This blog is the third in an occasional series of entries exploring storytelling and performance and is linked to the conceptual model of storytelling that I developed in the second of these blogs, Storytelling Performance Part 2 – A Framework, which can be found by clicking HERE.
Realising that this topic is very rich and there is a lot to be covered, I have split this blog into three sections a) Introduction b) Verbal engagement strategies and c) non-verbal strategies and conclusion. The argument developed over these sections is based on a recent article, 'The Social Art of Language’: a semiotic response to engagement strategies in performance storytelling which is published in: Storytelling, Self, Society, Vol. 14, No. 2, Fall 2018.
In the original (academic) paper on which this blog entry is based, I explore how some common involvement strategies employed by storytellers (such as questioning, giving the audience phrases to repeat or recite, and the use of gesture or props) effect the dynamics of a storytelling event. This analysis uses the idea of storytelling competence, a term which can be thought of as ‘the ability to tell the story’. However, this ‘ability’ is not limited to the verbal and non-verbal dexterity of the teller, a specific set of skills, but also the permission that is granted to the storyteller to use those skills. In other words, competence is not only a characteristic of what storytellers do, but is also concerned with the context of a storytelling performance: audience, time and place. The storyteller, then, who wants to communicate with an audience needs not only to be competent with the language that they use (and be able to put events into a coherent order), but must also be in a place and at a time when the act of storytelling is possible; in addition, they need to be in the company of people who are prepared to listen (and invest themselves In the construction of the story world). Of course, the moment that one extends the idea of competence beyond the skills of the individual storyteller, the question of how such competence can be shared between those who are present at the storytelling is complex – and it is this question that underlies this blog.
In the second blog of this series, Storytelling Performance Part 2 – A Framework, I suggest a structure for understanding what makes ‘storytelling’ storytelling. This framework identifies characteristics that are common when a coherent narrative is communicated with a specific audience (see Figure 2 (Storytelling Performance Framework – Dialogue)). The framework, then, provides a way of giving detailed thought to the strategies that a storyteller can use to make the most of the social nature of storytelling, and ensure that the competence to tell a story is deliberately distributed between them and the audience.
Those characteristics of storytelling that are most relevant to this discussion of shared competence and engagement strategies, and that will be used to examine them are:
storytelling involves multiple roles
storytelling is embodied and storytelling
storytelling is grounded in orality (c.f. literacy)
These are highlighted in Figure 2 (Storytelling Performance Framework – Dialogue). In addition, the core principle that ‘storytelling depends on the co-construction of meaning’ will drive the idea that storytelling competence can be distributed – hence the choice of language in the paragraph above: ‘with a specific audience’, rather than ‘to a specific audience’.
In order to demonstrate how this shift of storytelling competence can happen during a telling, I will use one of my own performances of ‘The Fisherman and his Wife’ (Grimm Brothers) as a worked example. The reasons for choosing this telling are:
that it is readily accessible via YouTube
it avoids having to address the ethical concerns about putting into public a detailed critique of another teller’s work
several techniques are demonstrated in it which are commonly found in storytelling performance such as switching between first and third person, and direct interaction with the audience.
exploring this telling provides an opportunity for me to understand my own storytelling in more depth
Before going any further, it’s important to say that I don’t consider this telling to either exemplify high quality storytelling, or indeed one of my own best performance. The context for the telling was very tricky, and I wince at aspects of my performance when I watch the video, but it does provide a useful case study because of the ways in which competence is visibly shared between me as teller and the audience.
You may access the video here (or follow the link HERE):
Storytelling as a social performance
Centrally placed in the Storytelling in Performance Framework (see
Figure 2) is the principle that storytelling depends on the co-construction (by teller and audience) of meaning. As I indicate in the earlier blog, I struggled with the formulation of this model, and earlier versions had the representation of a coherent narrative at the centre, rather than the dependence on co-construction. However, through talking with other people (storytellers and non-storytellers), and an ongoing internal struggle, I have come to the position that, at the heart of what it means to engage in storytelling, is the principle that storytelling is (before anything else) a social act and everything that follows is a consequence of the encounter between teller and audience.
The relationship between teller and audience is a common theme when writers discuss the nature of storytelling. In theatre, reference is often made to the ‘fourth wall’ (which is the invisible line of separation between the performance and audience spaces) that provides, in Pavis’ words an ‘illusion of self-enclosed performance’ (2003, 113). There are of course, however, many theatre forms in which the fourth wall is broken deliberately (a point made in my blog Storytelling Performance Part 1: Storytelling and Theatre – an introductory discussion); indeed, Peter Brook notes in his 1968 seminal work ‘The Empty Space’ that one of the words used in French for a theatre audience is l’assistance. For Brook, the idea of ‘assisting’ the performance communicates the active role that an audience plays and is very far from notions of passivity. Similarly, in storytelling, it is not simply a matter of the teller transmitting a story and the audience receiving it, but rather it is a form in which meaning is negotiated, or co-constructed, between performer and spectator. The resulting storytelling performance is, therefore, a result of the shared competence of teller and audience.
Involvement strategies, however, are not always immediately
apparent. For example, the linguistic artistry of performances that are characterised by carefully composed poetic scripts (by storytellers working within what Pellowski (1977) refers to as a ‘bardic’ tradition) would be seriously disrupted by an unexpected, and clearly vocalised, response by a member of the audience. However, this does not mean that the ‘fourth wall’ is impervious in such forms of storytelling: the embodied nature of storytelling – the real presence of teller and audience – means that communication still passes in both directions (audience to teller; teller to audience) even if it is not overt. So, while tellers may not adapt scripted language that they use to their audience, they will pay close attention to ‘micro-signals’ which may indicate amusement, enthralment or even boredom (stifled laughs, gasps, etc). The response to these signals may then be made through non-verbal shifts in emphasis, rhythm, pace etc… (both vocal and physical).
Other, less structured, storytelling performances, on the other hand,
can include overt invitations for the audience to intervene in the telling, breaking down boundaries between them and the teller. Such conversational approaches emphasise storytelling’s grounding in oracy (which is fundamentally a flexible form) rather than literacy (which is fixed). When this happens, the fourth wall is clearly breached so that the performance is not limited to the stage area, but takes place across the whole space shared by the teller and the audience.
Storytelling performances, then, are social events, and the storyteller aims to (at the least) reflect the audience response in the way that they tell a story, and (in the most flexible performances) incorporate the audience and their suggestions into the telling. Parts b) and c) of this blog, then, will examine some of the overt ways in which storytellers can involve their audience, and the implications of using such strategies for sharing (or, rather, distributing) the role of storyteller will be unpicked.
 Daniel, 2011, 2017, Harley 1996, Spaulding, 2011, and Stotter, 1994
Bauman, R. (1977) Verbal Art as Performance. Prospect Heights IL: Waveland Press,.
Brook, P (1968) The Empty Space. London: Penguin
Daniel, A.K. (2019) 'The Social Art of Language’: a semiotic response to engagement strategies in performance storytelling. In Storytelling, Self, Society, Vol. 14, No. 2, Fall 2018.
Daniel, A.K. (2017) . In Hodson, P. and Jones, D. (eds.) Unlocking Speaking and Listening (3rd edition). Abingdon: Routledge
Daniel, A.K. (2011) Storytelling across the primary curriculum. Abingdon: Routledge
Grimm Brothers (1987). The Fisherman and His Wife. In The Complete Fairy Tales. Translated from the German by Jack Zipes. London: Vintage Books, pp. 89-97.
Gussin Paley, V. (1990) The boy who would be a helicopter, the uses of storytelling in the classroom Cambridge: Mass, Harvard University Press
Harley, B. (1996) Playing with the wall. In Birch, C.L. and Heckler, M. (eds.) Who Says? Essays on pivotal issues in contemporary storytelling. Little Rock: August House, , pp. 130-140.
Howes, H. (2014) Storytelling in the Moment. Gent: Academia Press
Pavis, P. (2003) Analyzing Performance. Translated from the French by D. Williams. Ann Arbor MI: University of Michigin Press
Pellowski, Anne. The World of Storytelling. New York, R.R. Bowker, 1977.
Spaulding, A. E. (2011) The art of storytelling, Telling truths through telling stories. Lanham MD, The Scarecrow Press
Stotter, R. (1994) About Story, writings on stories and storytelling. Stinson Beach CA, Stotter Press
Swann, J, (2002) A Man Amongst Men, The Intersection of Verbal, Visual, and Vocal Elements in an Oral Narrative. In Blayer, M.F. and Sanchez, S. (eds.) Storytelling, Interdisciplinary and Intercultural Perspectives. Edited by. New York, Peter Lang, pp. 145-161.
The Fisherman and his Wife, performance by Alastair K. Daniel, Brighton (UKLA International Conference), 4 July 2014. Available at, https,//youtu.be/kMxJAR6n-Uo (Accessed 21/3/18).