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?


PriscillaHowe said...

Nice post (and thanks for the nod!). Color/Advance sounds like a great game.

When I think of color in a story, I remember what Don Davis said once in a workshop [I can't write his N. Carolina accent]: "When you tell a story you paint a picture. You don't want it to be like a Jackson Pollock [confused look on his face]. You don't want it to be like Andrew Wyeth, with every knot on every board. You want to kind of Monet it down the middle."

An advantage of a backyard storytelling lab is that you can ask the audience what they thought. Sometimes I tell them ahead of time that I may need their advice at the end.

Professional Storyteller Rachel Hedman said...

Dear Tim and Priscilla:

I will be having a "backyard-type" storytelling for my birthday. There will be many family and friends and a chance for feedback and yet celebrate where I am in my life.

I feel a strong urge to tell Rumpelstiltskin--the frame of the story--with three personal stories within at about the time Rumpelstiltskin appears in the story.

The hour before my time, though, I will have open mike. I am curious who will step forth to sing, dance, play an instrument or. . .tell a story.

By the way, I love the "Color/Advance" game. I may even want to play it as I explore this story further.

Until we tell again,

Rachel Hedman

Hope said...

I love this post, Tim! I had never heard of "Color/Advance" but it makes a lot of sense and appeals to both my orderly side and my playful side. Thanks for sharing it!

Hope Baugh
Indy Theatre Habit

Anonymous said...

This is great. The color/advance concept is so simple and so perfect at the same time. It pretty much sums up the key aspects of storytelling.

I've never heard it discussed in these terms, but when I look at the stories I tell on my blog, I'm definitely using these two key concepts. For me it's always been a goal to transport the reader/listener INTO the story, and 'color' achieves that. But 'advance' keeps their interest with plot and story movement. You definitely need both, and in good balance.

Thanks for this!

Paula said...

Wonderful. I have next to no theater or improv training, and my challenge is always to move from writing to storytelling and genuinely switch genres; I usually end up with something of a hybrid (and am tired of apologizing to traditionalists, so if anyone wishes to go there, expect me to ignore you). But what is particularly useful to me now as I refine my Fringe piece (I "should" be in those backyard labs now, I suppose, but the weak link in the story sequence keeps drawing me back) is a framework for moving between those two imperatives. Thank you.

Heidi Dahlsveen said...

You find a similar exercise developed by Ben Haggarty, where the co teller says: Description, feeling and action.