May 22, 2008

Consider the Storytelling UnFestival

In a discussion on Storytell last month about storytellers who overstay their welcome onstage and ignore time limits given them by their hosts, longtime contributor Conrad Bladey of Maryland chimed in with some thoughts on alternative models of storytelling events that intrigued me, particularly in light of alternative models of conferences I'd recently learned about. Here, with his permission, is what Conrad said:

In cultural as opposed to formal or organized settings stories were not scheduled. The closest one would come would be sermon-like situations where in the Celtic settings geneaologies were recited at special occasions as well as hero stories which also fit in to ritual structured acts. Sort of like the British custom of the toast of the best man at weddings...

Generally, round the fire, after dinner stories would occur as an integral part of the act of conversation. No lights, no bells no warnings but people power did play a role. The teller could be told off, shut up you fool.... (look at darby o'gill and the little people) audiences vote with their feet.... like adult ed students who pay too little and don't get credit... if you don't retain them they leave...

But... if the story is working... the magic is there; why in the world would anyone want to stop it?

Thus, there is a tragic flaw in organized telling, formal telling.

I have come up with a model and many may have heard it before.... Get rid of the main stage. Create independent smaller stages here and there and let tellers tell as long as the magic continues.

Now how is that determined.... not hard to tell... I would set an audience minimum.... say 5 people and you keep going four or less and you vacate the stage if another teller is without one. But only if another teller is waiting for a stage.

I would also have a stage maximum. Something like 30. More than thirty then audience would have to visit another stage. You regulate this by putting thirty blocks, poker chips in a box at stage door. Audience members take a chip or block or rock whatever and when they leave they put it back. Not too difficult.

That way you can have a formal event which preserves a realistic cultural setting and when tellers can tell as long as the magic continues. If you have enough stages-- that can be all day! This would be ideal when one has access to a school and classrooms.

In the beginning, figure out which rooms can be used. Then as people gather send them out to a room with a teller. Second thirty then open a second room and so on till all tellers are telling and all rooms are filled. Give each teller a 15 minute break option to use once every so often-- 1-2 hours....

Is there any real reason for mass events or arbitrary cut off times? Look at the Turkish epic cut offs for them!

Conrad Bladey's website can be found at:

I'm intrigued, both by this model and its analogous kin in the tech sector: the unconference or the Open Space Technology meeting-- professional gatherings designed to be participatory, to maximize knowledge sharing amongst a group (instead of the talking-head-to-audience model where interaction is pushed to the corridors and times outside scheduled sessions), and where you can vote with your feet. Don't like the conversation/panel/session/room you're in? You're expected to leave!

Learn more:
Open Space Technologies
Possibilities for Transformational Conferences by Tree Bressen with Debby Sugarman and Sunrise Facilitation, PDF download, 92kb
available under a Creative Commons license Creative Commons License

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