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.
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…
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.
The venue was ‘Back to the Garden’, a warm, open-bricked space, an organic restaurant in a converted barn – big but not cavernous.
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.
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.
We 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Gigi told witty tales of the great San Francisco earthquake and how it brought people together.
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.
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.