July 17, 2009

Process: Color and Advance

I'm in the process of adding some new stories to my repertoire. So, taking a page from the playbook of storyteller Priscilla Howe, I set up some informal backyard storytelling sessions, to give myself a live audience to whom I could tell these stories.

Two of the three stories are wonder tales, involving quests, with various tasks which tangle the plot, and familiar fairy tale motifs. But in this early stage, when I'm just getting to know the story, the main challenge for me is to simply hit all the plot points. And for my first run in my backyard, I managed to include most of them in my telling. Even got them in the right order.

Afterwards, reflecting on how these "first tellings" went, I realized that I was so concerned about the plot, that I left out pretty much any description that might help my listeners create the images of the story. Luckily, these stories are archetypal enough (and my audience young enough) that just saying "forest," "cave," "lion," or "giant" is enough of a prompt to get their imaginations going. But to me the story felt dry. Bare bones.

This feeling reminded me of an instructive game I learned when I was studying improvisation. The game, Color/Advance, involved two people: a storyteller and a director. One person would start telling a story, and the director could say only one of two directions:
"Advance," and the storyteller would have to keep the action of the story moving forward.
The other direction, "Color," when spoken aloud, meant that the storyteller had to stop the forward momentum of the story and stay in the moment, but embellish--go deeper--with description of the environment, the characters, or the emotion. The game was designed to get us thinking about key components of narrative.

So here was my thought about the bare bones: too much advance, not enough color.

It will come, with more tellings. The color is already there; I just need to bring it out. As I tell a story, I have visual images in my head of everything that's going on. In one sense, I'm simply describing what I see.

(Not all storytellers work that way, though many do, but I found this is a fairly useful description to explain to people how it is that I can tell a story without memorizing a text)

The trick is to translate those images into oral language, fluidly. With more tellings, it will happen. I'll begin to associate certain phrases with certain images. Over time, the language may become more and more set (but for me, never rigid).

This was a helpful revelation, as, at the same time, I was working on a new story for a local adult storytelling series, and for a change of pace, I was developing a monologue... which meant that the story was not simply plot and image strung together. I was working on giving voice to a character, and so I was considering sound, movement, attitude, and emotion in a way that I don't typically do in my "regular storytelling" (Thank goodness for all those years working towards a degree in Theatre).

All of these qualities in a character monologue are part of the "color." But this backyard lab helped me (wearing my playwright hat) by reminding me that my character could tell his story more effectively if he went beyond "this happened then this happened" to include details like "she was the kind of girl who..." and "two ogres? two ogres are stupider than one."

The Color/Advance game was an exercise to build awareness. We never came up with a formula for the proper ratio of each, and we never tried. It's been a helpful way, for me, to think about oral performance. I've noticed some storytellers tipping the scales toward too much color (taking a two minute story and stretching it into five, or ten, with description of time and place and character)-- I think the personal memoir genre encourages this. I really admire those storytellers who are economical with their color-- the details really matter to the story, they are there because they need to be. They're part of the meat, not the fat.

How about you? Which part of the storytelling process appeals to you, as a listener, or as a teller?

Color? or Advance?

July 01, 2009

Storytelling Fans and Facebook Statistics

With the recent buzz last week in social media circles about the new ease in getting vanity URLS on Facebook for Fan pages, I wondered to myself: how many storytellers are using Fan pages?

And since each of these pages publicly lists how many fans each storyteller has, I then wondered, who, in the eyes of Facebook, has the most fans?

Here's a sample of storytellers and their total numbers of fans as of July 1, 2009 (It's by no means complete. I'm purposely leaving out some storytellers who have not yet broken double digits):

StorytellerNumber of Fans
Kim Weitkamp16
David Joe Miller23
Olive Hackett Shaughnessy25
Tim Ereneta29
Big Joe the Storyteller30
Jay O'Callahan33
Eric Wolf37
Ruth Halpern41
Dianne de las Casas63
Jordan Hill75
Tim Lowry116
Bill Lepp158
Andy Offut Irwin236
Djeliba Baba the Storyteller303
Bill Harley451

TrixieI note with some alarm that Trixie, a puppet that appears in storyteller's Priscilla Howe's performances (photo at right) has garnered more fans (42 at last count) in a single week, than several of the tellers on the list, myself included.

In the storytelling podcast realm, Eric Wolf's The Art of Storytelling with Children has 162 fans, and Djeliba Baba's Timeless Tales has 112.

I'm well aware that on the Venn diagram showing the set of all storytelling fans in the real world and the set of Facebook users who like to keep track of their fandom on Facebook there is a very small intersection. That being said, take a look at storytelling events that use the fan pages on Facebook for their relative popularity:

Michigan Storytellers Festival14
Mesa Storytelling Festival27
Timpanogos Storytelling Festival43
Storytelling Arts of Indiana117
The Stoop Storytelling Series196
The Moth 5896

That last number gave me pause. Because it tells me that there are nearly six thousand people who, as part of their public identity on an online social network, self-identify with an organization devoted to storytelling. (Albeit one with a very specific focus on a very specific style of storytelling). This number of Facebook fans is more people than the entire actual membership of the National Storytelling Network (approximately 1900–2000 persons, although only 262 fans on Facebook.)

Oh, and in case you didn't get the message, and I think only Baba the Storyteller did, once you hit 100 fans, you can get a vanity URL, i.e., www.facebook.com/yournamehere. You could already do this (starting about two weeks ago) with personal pages-- the ability to do this for a fan page (for pages with under 1000 fans) is new.

Not surprisingly, many of the big names in storytelling have neither a personal nor a professional Facebook presence. (It's a generational thing).

A couple more comments on Facebook's fan pages:
Facebook was late to the game on this one. So for a storyteller (or anyone, from a musician to a master yo-yo twirler) to set up a Fan page:
a) it's very difficult to do;
b) all the good models on how to use a fan page aren't on Facebook, they're on Myspace, and the lessons don't crossover

If you want to find the Fan Pages above, enter the name in the Facebook search box, and then when the results come up, click on the "Pages" tab to find the Fan page. You can "Become a Fan" from the search results, or click through to the Fan page and "Become a Fan" from there.