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Archive for the ‘solo theater’ Category

I’m back from almost a month in New Zealand – first performing and then wandering around with Debbie. We had a great time.

When we reached Wellington, we had a nice dinner with a bunch of interesting people, organized by storyteller Judith Jones and her husband Tony. Among the great people we met that night was Anna Bailey, a puppeteer.

The next morning, at the farmer’s market on the Wellington waterfront, we sat on a bench and watched Anna give one of her shows, standing in front of an electrical junction box to shield her small stage from the gusts of wind swirling around the harbor. Children, mostly under seven or eight, sat on the pavement in front of her, with adults in a wider circle. Shoppers walked through her performance area, seemingly oblivious to the drama being acted out before them of a fisherman who catches a mermaid, then goes on a dance through the sea with her. The piece was about ten minutes long – no words, with recorded music providing backdrop. The piece, as many marionette shows are, was very lyrical and dream-like. There was a distinct narrative line, but it was up to the audience’s imagination to define that line – with no language, it was not explicit but implicit. At one point, she did roam the audience with her puppet, interacting with individual audience members, but mostly, Anna’s focus was inward, trusting the audience to come into her world, and not feeling compelled to go out and capture them, . She let the work speak for itself. Those of us who have done street performing know that there’s a choice you make about how you draw an audience to your performance – Anna, as seems to fit her personality, doesn’t seek an audience, she lets it come to her. I would say there were about fifteen of us who stayed through the whole piece. She had a little hat at the edge of the velvet blanket that served as the definition of the stage –  people dropped coins in. I’d guess she made about $30 for her work.

anna bailey puppeteer

Watching the show, looking at the venue, and thinking about the economics of the whole thing, got me thinking about the vagaries of being an artist. Anna’s work (String Bean Puppets) is not a get-rich-quick scheme. She is not very commercial – and my sense is that at this point in her work, she’s not interested in being commercial.  Her work is small, not in the sense of importance, but in the scale that it works on – how many people it will reach, how much she earns, and how well known she would become doing it.

But really, most art is small. A good number of artists will, consciously or unconsciously, make sure it stays that way for them, either through eschewing commercial success, or happily shooting themselves in the foot if it gets near. (Believe me, I know…)And while some art deserves a bigger stage than it has, there is a lot of art that is about intimacy and the people in front of you at that moment Even the ones wandering by with a bag of leeks. Anna’s puppets are not large, and if the audience were more than a hundred people, something would be lost. Keeping it small is one way to insure a connection. Using a Jumbotron so that the people in the back of the stadium could see the mermaid dance would make it a vicarious experience.  I suppose that television has the paradoxical opportunity to make it intimate – it’s just one person watching something shot in close-up. But the live performance is at the heart of it, and that, it seems to me, is destined to remain small.

So why do artists do it? The short answer is because they have to. They can’t help themselves. It gives their lives meaning. This causes havoc when you depend on it for your daily bread. As Lewis Hyde points out in his great book, The Gift, artists have a hard time living in a commodity culture in which you have to determine your worth and drive a bargain. Most artists first want to do their work, and will do it even if they aren’t getting paid well.

I’m thinking these things as both of my sons, Noah and Dylan, are trying to find where music fits in their lives, and have an ambivalence about the role of the market place in their art. Well, I still wrestle with that, too. I’ve often thought that some things I do for love, and some for money, and I’m just trying to get them to be a little bit closer to each other.

But like I said, a lot of really good art is small, and it helps to know that and still see its value; it’s still worth doing.

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I have been away. In many ways. Let’s see if I’m back. Here’s something:
I’ve been reading Liz Lerman’s really great book Hiking the Horizontal – Field Notes of a Choreographer. I’ll write more about it in another post. The book has made me think a lot about my work. Her discussion about site-specific dances (designed for a particular space) got me thinking about performance spaces.
Performers are confronted with many different kinds spaces, and many are not initially conducive to good performances. For artists who do a lot of community work, sponsoring organizations often aren’t in the business of presenting performance and only have a vague idea of what’s involved. They don’t know that the space is important. Hey – it’s big, it’s open, there are some chairs, here’s a platform! No problem!
And the truth is that the environment a performer works in has a HUGE influence on how successful the performance goes. Yet, it’s often the thing that is last considered in community performance. One mark of good performing artists is that they take care to make the space as welcoming to the audience and conducive to the performer’s work as can be.
For storytelling and solo performance, here are some things I try to keep in mind:
The performance space is my home – people are coming to my place to see me. I try to get there early and walk around and know the place. I like to do at least a fifteen minute sound check, even with a simple set up – not just to make sure the sound is all right, but to get the sense that the stage is mine.
How close is the audience? For solo performance, I want them as close as I can get them. It’s ironic that many theaters don’t put the audience where they need to be – I hate high school auditoriums with the first row twenty-five feet away. That is a physical and psychic distance that needs to be bridged and it’s not easy. (Not to mention, for family performers, the danger of kids just running around in front of you, unattended…). There’s a lot of wasted energy in those places. I often ask if there are chairs that can be brought in to bring the audience closer.
How close are audience members to each other? An audience is a living, breathing thing, and in order for it to be alive, it must be a group, not a scattered assemblage. Open seating in a large auditorium that won’t be filled presents a real problem. People sitting in the back in ones or twos while the first three rows are empty can kill a good performance. In one nightmare performance venue, the sponsors brought in inner city kids and in the first show demanded that there be a seat between each child so that “nothing bad” happened. In a fit of weakness, I allowed it. It was horrible. Death on wheels. Nothing happened. Good or bad – a completely dead show. The next show I insisted they be brought together. All were amazed at how good the show was. No one was hurt. Maybe they learned a lesson. I know I did.
Is the audience comfortable? Do they feel cared for? While a lot of this is out of control of the performer, I try to do everything possible to make sure that the physical comforts of the audience are taken into account. In a school show, I insist that chairs be brought out for the teachers (some teachers, god bless them, sit on the floor with students) – I’ll wait until they’re there, because I don’t want teachers standing for forty-five minutes. I will close off portions of a space if the sight lines are bad. I try to make sure there’s some music playing when groups walk in (not always successful) that sets some tone – I have a couple of playlists on my ipod that I feel set the tone. And under some conditions, if it seems appropriate, I’ll talk to the audience before hand in the aisles – (Sometimes not appropriate – the magic of someone appearing on stage when the lights dim is a potion, for sure).

Sometimes to shake things up I will change the rules about how people sit. In a school where the kids always sit in the gym one way, I’ll have them face another wall. “What’s this?” they say. Something different? And I do everything I can to get the blowers turned off and will pull the plug on the cooler holding the milk boxes if it’s making too much noise. White noise is very tiring to an audience. And the performer.
While school gyms don’t allow much adjustment, elsewhere, lighting matters – the focus should be on the stage. While storytellers like to see the audience, a darkening of the audience shifts the focus towards the stage – we’re so easily distracted that it helps to give people some place to naturally have their attention drawn.
What’s all this mean? Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. And don’t be afraid to make changes to a space that haven’t been made before. “We’ve always done it this way” is not a reasoned argument, it’s an excuse, and it’s worth fighting it.
I believe, in the end that performance places ought to be sacred spaces, if only for the time the show is taking place. Aside from street performers (who create sacred spaces nonetheless), we need to try to make our theaters a place where people feel lucky to be. I will never forget the feeling of walking into Clowes Hall at Butler University to see Louis Armstrong when I was ten years old. The carpet was lush, the seats were comfortable and you could bounce on them until your parents stopped them, and when the lights went down and Louis Armstrong came out and started to play “Hello Dolly” I thought I was in another world.
I would like my show to be a little (just a little) like that.

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Sorry about the caesura, or hiatus, or whatever, in posts. You know… So here’s this.

I have an uneasy mind. It is restless, and wandering, and often ill-content. Those close to me know this. I would like to apologize to them. I am not easy to be around. As lucky as I am to have found something that gives me a lot of freedom, there’s a price paid for being in charge of myself. From afar, it seems pretty cool (and it is). Up close, well, it presents problems.

Every day, I wonder if I’m spending my time the way I’m supposed to be spending my time. What’s important? What matters? What can I get done? If someone graphed my psyche, or my emotional health, it would look like an oscillation between the Himalayas and the Marianas Trench off the coast of the Phillipines.

Every four hours.

Pretty ironic, considering how many people tell me they appreciate my work. Everyone should have the affirmation I receive. What a basket case I am!

But, then, that’s the way I am. It’s the brain chemistry, or the hand I’ve been dealt by nature, or nurture.

The release from all this comes in performance.

Before a show, regardless of the venue, I am VERY uneasy. Those around me know just to leave me alone. It could be a library show for fifty people, or some “performance venue” with a thousand paid audience members. It doesn’t make any difference. I want to do a good job. I wonder why I’m doing this. I always joke with the presenter – “I’ve changed my mind. I can’t do this.” But part of me is serious – I hate this. All the focus on me. Who do I think I am, anyway? I bite my tongue so I don’t whine. I hate everything on the set list. I decide that I should really just try some song or story that I barely know, then decide to go with what’s safe, then say, no, better to fail miserably.

I rarely walk out on stage with a set list cast in stone. I see too many different kinds of audiences to do that. A month ago, I walked out onto a formal stage, a big venue, for a family show, assuming there were a good number of kids, only to discover there were only four children (in the front row, hoping for something wacky) and everyone else had gray hair or none at all. I had prepared a set list. It didn’t match the audience.

I threw away the set list. Wing, wing, wing….

And I am left, then, to depend on instinct and the moment. After doing this long enough, things come to me (or don’t) about what the next piece is. Unfortunately, this discussion goes on while I’m performing a piece, which can keep me from being present in the piece I am performing. ONE SHOULD ALWAYS BE PRESENT IN THE PIECE BEING PERFORMED. THAT’S HOW GREAT THINGS HAPPEN. There is nothing more blessed in human existence than knowing what you are supposed to do.

But sometimes you don’t know what you’re supposed to do. What then?

I try to get it right. There is very little I can count on. Anywhere. Anytime. But the truth is, the one place I have some semblance of control is when I’m on stage. All these people have come to see me. (What were they thinking?) They have placed their lives in my hands, if only for sixty or seventy minutes. It is up to me to take care of them.

It is an awesome task (in the true sense of the word “awesome”). And it is also not that big a deal. Because I’m better when I just play with them, if I can get to that point.

For me, performance is cathartic, which defined loosely, means “emotionally cleansing”. (Love those Greeks.) Often, in the middle of the show, or towards the end, or maybe even after it’s finished, I can feel everything in me relax. My ever present, relentless mind shuts up. After a show, there is a sense of attainment – of forgiveness, of release. Whether it’s in the car driving home, or in the hotel room a thousand miles from home, or (if I’m lucky) with some friends, the internal dialogue stops for a little while. I have done my job. I’ve done what I could by the sweat of my brow and by my instinct. For that short time – a couple of hours – my being is at peace and I can accept who I am, gratefully and joyfully.

We should all be so lucky.

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This month I’ve been working with the third graders at Paul Cuffee School in Providence on storytelling. Every student has had to find a story to tell, and is now in the process of learning it, with an eye towards telling it to a wider audience. It’s a process I’ve done a number of times, though not nearly as much as some other folks, like Beauty and the Beast (Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weiss) or Karen Chace.

One of the hardest things for any storyteller, regardless of age, is to take a story they’ve found on the printed page and make it their own. The translation from the written word back to oral is much more difficult than one might think. Children (and adults, too) can be pretty daunted, thinking they have to learn a story word for word. You can tell them, as I do, that they need not worry about particular words, but instead think of the scenes, work on the images, and tell their story in their own words. Still, there is that awkward memory of the words on the page, as if that is really the story. This is true for all art – making something your own, and not acting according to the schematic that is first presented – the work has to come from inside. As they say, the map is not the territory. But getting off the map is very difficult.

I developed an exercise last week that begins to address that process. The students had chosen the story, read it over a number of times, and made story maps of it – trying to identify each scene and drawing a picture that represented it. But they needed to tell it in their own words. Here’s what I did:

I had the students set up chairs in two circles, one inside the other – the chairs facing each other, so each kid had a partner. I then told them that the students on the inside had two minutes to tell their stories. More precisely, to just tell what happened. I timed them. When they finished, their partners on the outside told their stories. When the pair had finished, I had the people on the outside move one chair to their left, and we repeated the process. When those pairs had finished, I had the people on the inside move one chair to their left and repeat the process again. But this third time, I told them they were allowed to take three minutes to tell the story.

It worked pretty well. With the directions given, there was an eruption of protest. Kids said they couldn’t remember the whole story, or if they could, they couldn’t tell it in such a short time. “Too bad,” I said. “Just get through it”. They did. The second telling was easier. With the third telling, when I gave them an extra minute, they breathed a sigh of relief, and with my encouragement, slowed down to tell a little more. There was till some struggling, but after telling the story three times in fifteen minutes, the outline of the story was becoming clear in their minds. Because of the time limit, they had to throw away the written text and just get to the point. Now they had it fixed in their mind what happened in the story, and could begin to make it their own.

The exercise got me thinking about the challenge of being real in one’s art. It is hard to move from a concept of what the art is to the art itself, because in the end it has to come from inside of us if it’s going to be real. I was reminded of this when I went to see a play last weekend. It was pretty uninspiring, and my brother-in-law, Philip Stewart, who has done a lot of acting in his time, noted that the lead was not really acting, but indicating – the role wasn’t coming out of him, instead he was doing things that pointed towards what his character should be doing or feeling – like using shorthand. It’s like a kid who draws a picture of a tree where the trunk is brown and spread at the bottom, and the top is a round, scalloped ball of green – the schematic tree in the head, not a tree that actually exists. Or the writer that uses metaphors someone else has used before. Or the storyteller reciting a script they have memorized, rather than using their own language to impart the pictures in their head.

Making the students respond in a short amount of time, pulling the script away from them, leaves them to their own devices. They don’t have time to think, they just have to do – and it’s just doing that leads to authentic performance. When they have to use their own words, they begin to make the story their own. Then the story can grow.

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I was lucky enough to be the Sounds of the Mountain Festival, in Fincastle, Virginia this weekend with two of my favorite storytelling pals, Beth Horner and Kevin Kling. There was only one stage and we traded time with each other and Alan Hoal, one of the organizers of the festival who did a great job telling. (And Kim Weitkamp was a great emcee – thanks Kim)

It was fun to be there – with only one stage, when I wasn’t talking, I sat and listened to Beth and Kevin. Having worked with them over the years, I know a lot of their material, and I got to hear some of my favorite stories of theirs – Beth’s family story of the civil war, and her tragic (hilarious) encounter with a romance novel, and Kevin’s stories about Christmas, baseball as Greek epic, and survival (hmm, aren’t all Kling’s stories about survival?). In each of those stories, I heard things I had never heard before (especially Kevin’s stories, which are small dense jewels of words and feeling). And I told some stories I’ve been telling a long time – “Bats” and “Build Me Up Buttercup”. In the middle of my stories, things happened that have never happened before.

I’m usually feeling guilty that I don’t have any good, new material – just this old stuff! – it’s a curse. And when you’re working with people of the caliber of Beth and Kevin, you can find yourself wondering what you’re doing up there. (Is my creative well dry? Look at them!) But there’s a flip side to the process of creating, which is that it takes a long, long time, and many tellings of a story for it to really grow into a full-fledged piece of art. The stronger the frame is and the more it’s been crafted and spoken, the more you can relax into the moment and find things you didn’t know were there.

In improvisation, you depend on shutting your mind down with the immediacy of the demand – “There’s no time to think – just do!” Good things happen when you can do that. Well, at least part of the time!

But the other approach is to know something really well, so that you can take a walk through it – in that process, relaxation helps the mind still, and you find new things, and new ways to say the things you have been trying to say for a long time.

I wish I was always immediately brilliant. But usually, it happens when I don’t expect it, and it happens after a long time of thinking I’ll never say anything worthwhile again.

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I gave a keynote this month at Sharing the Fire, the New England conference on storytelling sponsored by LANES about storytelling as a craft. In the talk, I outlined some areas of skill development and questions storytellers should ask themselves about their work. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a number of years. Below is the text of a hand-out that focuses on the questions. It’s an attempt to encourage the recognition of storytelling as a craft that aspires towards art.

Questions for Evaluating Storytelling Performance

Along with many others in the storytelling community, over the past several years I have been giving thought to what are hallmarks of good storytelling. While storytelling is in many ways still a folk art, and because of that, something that many kinds of people do, there’s a tendency to be lax in a discussion of what are measures of excellence. But if we are to encourage excellence in storytelling so that it is recognized as an art, we need to have a discussion about what we find in accomplished storytelling. This is not a question so much of what standards critics should use in evaluating performance (although they may do that), but a challenge to us as artists to search for some language to use in looking at our work.

In an effort to foster this discussion I’ve come up with a list of questions, or queries, a storyteller might ask of him/herself. These are not hard and fast rules, but rather a way of seeing. Not all the questions I offer here are useful in every situation, but I’ve tried to think about what I see in a good storyteller, and what I miss when I see a storyteller not succeeding.

For me, reading the list of questions makes me aware of my shortcomings and failures. But that’s okay. I think the important thing is to become conscious of what we’re doing and look carefully at our work. Nobody does all these things I’ve identified. Good storytellers may be so good in one area that we forgive their transgressions in other areas, or those areas simply become less important. But when something isn’t working, and we know it, we should ask ourselves hard questions about why it’s not working. These questions are a place to start.

Narrative form
Is the structure of the piece strong? does it show an understanding of narrative structure, even if only to make it possible to experiment with that structure? Is the structure flabby – are there parts that do not belong? Is there an awareness of narrative tension? Does the piece show an understanding of character’s place in the narrative? Is there resonance in the piece, with elements introduced early bearing fruit later on? Is there an understanding of an underlying subtext in the story? Is it clear that the storyteller knows what the story is about? Has s/he made choices about what material to present to best serve the heart of the story? Is there a dramatic build that reaches some form of climax when a truth is revealed? Is this revelation presented in a way that delights or enlightens or moves the audience?

Language
Does the storyteller have command of the language used? Does the storyteller have an adequate vocabulary, and use the right word? Is the style of language consistent throughout the piece? Is it authentic – especially if it represents some culture other than the performer’s own? If it is a caricature of a culture, is there an understanding of what that means? In the context of the choice of language used, is the grammar and vocabulary consistent and authentic? Is there a consciousness of it being an oral language, rather than oral presentation of written language? Is there breath in the words, or do they sound as if they are coming from the page?

Voice and physical instrument
Does the storyteller have command of his/her vocal instrument? Is s/he understandable? Does the vocal instrument serve the story, or does it attract attention to itself? Is the voice flexible in its presentation of different aspects of the piece, varying in timbre, pace, and dynamics?
Does the physical movement of the storyteller serve the story? Is the storyteller conscious of how the use of his/her body is serving the story? Is the performer in control of his/her physical instrument, using his/her body to serve the presentation, or does the movement distract from the story?

Performance skills
Are all skills integrated into the story? (e.g. – music, movement, juggling) Are the skills used developed enough so that they are not hindrances? Are skills and technique transparent so that the story is served, rather than the demonstration of technique? Does the storyteller use different modes of presentation in the performance? Is there a spectrum, or vocabulary, of content and presentation? If the storyteller has committed to characterization in a piece, are the characterizations consistent throughout?

Relationship with the audience
What is the storyteller’s relationship with the audience – is s/he telling to the audience present before him/her, or to the one in his/her head? Is the performer open to the audience – is there an awareness of the nature of the fourth, permeable wall between the audience and the performer? Is there a consistent understanding of where the storyteller is at any moment in the delivery of the narrative? Is there some understanding of the isolation of characters from each other and the narrator? Has the storyteller made conscious choices about those relationships?

Show structure
Does the performer have a sense of how an entire performance builds? Over the course of the performance, is there a flow from one piece to another, and some sort of arc? What is the performer’s relationship with the audience between set pieces?

Aesthetic
Does the storyteller have a sense of his/her aesthetic – her reason for performing and how s/he presents her material? Are they consciously making choices about what they are showing and how they are showing it? Does the storyteller have a unique voice? Does s/he have something to say?

©2009 by Bill Harley

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