July 14, 2008

Elitist Storytelling Reported in Oklahoma! (The State, not the Musical)

Over at OKLAHOMA TELLERS, Marilyn Hudson calls out "storytelling elitism." She notes that this beast has two faces, one which hires and one which tells.

One side is elitist because it sees only one type of storytelling as "true storytelling" (theatrics vs. traditional, for example). Such storytelling must be defined with terms such as "artistic", "meaningful","educational", and "professional". The folksy stylings of a country teller would never be acceptable. The telling for the sheer joy of telling a saucy or funny tale would be frowned on. The less than perfect delivery, style, or presentation of a newbie would never be heard or seen.

In her full post, it seems she's directing this at those who hire storytellers. I suspect she has one or two specific producers in mind (but I don't know the Oklahoma scene well enough to say for sure), and I'm assuming she thinking of storytelling event producers.

But a producer who doesn't want an untried teller on their stage is no different than a movie theatre booking a Hollywood film over the neighbor kid's low-budget summer film project. To exclude novice storytellers from the stage at performance events where people have paid admission isn't elitist, it's good business sense.

Telling stories for the sheer joy of telling stories is great. I'm in favor of that too. It has its place at family gatherings, around campfires, and even, in the context of performance events, at open mics or story swaps.

The other side of the face is the storyteller who has come to believe that abstract artistry is superior to heartfelt communication. They have come to believe the rhetoric of the need for lighting, props, makeup, and a "brand". They have allowed storytelling to be defined by large stage theater instead of standing on its own -and very -unique feet.

I don't know any storyteller that believes that abstract artistry is superior to heartfelt communication. (Neither do I know any that insist on lighting, props, and makeup... but then, I'm not familiar with the Oklahoma storytelling landscape.) I do know solo performers who are accomplished storytellers who do prefer to tell in theatres, use a script, but they don't call it storytelling. They insist on calling it theatre.

In an effort to parse what Marilyn might be reacting to, I found this entry of hers on a different blog:
In recent years, more and more touches of theatrics have been added to be "crowd pleasers" under the assumption that "today's child or audience" needs action and variety....
I have also seen a lot of meaningless shouting, audience participation, and over the top acting in some storytellers that was fun to watch but was a lot like eating spun sugar....it left you feeling a little empty......it was junk food that left nothing for the mind or the heart to think on and discover days later....

Every storyteller has a different style. And each teller may be at a different place along their learning curve (so that, for example, they haven't mastered the use of "meaningless shouting" in their stories... er, or rather, the appropriate use of volume and physical energy). And we all have our preferences. But I don't meet many storytellers who push their style as better than others.

But, if Oklahoma is somehow fomenting a cadre of uppity storytellers dedicated to the notion that storytelling should be defined by loud and eye-catching shenanigans performed without regard to the needs of the audience, I'm with you Marilyn, let's send those elitists back to the vaudeville circuit where they belong.

1 comment:

Word Woman said...

I would agree, hiring a professional is not elitist - but that was not the point. In many places, and not just in Oklahoma, others have defined what the art form is and not storytellers. They have one image in their head (usually based on some storyteller whose style really connected with them...) and that becomes the type they hire...over and over and over again. I know of one man who calls himself a storyteller but who is really a one man stage show. He has defined for many of the libraries and schools what storytelling is and made it difficult for storytellers who do not leap about the stage and get the audience screaming to find work. As you now from reading all my entries, I support a vast array of storytelling forms and partnerships but hold true to the idea that storytelling is a singlur art form. The elitists are like the art museum that defines art as only realism and the art patron who can not see any art in cubism. That disconnect of understanding was at the heart of what I tried to convey. Sorry if I failed in that..