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Storytelling Performance Part 1: Storytelling and theatre - an introductory discussion

[This blog was first written in August 2018, and was updated at the end of February 2019.]

In the 1990’s I took time out of teaching and toured schools in Germany with theatre productions of ‘Macbeth’ and Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Canterville Ghost’. The company was travelling in two vehicles and, on one occasion, the minibus in which four of the cast were travelling (along with all of the sets and costumes) got stuck in a traffic jam on the autobahn. This left just two of us standing on stage in front of 200 young people who were waiting for the production of ‘The Canterville Ghost’ to start – a performance for which they had spent weeks preparing in their English lessons. Aware that we needed to do something, the two of us set up stands on which we placed the script and, using that as the source text, we improvised and narrated a version of the story together, taking on multiple roles, and incorporating the life sized-puppet of the ghost as we did so. Perhaps the adrenalin rush of sheer panic enhanced our improvised performance, but as the rest of the company arrived halfway through the show and filtered into the performance as their characters, the energy level and audience engagement dropped – but not before I had been made aware of the potential of storytelling (even in this hybrid form). In fact, when I initially turned professional as a storyteller, the first literary tale that I told was ‘The Canterville Ghost’, drawing on that improvised version performed out of necessity in Germany. And, indeed, I am still performing it today (see Figure 1).

I came to storytelling, then, through both teaching and acting, and it is the exploration of the complex relationship between storytelling and theatre, and more specifically, acting, that I’m going to explore in this first of a series of articles about the nature of storytelling performance. I have called this section ‘Two sides, a single coin’ because it seems clear that the words ‘storytelling’ and ‘acting’ are used to refer to variations on a series of common qualities, rather than a completely separate set of behaviours. Indeed, my own journey, from the world of acting to that of storytelling, is not an uncommon one, and the more that I think about the links between these practices, the more I am convinced that examining the relationship between storytelling and theatre (or acting) can provide us with a very useful way of thinking about our own performances as storytellers, and help us understand those processes that enable an audience to engage with a story as it is told. At the same time as I hope that this exploration will prove helpful (both to the general reader and the storyteller who is trying to gain a deeper understanding of their craft), I am also certain that there is no definitive answer to the question ‘what should I do so that my storytelling will always work?’ The ideal level of interplay between storytelling, acting and theatricality must always depend on the context of the telling: it will be particular to the teller, the tales that s/he is telling, the nature of the audience, and the time and place of the performance. In this initial article, then, I am going to introduce the discussion and make some general observations about the nature of storytelling as performance; in the articles that follow, I will tease out specific themes such as role-taking and embodiment.

The main difficulty with any discussion of the connection between storytelling and theatre is that boundaries between performance genres are often blurred. ‘Theatre’, in particular, is a broad category and can describe everything from grand opera to a clown entertaining passers-by in the street. In his book, Storytelling and Theatre, Michael Wilson (2006) criticises the artificial separation of acting and storytelling. He suggests that distinctions made between them (such as those in Table 1: The False Acting Storytelling Model) are based on misleading assumptions about the nature of theatre, and they ignore the range that exists in theatrical practice. Wilson summarises the argument, saying that this approach is problematic because:

…there is no such thing as the theatre model, anymore than there is such a thing as the storytelling model. There are simple a number of equally valid models (2006, p47)

I will confess to making generalisations about the difference between storytelling and acting in my own work (Daniel, 2011), and I am not alone. Marie Shedlock, writing in 1915 (before the theatrical revolutions of the middle of the 20th century onwards brought about by people such as Berthold Brecht, Jerry Gratowski and Peter Brook), contrasts storytelling and acting and highlights several of the distinctions that Wilson identifies in his ‘false’ model:

…compared with acting on the stage, in telling a story one misses the help of effective entrances and exits, the footlights, the costume, the facial expression of your fellow-actor which interprets much of what you yourself say without further elaboration on your part; for, in the story, in case of a dialogue which necessitates great subtlety and quickness in facial expression and gesture, one has to be both speaker and listener.

Shedlock (2008, 27)

Leaving aside the diversity of theatrical conventions in world theatre, Shedlock’s distinctions (where she highlights theatre’s use of: entrances/exits, lighting, costume) break down quite quickly when we look at some common features of contemporary storytelling in the UK alone. In a storytelling club the teller will often be introduced and welcomed to the floor (creating an entrance), lighting is a feature of some storytelling venues (particularly at festivals) and, with regard to costume, I have often joked that it isn’t possible to be a male storyteller unless you are wearing a waistcoat (or vest for American readers). Her point about the on-stage relationship with other actors is an interesting point for discussion and we will return to that later. Rather than an either-or relationship, we are, then, looking at a relationship of degree: which features of theatre, and should we include in our own storytelling?

This brings us back to Wilson, and his dismissal of hard and fast distinctions between acting and storytelling. Whilst I would heartily recommend his book to anyone who is interested in the analysis of theatrical genres and their relevance to storytelling, it is limited in its usefulness for those who are looking for some help with identifying how aspects of theatricality could enhance their own storytelling. Whilst, in the context of theatrical practice across the world, distinctions between acting and storytelling may be artificial, the majority of the acting that we, in the UK, are exposed to is on-screen, and (for the most part) could be characterised by the qualities in Wilson’s list (Table 1). This style of acting depends upon a fixed text through which an audience is intended to see a living character, who exists within a coherent story-world that is separate from the real-world of the audience. The same style is also common in much western theatre (although contemporary theatre directors are open to influences from other performance genres such as puppetry). I will refer to this approach to acting as ‘representational’ and this will provide a reference point for future discussion. ‘Theatricality’ will be used to refer to the employment of conventions associated with representational acting (such as costume, set and lighting).

Having set one fixed point at the theatrical end of performance, I now need to establish another, related to storytelling, so that we have a continuum along which we can consider degrees of theatricality of performance. To do this, I am going to step back from performance storytelling and return to those practices in which we engage everyday as we, in Engel’s words, ‘use stories to guide and shape the way we experience our daily lives, to communicate with other people, and to develop relationships with them’ (1995, p25). Everyday storytelling (and its purposes as identified by Engel) can describe equally the activities of the child recalling events during the day at school for his or her parents, or the person telling a shaggy dog story in the pub among his or her friends. Even here, however, we need to be careful about making definitive statements such as those highlighted by Wilson (2006: 46). Although it is often an ‘individual endeavour’, everyday anecdotes can be retold by pairs or groups; props, sets and costumes may not always be chosen specifically to support everyday storytelling, but they may prompt a telling and then be incorporated into it (think of stories which begin with, ‘the last time we were here…’); the first time that an anecdote is told, it may have a ‘fluid [and] improvised text’, but as it is repeated, patterns of language and gesture will develop with the repetition; whilst everyday storytelling may be, in Wilson’s words, ‘self-based’, characterisation will often feature as the teller imitates someone with whom they have disagreed, their teacher, or a celebrity. It is easy to see how everyday storytelling is the starting point for every crafted act of oral communication in which we engage, and so (despite the need to avoid over-generalising) I suggest that it provides a useful contrasting end of the continuum to that of theatricality (see Figure 2: a performance continuum).

You may well ask, ‘why does any of this matter?’, and some people may fear over-thinking their own storytelling performance. However, I have been present at tellings in which tellers have either treated the event as a piece of casual recounting (as in an everyday conversation) which ignores the very real difference between a group of friends in the pub, and a group of people who have gathered to experience a performance or, conversely, have gone down a theatrical route which has alienated the audience by creating a barrier between them and the story world.

Between the everyday and the theatrical - a reflection on my own storytelling

My own storytelling performance style has shifted over the years. While my early outings as a storyteller owed much to the theatrical (and in some of my work I still use set, props, puppets and character-specific costumes), over the last decade I have pared down a lot of the production values (if they can be called such) to a much simpler approach. In other words, I have been gradually pulling back from the theatrical and returning to the fundamentals that characterise everyday storytelling. In the discussion, below, I look at two storytelling performances that did sit at the theatrical end of the continuum, but which still, to me, maintained distinct and identifiable elements of storytelling.

In Figure 3: Storytelling or Theatre?, I have annotated two images of my own storytelling. The first picture (of Really Grimm Tales) was taken in a small theatre in Flanders, and the storytelling performance includes many features of a traditional ‘proscenium’ theatre space. These include fixed seating, a proscenium arch, a raised stage, and theatre lighting. The second picture was taken in an east London primary school and captures a moment during my telling of the story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which I invite members of the audience to take on characters and act in-role in response to my narration. Because this telling is aimed at introducing children to Shakespeare’s language, as well as the story, there are many places where my own language (which is in-the-moment and sufficiently flexible to be adapted to the children as I tell) is punctuated by passages from Shakespeare’s text (which are fixed)[1].

If we return to Wilson’s list of the characteristics of acting (but one that he sees as a limited interpretation), it is easy to see that, in the two examples that I have highlighted, each of these characteristics is visible and, on our scale, the balance is towards the theatrical rather than everyday storytelling:

  • Group ensemble project - although I am the storyteller in Dream, children come into the performance space and take the roles that would normally be filled by professional actors. I carefully direct them in their roles so that both their, and the audience’s, understanding of the text is supported by the non-verbal aspects of their role-taking (which returns us to Shedlake’s point about the communication between actors on stage).

  • Fourth wall – although, as the storyteller, I break the fourth wall continually (as in everyday storytelling) as I address the audience directly, in Dream the children are invited to act out the play in the world of Ancient Greece and relate only to each other in-role, maintaining the separation between audience and actor.

  • Elaborate set/costume/props – as a travelling storyteller working in a range of (often very functional) school spaces, I created ‘The Story Tent’ (www.storytent.co.uk) as a means of establishing a presence from the moment that the young people entered the gymnasium or school hall (and occasional theatre space, as in Grimm Tales above). The Story Tent also provides a means of holding and displaying the props that I use in many of my stories – and in the picture of Dream you can see the white camouflage netting which allows me to create a separate ‘bower’ in which the puppet Titania can sleep. With regard to costume, it is enough to say that neither of these pictures show me wearing the clothes that I would wear in going about my daily business.

  • Fixed, learned text – as discussed above, the telling of Dream necessitated sections of fixed text so that children could experience Shakespeare’s language. By contrast, Grimm Tales is performed in a much more (what might be considered) traditional storytelling mode, so that the language is flexible enough for me to be able to respond to the audience, and adapt the telling to them – as one would in everyday storytelling. However, as I have told stories from this set for over 20 years, it is inevitable that. the language that I use will fall into habitual patterns (in the same way as anecdotes settle into routines, as noted above). In addition, there are tales, such as The Fisherman and his Wife, that have passages of poetry or song, and these do remain fixed, whatever the language surrounding them.

  • Character-based – whilst I have already discussed above how the children take on characters during Dream, during my storytelling I often dip in and out of role, portraying characters through my voice, body language and (crucially) in the shift in the way that I refer to the character, moving from references to ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘they’ to talk that is characterised by ‘I’ or ‘we’ – the characterisation may be considered theatrical, but the anchor point of the performance is my presence as the storyteller (a further link with everyday storytelling).

Wilson’s list is not intended to be exhaustive, and it is (in itself) something of a rebuke for those who attempt to reduce the processes of acting and storytelling to such surface features. However, his list is useful in highlighting how the boundaries between theatre and storytelling blur, and it clearly demonstrates how much my own storytelling (and I am convinced that I am engaged in ‘storytelling’) owes to theatrical conventions.

Aware of the dangers of creating reductive lists such as these, I will (nonetheless) suggest some interconnected and fundamental characteristics of storytelling in the blog ‘Storytelling – A Performance Framework’. The aim of this framework will be to help towards finding a common language to describe what happens when someone tells a story, and provide a tool for identifying what makes a storyteller’s style personal to them.

[1] This approach to storytelling (or story making) is variously referred to as as Story Whoosh (based on the work of Winston, 2009 and 2012), Interactive Story Making (Hendy and Toon, 2001) or Teacher-Directed Story-Making (Daniel, 2011). It also has links with the 'Helicopter Technique' of Vivien Gussin-Paley (1990).

[References and bibliography:

  • Bruner, J (1986) Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press

  • Daniel, A.K. (2011) Storytelling across the primary curriculum. Abingdon: Routledge

  • Engel, S (1995) The Stories Children Tell. Freeman

  • Gussin Paley, V. (1990) The boy who would be a helicopter: the uses of storytelling in the classroom. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press

  • Hendy, L. and Toon, L. (2001) Supporting drama and imaginative play in the early years. Buckingham: OUP

  • McDowell, P. (2012) Ong and the concept of orality. In Religion & Literature, Vol. 44, No. 2, pp. 169-178

  • Ong, W. (1988) Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen, 1982. Rpt. New York and London: Routledge, 1988.

  • Robins, G. and Evans-Jones, L (2013) Literacy Activities for Classic and Contemporaty Texts 7-14: The Whoosh Book. Abingdon: Routledge

  • Shedlock, Marie.L. (2008) The Art of the Storyteller. Online: Forgotten Books - first published 1915,

  • Wilson, M. (2006) Storytelling and theatre. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

  • Winston, J. and Tandy, M. (2012) Beginning Shakespeare 4-11. London: David Fulton

  • Winston, J. (2009) Beginning Drama 4-11. Abingdon: Routledge

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©2018 Alastair K Daniel - The Story Tent - Talking Storytelling

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