True Stories

Live storytelling is an art.  It’s also terrifying – until you try it…!

The email from my friend Stephanie read ‘Fancy a weekend in Norfolk?’  I was tempted.

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Someone had dropped out of a Spark storytelling evening and her friend needed someone who could tell a short tale.  I had told a story once before – to seven people in a pub – so thought I could handle it.  I cautiously said yes.  Huge excitement from Stephanie and thanks from Jonothan, the organiser.  ‘What’s the format?’ I asked.  Sixty people at a sit-down dinner in a huge barn, with a platform to perform on.  ‘Don’t worry, you’ll have a mike.  ‘Bloody hell’, I thought.  And then – ‘I can’t back out now.’

I had thought I’d wing it, just tell an anecdote, but I was one of seven performers at this rather formal sounding event.  I’d better prepare something more structured.  But should I write it in full and then memorise it?  Or make speaker’s notes to prompt me if I got stuck?  I have lectured before but that was on a topic I knew about.  This felt different.  I had to be Entertaining. And I didn’t have long to prepare.

Ironically, the theme was ‘Time.’   I could think of moments about measuring time – a New Year’s Eve party, the fact my mother always bought me watches for my birthday which I never wore – but none of these tales had an ending or a big event– so to my mind they were not stories, just memories. I  started to lay down the rules for a good yarn.  It was harder than it looked.   I decided to tell a story about growing up in a hippie house-share.  But the night before the event I still hadn’t written anything down…

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It was dark and drizzly as my friend greeted me at the station in Norfolk.  We drove through the strikingly flat landscape, the big sky full of lowering clouds.

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The venue was ‘Back to the Garden’, a warm, open-bricked space, an organic restaurant in a converted barn – big but not cavernous.

Gigi checks out the venue

Gigi checks out the venue

The lighting was going to be low – another plus!  We were going to have radio mikes set up by a professional sound guy– which meant no awkward feedback as I mishandled the microphone.  It was starting to feel less like un-funny stand-up.  I even had a vision of myself as Amanda Palmer, giving a Ted talk into my headset, striding around stage spreading the word (A girl can dream).

Back in the car and another speaker, the lovely Gigi from San Francisco, was pulling out her story notes to re-read. I asked Stephanie if she was reading her piece – she’d written it in full and memorised it.  I pulled out my phone and started making quick notes – they were meant to be bullet points but somehow they rambled into phrases and images – not anything I could read out loud but a sketching out of the story shape.  I’d better get it right I thought.  These girls were good.

Gigi and the gig

Gigi and the gig

Changed and back at the venue, our host Jonothan  welcomed the audience as they drifted in.  I eyed the crowd –  they seemed relaxed, couples dining and a couple of groups.  We met the other storytellers around our table who were all charming.  I was starting to enjoy myself.

ElsingHallStories 110-1We went through the running order which was designed around breaks in a three course meal.  Stephanie was opening.  Followed by Starters.  Then Simon, and his dog Stanley were up.  Then me.  I was following a dog.  A beautiful blond labrador – you can’t top that.  I took a swig of wine.

Stephanie was brilliant.  Dark and dramatic though her story was – the death of a close relative in a car crash – she told it expertly, hooking the audience in with the first line, and connecting emotionally with them at all the right moments.  It was a moving tale and made a real impact. We were off.

Stephanie

Stephanie

Simon’s tale was equally moving. How he had saved and been saved by a wounded Labrador, Stanley, while travelling in Africa. He spoke with sensitivity and grace while his dog Stanley won hearts by wandering around oblivious to the story being told around her.

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Simon

I was listening but nervous, aware I was up next. Then suddenly I felt the blessed calm descend as I converted all that adrenalin into performance mode.  This was it.

I bounced up to the sound man and in seconds my mike was on.

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Me

I stepped onto the tiny stage and my inner Amanda Palmer took over.  I made a joke about following a dog.  I went for laughs  – my story was not as dramatic as the others but it had good characters so I sketched them out, feeling the audience response to each revelation.  I tried to join the dots – to connect the moments to weave a narrative, to move the audience on to the next beat and to explain how I felt without slowing things down.  I was writing it as I went along.  And yet it was not imagining from scratch because this story, like all of the stories that night, was true.  It was my childhood write large.  It was my story and no one else’s and so I knew it and could tell it.

The story climax was dark, a down beat – so I had built in a new grace note, of how my mother met my stepfather, her fate decided by the toss of a coin. What had I learned from living in this house with all these characters? That it had made me who I am today – a writer and director who creates extended families based on the one I lived with all those years ago.  And so I ended. And raced off the stage and people seemed to like it and it was done.

The rest of the stories flew by.  Jonothan’s story hung on a vision of an archer by a Norman Church, an image so compelling it  led him to move to Norfolk.

Jonothan

Jonothan

Nigel showed how even an old car speedometer had a tale to tell, while Glynn shared the stories of folk he’d helped trace their family line.

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Glynn

Gigi told witty tales of the great San Francisco earthquake and how it brought people together.

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Gigi

Although we hadn’t rehearsed the connections  as the evening played out they became clear.  I realised that everyone in that audience had a fantastic story they could tell.  That storytelling is structure.  It’s timing and taking the audience with you.  It’s knowing your context – who’s come before you – and who’s coming on next. It’s knowing your place in time.

If you can tell a story, you can write your own script, real or imaginary, in life and art, and long may that continue. Many of the storytellers had changed their lives as a result of that one moment they’d described.  I read recently that we tell stories to make sense  – of our world, our own lives, the lives of others.  I’d like to think that’s true. We can’t change our past, but we can re-imagine it, writing it as we go so that it makes sense to us and making connections with other people to find common stories we can share.

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To find out more about about Spark storytelling events in London and beyond contact  Spark London or follow them on twitter at @SparkLDN

To read real-life tales from Stephanie Young visit her blog.

Gigi Hanna can be found at londonstorycircle

As always, you can talk to me in the comments below or find me at http://www.emmalindley.net or @emlin32 on twitter.

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All is Lost – The Mysterious Hero

I’ve just cut the first ten pages of my script, the ones that set up my main character.  It feels like I’ve just cut her head off.  First you set up the character, their world and their problem or goal… Or do you?

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All we know about Robert Redford in the brilliant movie All is Lost is that he is Our Man. He has no past. At least not one we are party to.  No reason to be castaway at sea, risking everything to stay alive. Why should we care if we don’t know who he is and what he stands for? But we do know. His actions tell us who he is, that and his reaction to what happens to him. The purest kind of storytelling plays out in forward motion, or as actors say, in the moment.  Not in the remembered past, or the imagined future but right here, right now.

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My favourite moment in ‘All is Lost’ is when Redford finds a card in with a navigating set still in its gift box. He flips the card over and we believe we’re going to find out who gave him the gift, his wife perhaps or a lost loved one and with it the reason he is out there alone.  For a moment he considers – and then decides not to open the card.  As we create our own meaning from that small gesture, we are with him in his universe in a way no amount of spelled out backstory or clever set up could ever make us feel.

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When establishing characters, we follow and teach what works in so many movies because it orients us and makes us feel safe.  That is not to say the writer must not rigorously research and get to know their characters, you have to live with them, to know what they want and fear, whom they love and how they speak, move and behave. But in the end you have to let them go again.  They should be unknowable for you and the audience the first time we see them on film.

One of my favourite movie openings of all time is Travis lost in the desert in Paris, Texas.

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We spend hours following his journey with very little idea of what he’s doing and why until the very end when he reveals the event that drove him into the wilderness.

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We love a wounded hero but do we always need to know who did the damage?

In Shane you never know why he is so reluctant to draw his gun. You just know it must have been a terrible thing.

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To start with a character fresh and unknown and plunge them into a world they don’t know and against elements they have no control over mirrors our deepest fears and dreams.  We have no handbook or script telling us how to live our lives or how we got here.  Nor do they.  And so together we work it out.

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Who are your favourite characters and how do they first appear? Leave a message below or contact me @emlin32 on twitter.

How to Shadow a Director

Shadow_cat I’ve just spent a week shadowing a director on a popular BBC1 pre-watershed drama series and as a way of seeing how you create a big primetime show it takes some beating.

Directors rarely get to watch each other work.  A director needs a second director on set like a fish needs a bicycle and it’s hard not to feel like a spare wheel when you’re just visiting a set.  But if you make it your job to really follow the action, you can learn what you need to step up to the next level.

So how do you shadow without stepping on anyone’s toes?

1.  Persuade a Producer.  Asking to trail anyone on a production is a delicate negotiation.  Producers (rightly) have to protect their cast and crew from distractions.  You have to make it clear you won’t disrupt the flow.  Let them choose a time when the pressure is less and find a friendly director who is open to the idea.  Shadowing is an unpaid gig so be prepared to pay all your own expenses – it’s worth it.

2.  Stop, Look, Listen.  If you follow closely enough you can see the mechanics of a show without having to ask a load of redundant questions.  The series producer generously gave me access to all aspects of production.  Be aware that folk are working fast and time is money.  However –

3.  If you don’t understand something, ask.  People enjoy explaining their job, and, if you show a real interest, you can find out how different members of the team solve problems and work more efficiently.  You can learn how to work smarter and adapt to the changing demands of each day.

4.  Learn from someone else’s style.  David, the director I followed, was supremely relaxed on set and created a great atmosphere for cast and crew to work in.  Watching how he achieved a variety of shots with elegance and economy in a limited time frame was fascinating and he was happy to explain his thinking and share his prep methods too.

5.  Be your own person.  When people asked me why I was shadowing, I just said I wanted to learn how the show worked.  People will respect your desire to understand what they’re doing and why.

6.  Be positive.  On most sets the workflow is similar – rehearse, watch with crew, light and then shoot. But every set has a different dynamic, an energy that shifts according to what’s thrown at it, or who comes on board.  You are part of that so always bring energy and enthusiasm and be a positive reflector for those around you.

7. Be realistic.  Being an over-reaching breed, we directors tend to think we can shoot anything.  So watching another director take on a role you covet is the best preparation for actually doing it yourself.  That way you are aware of what’s actually required and can prepare for when you get the chance to go for it yourself.

8. Enjoy it!  It’s not often you get to be on a shoot without all the responsibility that comes with directing one.  It was a real pleasure to spend time with David and the crew, cast and production team and an experience I’ll remember with gratitude and affection.

Who have you learned from by watching them work? Leave a comment here or find me on twitter @ emlin32.

Happy Shadowing…!