February 19, 2008

Guest Opinion: Gregory Leifel on Storytelling Recordings

Responding to a proposal from Joseph Sobol, a small part of which was "to support preservation of audio and video recordings of storytelling performances, and devise more effective ways of marketing and distributing them in established and new media forms," Gregory Leifel wrote this posting to Storytell, which I reproduce here with his kind permission.
I have been to the Jonesborough Festival (one example) a number of times and experienced some fantastic performances, as many of us have. A huge problem, as I see it, is that after a particularly great festival performance, I'm pretty much left with only being able to purchase the personal CD of particular performers. With the exception of a few compilation CDs or DVDs offered from years' past from Jonesborough performances (I saw these in the marketplace tent), what other choices are there to disseminate that experience that I just sat through? What does the Festival Organization do with the audiotaped and videotaped performances? (I have noticed them videotaping a number of times, but seldom see where I can purchase those live-recorded performance tapes--with few exceptions). I assume since they are using sound boards at the festival they audiotape every session. Are they archived in some library that you have to travel to to hear them? Why aren't they available through the internet, downloadable like iTunes (with a portion going to the artist)?

As great as some of the storytellers are that appear at festivals, let's be honest, the studio produced CDs resemble very little the hummpfft of a live performance feel. So, I come home from the Jonesborough Festival and I'm excited about our artform and want to spread the word about Storytelling (or individual performers I just saw) and pretty much what I have as a promotional vehicle is a blander, studio-produced or a barely audible audience, live recorded CD (no offense tellers) of a prior performance that does not resemble the fantastic live experience I just had. There's no comparison.

I buy the cds because I'm a storyteller who wants to understand and learn from my peers how they put their stories together. But that's a limited audience. This begs the question: How will our artform (at least the platform performance aspect) ever be taken seriously as a choice for entertainment (for people other than storytellers) if the only way you can experience it is to have to go to a festival or local coffeehouse or show up at your kid's school?

Okay, the contrarians are going to say it's the same way with theater--live is the only way. But when storytelling venues attain numbers like community theaters I'll buy that point. You can download nearly every piece of music out there, and live concerts still sell out. Books do well, even if made into movies. Are we too protective of live storytelling?

With many creative videographers out there, there ought to be a way to videotape and capture the live feel for DVDs, public television, or some outlet the public can have better access to. (I saw one such storytelling program on public television and it was a good step in the right direction.) Is this a matter of the artists wanting to protect their copywrited materials? I don't know, I'm asking. I assume the festival has some rights when it comes to the audio or video taping at a festival, since it always clearly states only they can do it. How are they using those rights? Archival only? I'm curious.

It seems to me if your repertoire as a top storyteller is X number of stories, then allowing outstanding-quality videotaped performances of a handful of your stories to be disseminated freely in an effort to teach future audiences that this is a valid (not just for kids) and entertaining choice would help our community and yourself by raising the awareness, and creating audiences that aren't primarily just made up of other storytellers.

The pictures on the National Storytelling Centers' wall that come closest to the feel you get in Jonesborough are the ones that show the teller from behind looking out to the huge audience. It provides context; tent, teller, audience, audience expression. A picture taken straight on of a storyteller on a stage with however crazy an expression tells us little about the storytelling experience. People go to plays, movies, anything live and entertaining because there's a certain something you can't get off the television. But that doesn't mean you should limit things to live only. There's too much talent and technology out there to not try and recreate the experience and use it as a promotional tool to get demand for festivals popping up all over the country and world.

As a storyteller I'd love access to any archives from large festivals, because that's how I better learn my craft. I'd love the public to have more access to the festival experience because I often feel like an army of one or a very small platoon through the local guild or regional organization, in promoting storytelling after I've been to a festival.

I long for the day when I tell people I tell stories and they say, "Oh you mean the kind of storytelling I saw on television the other night? Wow!"

You want to think outside the box? Has anyone noticed that the Metropolitan Opera is now showing performances inside some movie theaters? Yes, you can go see The Met Performances inside your local movie house. How about stories before the movie starts?

Just some thoughts,

Gregory Leifel
and soon, www.AhhhFinally.com

My thoughts, and yours, in the comments section


Tim said...

2 initial thoughts:

1) the local folk venue records everything off the sound board, and the artists leave with the recordings in their hands, to do with as they will, whether they are a novice at the monthly open mike or a pro bluegrass band. It's not hard. Just takes a commitment from the producer to make it happen.

2) Video is not an ideal medium to capture storytelling performance, I think because the versimilitude of visual representation afforded by video makes you focus on the event and not on the images being created by the teller. More to the point, most video of storytellers uses a single camera set up. That's good for documenting/archiving an event, but it's lousy at getting a performance across. If you watch a big music concert --or for that matter, an opera from the Met-- on video or tv, there may be a dozen or more cameras. Granted, some of the pop/rock music concerts use too much swooping and cutting that aren't connected to the music or the performance, but a meticulous performers, like Madonna, will get a director who knows how to focus attention on "the show." And in opera, it's all about the performance.

The only video in the storytelling world that breaks out of the mold is the recording that Jeff Gere does at the live Talk Story Festival in Hawai'i. He uses television crews and multiple cameras (at least three, I think) which is enough to capture the "live"-ness of the event.

Tim said...

Some novelist, it might have been John Gardner (and someone please correct me if I'm wrong), said there were essentially only TWO plots in literature:
1) A man leaves town.
2) A man comes to town.

The storytelling revival has reveled in the first version, the archetypal hero's journey, of "venturing forth in search of wisdom" as an apt metaphor of the story listening process, in fact going to great lengths to make sure that storytelling festivals were NOT easy to find, easy to get to.

The second plot, with a visitor from outside the community coming to shake things up, was welcomed only as a description of the school assembly. I suspect that the storytelling revival's aim to carve out a niche as an alternative to television (and for that matter, radio), has kept it from pursuing the "broadcast" model.

About Sean Buvala said...

Jeff Gere's work in storytelling should be textbook for festivals and storytellers, imperfectly perfect as it is. I have four stories from Jeff and the TalkStory Festival, several of which I am finally posting on YouTube.. I can't figure out the HarryFox thing to post the other one.