How do we Succeed in bringing Storytelling to Audiences?

Recently I asked the question on Facebook and elsewhere are you comfortable using the word theatre to sell storytelling events? I liked Mary Grace’s reply and I invite you to think deeply about her application of these ideas. Brother Wolf

Mary Grace Ketner writes…
Marygrace2I would not use the word “theatre” itself, but I often use other terms related to theatre, such as “performance” or “stage.” I fear that if a person comes in expecting lights and costumes, it will take them some real readjustment time to appreciate what is actually going on in a room where one person, dressed pretty much like everyone else, is standing up and holding a microphone. And there may not be enough “readjustment time” for that, anyway. What I like about opera, for example, is the set and costumes and drama. 4 people standing there singing in Italian doesn’t usually do it for me, and 10 or 15 minutes is enough of that. Others have also mentioned the misleading expectation of a particular repeated script (perhaps a famous, well-traveled one that can be compared with a version one’s friends saw or that one has seen before) and the fourth wall: actors talking to each other as though no one were watching, the audience as peeping Tom.

In preparing storytelling programs, even something like a local Tellabration!, I have found that many storytellers do not like to say ahead of time what story they are going to tell; they believe doing so impinges on their artistry. However, I think that an audience which does not know what to expect with the word “storytelling” is a bit comforted by knowing at least something about what is going to happen. Is it going to be true tales of the old west? Chinese fairy tales? reminiscences? (which is what personal stories sound like to them.)

For the kind of storyteller I am, storytelling is a literary activity, not reading, not theatre, but another way of experiencing literature directly. (The way it was intended to be experienced, but that’s another soapbox.) I certainly don’t promote it as reading, and I get just as irritated as you do when someone else does. But it doesn’t fit one’s expectations of theatre, either. (And I use the term “literature” very broadly, though I personally focus on the canon of traditional oral narrative literature.)

I am trying something new in a series of four performances at San Antonio’s Main Plaza, a 1-block square outdoor space in our city center. I have listed the stories I am going to tell in each of four 45-minute free public programs. This past Sunday night at the first one, I told four “Legends of the Land,” (”The Marqeuz de Aguayo’s Revenge,” “The Ghost of John McMullen,” “The Virgen of Guadalupe,” and “La Llorona”) without having noticed earlier that three of the stories are Mexican/Texan. (You probably spotted that right off, but in our bicultural region, I just didn’t catch it!) A UTSA professor, seeing the titles, promoted it to his Latino studies class–online and late, but still three people came because the stories were named! (And discovered something more, of course, and bought a CD!) We are promoting the final two programs, with Arabian Nights and Canterbury Tales themes, in high schools because their content is appropriate. In other words, Instead of trying to find people who love storytelling and are eager to hear new stories, I wanted to try promoting the stories directly to people who already love them (or wonder about them or are required to study them) and, because of that, will now experience live storytelling.

So what I’m saying in this screed is that there is theatre, but to promote storytelling as such would be misleading. There is reading, but to promote storytelling as such would be misleading. There are great stories, new and old, and to promote what we do as a rich way to experience them is honest and may be a good marketing approach. Besides, would you go to a play called “Play?” Would you read a book entitled “Book?” Maybe, but promoting the content of each in some engaging way is more promising. Storytelling is a magical word for actors and authors, but “reading” and “theatre” only confuse our audience. What “Kleenex” is to the world of tissue, “Storytelling” is to the world of literature; it has both a specific and a more generalized meaning. And of course, it’s the name people use, even as they snatch a “Puffs.”

I’m not really able to test my approach, by the way. The event producer seems to be stuck on trying to attract an audience based on my fame. She will be disappointed. (My fan base can’t drive yet. ;-) ) She says she’s sent press releases but they haven’t been picked up–a common problem, I know–but I think it’s because she’s focusing on the wrong thing: the performer and not the content, the storyteller and not the stories, the bottle and not the wine. And, if the press releases are anything like her introduction this past Sunday, she’s a little heavy on the praise, so it sounds desperate! Afterwards, I thanked her for being so generous, BUT wondered aloud if it might not be a good idea in future press releases to focus on the stories. (She said she’s doing both, so that didn’t get me anywhere.) We had about 35 people, BTW, which I think is a wonderfully workable size of group, especially since I was prepared to give my best to two or three drugged-out homeless people who had no place else to go.

Artist Bio:
Whether surrounded by folks on haybales at George West Storyfest, kids on carpet samples in the library, college students in an auditorium at a keynote, or families in the cushioned seats of San Antonio’s Majestic Theatre, Mary Grace brings listeners an elegant gift of story. Stirred by passion and a deep love of tale-tellling, Mary Grace stirs long silent traditional oral narrative back to life in her gentle hands. Experience whimsy, wit, insight, “ROFL” or universal human values with a Texas drawl, all spun into a fantasy before your very ears.

A member of the Texas Commission on the Arts Touring Artist Roster and the Mid-America Arts Alliance since 2008, you can also find her on her own Web site at http://talesandlegends.net/. Her first CD, Ghostly Gals and Spirited Women, a Storytelling World Gold Award winner, will soon be followed by a second audio product, 1001 Years of Arabian Nights.

You can learn more about her programs at http://talesandlegends.net/

2 Comments

  • By Charles Johnson, September 30, 2011 @ 7:45 pm

    There are no rules, if calling what you do “refrigerator” would get you a bigger audience, then by all means do it.

    This is billed as theater:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BmX9N8C8nko

    But, so is this:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lI6HxUueYhU

    I think storytelling audiences come in expecting to see one person, telling a story, but theater audiences are far more open to the unusual and avant-garde.
    I don’t think a modern theater audience would consider a traditional storyteller “not theater”.

    Here’s Charlie Ross again, just because I love his work:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d98XXlvZalE

  • By Elizabeth Blackwell, December 4, 2011 @ 4:50 pm

    Amazing and splendid. I am regular reader of your website “Art of Storytelling Show’ which is spirited and gives anyone the idea about the process of storytelling in easy and lucid manner. Thanks . Well I recently came a new type of storytelling that is brought up by a website called papakali.com where it allows the readers to contribute their own versions of stories that will be added to the already existing stories of the South Sound.

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