Saturday, November 26, 2005

What the audience takes from a story

I usually don't know how the stories I tell affect the listeners, or what exactly they get from the experience. Donald Davis says "Meaning is the property of the listeners, not the teller."

Years ago, I told the story "Unanana and the elephant" at a school. Later that week, I ran into some of the kids at the grocery store. They said, "You came to our school! You told that story about the kings and queens!" Huh? I couldn't figure out what story they meant, until I remembered that this story has one line about kings and queens, princes and princesses. One line, but to these kids, that was the nut, the key to the entire story.

Another time, I told Japanese stories at a middle school. The following week, I was telling a therapist about one of the stories. She said, "I know you told that one. I have a seventh grade client who told me the entire story in her session."

Last week I was out in Salina, KS, one of my favorite places to perform. I had performances for elementary and middle school kids for three days, then a family performance with another storyteller on Saturday. On Monday, I received an e-mail from a teacher about one of the school gigs. Here's an excerpt:
On Thursday, my students found a large stick out at recess. I gave my usual warnings: "Don't run with it. Be careful so you don't poke your eye out. Don't use it as a weapon..." Elijah picked up the stick and began walking around. (He usually plays "zombies and aliens" at recess.) He said, "This is a walking stick. I'm an old man. I'm a storyteller." He continued to walk around the playground, and then said, "See this playground? This used to be a village a long time ago. I used to live here. See those bars? Those used to be the doors to my house, one for my children and one for me and my wife." In a few minutes, he was back to talking about zombies and aliens . But for a short time, he was an old man, a storyteller.

I told Elijah's mom about this. She said that the night before, he had asked if there were any schools in McPherson. He said, "When I grow up, I want to be a storyteller in the schools in McPherson." (We are not sure why McPherson!)

In my performances, I try not to take on any kind of "storyteller" persona--I prefer to tell the stories simply. There were no old men, no walking sticks, nothing that would lead Elijah to do this, but he created the image on his own from listening to the stories. Clearly there was something he needed in the stories, something that spoke to him on an archetypal level. I could never have planned that. All I can do is tell my very best every time and hope that the right connections are made.

I hope he DOES grow up to be a storyteller in McPherson!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

And that's why you tell stories - to offer a springboard to people like Elijah Even if no more comes of it, you got more through to that kid than you could have imagined. Hooray!