Sunday, April 19, 2015

Storytelling Slams: Cocktails, Canapes and Calliope

Like me, a calliope is sometimes full of hot air.
A bit of personal reflection: "Cocktails, Canapes and Calliope" is the new way that I am understanding the ongoing evolution of the Story Slam.

There's been, in my little circles, some discussion by the oral storytelling community (both online and offline) about story slams. I've been reflecting, mostly for myself, on my evolving image of the story slam.

Story slams, henceforth just called "slams," vary in style, quality, rules, and process but most are built around telling personal tales that are supposed to be true. The sharing of personal stories has probably already existed since people learned to speak. Really, aren't slams just the extension of gossiping with your neighbor over the backyard fence in olden times, like 1970 or some such date? Slams, if nothing else, create self-selected communities when we are too busy to know the people who actually live in the homes next to us.  If you need to know more about slams, I've written about them here and here and always-teaching here.

In the most popular cases, these storytelling events usually are almost always held with food and drink (hence, "cocktails and canapes") for the audience. It seems, from my experience, that the best-attended slam events have these two elements. I'm wondering if this is unique to this version of storytelling (as a performing art) as I can't imagine that most folks go the ballet with a table of highballs and mixed nuts.

New Words
Lately, I am seeing some positive shift in the quality of these events.  I know that "quality" is subjective and personal, as for some people every word uttered on the slam stage should be applauded while others shun the entire reality of slams. However, balance is important.

I used to describe slams as "karaoke storytelling".  "Karaoke" was once the cocktails-and-canapes version of "everybody's-a-performer" event before slams started to take over. For many of the events I saw at the beginning of the story-slam trend (1998?), "Karaoke storytelling" was the right description in my mind. People readily understood the model: get up and talk (usually in anecdotes and not really in stories) about one of the big-three subjects of sex, drinking or nakedness (with a smattering of  "how crazy my family is") and you could get an ovation. Much like karaoke singing an off key-version of "Midnight Train to Georgia," you would at least get applause for your efforts and (important) your telling would embolden others to share their voices.

However, in the last year or so, I am seeing a positive shift in the quality storytelling at some slams. I'm replacing my use of the word "karaoke" with "calliope/Calliope."

first, it's a calliope
Let's start with the calliope with the small-c. A calliope is a loud, offkey, hot-air driven musical device that is used at circuses and state fairs. It's blustery, attention-seeking and, for a few moments, can be fun to watch. They are a novelty for music; they are not something I want to listen to all the time. Sadly, there is still some calliope-style storytelling going on at slams. While you can get a "ringer" who truly understands how to tell a story, there are still some storytellers who are new and loud. Worse yet is the storyteller who is not new, just lazy (untaught?) in story-crafting. This happens often in "draw the contestants' names from a hat" shows. These are the calliope storytellers. You will have some fun, but you will get tired of listening to these tellers after a while. There is much noise and distraction coming from these calliope tellers.  In fairness, we could say that there is some serious butchering of world-tale story in the traditional presentations, too.

Choose Your Muse.
Calliope drops knowledge on Orpheus
Choose Your Muse: Calliope
Importantly, we also have the capital-C Calliope. She is The Muse of Eloquence and Epic Poetry.  With the slams that insist on coaching or curating the presenters, there is often better personal storytelling going on as well as the sets of inspired, touching, relevant and eloquent tales. Seemingly touched by Calliope herself, some of the storytellers in these slams create a wonder to hear and feel.  These Calliope[1] storytellers elicit a room-wide guttural sound of agreement or appropriate laughter from the audience immediately before they begin applauding. These good tellers are now the ones who inspire others to share their voices.

Take Some Action
Thinking that you want to be more on the Calliope side of things? Here are four actions you can take for improving your storytelling. First, get better coaching or (as a producer) offer coaching at your slams. Then, be more intentional about the stories you are telling. Also, be sure you have rehearsed your story with others who will actually give you authentic feedback.  Finally, explore some more options and educate yourself about how stories are actually crafted and created.

While the forms of both traditional and slam storytelling have their mixes of calliope and Calliope, I am happy to say that I think that more slams are evolving to the Calliope stage.

[1]Or...go ahead and blow my alliteration by using the name of her son Orpheus should you need something more masculine.
Photo Cred:
calliope: By Neochichiri11 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Calliope: Alexandre-Auguste Hirsch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The is the official blog for K. Sean Buvala, storyteller and storytelling coach.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Storytelling Practitioner: What Does 'Show, Don't Tell' Mean?

Storytellers use too many words...sometimes.

In this next "Hard-Core Storytelling Practitioner" post, I am talking the concept of "Show, Don't Tell" (written as Show or Tell in this article) that is prevalent in the "sacred" texts (giggle) of many who practice oral storytelling.

This is all Show. You would need some
Tell to understand this pic, huh?
I've been noticing lately in the audio recordings of our storytelling events that some of my stories might seem to be "missing" parts when listened to. However, I am not too concerned since the parts that are missing are the parts that I am "Showing" the audience the story rather than "Telling" the audience the story.

Adding to my reflection this week came Cassandra Cushing, who serendipitously asked on Twitter, "Storytellers, what does 'show, don't tell' mean to you? Do you like this phrase/concept?"

You can see most of the friendly conversation between Cassie, Tim Ereneta and me in this link here. In the debate for meaning and its application for oral storytelling, the "Tell" part of the phrase is easy: Words. Storytellers use words intentionally, judiciously and musically. But, don't use too many words, Show some words instead. Use too many words and, like extra salt in a soup, the experience of storytelling is spoiled. With not enough words, the story can feel flat just as soup would be when lacking salt.

So, for me, the question comes down to this: what does "Show" mean?

My Understanding
In the debate for meaning of "show, don't tell" and its application for oral storytelling, the "Tell" part of the phrase is easy for me: Words. Storytellers use words intentionally, judiciously and musically. They also need to do so in front of a live (present with them) audience. Because of that unique requirement of audience presence, the storyteller is free to Show the story through simple gesture and characterization.

I have a choice. I can Tell you a description of every character and how they are reacting to the world around them or I can Show how they are feeling and reacting in their story world.

Use too many words and, like excess salt in a soup, the experience of storytelling is spoiled. With not enough words, the story can feel flat just as soup would be when lacking salt. Tell the story, give enough narrative, walk with the audience towards the full realization of the story you are Telling. Use Show much more liberally. Watch your audience as you are storytelling, trust them to "get it." If they don't, maybe they need more salt in their soup?

Let's look at one character in one story, as an example of Show. When I tell one of the original Grimm versions of "Cinderella," the step-mother is clearly unhappy with Cinderella's ability to outsmart her. As she speaks in my story, demanding even more dried peas be picked from the ashes, I see her in my mind's eye. I Show that to my audience: my body straightens, her speech becomes clipped and she does the "plastic smile" at Cinderella. Her gestures become staccato and she unconsciously picks at her fingers, rubbing thumb to side of finger as she holds one hand in front of her. I am Showing the character to the audience. Step-mom's persona lives in me in these subtle ways.

Each character has their own "way of being" that is Shown in my way of bringing the character to life. This is so much a part of my telling that, in order to write this for you, I had to briefly tell the story to myself, so that I could remember the nuances of the character. I had to figure out how to tell you all those words to describe Step-mom in this article. Whew! Thank goodness I don't do that for actually storytelling.

Some Ways to Show
As a storyteller, you have a full pallet of ways to Show a character. You will be using hand gestures, facial expressions, gaze, and body posture and body position. Your tone of voice might change between characters. You will be being giving attention to your pacing, pauses and your eye contact. Incorporate the character into your being, Show the characters to your audience.

I am aware that for some audiences that may be visually challenged you may need to add more words to your story, using Tell more liberally. Also, for audience members on the Autism spectrum or others who have trouble with interpreting social cues, a more direct approach to "The Step-mom was angry, trying to control her voice…she sounded like this," might be a better choice. As storytellers, we always put our audience first. What do they need?

 But what about oral recordings?
These concepts of Show and/or Tell have different rules in a recording, particularly in an audio recording such as a CD, mp3, radio or podcast. Storytelling performances recorded in audio (or video) are not storytelling. They are records of a storytelling event, no matter how entertaining they may be. For example, my current version of the Rumpelstiltskin tale is of a tiny man of few words, but with a very expressive face, head gestures and lingering eye contact. That Showing simply does not translate well to an audio recording. To record it formally, I would have to change the balance and techniques of Show and Tell.

A story designed for recordings (audio) is closer to "voiceover" than storytelling.

Tl;dr or My Conclusion
Here is what I am practicing and using these days: Showing and Telling are both important parts of oral storytelling. Showing in a story is the whole body, subtle and nuanced, expression of a character or place in live storytelling. Telling is where the narrative takes over the story or the characters speaking things that move the narrative forward. I prefer that storytellers; Show me nuances of the character.

Edit April 10: Cassie Cushing has posted more on this subject on her blog linked here

The is the official blog for K. Sean Buvala, storyteller and storytelling coach. Photo Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.