even without a hat, lighting from directly overhead or from the foot of the stage area will also distort the tellerís facial features.
A teller who encourages audience participation and involvement appreciates the impact of a well-lit room area. Dim the lights in a room, and you can actually see the audience relaxing into a semi-conscious, meditative slumber. Some tellers are very effective in such an environment - Iím not one of them. I need it brightly lit. Where possible, match the environment to your teller. If youíre not sure, ask. Tellers: if they donít ask, tell them. Youíll both appreciate the results.
The Aural Element
Lastly, we come to the third critical component, the listening one. While youíre taking your walk-around in the telling area, it would be a good practice to bring someone along whoíll gladly stand at the opposite end of the room from you but talk to you in a normal conversational tone. If the area is blessed with good acoustics, you will have no difficulty hearing the other personís voice. Most of the time, however, you will have to grapple with a room with less-than-ideal sound characteristics. The decision on what to do next is based on the strength of the tellerís voice, alternate seating arrangements, or securing the use of a professional-quality sound reinforcement system.
When I say "professional-quality sound reinforcement system", I am not referring to a portable podium-style system, whether itís a standalone system or one that sits on a tabletop. These "systems" are everywhere. They are everywhere because they are cheap; unfortunately, they make everything that is broadcast through them sound cheap. I have yet to find a desktop sound system that wonít make the voice of James Earl Jones sound like Erkl. (I have to pause now to let my blood pressure subside.....thank you, I feel better now.) Use this type of system as a last resort.
Numerous quality sound systems are available for rent. Just check with your local music equipment dealers and explain to them your needs. If theyíre reputable, they wonít rent you a Cadillac system when a Saturn will do (one caution: if youíre unsure, rent more watts than you think youíll need. You can always turn the volume down.). A basic system consists of an amplifier (100 to 200 watts per channel will suffice for small, club-like venues) capable of handling two or more inputs, two speakers and stands, and enough microphones and stands to address the tellerís needs. Donít forget to include ample extension cords and cabling necessary to hook it all together.
Again, try to match the system to your teller. Some are "sit-down" types (Iím not), and a single microphone will suffice. I use a guitar for accompaniment when Iím seated, and I move around a lot when I tell; therefore, I need at least two microphones: one wireless unit for the voice, a boom stand and microphone for the guitar.
Like the lighting check, if the performance venue has their own sound system, have them set it up and allow you to use it well in advance of the performance date. Iím warning you, though; most systems will be marginally adequate, many will be horrific. Once in a while, though, youíll find a rare gem. Put that one down in your "Future sites to book again" list. One caveat: if renting equipment from the venue instead of a music equipment dealer, be specific about your needs and have them itemize the bill. I have played in venues where they charged a set fee for each specific item used (Oh, so you want a cord for that microphone, huh? Thatíll be an extra 20 dollars..."). In some cases, it would have been less expensive to buy an entire system than to have rented it from the venue.
"Now let us hear the conclusion of the matter:" The bottom line is that you, the booker/organizer of the event, want the occasion to be wildly successful. Guess what? If most storytellers are like me, theyíd like for the event to be wildly successful, too! Wouldnít it be a crying shame if something as basic as having the right teller and the right audience at the right place and right time be fouled up simply because the location, the visual element, and the aural element werenít handled adequately?
Someone once said that "success is not determined by doing one great right thing, but by doing a lot of little things right." I canít help but agree. Paying heed to this list of "little things" in this article will go a long way towards helping everyone enjoy the storytelling experience a good deal better.
(Written by C. Keith Young)