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Storytelling Performance Part 2: A Framework

The framework for storytelling performance that is outlined in this blog is an evolving model. As of the end of February 2019 this is (I think) the fourth version of the framework, and I am grateful to the storytellers and academics with whom I have chatted to, or corresponded with, as I have been working it through. As someone who is interested in the ‘how’ of storytelling as much as the ‘what’, I have been trying to analyse what makes storytelling distinctive from other verbal arts. Although I am a naturally inquisitive person, this quest is as much driven by the demands of being a storyteller myself (and wanting to understand and improve what I do), and the need to identify areas for development when I am teaching storytelling with student teachers. As much as I would like it to be, I cannot pretend that the framework provides a complete model of storytelling as a genre of oral language, but if it provides a starting point for storytellers (including me) to consider how storytelling performances can be enhanced, then it will have served its purpose[1].

The categories that I have identified within the framework are intended to provide helpful reference points for the discussion of what makes storytelling, storytelling. The interconnectedness between these characteristics is made clear by the connecting lines, and the discussion of any single category will necessarily draw on the others.

The fundamental aspects of storytelling that I have identified are:

  • Storytelling involves multiple roles The storyteller shifts between their role as narrator, and the taking on of roles within the narrative. The moment that s/he starts a sentence with, ‘And she said….’, the audience knows that anything that follows that phrase will be as if a character is speaking. Another role that the teller might take on is as a commentator, interrupting the narrative, perhaps discussing the story with the audience.

  • Storytelling is embodied Considering embodiment not only recognises the essential physical nature of storytelling (and all that means in relation to non-verbal communication) but also refers to the physical presence of teller and audience, and the fact that the telling is happening in real time. Teller and audience, thus, share the telling as an event in time and space; this can be contrasted with a recording of storytelling, where an audience views a storytelling, but are removed from it in time and space.

  • Storytelling is grounded in orality It may seem obvious that storytelling is grounded in the spoken word, but in using the term ‘orality’ I am drawing on the work of Walter Ong (1988) who distinguishes between orality (language that comes out of the spoken word) and literacy (language that draws on the patterns of the written word). Ong makes the point that, in literate cultures, we cannot separate ourselves from the way that language has been shaped by our reading and writing, but there are clear distinction to be drawn between the language of everyday storytelling, and (for instance) the characters in my retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who speak in the words of Shakespeare.

  • Storytelling is located outside the story world The very notion of ‘telling’ is about the recounting of events. It takes place outside of those events, even in everyday storytelling when we recount a personal anecdote – it may be about us, and be set in the place in which the telling is happening, but it is set in another time (usually this is the past).

  • Storytelling starts from an empty space Everyday storytelling is generally opportunistic and happens in the moment. The teller creates the story world with only their language (including non-verbal components). If they are prompted by being in a place that brings back memories, then they can use that as a resource in the telling, but in the everyday context, this is happenstance rather than planned (providing a contrast with site-specific storytelling, such as that which can be experienced at many heritage sites).

  • Storytelling seeks to communicate narrative coherence The choices that the storyteller makes, in how to play with all of the other aspects of the framework (perhaps going down a theatrical, rather than everyday storytelling, route) will determine to what extent the audience is able to make sense of the performance, and read deeper meanings into it. Being able to communicate a story in a way that is comprehensible to the audience is, after all, what anyone telling a story is trying to do. A further point about this aspect is the word ‘narrative’. Perhaps we should be able to take for granted that storytellers tell stories, but this does not always appear to be the case (I have been present when a storyteller simply listed those songs which achieved number one in the charts during a particular decade). Without, in Bruner’s words, a concern with ‘human or human-like intention and action and the vicissitudes and consequences that mark their course’ (1986, p13), and a sense of narrative conventions (even if they are consciously broken), then we are discussing something other than storytelling.

In the original version of this model, Storytelling seeks to communicate narrative coherence was at the centre of the model, with the other five aspects listed above around it. However, In the intervening time between creating the model and this revision (February 2019), I have talked with other storytellers and academics, and thought long and hard. In the end, and driven by the aspect that storytelling is embodied, I kept coming back to a position that is best summed-up by Vivian Gussin-Paley’s formula that storytelling is ‘the social art of language’ (1990, 23). In the end, then, I am convinced (at least at the time of writing…) that at the heart of storytelling is the aspect that storytelling depends on the co-construction of story; whether we are talking about how space is used, the roles that are taken by the teller, or the structures that underlies a narrative, the story is always created by the teller and the audience together.

In Part 3 of this series I will consider this social aspect of storytelling and discuss involvement strategies – ways of sharing the storytelling between teller and audience.

[1] I would be delighted to get feedback on the model, and would be happy to engage in dialogue with anyone who has ideas on how it could be refined or improved.

References and bibliography:

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

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

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

#storytelling #performancetheory #theatre #StoryTent #AlastairDaniel #AlastairKDaniel


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

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