Theatre, I have recently learned, did not develop directly from storytelling. In several different cultures around the globe theatre evolved from religion via ritual performances of myth. The sacred dramas were, of course constructed on a foundation of earlier storytelling, so it is theatre’s ancestor, maybe not it’s mother as I have previously held, but in true mythological style, still a parent via an incestuous relationship with an earlier offspring.
Each of these three generations of the storytelling family have their own accepted range of physicality. When I run workshops one of the things I ask my students to play with and make a decision about is the basic concept of movement involved in their performance: are they a sitting or a standing teller? Static or mobile? As storyteller’s go, I am out on the extreme end of active, roaming the stage with imagined swords, opening non existent doors, leafing through transparent tomes taken from invisible shelves, pulling faces, waving my arms and sometimes even running from side to side. It must be a bit of a surprise for anyone who thinks that storytelling is someone sitting down and reading from a book.
We in the 21st century are very much an optical culture. Video may not have actually killed the radio star but it did push her in to an abandoned cellar and steal her lunch money…
And no one cared: out of sight, out of mind!
Storytelling though, is and interactive art form and the line of sight goes both ways. The bard of yore was given the best seat by the fire, not just because their status earned them the warmth (if they were anything like me they would be oblivious to the cold once the words start to flow), but because then the audience is lit by the blaze and their reactions can be seen, read, and reacted to in turn.
When storytellers give a narrative performance both performer and audience are lit so we can see each other. We will let the audience know that they are seen by making eye contact with them now and then, a universal sign of acknowledgement and inclusion. Since I am the only person on stage I can use these various lines of sight for different parts of the show. If two characters in the story are having a conversation I can clearly demonstrate that by stepping to one side, looking across the front of the audience, making eye contact with someone sitting near the opposite side of the room and talking to them as if I am the Giant and they are the Padishah’s Daughter. To continue the dialogue I simply step across the central line, turn to face someone on the other side of the room and they become the Giant while I speak the words of the Princess.
We all understand the visual convention, acclimatised to it through years of theatre and a vocabulary of camera angles learnt in the early days of the big screen and passed down through TV, yea, even unto the TicTok generation.
But now a new re-evolution is upon us. As the storytelling world has moved en-masse to the virtual firesides and feasting halls of Zoom and Google Hangouts we find ourselves restricted to a single eyeline. I have my web cam standing in front of a large screen which shows as many of the viewers as possible, each in their own rectangular box. I can see and react to them but I am unable to look from one side of the audience to the other as all eyes have become the same cyclopean orb, all engagement must be through the one unblinking lens. As we all adapt to the unfamiliar context I am intrigued and excited to see the full form of this new child that storytelling and technology are spawning before our very – universal, digitally integrated – eye.
…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.
I’m just back off tour. As with any journey there are some things that stick in ones mind. The colour draining from the face of the landlord when he realised he had completely forgotten that I was coming and had done no publicity at all. Thankfully I had, and a good turn out of old friends and internet contacts saved the night.
One thing that particularly made an impression on me this time was the extraordinary fact that the person who talks most during a performance is the one who is keenest to tell me how much they enjoyed it. How they enjoyed it when I could barely hear myself over their almost constant stream of interjections I don’t know, I’m all for a bit of interaction, its part of what keeps the show fresh and I often incorporate a good heckle into later performances, but some parts of stories require the audience to be absorbed in the narrative which is hard when someone won’t just be quiet for a couple of minutes. I suppose he was just excited by the newness of the experience, caught up in the moment and in a way I should be glad: Mr. Talky is at least engaging with the performance. At the far end of the bar there’s a couple of blokes who are just having a conversation. One has his back to me, he has consciously decided he is not going to acknowledge that something different is happening in his local. I do sympathise, I have talked the landlord in to breaking convention and booking some storytelling. The landlord has no real idea what it is going to be like. Mr Chatty and his pal have come down for a drink and a chat like they always do, it must be strange for them to find me orating away in the corner of what is practically their living room. It is not a theatre after all, it’s a pub with the bar right there in front of me. I’m pushing the boundaries of performance, we’re back in to pre-Shakesperian times. It’s not that there are no conventions but that there are conflicting conventions and it’s my job to unify them, and the audience. Pretty much all the seated customers are listening intently, the two guys on a table up by the end of the bar amaze me as they are right next to Mr. Chatty but keep their eyes on me the whole time, following every word and neither give up and fall in to talking themselves nor offer Mr.Chatty the opportunity to ‘step outside’. Occasional elements of the a story spark some memory or in-joke and suddenly the English Teacher sitting at this end of the bar is having a conversation with Mr. Talky across twelve feet of oak and beer pumps which makes it impossible for Two Excellent Beards to hear anymore so they start talking too, and I am now using my best theatrical projection to continue the story for the twenty odd people who are sitting nearest to me (and the two guys up by Mr.Chatty who are still somehow unfazed, though each wearing a look of slightly more intense concentration). Usually the assorted talkers do go quiet for a bit here and there, as a room full of hardened drinkers are slowly charmed by the poetry of the Finnish Kalevala or get drawn in bit by bit to the exploits of the Norse Gods. Mr. Talky has momentarily over-ridden his mouth and even Mr. Chatty down the end falls silent and looks over his shoulder, won over by a finely woven web of words or the spell of an ancient adventure cast anew.
Shows where the audience have self-selected and especially where they have paid as well are much easier and often more fun as I can play with the stories a little more when the audience are already with me. Nevertheless it is on the difficult pub gigs where I have to win the customers over and make them into an audience that I know I am really doing my job, not just preaching to the converted, but taking the stories to a new audience, giving the folk back what a fast paced, modern, consumerist culture has taken from them. I hope I stick in their mind as much as they do in mine.
…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.