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Storytelling Performance Part 4a: ‘I am what I am’ – role in storytelling

In this two-part blog I will explore the roles that a storyteller takes in performance. It has been several months since my last blog (CLICK HERE) and this has been because of a combination of summer holidays interrupting the writing and (possibly more relevant) my struggles with this particular aspect (‘storytelling involves multiple roles’) of the Framework for Storytelling Performance (see Figure 1) within which I am trying to work (CLICK HERE). This is not to say that I have concluded that the original statement is wrong, but rather that it is a lot more complex than I originally anticipated. I am immensely grateful to Ursula Holden-Gill for the time that she gave to being interviewed back in March 2019, and to Richard Trouncer who (over several pizza fuelled evenings) thrashed out the conceptual basis of this blog. The conversations with both of these reflective tellers of tales provided points around which I could clarify my thinking.

Introduction: the roles of narrating, enacting and evaluating

In the first part of this blog I will explore how I have framed the idea of storytelling role, and go into some detail on the roles of narrating and enacting. In the second part of the blog I will go onto consider the storyteller as one who always takes a stand, through the role of evaluating, before considering the special circumstances in which a storyteller tells from within a sustained role (for example a museum educator telling stories in role as character).

Upon reading my introduction to the Framework (CLICK HERE), some people thought that the statement, ‘storytelling involves multiple roles’ refers to any characters that the storyteller may inhabit as they perform, modifying their voice and body language to match each role. However, rather than being about the dramatis personae of a narrative, the word ‘role’ here refers to the distinctive ways that the storyteller takes in negotiating the relationship between the audience, in the here and now, and the world of the story (and the events that occur within it). To that end, I suggest that there are three interacting roles that the storyteller must manage: narrating (connecting narrative ideas and communicating a coherent story), enacting (behaving ‘as if’ which includes, but is more than, creating characters) and evaluating (what the storyteller is saying about the world around them and the people who live in it)[1]. In Figure 2, a model of role-taking in storytelling is proposed in which these three contrasting but complimentary roles are nested, with evaluating as the outer layer, narrating in the middle layer, and enacting at the centre of the model.

The work of the storyteller: narrating and enacting

Narrating is the default setting for a storytelling performance and it is the means by which the storyteller communicates what happens to characters, doing so from a position outside the events described. By contrast, enacting is fundamentally about behaving ‘as if’ one is inside events: when we enact something, we alter the way we move, the way we speak and how we hold ourselves. Although this ‘as if’ behaviour is the work of the actor when they take on a character, it also forms part of the storyteller’s work. And this is true, whether they are taking on a character as they relate direct speech:

‘…and the giant said to the prince, [deepening the voice and expanding physical presence] “Why are you here, little one?”

Or representing an aspect of the narration through voice and action:

[raising the volume of the voice and using the arms and upper body to mimic the wind’s path] ‘…and the gale whipped round the houses and slammed shut every open door’ [stopping the action and the voice to mimic the effect of closure, and saying ‘shut’ quickly and crisply to imitate the action of closure].

The role of enacting is surrounded by that of narrating (and evaluating) because, in storytelling, enacting is the means by which we bring stories to life, and its relevance is understood through the context of the narrative. Although there are genres of theatre where distinctions between acting and storytelling are blurred, a generalisation would be that in theatre the story is understood through the interactions played out by the characters on stage, whereas in storytelling such enaction is understood through the teller’s narration[2]. In storytelling, then, it is narrating that is the principal means through which the audience understands story, and enaction is a means of illustrating the story and making it clearer.

Given my assertion that narrating is the principal role of the storyteller, the reasons that I have placed evaluating as the outer layer in this model (encasing both narrating and enacting) need to be explored. While I will explain my rationale for this in the second part of this blog, at this point a brief clarification will suffice. The idea of evaluation in storytelling (rooted in the work of William Labov (1972)) sees everything we (as storytellers) say or do in our performances as being informed by our attitudes to the world. These attitudes are then reflected in both the choice of the stories that we tell and the way in which we tell them. Whether it is our love of fine food or a concern for gender equality that is evoked by our telling, storytelling is always (in some sense) evaluating the story (and its relation to the world) and at the same time is itself value-laden[3].

Narrating and enacting – two separate relationships between teller and story

Watching storyteller Ursula Holden-Gill perform her set, Romance and Ragamuffins, I was struck by how seamlessly she moved between characterisation and narration. Very kindly, she agreed to an interview and we spent a stimulating hour (at least, for me) unpicking the relationship between acting and storytelling. During our discussion, Ursula (who, like me, has come from a theatrical background) recounted how difficult she found it at times to establish herself as a storyteller, because of a theatrical style in which she includes sustained sections of characterisation.

It may seem obvious to say that the job of the storyteller is to narrate, and that storytelling can be, in some ways, regarded as being synonymous with narrating. But differences in perception of how the role of narrating relates to that of enacting can be a source of tension between practitioners, as evidenced by Ursula’s experience. I have similarly experienced disapproval over the degree to which I enact aspects of my own tellings (including the use of puppet and objects), and have found myself on the wrong side of descriptions which include the labels ‘storytelling’ and ‘theatre’ as means to include or exclude performers whose work stands outside established perceptions of what storytelling is, and what it is not. This exploration, then, is by way of trying to tease-out these two storytelling roles, and identify what characterises them and their expression in relation to language, physicality and use of space.

When I first posted the Storytelling Framework on social media, it excited some online conversation between storytellers, not all of which was complimentary, and one established teller seemed particularly exorcised over my inclusion of the aspect ‘storytelling is located outside the story world’. Yet, I would suggest, this aspect is fundamental to understanding how language, embodiment and space are used to enable an audience to understand the way in which a performance navigates the story world. In the next section I will distinguish between the language of narration and that of enaction; I will then go on to expand this discussion to include the use of gesture and the manipulation of space.

Using language to mark distance from events

On a purely linguistic level, the distinction between narrating and enacting can be broadly characterised as the that between forms of language that are either decontextualised or contextualised:

  • Contextualised language As part of giving someone directions you might point the way and say, ‘I know that place: you go down there...’ The person to whom you are speaking knows what each of the words ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘there’ are referring to because they are in the space with you. Further, the directional word ‘there’ refers to a space that can be seen by both speaker and listener, there is no need to explain the word beyond a gesture towards the intended direction. Contextualised language, then, is the that which characterises conversation in the here and now.

  • Decontextualised language By contrast, if someone is telling a friend about the time that I gave directions to a stranger, they might say, ‘Alastair told her to go down the street, because he knew the place she was looking for.’ Here, not only do the words ‘Alastair, ‘he’ ‘she’ and ‘her’ refer to people who are not present during the act of speaking, the use of the past tense ‘told’ indicates that this event occurred in the past. In addition, the speaker refers to ‘the street’ because they are not in the location that is being discussed, and they can’t rely on using ‘there’ as an indication of place. Decontextualised language, by contrast with contextualised language, refers to people, objects and places that are absent, and to times other than now.

Contextualised language is the first language that we learn as children, because of the immediacy of the points of reference. Decontextualised language, on the other hand, is more complex because it is not referring to the here and now, and it is something in which children develop their competence. With the very purpose of story being the representation of events that have occurred in a different place and time, it is decontextualised language that is, for want of a better term, the default setting for narrative.

In another blog (CLICK HERE), I have explored how storytelling and acting are interrelated, and how it becomes impossible to draw hard lines between them. However, a general principle is that the actor’s starting point is enacting a character inside the story world (even if that character goes on to narrate events that are at a distance); contextualised language is the means of establishing this immediacy. By contrast, the storyteller starts from outside the story world, narrating events using decontextualised language (even if they go on to enact some events as if they were present during them). Decontextualised language, then, is one of the principal markers of that distance from events that is the starting point for storytelling[4].

Blending narration and enaction - combining word, voice, action and space

When we enact, we behave ‘as if’:

  • imitating the voice or actions of a character

  • using our voices or actions to give emphasis to the words that we use (e.g. the body tenses, and the voice is given an edge, to emphasise the emotional hardness of a character)

  • treating as if it is the place in which the story’s action is happening (e.g. the teller looks into the far distance as they narrate a character walking away on a quest, or they pick up an imaginary goblet as a character is toasted).

We would generally recognise the first of these examples as acting or characterising, but the examples that follow show enaction is not always in separate and discrete episodes – in fact, I would suggest that a blend of narration and enaction is a mark of good storytelling. Certainly, there will be occasions when the teller separates the roles of narrating and enacting, framing enaction with narration: ‘And the voice said, “Come in, if you dare”’; the narration is decontextualised, whereas the character’s speech is a separate unit of contextualised language (for which the teller may well change their voice and posture). Alternatively, the teller might say, ‘and she pulled hard upon the rope that hung from the tower’, at the same time as they mime the character pulling on the rope. Here, the language is decontextualised with the character (‘she’) having done an action in the past (‘pulled’) on an absent object (‘the rope’) near another place (‘the tower’). At the same time as they are using the decontextualised language of narration, they are acting as if they are within the story context. Narration and enaction, therefore, are functions (or roles) that the teller needs to be able to both shift between, and blend, in turn.

This may seem a complex explanation for something that is obvious, but I have observed storytellers on many occasions who have not sufficiently understood how narration and enaction work in different ways, and have either lost the audience (by disappearing into the story) or have failed to communicate the story world in a way that makes it comprehensible (by not providing enough contextual information). In Figure 3: Negotiating two worlds, I have tried to capture the ways in which the behaviours of teller and audience, relate to the imagined and real worlds. A critic of this approach may argue that, rather than leaving the audience in the real world of the everyday, through our stories we lead them into the imagined world. But in this model, I am not referring to the ability of a good storyteller to transport their hearers to another place and time, but rather the behaviours that characterise the storytelling performance on the parts of both teller and audience.

When a storyteller provides insufficient supporting narration, and over-relies on enacting the story, they dwell in the story world which creates a distance between them and the audience. They may act out conversations between characters for sustained periods, immersing themselves in the story world so that the audience is interpreting the story principally through enaction. Going back to the discussion above about contextualised/decontextualised language, the starting point of a character in a story is contextualised language, because they are responding to the immediate story world in which they exist. For an audience, however, the contextualising cues that exist in the story world of the character, are absent in the real world of the audience - unless the teller establishes them through either narrating the context, or providing such cues through the characterisation itself. With the developed performance skills of the actor[5], sustained periods of enacting can certainly be powerful in a storytelling performance. Ursula Holden-Gill brings a honed physicality to her use of characterisation, but she has trained (and has significant experience) as an actor. This means that she can, through her command of these skills, provide enough information for the audience to make sense of the story world during these episodes of characterisation, but she remains clear that, even for someone as skilled as she is, enaction (and specifically characterisation) is understood within the context of the narrative.


In Part 2 of this blog I will go into more detail about what evaluating means in the storytelling context, and why narrating and enacting are layered within it. Finally, I will unpick some of the complexity involved when someone tells stories in-role as a character.


[1] In her work exploring the ways in which stories are adapted for screen, theatre, gaming etc., Linda Hutcheon (2013) uses the terms ‘telling’, ‘showing’, and ‘interacting’. Her discussion of the differences in the way a work is presented when it is, for example, told in a novel and then shown in a film is fascinating and makes some very insightful observations that can be applied to the processes of adapting a narrative for storytelling (a performance medium that she brushes against, but no more than that). However, after initially flirting with aligning my thinking with hers, and using her terminology, I rejected ‘showing’ and ‘telling’ in favour of ‘narrating’ and ‘enacting’. While ‘telling’ includes the implication of oracy (‘tell’), using the word as a contrast with enacting would reduce its scope – we are story-tellers, and as ‘tellers’, ‘telling’ describes everything that we do to communicate the story. Hutcheon’s use of ‘showing’ creates, I suggest, a separation between the person ‘showing’ and that which is ‘shown’, whereas ‘enacting’ centres activity on the performer and their embodiment of the narrative. Her use of the word ‘interaction’ to describe the involvement of the audience in the story and, for me, forms part of the role of evaluating.

[2] My initial thoughts about the relationship between theatre and storytelling are explored in the Blog entry Storytelling Performance Part 1: Storytelling and theatre - an introductory discussion.

[3] ‘Value-laden’ is a term which is widely used in social sciences to refer to language that reflects personal interpretation or opinion.

[4] Sometimes distance from events is disguised by the tense of the language that we use. Although traditionally folk and fairy tales are written in the past (‘He was walking towards the castle when he saw…’), it is quite common for storytellers to use the historic present tense (‘He is walking towards the castle when he sees…’). Although the verbs in such utterances are in a present form, the listener knows that the language is, in fact, describing past events. The historic present is by no means universally popular and, in 2014, the presenter of BBC Radio Today programme John Humphrys (a critic of the historic present) engaged in a lively debate with Melvyn Bragg (a frequent user of that tense) over its use (CLICK HERE)). Fans of the historic present suggest that it gives narrative a sense of immediacy and makes events more present for the audience. However, even with this immediacy effect, the historic present remains a decontextualized form of language referring to people and events that are not occurring at this time and in this place.

[5] Ursula talked about the role of memory in creating characters, and how physicality is drawn out of those memories: ‘I know them really well, I can see them and their mannerisms’ Of course, the acting skills needed to do this successfully are complex and go beyond simply the ability to characterise. Storytelling performances start with an empty space, set and props are limited, and there are rarely other people on stage to whom the teller can refer. This means that the teller needs to be able to create the world through their physicality, their voice and their deployment of energy and tension.

References for Parts 1 and 2

  • Barba, E. (1991) The Dilated Body. In Barba, E. and Savarese, N. (1991) A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology: The Secret Art of the Performer. London: Routledge, pp54-63: p54

  • Goffman, E. (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, New York: Doubleday

  • Hutcheon, L. with O’Flynn, S. (2013) A Theory of Adaptation (2nd Edn.). Abingdon: Routledge

  • Kennedy, M. (2014) John Humphrys throws down gauntlet to Melvyn Bragg over use of present tense. In The Guardian. 27 July, 2014. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/jul/27/john-humphrys-melvyn-bragg-historic-present (accessed 26/10/19)

  • Labov, W. (1972) 'The transformation of experience in narrative syntax' in Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular, University of Pennsylvania Press, 354-396

  • Mahdi, M., The Arabian Nights. Translated by Haddawy, H (1990). New York: W.W. Norman

  • Widdows, H. (2019) Beautiful Girls are Good Girls. Presented at Pretty girls & brave boys: Fiction and the real world in children's literature Conference, University of Birmingham.

  • Winston, J. (1998); Drama, Narrative and Moral Education: exploring traditional tales in the primary years; London: RoutledgeFalmer

  • Zipes, J. (2006) Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre. Abingdon: Taylor and Francis

  • Zipes, J. (1999) Breaking the Disney Spell. In Tatar, M. (ed.) The Classic Fairy Tales. NY: WW Norton, pp333-352

  • Zipes, J. (1995) Creative Storytelling: Building Community, Changing Lives. London: Routledge.

#Zipes #Storytelling #storytelling #storyteller #AlastairKDaniel #performancetheory #role #Goffman #Labov #narrating #enacting #evaluating #RichardTrouncer #UrsulaHoldenGill


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

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