Friday, December 21, 2007

What is storytelling?

Dang. The gauntlet has been thrown. Tim Ereneta wrote about storytelling definitions in his blog, Sean Buvala echoed the topic in his. I find myself saying, "Eh, do I have to?" Can't I just walk past that glove on the ground?

Maybe. Or maybe a little clarifying would be useful. I once, briefly, had a boyfriend who was a filmmaker. As we were getting to know each other, he proudly proclaimed, "You know, I'm a storyteller!" I didn't say what I was thinking: "Right. Your documentary tells a story, but lissen up, buster, you're not standing up telling a story out loud without a lens, without props, with only the pictures in your mind as you make connections with the audience. Do not call yourself a storyteller!" No, I smiled and said something fatuous, I'm sure.

Anyway, it has become high fashion for filmmakers, novelists, musicians of all styles and anybody else who does anything creative to say that they are storytellers. Yes, they do tell stories--we all do, in an attempt to define our lives-- in their way, but please, let them keep their named professions and let me have mine.

So what do I mean by storytelling? I mean the oral transmission of stories, usually live (though of course I have recordings, and though they were recorded with a live audience, the present audience is far from where I am), usually without the use of notes and with a fluid or nonexistent fourth wall.

Oral transmission. I'm saying the words out loud. I'm not painting them, filming them, drawing them. Dadgummit. Already I'm in trouble, because I've seen incredible deaf storytellers who may or may not speak their stories. Never mind, I'm keeping this.

Stories. By this, I'm thinking of narrative, something that has setting, action, plot. At times poems will fit the definition. Does that mess me up? Not too much.

Usually without the use of notes. Hmm, I've seen storytellers who have notes nearby in case they get lost. Is that okay?

With a fluid or nonexistent fourth wall. Huh? The fourth wall is a theater term, that wall between the actors and the audience, so the audience is just looking in on the action. In storytelling, the fourth wall goes up at times, say when one character is talking to another, but for the most part, the storyteller is directly addressing the audience. Bill Harley wrote about this in an essay called Playing with the Wall in the excellent book Who Says: Essays on Pivotal Issues in Contemporary Storytelling, edited by Carol Birch and Melissa Heckler.

Now I have to write about that title. According to the introduction of the book, "Five years into her storytelling career, Carol grew tired of hearing people say, critically and knowingly, under their breath: "Well, that's not storytelling!" She wondered, "Who says?" Her book helps me think about what storytelling is, and why. It's probably time I reread it.

Shoot. I'm not happy with my wishy-washy definition above. I don't know that there is one for all storytellers. Maybe we each have to work out our own.

Here's what I do: I tell stories out loud in front of an audience, without notes or a script or props (except for once or twice when I use a puppet in a story, and one story that uses a harmonica). I don't dress in costume, I don't have a set. I don't memorize the stories, though if I tell them a lot they do settle into a groove, and if there's a particularly nice turn of phrase, I remember it and use it every time. I use my body, my voice, my facial expressions to underline the words. I adjust my performances to the listeners, watching how they listen and paying attention to what works and what doesn't. I allow improvisation in.

Storytellers range from those who tell at the kitchen table on up to what have been called "platform storytellers." I'm one of those (do you like my platform shoes?) because in my profession, I tell in a more formal way than just hanging out shooting the breeze.

I've seen some great storytellers in costume, with props, with stories that are told word-for-word but still sound natural. I'm getting even more mired in what storytelling is and isn't, aren't I? Must be time to stop for the night.

1 comment:

Sean said...

Immediacy. The storytelling must be immediate, happening in the now, moldable in the moment. Documnetary filmss have no live relationship with the audience. Making a storytelling CD is much like that, too.