Thursday, August 04, 2005

The energy of space

I've come to understand that much of my work is about energy management. While telling the stories I love, in order to be effective, I have to manage my own energy, the energy of the audience, the energy of the story, and the energy of the space. Am I pushing too hard in this place? Am I losing that kid in the third row? Does this story need a pause here? Have I set up the space so that everyone can listen easily? I imagine it is like being a conductor, or maybe like playing a pipe organ (MADewH, want to weigh in on that?), paying attention to everything all at once. I like it. It's also why a day of four performances can be totally exhausting. Fun, but tiring.

I've learned how to do this through the years. A few weeks ago I had an example of how the wrong setup of the space can sabotage all the other aspects. I was at a library that uses a former school gym for performance space. I walked in and saw that it was set up so I was in the middle of the room, and the kids were to be on the bleachers.

I explained to the librarian that I'd prefer to have the audience on the floor, with me at the narrow end of the room under the basketball hoop.

She said no, she wanted to be consistent with what they always do.

I explained that when I'm in the middle of the room like that, and the kids are spread the width of the room, they can't pay attention. The energy of the story seems to go into the air behind me, and the kids don't focus. It's better to have something behind me to define the space and hold the energy in. (This is also why outdoor storytelling can be a challenge.)

She said no, she wanted to be consistent with what they always do. They'd tried it the other way once and it didn't work.

I tried again.

She said no, she wanted to be consistent with what they always do.

I was getting angry, something that rarely happens. I've never been a prima donna storyteller, I don't think, but I explained that I've been doing this for twelve years full time (didn't mention the five years part time before that) and that this is something I do understand. She went away to ask her supervisor.

By the time she came back (without the supervisor), I had calmed down and decided that I'd rather not fight. I agreed to do it her way. I resisted quoting Emerson, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, adored by petty statesmen, philosophers and divines."

Did I mention that this room had no air conditioning, just big fans on the floor, on one of the hottest days of the summer? I did know that in advance, so I was prepared. I wasn't prepared for the librarian to give the children, mostly preschoolers, paper fans. Preschoolers and paper fans, imagine it. About 150 of them. On bleachers. Heat rises.

I did my best, but it wasn't very good. There were a few kids in the middle who seemed to be paying attention, but many were unaware of what I was doing or saying. I felt set up for failure. The librarian's comment at the end? "Thanks, they loved it!" Huh.

Thank goodness every other performance since then, including one later that day at another library, has been great fun, with the kids listening attentively and all of us having a good time. In fact, of the more than 60 performances since June 1, only two or three were less than optimal. That's pretty good.


Faith said...

Sheeeesh. I imagine those preschoolers were pretty consistent with their paper fans, too. Or did she try to get them to fan on cue?

Anonymous said...
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Mary said...

I'm glad you wrote about this. You handled it very well.

So many good performances! Yay!

And how odd that there's now spam on blog comments (anonymous's comment).

DLH said...

What would have been the problem with having the kids on the floor? You dealt well with the issue and the inflexible librarian (wast that a children's librarian?!? Yow.), though it sounds as if you wound up talking into the air. Bravo for you!

To backtrack to the Fringe -- what was the audience reaction to Blood, Guts, Spies, and Fat Naked Ladies?