April 03, 2008

Why Memoir? Part 1

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.


About Sean Buvala said...

Ya' missed the point in my posting. It's not about what storytellers and comedians perceive themselves as...intent...it is all about how the audience perceives what is happening from the performer. I'm not concerned with the navel-gazing introspection of the performers, we are an audience-centered art form. Our audiences don't see a difference between comedians and storytellers- that is where the problems is. What a storyteller intends in telling personal tales is irrelevant- what modern audiences are perceiving is what counts...storytellers are comedians are storytellers.

And as far as masking goes- are you saying that storytellers aren't presenting personas/masks to the audience? I would beg to differ, if differ we do. I might be reading that wrong.

And to answer the question you ask in the title, you answer it in the two lines of paragraphs 4 and 5.

This is a very good posting, Tim.

Anonymous said...

I have oftened wondered if the folktale, fairy tale, myth etc. are going to disappear just as most folk songs and ballads have (somthing I am trying to prevent at least with kids songs).

I love storytelling both listening to and telling them. I have heard storytellers telling personal stories and have enjoyed them but when I go to a festival I am more interested in hearing traditional tales retold.

Personal stories have their place but too often I feel that they serve no more purpose than to allow the teller to vent or reminisce. I have heard personal tales that make you think; that give you that "aha" moment. I love those!

When working with "troubled" children, we started with traditional tales that "naturally" evolved into more "personal" stories as the children told them.
To me, that was a wonderful blend of the two types of stories.

As to why the audiences like personal stories....Why do American audiences watch so much "real life" television?

Why are more storytellers telling personal tales? Possibly because so many, audiences, are willing to come and listen...round and round....

Love your blog!


PriscillaHowe said...

Great posts, Tim. I think that there's a big buffet of stories and that listeners have different appetites: some want to snack on personal stories, some want a helping of tradition. Some want both. Some don't even realize they're hungry until they see what is offered.

I went to the National Storytelling Festival last year for the first time since 2001. I heard Dolores Hydock tell her hour-long Medieval tale, "The Story of Silence" to a packed tent. She got a well-deserved standing ovation. The listeners were clearly hungry for a long traditional tale. I also sat in packed tents to hear Kathryn Windham and Donald Davis tell personal stories. Listeners were just as hungry for that wonderful fare.

I write this the day before the long traditional story festival, Going Deep http://www.goingdeepstories.com . As one of the organizers, I often get e-mails from folks who love the long trad form.

Maybe it's not either/or.

About Sean Buvala said...

What I have been whining about all along is balance. Never either/or. Just balance the personal with the traditional or likewise in order to be seen as distinct from the comedian.

folkheart press said...

Yeah that people are taking time to tell stories and to listen to them!
I think traditional tales are marvelous in their ability to use metaphor or select ethno-centric comsological images to convey a message. These stories have a magical quality that can't be beat.
And yet, it is the personal story that has lately taken the stage, and not just in storytelling but in writing as well. Am sure you are all familiar with the narrative and personal essay formats that have appeared on the short story scene in the past few decades.
What I find fascinating is that, for the most part, these new options create a pathway for people to become personally involved in telling a story and it can't be denied that telling portions/fragments of one's own story is both illustrative and cathartic.
This is not to be confused with "giving voice" to one's life as one is often encouraged to do in psychotherapeutic settings, but rather an affirmation that "yes, one person's story might really matter to others."
Let's face it, not every one is a brer rabbit or coyote who steals the fire... but everyone has been in some fashion at some time a folk hero or connected to one. This is what I suspect the leaning towards personal storytelling suggests.
I know, as author of "Family Folktales: Write Your Own Family Stories" (www.folkheartpress.com) that individual connections to folklore motifs are not only filled with creative potential, they are also bridges to the past where traditional tales live.
And who knows? Perhaps there will come a time when these stories (which are universal, too, like traditional tales) will become as treasured as traditional stories are.
Best to all and keep up the good work of keeping stories alive for everyone!!!