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Storytelling Performance Part 3b - Verbal engagement strategies in performance storytelling

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 there is a lot of material to be covered on this topic, I have split this blog into three sections a) Introduction (which can be found by clicking HERE) b) verbal engagement strategies and c) non-verbal engagement 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.

As with other parts of this blog, in order to demonstrate how storytelling competence can be shared, I will refer to specific storytelling performances, including my own telling of the Grimm’s tale ‘The Fisherman and his Wife’, the video of which can be accessed by clicking HERE[1]. Reference is also made to the Storytelling Performance Framework, which was explained in Storytelling Performance Part 2 (click HERE to go to this blog entry), and introduced in relation to involvement strategies in Part 3a (click HERE).

Verbal Engagement Strategies

In the introduction to this three-part blog, I emphasised the idea that story is the co-creation of storyteller and audience working together (a characteristic of storytelling that I have placed at the core of the Framework), and that the competence to tell a story can be distributed between both parties. In this section, I will discuss ways in which language can be used in different ways to strategically distribute competence by explicitly involving the audience. To be clear, I am not suggesting that the act of narrating a story does not involve the audience of itself, but rather, I want to look at overt ways in which verbal responses can be elicited from the audience, either through recitation (including call and response) or direct questioning from the storyteller.

Verbal Engagement and Multiple Roles

A characteristic of storytelling that I did not discuss in the introduction to this blog is t​hat of the multiple roles that the storyteller has to take in the process of telling (perhaps this is something for a future edit). Whilst this movement between roles is evident in both verbal and non-verbal exchanges, it is in the language-based strategies that they are most apparent. Returning to the idea of competence, and its distribution, when audience members contribute their voices to the telling, it becomes a dialogue, a conversation, in which ideas are shared and the story world constructed. Managing this dialogue requires the teller to recognise that these exchanges take different forms, each of which serves a different purpose in relation to the role that the storyteller is taking at any given moment. Various authors have suggested storytellers fulfil different roles in relation to both the story and the audience[2], and this idea will be developed in a future blog. For the purposes of this discussion I will refer to the following roles, or functions, that a storyteller fulfils:

  • Narrator – the most obvious task for the storyteller is to narrate the story. An audience may join in with repeated words or phrases;

  • Poet – the storyteller not only use language to communicate a sequence of events, but shapes their language (and other aspects of communication) for effect. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s (1827) distinction between prose and poetry provides a good starting point:

  • Prose: words in the best order;

  • Poetry: the best words in the best order (In Simpson 1988);

  • Character – the audience can join in with repeated sections in which the teller steps inside the story and takes on the role of one of the characters;

  • Evaluator – the teller draws on the audience’s knowledge of, or views on, the story by managing discussion in which the teller may also give contextualising information (e.g. discussing variations of the tale).

Each of these roles is marked by different ways in which language is used, but each of them can be characterised by either monologic (the storyteller speaking to the audience) or dialogic (the audience speaking with the audience) approaches.

Below, I will outline two ways in which the teller can invite the audience to contribute language to the telling of a story, and thus share the competence to tell.

Recitation – teller and audience working together

In many cultures, storytelling events open with set formulae in the form of a call and response. There are several well-researched books which include lists of cultural variations in story openings and closings, including Pollowski (1990) and Cannarozzi (2008), and England’s most well-established storytelling club, The Crick Crack Club, takes its name from a common form of interaction in sub-Saharan African and Caribbean storytelling traditions[3]. This pattern of call and response is one that is exemplified by Jan Blake who uses the refrain ‘Cric! Crac!’ in her storytelling, instructing the audience, ‘When I say ‘Cric!’, you say ‘Crac!’[4]. Although common at the start of a story (establishing the rules of participation), this call and response can come throughout the telling and has a three-fold effect: the audience knows that they may be called upon to respond at any time; the audience becomes a coherent group with a common purpose; and the audience space is activated as a site of involvement. As part of my research into the links between theatre and ritual[5], I interviewed Dr Jenny Zarek (who was, at the time, the advisor on acoustics to the Church of England) about the ways in which choral speaking/singing can affect an audience/congregation. She suggested that, not only does a person’s body resonate with the sound of their own voice, but this resonance is amplified when they are surrounded by people speaking/singing together. Jan Blake’s call of ‘Cric!’ is delivered at a clear pitch, and this is something the audience copies when responding ‘Crac!’ – the resonance that is amplified by the audience’s response of ‘Crac!’ creates a sense of community and shared experience.

Thus, returning to the Storytelling Framework, it is clear how the embodied nature of

storytelling contributes to the co-construction of story: audience and teller working together. In her set at the Oxford Storytelling Festival (2018), Blake also demonstrated how participation is embedded in her storytelling practice[6] in the way that she included song as an introductory activity[7] (with the audience harmonising with her) and in encouraged all present to ululate[8] with her at the high point of an African Story. Blake, then, shares the competence to tell her stories with the audience, modelling the responses she expects, encouraging everyone to participate, and leaving spaces for them to do so.

The power of such participation was brought home to me recently while working in Belgium, where I employed an even simpler form of verbal engagement than ‘Cric! Crac!’. In March 2019, I was working in a Flemish primary school with children who had no formal education in English, but were relying on their passive learning of the language (through TV and music) to listen and respond to a sequence of folk and fairy tales. In my version of ‘Snow White’, the Queen replies both to the mirror’s confirmation that she is ‘the fairest of them all’, and to the death of Snow White, with the word, ‘yes’, which I vocalise with a throat rattle and as an extended ‘Yeeeeeeeeeas!’ The second time that the word was repeated, the children joined-in both with the word, ‘yes’ and in imitating my own delivery, and were thus were sharing the function of f characterisation.

Of course, the single word is much easier for a group of children with English as a foreign language than a rhyming sequence and so, when it came to the Queen addressing the mirror (‘Mirror, mirror, on the wall…’) I not only passed the focus to the children, inviting them to recite the rhyme, I invited them to do so in Dutch (‘Spiegeltje, spiegeltje aan de wand, wie is de schoonste in het land’). Whilst I do have enough Dutch to order a cup of coffee, I don’t speak it sufficiently to lead this poem and, consequently, I relinquished control of the narrative to the children who demonstrated competence poetic characterisation in the act of storytelling.

In an extension of the opening call and response strategy, spaces can be created throughout the telling in which the audience can recall or repeat significant words and phrases. In the video of ‘The Fisherman and his Wife’, at the point in the narrative where the fisherman first rows out to sea to ask for a wish (that he and his wife should live in a cottage), the audience was invited to join-in using the following sequence:

Teller: …so the fisherman, who was a kind man, pushed his little boat back into the…[slight pause]

Audience members: …blue sea.

Teller: Blue s… You’re listening. Good. …and as he rowed through the blue waves, he called out – and this is your chance to join in: - you say after me...

Little fishy in the sea...

Audience: Little fishy in the sea.

Teller: From my net I set you free…

Audience: From my net I set you free.

Teller: Now I want some help from thee…

Audience: Now I want some help from thee.

Teller: It’s for my wife, it’s not for me…

Audience: It’s for my wife, it’s not for me.

[to be found between 02’58”-03’34”]

The initial invitation here is through the cue of the unfinished sentence, ‘…so the fisherman, who was a kind man, pushed his little boat back into the…’ Like many engagement strategies, this approach is inherently risky (with an ever-present danger that the audience won’t respond), but the flip-side of risk is trust, but it is a trust that is built on providing sufficient information for the audience to be able to respond with confidence – in this case the earlier marking of the colour ‘blue’ through vocal emphasis and the use of blue fabric to represent the sea.

Whilst in the first recitation of the poem (as above), is focused on ensuring that the rhythm and rhyme are clear to the audience, future iterations start to reflect the character’s attitude to the demands of his wife, so that when the fisherman calls out over the red sea (which can be found between 08’07”-08’49”), the audience vocalises the emotion of the protagonist and relate to his predicament – as in the example of ‘Snow White’ above, the audience members take on the the roles of both poet and character. Repetition is central to the invitation to participate through recitation, whether it is the teller led ‘Repeat after me’, or the implication that the audience is free to join-in with saying a phrase that is repeated through the narrative. In the case of established openings and closings of story, such as ‘Once, upon a time…’ the repetition is based in cultural convention so that I can say to an English speaking audience that is familiar with the European fairy tale tradition, ‘Once, upon a…’ and they will fill the gap with, ‘time’.

In recitation, although both narrative content and the language used are chosen by the performer, the reiteration of set language enables the audience to join in with words that have been patterned for them by the teller. This participation, then, blurs the distinction between the presentational and audience spaces, and thus distributes the storytelling competence, in three ways:

  • This filling-in the-gaps strategy involves every member of the audience at the same time.

  • The ‘chanting’ of a pre-determined response activates the whole space a place from which the story is told, rather than it being limited to that occupied by the teller.

  • The way that I, as the storyteller, cue the participation means that I am giving power to the audience. Presuming that they are present willingly (a real assumption when working in schools sometimes), the audience is invested in wanting a story to be completed and, by creating a hiatus in which the audience can join in, means that the story will be incomplete without their participation. Most people will, of course, respond to the social pressure to join in – but it is not guaranteed and the teller who invites participation in this way is, at the same time as they involve everyone, are also making themselves vulnerable.

Creating spaces with questions

Asking direct questions during a storytelling is an obvious and common way in which to involve an audience in the telling, but it is a strategy that needs to be handled with care. First of all, there is not a single form of question to be asked, and each serves a specific purpose in relation to the narrative (principally within the functions of narrating and evaluating):

  • Recalling – can you remember where she hid the magic shield?

  • Predicting – what do you think happened next?

  • Adding – and the next animal he met was a….?

  • Interpreting – what do you think he meant when he said….?

  • Evaluating – how do you feel about events (or the story)?

The first two of these question types (recalling and predicting) are limited because of their closed nature: they seek a response that is either right or wrong. Recall questions are the least demanding form of exchange with an audience and (because they are simply a matter of reiterating something that has already been said) carry the least risk. They are, however, useful, both as a way to establish the participative nature of the storytelling, and also of highlighting earlier elements of a narrative that are needed to make sense of events as they unfold further along in a story.

Inviting the audience to predict the direction of the story is another simple involvement strategy, but one that has to be handled with care. In ‘The Fisherman and his Wife’, you will sometimes hear me leave a space rather than invite prediction in the form of a question: ‘they were so poor they lived in a...’ [which can be found at 0’34”] and, similarly, ‘He let down his net and he caught…’ [which can be found at 1’26”]. Whether the audience is invited to engage through leaving such gaps, or direct questioning, there are inherent dangers in this closed form of verbal participation. Firstly, on a pragmatic level, the storyteller has to be clear how they will manage individual responses when adults (at least) are not used to asking permission to speak, and therefore will call out; secondly, there can be a ‘guess what is in my head’ quality to these prompts and, as such, they need to be handled with care. The teller has to manage expectations, and be careful not to ‘close down’ people who have responded to the invitation to demonstrate their storytelling competence, making them feel that they are not competent because their prediction doesn’t coincide with the narrative as the storyteller has prepared it. There is, however, a way in which ‘incorrect’ predictions, themselves, can form a constructive part of the storytelling, reinforcing the notion of shared competence (even if this is not immediately obvious to the members of the audience). By providing ideas for the fisherman’s catch in the ‘The Fisherman an d his Wife’, the audience were populating the sea and helping to establish the story world; similarly, inviting the audience to predict actions or events in a narrative helps them to see connections and possibilities in the story (even if their prediction does not come to pass).

We have to ask, therefore, do closed questions have a purpose in storytelling, and (if so) how do they establish that the competence to tell a story is shared between teller and audience?

Only a minority of the audience for ‘The Fisherman and his Wife’ were used to listening to

performance storytelling. My use of closed questions (or leaving spaces for closed responses) s strategic and invited playful participation from the audience. In addition, by using this form of engagement at the beginning of the telling, I established some key rules for the event: 1) I, as the storyteller, would conduct the audience through the story; 2) although I was identified as the storyteller, the audience had a role to play (included verbalised responses in the storytelling), and 3) As the principal storyteller I would set the times and form of the audience’s participation. In other words, I was establishing the principle of co-creation - without the audience, I could not tell the story and storytelling competence was not mine alone, but something that was shared between me and the audience.

Authentic questions

Of course, opportunities for audience prediction do not have to be closed, and we can ask open questions or create open spaces which invite responses which lead to additions to the narrative. As a re-formation of the idea of open questions, I prefer the term ‘authentic questions’, which was coined by Nystrand et al (1997, cited in Alexander 2008) and refers to questions that the questioner does not have the answer to. Clearly there are dangers here, in that an audience member can make a suggestion that lacks logic (which requires a careful response), or (sometimes) is intended to demonstrate their cleverness by disrupting the narrative. In both cases, the storyteller remains the arbiter of what is incorporated in the telling. For example, in my retelling of the Caribbean tale, ‘How the Crab got his shell’ (loosely based on a West Indian folktale (Sherlock, 1966)) a series of animals present themselves at the witch’s door, offering to do her cleaning in the hope of reward. As long as they don’t choose a crab, any animal could place-hold this role in the story. If someone chooses, say, an elephant (a very common response) I will accept it, but highlight (in a light-hearted way) that elephants are not indigenous in the Caribbean. If, however, someone says, ‘piano’, I will challenge them on the logic of their response given the question’s parameters: it has to be an animal.

The challenge, when creating predictive spaces like this is to then incorporate the answers that are provided into the telling. Such incorporation clearly confirms both that the competence to tell the story is shared between the teller and the audience, and also that the storytelling event is unique to this audience, this time, and this place.

Examples of narrative elements for which the teller could authentically ask for suggestions could include:

  • peripheral characters such as the animals that knock on the witch’s door

  • food and drink at a meal

  • sports or pastimes of characters, competitions they have to enter before the decisive test (as identified in the narrative or plot)

  • the characteristics of a character to build a shared mental image of them (e.g. ‘what can you tell me about Trolls?’)

  • obstacles overcome by a character en route for a specific place (‘On his way to London he passed through...?’)

In addition to questions (or spaces) which invite recall or prediction, there are also those which give the audience a voice in interpreting the story, or evaluating it. Whilst there are, to be sure, established views of particular stories and narrative tropes, interpretive and evaluative dialogues with an audience still tend to be open and authentic as they are dependent on personal responses. The teller, for instance, could compare their own version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, in which the resourceful girl escapes the wolf by her own cunning, with versions in which she is rescued by an adult male, and use this as a starting point for a group discussion with the audience about gender role in fairy tale. Although the storyteller may have knowledge of a range of authoritative voices in the interpretation of traditional story, this does not prevent the audience from demonstrating their competence to interpret and evaluate tales for themselves.

[1] The reasons for choosing this telling are:

  • that it is readily accessible via YouTube

  • 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. (These strategies are also discussed by Bauman Verbal Art as Performance 295, Harley 131-2, Howes 97-115, Stotter 54, Swann 147-8).

  • exploring this telling provides an opportunity for me to understand my own storytelling in more depth

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.

[2] These include Harley, B. (1996) and Swann (2002).

[3] Pellowski (1990) discusses how storytellers round the world invite audiences to respond with set responses and, in some cases, how storytellers engage in dialogue with the audience during the telling. Cannarozzi (2008) provides a catalogue of responses used to start and end stories around the world.

[4] Jan Blake’s performance technique was closely analysed in the early 2000’s by Swann (2002).

[5] Daniel, 2003

[6] Jan Blake’s storytelling style has been closely analysed by Swann (2002)

[7] This is specific to her performance at the Oxford Storytelling Festival in 2018

[8] A high-pitched vocal trill used in many parts of Africa – click HERE for an example

References for Part 3b: Verbal Engagement Strategies

Alexander, R. (2008 (2004)) Towards Dialogic Teaching: Rethinking classroom talk (IV ed) YO7 Dialogos

Simpson. J.A. (ed.) Book 1: Quotations, The Oxford Library of Words and Phrases (1988). Oxford: Oxford University Press

Cannarozzi, S. (2008) When Tigers Smoked Pipes. Reading: The Society for Storytelling

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

Daniel, Alastair K. (2003) A Comparison of the process of signification of performance objects in liturgy and storytelling. Presented at, Societas Liturgica International Congress, Eindhoven (NL), 2003. Click HERE for access

Grimm Brothers (1987) ‘The Fisherman and His Wife’. In The Complete Fairy Tales. Translated from the German by Jack Zipes. London, Vintage Books, 1987, pp. 89-97.

Harley, B. (1996) 'Playing with the wall' in Birch, C.L. and Heckler, M.A. (Eds), Who Says? Essays on pivotal issues in contemporary storytelling. Little Rock: August House 130-140

Pellowski, A. (1990) The World of Storytelling (2nd Ed.), Bronx NY: H.W. Wilson

Sherlock, P. (1966) ‘How crab got a hard back’. In West Indian Folk-tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Swann, J, (2002) ‘A Man Amongst Men, The Intersection of Verbal, Visual, and Vocal Elements in an Oral Narrative’. In Storytelling, Interdisciplinary and Intercultural Perspectives. Edited by Maria F. Blayer and Monica Sanchez. New York, Peter Lang, pp. 145-161.

Performance Cited:

The Fisherman and his Wife, performance by Alastair K. Daniel, Brighton (UKLA International Conference), 4 July 2014. Click HERE for access.

Snow White, performance by Alastair K. Daniel, Gemeentelijke Basisschool Lochristi, Belgium, 22 March 2019

Untitled performance by Jan Blake, Oxford Storytelling Festival, 29 August 2018


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

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