Thoughts on Tandem Telling and Story Theatre

Thoughts on Tandem Telling and Story Theatre
By: Patchwork Players

When we hear the word “storyteller”, often that brings to mind someone sitting quietly on a stool on stage or a person spinning tales around a campfire. Although many tellers rely on call-and-response from the audience, storytelling on the whole is a solitary art.
There is another form of telling that calls for two (or more) tellers. This is sometimes known as “Tandem” telling. There are many ways to do this, perhaps as many as there are storytelling duos.

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One of the most famous types of tandem (or group) telling was developed by Paul Sills in Chicago with his Story Theatre work. (See for more on Story Theatre.) Sills and his mother, Viola Spolin, did the earliest developmental work in the field of American Improvisation. Story Theatre is in fact a blend of traditional storytelling and acting techniques.

People sometimes ask us, “Isn’t tandem telling just the same as acting?” Well, yes and no. Two persons telling a story can look at lot like two actors acting out a scene, but there are some significant differences. First, the charge of actors is in fact to ignore the audience, with the audience being able to “spy” on the actors through the “fourth wall” at the front of the stage. The actors are talking to one another. On the rare occasions this “wall” is broken, it is done for specific impact, an obvious contrast with the “normal” way theatre is done.

In tandem telling, as in any storytelling, the actors are talking to the audience. Often times, in fact, inviting audience participation.

Actors most often are delivering memorized lines. As a rule, tandem tellers, like most storytellers, are “telling” the story not word for word which allows for the story and the telling to change over time and sometimes with each telling. (There are exceptions, with both individual tellers and duos that prefer to memorize, but these are more the exception than the rule.) In Story theatre, it is more important to “know” the story than to memorize the story.

In traditional theatre there may often be someone who is in the “narrator” role. Storytelling, of course, heavily uses the narrator role: that is usually whoever is telling the tale. However, in the tandem or Story Theatre style, rather than the narrator being separated the narrator is usually integrated right into the story. A teller can flow right from narrator into character: “Once there was a rabbit with very large ears who had a problem ‘I have such large ears that I can hardly hold my head up…’ ”

Having two or more people on stage lends itself to a more theatrical presentation. You can have two tellers sitting on chairs telling, but there is certainly a draw on the tellers to use more physical movement and “acting” in the story; if for no other reason than to give one teller do something to do while the other talks.

As the Patchwork Players, a team of tandem tellers, we tend towards the dynamism of Story Theatre style. We feel free to bring in our acting and improvisation backgrounds to enhance our storytelling. We take a story and create that story anew for each audience. Paul Sills envisioned Story Theatre as a community or communal experience; a kind of egalitarianism where the Audience is as integral as the Tellers, and the Story brings them together. We invite you to join us in creating stories.

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