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bobby mcferrinLast week Debbie and I were lucky enough to see Bobby McFerrin perform in Central Park. It was a beautiful evening, it was a free show, and we got there early enough to get good seats, spreading out a blanket as the sky darkened for his ninety minute performance.

Watching McFerrin sing is a revelation – most striking is how relaxed he is on stage. I’ve often felt that a performer’s greatest strength comes from being relaxed and open to the moment, and McFerrin is the king of that. From the second he came on, it felt like the stage was his home and we were visiting him. He sat easily in a chair, or wandered casually among his band members, as he went through most of the songs on his new album, “Spirit You All”, a deeply religious recording that recasts a number of spirituals and numbers from the Black church, as well as original compositions and a take on Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released”.

While McFerrin is a virtuoso and  a master he does not show off –  while he has an incredible range and great falsetto,  most of the time his voice is a relaxed, easy, normal sounding voice. Many performers spend a lot of time building up a wall between themselves and their audience through their virtuosity – the message is “Don’t try this at home – you’re not like me”. Not McFerrin –  he’s not trying to blow you away – although he does every once in a while with some amazing displays, all done with humor and class. Instead, he uses his art to build a bridge. Out of this relaxation and comfort on stage comes his improvisation – you get the sense he is really playing – playing with his own voice, with the musicians around him, and with the audience.

Especially with the audience. In interviews, McFerrin talks about his interest in taking the focus off himself and putting it on the audience, so they are part of the experience and performance. If you’ve seen him live, you know how good he is at this – better than anyone else, even my guiding light, Pete Seeger. Wandering into the audience while singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” (including verses where the gender shifts to “She’s got…”) he held up the microphone to a half  dozen people. EVERY ONE OF THEM SANG. REALLY WELL! They sang well because he knew they could. Their success made us all feel part of it, and also affirmed McFerrin’s message – we all have a voice.

In a great interview with Krista Tippett  Bobby talks about American Idol and says, “They have good voices. They sing in tune. But so what? What are you saying?”

I think about all these things when I do a show. I think about how I can make the audience part of what I’m doing, so it’s something we’re doing together. Those of you who have seen my story “Build Me Up Buttercup” will know what I mean. Like McFerrin, I want to do something that says “We all have a voice.” Watching Bobby McFerrin makes me want to do it better.

Here’s another link to an amazing demonstration he gives of the pentatonic scale. 

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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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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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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 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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