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Getting started at a performance

by Doug Lipman

(This article appeared in Storytelling World magazine. Copyright Doug Lipman)


This time, Doug addresses the question
"At a performance, how do I get started?"

Telling a story is like showing friends around a place you love:

  1. Your listeners have to trust you.
  2. You have to be mindful of the story, its major landmarks, and its personal points of interest.
  3. By the end of your time together, your listeners will have made their own connections with the story.

Before you begin the tour, however, you have to connect with your listeners and re-connect to the story.

Connecting with your listeners

Every successful teller has a different style of connecting to a new audience. Some begin a program by:

  • telling anecdotes
  • singing songs
  • asking questions and prompting the audience to respond.

Some start with:

  • a story familiar to the audience
  • a story familiar to the teller that has worked to connect with many such audiences before.
Still others even use the theatrical devices of program notes, a darkened room, and spotlights - which can serve in their own way to prepare both listeners and teller.

What matters is that the method you choose works at that moment for both you and your listeners. If singing terrifies you, it's not a good choice! If you're comfortable singing, but your adolescent audience is embarrassed to distraction by the naked use of the human voice, it's still not a good choice.

A three-part process
You can think of connecting with your listeners as a three-part process:

  • unite
  • invite
  • offer.
Uniting your audience causes them to surrender some of their separateness. Each listener agrees to respond as a part of the group.

Inviting your audience brings them closer to you in a way that empowers them. You say, in effect, "I'm going on the tour. Do you want to come?" That's different from saying, "I'm going - you can watch if you want."

That's also different from saying, "Go where I tell you." In the latter case, the audience hasn't given consent, and some of their attention may be reserved for protecting themselves from being forced to visit places they may not want to go.

Offering completes the process. The listeners have already agreed to respond as part of a group. They have given their consent to follow you. Only now are you in a position to give them something. And they are in a position to accept with open hearts.

How do you achieve these three steps? Again, this depends on finding a common ground with your listeners.

The three parts can:

  • be simply implicit in your attitude as you begin your first story
  • begin as you greet people at the door, and continue as you introduce yourself and your stories
  • each take a structured form.
What's a structured form? A prayer of invocation, for example, serves to unite the audience - whether in a church picnic or a Native American ceremony. The traditional Haitian dialogue "Cric! Crac!" (the teller says, "Cric!" and won't proceed unless the audience responds with a hearty "Crac!") is a concrete form of invitation.

Whatever means you use, be sure to take enough time to connect with your listeners. If you slight this step, even a technically perfect performance can fail. If, however, you succeed in creating a happy partnership with your audience, you will be in a position to overcome - together - even the most daunting obstacles.

Re-Connecting With the Story

Before you begin any story, you need to re-establish your connection to it.

You may have spent thirty years of your life in one town, but unless you summon up your memories of life there and their meaning to you, you'll remain an uninspired tour guide.

As always, each teller finds individual ways to accomplish this re-connection.

I begin my favorite way by imagining the "moment of triumph" in the story. Before beginning the story, I:

  1. call to mind some image from this important moment - when the principle character is transformed, or when the misguided opponent "gets it" and relents, etc.
  2. experience that moment in my body. For me, I need to let the emotions "wash over me." When I have fully experienced that moment, I go on.
  3. imagine the opening image of the story.
  4. begin to describe the opening image, as though I have my eye on the moment of triumph in the distance.
The story has begun.

Other tellers have other methods, conscious or unconscious, visible or invisible.

For his "Pill Hill" autobiographical stories, Jay O'Callahan takes time on stage (before the audience arrives) to "call up" the central character of each story - himself at a certain age. He imagines the presence of seven-year-old Jay, for example, and then tells that character, "I'm glad you're here. The story is yours to tell."

Syd Lieberman, on the other hand, gathers himself in a particular stance before each story. He joins his hands behind his back, bends over at the waist, and appears to be examining the ground for lost coins. While in this position, he thinks about what he wants the story to convey. When the story is ready to burst out of him, he begins.

Whatever ways you use to re-connect with your story, it's important to take the necessary time.

Beginners are often so frightened of losing their audience that they rush from one story to the next. If you need time to disengage from the previous story, your audience probably does, too.

Furthermore, a person who is imagining something meaningful is interesting to watch. The time you spend imagining your next story can actually help focus your audience's attention.

As important as the story itself is, much of your success in communicating it will depend on what happens before you say "Once there was...."


Copyright © Doug Lipman

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This page was last updated on Friday, November 28, 2003
Copyright©2003 Doug Lipman