I was explaining to a visiting storyteller one of the secrets to success in improvised storytelling is an accident of the American storytelling scene: the popularity of personal memoir.
My improv storytelling ensemble isn't trying to re-create Gilgamesh, or the Canterbury Tales, or an Anansi story. Storytellers Unplugged often relies on the dramatic power of layering multiple stories. A collage of solo monologues. Given a theme, an image, or a single word, and we can riff all night in various voices.
So when I say, I don't tell personal stories, what I mean is, I don't tell my own personal stories. I'm not interested in telling them. But when it comes to improvisation: I can make up personal memoirs all night long. So can my other ensemble colleagues.
It's just not that difficult.
And audiences respond to it.
Sean Buvala touches on this point in one of his Roadblocks to Success postings.
I don't quite agree with his comparison of storytellers who rely on personal memoir and stand-up comics, because the intent of each type of performer is different, as is the persona/mask they present to their audience... but there's a question that's been bothering me for some time.
Why are storytelling audiences so interested in personal memoir? (To the point where one Festival, with two decades of production under its belt, got audience survey comments back: "Why are your performers telling folktales and myths? I came to hear stories.")
I know that oral history can be compelling. I'm fascinated by the life stories collected by StoryCorps, some even make my cry. And I totally understand why the Library of Congress wants to save all these stories, as history. But what's going on in the storytelling revival-- that the traditional stories that fueled the movement in the beginning are being pushed aside for more stories about lived experience?
Why is the boom in the alternative storytelling movement (e.g. the Moth, Fringe Festival solo performers, --and soon to switch places with the "mainstream" storytelling movement which is driving itself if not to the fringe, then to folksy irrelevance) so focused on personal memoir?
Why, as Ben Haggarty of the UK put it --after having been banished to a small classroom at 9:00 AM on a Friday morning in order to present his 2 hour version of Gilgamesh, as the Jonesborough-style festival that had hired him had nothing longer than a 50 minute available during the weekend-- do American storytelling festivals reserve the spotlight on the mainstage for stories that in any other culture are told around the kitchen table?
I've been poking around, asking this question. I'll be posting some responses from other storytellers, from academics, from various
You have theories? Feel free to post in the comments.