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Archive for the ‘storytelling’ Category

When Peachtree Publishers agreed to publish “Charlie Bumpers vs. the Teacher of the Year” my first question was, “Can we do an audio book, too?” Happily they said yes. As a storyteller, I’ve done over a dozen audio recordings of my stories, and was looking forward to doing the audio version of the book.

How hard could it be?

Well, harder than I thought. Also deeper, and more exasperating, and more interesting. I learned a lot from doing the recording, and will use what I learned it in my future recordings. The process of doing the audio version has also changed the way I look at the story and the characters in it. Now, working on a major edit of the second book, I’ve applied all that to the writing process. Recording the audio version has, I believe, made me a better writer.

Not that it’s easy. First, I should say that I also served as recording engineer and producer for the recording. I am a better artist than I am an engineer. The final product sounds good, but I know that another more seasoned engineer would have been a lot faster than I was. I will never confess how many hours it took. Good engineering requires meticulous work and I’m more of a big picture guy –  not so good on the details. Keeping track of which track is being recorded, adjusting levels, making good edits, and simply pushing the right button requires a lot of attention. I got better at that. Still, I’m not in danger of becoming a type A person.

In terms of performance, my biggest challenges were pacing, character, and keeping to the written page. Those aspects kept me going back for one more take, trying to get it right.

My mind works overtime, and pretty quickly, and one of my biggest challenges in the studio is to slow down. An outside ear helps with that – reminding the performer to take his time. But I didn’t have that. With me, hunkered down alone in front of the microphone, and pushing the buttons in solitude, I constantly had to redo passages. Rilke wrote, somewhere, “Meaning comes when images have time to ripen in the mind.” Who knew he was speaking about audio books?  Finally I took some advice from my pal, engineer extraordinaire David Correia – I hung a sign over the microphone – “SLOW DOWN!!!” I still have work to do on that (and not only in the studio), but I got better at it.

The voices for the characters present another challenge. I had no intention of being Jim Dale, the magical voice of the Harry Potter audio books, able to develop a distinct voice for each of the hundreds of characters he represented.

But I did need to distinguish different characters and have a very approachable, believable voice for the narrator. “Charlie Bumpers vs. the Teacher of the Year” is told in first person by Charlie, and so in some sense, all the voices come through Charlie. I don’t think it would do to have complete personification for each character. Over the course of the recording, the characters became more and more clear to me – and that will serve me well in the following five recordings.

In the process of the recording, I found myself thinking a lot about how much emotion we should put into a performance. As a storyteller, I am aware that it’s really the words doing the work – if we fill each passage with emotion, or too much character, we don’t leave room for the audience to hear the words being spoken. Many times, a more neutral delivery is called for – being emotional doesn’t really help the story. There’s a fine dance required in balancing the emotional undertones of the characters and the meaning of the words. Generally, a narrator’s job is to get out of the way, and let the words do their work without emotion. Characters can be more emotional, but even when a character speaks, a reader needs to be careful about over-acting.

One of the greatest challenges I faced was to say exactly what I had written. I was reminded by the publisher that every word in the audio had to be in the book. As a storyteller who tells any story differently at any performance, and as a writer who never quits editing, this was beyond excruciating. I’m reminded of the apocryphal story about a famous painter who had to be searched before he went into any gallery holding his work, for fear that he might be bringing his brushes to make some adjustments. Through the recording process, I was reminded that reading text out loud is a very important part of writing. Over the course of the time spent in the studio, I became even more convinced of the importance of  rhythm in language.

There’s much more to chew on here – I’m only scratching the surface. I’m particularly interested in the difference between hearing a book and reading it, and wonder how the method of intake influences the reader/listener’s perceptions.

Any comments about all this are welcome.

Here’s the first chapter of the audiobook of “Charlie Bumpers vs. the Teacher of the Year.”

Charlie Bumpers vs the Teacher of the Year Chapter 1

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bach_portraitOver the past several months I have been playing piano almost every day. One of the pieces I’ve been working on is Bach’s A minor two part invention. I am a pretty sloppy piano player – more comfortable with blues progressions and playing “close-enough” to what should be happening. But Bach doesn’t really put up with that  – it’s precise and intricate and demands a steady tempo and attention to detail. Not my forte. As a result, to get it right, I’ve had to continually slow myself down and play some passages over and over again. Every passage really. I still haven’t played the whole piece through once perfectly – I probably never will.

All this piano practicing has gotten me thinking about the practice – or rehearsal – of stories. Rehearsing stories by one’s self is very, very difficult. When I do practice a story without an audience, my mind tends to wander and I’ll find myself standing there, staring into space, thinking about something, anything else.  A story really needs an audience – it won’t grow or make sense, or have meaning, until it has one.

But I need to practice a story, somehow, before I offer it up to an audience.

Musicians can find enjoyment in playing with no one else in the room – I’m not exactly sure why this difference is there. But I find myself interested in the notion that I could play the Bach piece over ten times and enjoy myself, while practicing a story by myself, over and over again, is just plain hard.

One thing that strikes me is that in both cases – the playing of an instrument and the telling of a story – we’re striving for an innate body knowledge. We have to practice enough for our mind to get out of the way. When the body knows what it’s supposed to do (and I mean even the mouth muscles), then we can open ourselves up to a better expression of the material we’re offering. We literally watch ourselves perform and guide the performance.

I think practicing a story requires more mental discipline than practicing an instrument and one mark of being an accomplished teller is that dedication in the early stages of developing a story. In particular, I’m interested in the notion that there are passages in a story, like in the Bach piece, that require repeating over and over again to get them right. In particular, we practice to clarify the order of things and the language used to express and describe.  Story is about ordering – giving form – and our first job is to get order right – the order of events, the order of speaking in a dialogue, the order in the way the narrator or character lists things. That order is essential and requires practice. Language is crucial through the whole story, but in particular there are some points in a story when we need to get the language just right – a well considered phrase or choice of particular noun or verb or adjective will make a clearer picture in the listener’s mind.

I have been wrestling with a story  for a long time now (a year and a half) that requires that kind attention to detail. Getting the sequence of the story has been particularly troublesome to me, because it’s assembled from a number of different experiences, and also involves a long passage in which I’m having an internal monologue. Although internal monologues tend to be jumpy and apparently non-linear, in the case of the told story, the sequence is very important. In the middle of the piece, I have an argument with myself – actually there are four different parts of myself – and I have to get all those parts just right. And at the climax of the story I’m bringing all the disparate elements that I’ve brought into the story together, and they have to be introduced in just the right way. This requires practice.  And it’s hard to do. Which is why I’m still working on it. When I’m not practicing Bach. Which is easier.

Like many storytellers, I regularly use performance as rehearsal. If the story’s bones are strong and I’m relaxed enough, I can get through the story in front of an audience and will find a lot out. I prefer to do that (I’m lazy). But I also know that I get to my best storytelling when I’ve worked on particular places to make sure the order, language and delivery is just right.

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I spent this past weekend at the Festival of Lights in Midland, Texas with a lot of storytelling friends and enjoyed hearing all their stories. On Saturday night, I heard Donald Davis honor the creator of the festival, Patty  Smith, by  telling  an old story of his about his typing teacher in high school. In the story, the ancient teacher insisted that nothing could stop the timed typing test given every Friday. Her insistence leads to some pretty hilarious consequences.

Afterwards I was talking with other tellers about how Donald structured the story, and suggested that the  story worked because it asked a question at the beginning of the story that had to be answered (Would anything stop the test?). My pal Willy Claflin suggested that Donald’s story was a good example of the scientific method – when confronted with a problem the protagonist  suggests a solution and then tests his theory. What happens if we do this? As soon as the audience hears the question, we know where the story is headed, though not the outcome.

A good story asks a question and then answers it. It needs to ask the question early on – after the stage is set and the main character’s world is established. And the question that is asked is the result of a problem that presents itself. And really, the  asking of questions may be the reason stories exist in the first place – they explain to people what happens when they take certain courses of actions – they’re about being predictive. Just like Einstein imagining traveling at the speed of light. The scientific method. What happens if you do this? Our ability to imagine what might happen is what makes us storytelling animals – we put events in a context to make sense of them.

I don’t think it’s necessary that the question always be directly stated, as it was in Donald’s story. (“We got to thinking, could anything stop the timed test?”) If you make it clear that the hero of the story really wants something, then the unstated question is “Will she get what she wants?” and “How is she going to get it?” Which is enough to hook the audience so they want to know the most important question in narrative – “What happens next?”

While some narrative artists can get away from this simple structure because of other skills they have, it’s dangerous to do so. How many times have you read a book, or gone to a movie or a play and after a while get this confused feeling that makes you ask, “Where is this going?” If that feeling lasts too long, the audience checks out. If the artist hasn’t asked that questions of herself, it can lead to a really flabby, confusing story. Not every narrative artist is so direct – some folks are more elliptical in their presentation. But by and large, I think storytellers are better off practicing the scientific method.

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Last summer I gave a keynote at the National Storytelling Conference in Cincinnati sponsored by the National Storytelling Network (NSN). For various reasons (which I’ll go into in another post), I’ve held off on making it available until now – apologies to those who asked a while ago. The wheels grind slow, but they do grind.

I know that NSN is planning on making the audio of this available, as well as other sessions at the conference. You can look at their web page (www.storynet.org/)

Because it’s a long talk, I’ve embedded it here as a pdf you can download. There are probably typos and grammatical errors in it – it’s a draft of the talk I gave and I went through it, but I have a noticeable inattention to detail on things like this. I’ve already gotten a bunch of comments from people after the speech, and there are things to quibble about in it – but I’m including it warts and all.

In the talk, I challenge all parties at the storytelling table to do a better job – our national and regional organizations as well as individuals. I do believe we are at a crossroads in how storytelling as an art form will be viewed in this culture, and we can make choices about how we want things to be. I’m particularly interested in how storytelling is viewed in the arts world, and propose that we see storytelling as a “seed art” and make an attempt at defining what that means more clearly. Were we to gain some recognition by arts organization about our value and legitimacy, I think it would really help in the development of storytelling excellence.

I’m not going to write anymore here – there’s enough in the speech. Enjoy.

Click Bill Harley Keynote NSN 2012 for pdf of speech

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I just finished performing at the Forest Storytelling Festival in Port Angeles, WA, and had a great time. The other tellers were all very good (Lyn Ford, Robert Greygrass, Will Hornyak, and Alison Cox) and we complemented each other very well and had a great time. And while I was busy, I got out before the festival started and took a nice hike up Hurricane Ridge where I only got a little wet. The Northwest, you know. Picture above – it was really raining when I took the picture.

The stories were good, but I am thinking a lot about what happened in the workshop I gave before the festival started. I did a 2 ½ hour workshop on personal stories (anathema to all the European tellers, and those who are sick of hearing people talk about themselves). I talked a lot about trying to place a personal story in the context of myth so it would have resonance. That’s all good, but I also talked a lot about imaging – seeing the story in the mind’s eye – which I have considered essential to good storytelling. It’s how I work, and how I teach. But that’s where I ran into trouble.

One of the workshop participants, who has been telling stories for a long time, told me that he doesn’t see stories – he doesn’t have pictures in his head. I have run into this before, and usually have found a way around it. I have ways of tricking people into admitting they have pictures in their heads when they tell stories. It’s how I operate, and I suspect how most tellers, or writers (and certainly filmmakers) operate. I usually can get them to admit that they do.

But this one wasn’t budging. No, he insisted, he didn’t see anything, he just told the story.

I was confronted with a problem. I didn’t get it. As a workshop leader, I am supposed to know everything. He was messing up my workshop. And he wasn’t going along with my tricks. I was trying to get on to the next point, but here I was, with an embarrassing moment.

So I said (essentially), “Wow, I don’t get this. I believe you but I don’t get this. You see, or do things differently from me, and I don’t get it, and I don’t know what to say.”

I was confronted with a way of being that I did not understand, and I gave up and admitted it. “Seeing” the story is essential to my work, and I considered it universal, but here was someone saying there was another way to do it.

Rather than tell him he was wrong, I just said, “Okay with me – I need to understand it.”

After the workshop, he thanked me for affirming that his way of doing things was valid – he said it was the first time a workshop leader had done so. All I had said was “I don’t get it. I don’t understand it, but what do I know?” Who knows everything?  Another workshop participant, a psychologist, came up to me and said that there’s a number of ways to experience things – it could be visual, but it could also be auditory, or it could be affectively –  the emotions in the experience might give you the path towards finding the words. And afterwards, I thought about how smell or touch could do it, too. Diane Ackerman’s sensational (ha ha ha) book A Natural History of the Senses talks about this and suggests that smell is the strongest sense when it comes to dwelling in memory.  Could you tell a story about your grandmother baking bread without having any images in your head?Well, evidently, even though I don’t know how.

Over the weekend, I had several conversations with my non-visual storyteller. At one point, he said he tried to feel what was going on in the story, and operated from that perspective. I understood that. My stories often start with a feeling that I would like to elicit – one I’ve had and want to evoke. And then, a day later, he told me that he was working on a new story and that morning he had tried to picture it and for a few fleeting seconds, he could see it happening in a way he hadn’t before. It was a small breakthrough. I think if I had just told him he was wrong, he would not have done that.

It got me thinking about what a visual culture we are – we are addicted to images, often at the expense of the other senses, which might provide a deeper experience.

This process is all very interesting to me. I take away at least two things from the experience.

First – I’m a better teacher when I admit that I don’t know everything. Teachers spend so much time trying to have all the answers, it’s very difficult to admit when they don’t. But when they do (or in my case, are forced to), something else happens. We can go deeper into the experience of learning – it’s a wide open space with no easy answers, and kind of uncomfortable. But it’s also very liberating.

Second, I was forced to recognize that there are ways of being that I do not really understand. This is a very humbling experience, especially for someone who professes to be an expert. I am a moderately synaesthetic person – music has colors to me, words evoke feelings, visual things may evoke smells – but there is still a lot that I just don’t get. It’s a big world, and I only understand a little part of it. I should shut up and pay more attention.

I said to my non-seeing workshop participant that I suspected the more we could draw on all of our senses, the better off we would be in our work. He may, in the long run, gain from his attempts to “see” stories in a way he never has before. It will probably make him a better storyteller. And I should probably be more willing to admit that someone understands the world differently than I. It will make me a better workshop leader, and maybe more than that.

What drives your creativity?  Something else than image?

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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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Just one of those moments that reminds you of what you’re doing and why.

Last week I was at Israel Loring School in Sudbury Massachusetts, in my customary position, standing in front of a microphone, underneath the backboard in the gym in front of three hundred kindergarten, first and second graders sitting on the floor.

I was telling my own twisted version of Sody Salleratus, “Big Bert”, which I have told WAAAAAY too many times, but still love to tell. As I’ve said in other posts, when you know a story really well, something else happens when you tell it.

It sure did.

I got to the point where the girl in the family is going over the bridge to the store. I use the word “sashay” to describe her movement (“She sashayed out the door. She sashayed down the road. She sashayed over the bridge.”) (I think I owe a nod here to Roadside Theater and their version – “Fat Man”.)

I stopped.

The audience looked at me, wondering what I was up to.

“Sashay,” I said. “What does that mean anyway. Anybody know?”

Usually, nobody does. So I tell them it’s a little dance step and go on with the story. Vocabulary lesson accomplished, and I’ve engaged the audience.

But that day, a kindergartener on the far end of the front row raised her hand.

I stop and look at her.

“Do you know what it means?”

She nods. She’s sure.

Well, this is just great, I think. I love this.

“What does it mean?”

“It’s a ballet step,” she says.

Now I am surprised. (Would that be chasse? I didn’t know that term until I went searching today…) No ballet expert myself – I learned how to sashay in fourth grade gym class with a scratchy record, Mr. Keller the gym teacher, and Janice Kahn, who I kind of liked. It was a nice move for a fourth grade boy, because no one touched.
Now I’ve stopped telling the story. This is interesting.

“I didn’t know it was a ballet step,” I said. “Thank you.”

I take a breath to go back into the story, but the lexicographer in the kindergarten class is not done. She has her hand raised again, and she is very self-assured.

I pause, “Yes?” I ask

“I know how do it,” she says.

Well,” I say, “that’s fantastic. Would you like to show us?”

She nods and stands up. Completely fearless. She is a dancer by trade! If only her teacher were here to see!

“Go ahead!” I say.

She raises her arms to her sides, faces the audiences, side-skips from one side of the gym to the other, keeping her arms perpendicular to the ground, her feet crossing ever-so-slightly at each step, then back again across the floor, and sits down. There is a spontaneous round of applause.

It is the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen. I am struck near speechless.

“Thank you,” I said. “Now we all know what sashay means.”

I go on telling the story, knowing the picture in three hundred heads is different than it was before.

Actually, make that three-hundred and one.

Mine, too.

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