I started teaching storytelling in 1994 at Borups Folk High School (højskole!) in Copenhagen.
We offered our students different subjects in slots that the students chose in the beginning of their stay on the school. One slot contained of two lessons once a week for four months. I offered Storytelling as one of these two sessions a week slots. I found myself in a situation where I had to prepare more than thirty lessons with theory about storytelling, practical exercises to make the students become better storytellers, and inspiration to work outside the classroom.
I realized how little I knew about the subject. At the time I had been a theater director for ten years, and my experience with storytelling was limited.
So I looked around and found very little of interest. I knew what my own main goals for the class were: to look at the basic rules of storytelling. The storyteller is influenced by the listener. The creation of an inner movie involves mutual responsibility. The new knowledge an oral story produces is a mutual responsibility. It is like a dance in which you are not 100% sure who is taking the lead.
I asked myself this fundamental question: How does the storyteller involve the listener in the creation of both meaning and flow of the images?
Could I find a daily life expression to describe this phenomenon?
When I started my classes in storytelling, I noticed that the Danish word ‘vekselvirkning’ could be the expression I had been looking for. Here is a translation: ”interaction, “The government wanted more interaction with the people” – interplay, “Interplay between the boss and his employees is important” – interrelationship, “There is no interrelationship between the departments” – reciprocal action, “They studied the reciprocal action of the social system and institutions ”” (from the danish Dictionary ”Ordbogen”.)
The reason that I give the whole definition of the word here is that I want you to understand the importance of this expression. If you translate it just with the word ‘interaction’, it doesn’t always give all aspects of mutuality that the Danish word contains and ‘reciprocal action’ is not often used. I use the words ‘interaction’ and ‘interplay’, depending on which works best in the context, but know that what I actually mean is vekselvirkning.
The students went looking for complementary relationships that showed the various aspects of interplay in storytelling.
We found at least five pairs where the mutual reaction between two complementary opposites exists. You can find more if you want.
Between Storyteller and Listener
The first interaction between the storyteller and the listener(s) is the choice of story.
Try to imagine one of the listeners. What is she interested in? Imagine another listener. Who is his partner?
Try to put yourself in these listeners’ shoes and from that viewpoint answer the fundamental question:
• Is the story relevant to me as a listener? If you answered yes to that question, ask yourself the next one, which is just as crucial. Then change your viewpoint. Now you’re the storyteller again.
• Are you learning something new from telling this particular story to this particular audience? A storyteller has to be curious, must have the spirit to explore the unknown. You will be telling this story only once to these people at this time. So, as a storyteller, you are excited to learn from this new experience.
When you search for a good story, try searching unlikely places. If you are the boss, ask the cleaning staff, if you are a mother searching for a good story, search in your own life. Do you remember your first bike? Your first kiss? Sometimes a story needs to be polished to be a diamond, and the only way to find out if the story is a diamond is by telling it. So find someone to practice on. Ask the person: Will you please listen to this story and give your honest feedback?
Before you meet a larger audience, you should have practiced this story at least three times on three different people.
Between King and Servant
You have found an opportunity. The listeners are there. You have an audience.
Before you start telling your story, you have to consider a few things. Are the listeners comfortable? Do they hear you? Can you see their eyes? What about the light? Are you standing in front of a window? Is your face visible?
Your beginning is crucial. Go straight to the story. Let us hear: Where? When? Who? You know that your story is good. Show it! Be there for the listener. In the small silences, the small pauses you make, you invite us into the world of your story.
You let us, as listeners, create meaning, images and sensory impressions.
Stimulate our senses. It can be done very quickly by you telling about the looks, the sounds, the smells. And then silence. If you are uncertain, be honest. Don’t shout; whisper. Instead of throwing more energy at a skeptical audience, try the opposite. Give less energy. Create a moment of silence. Invite the listener into a mutual experience.
Tell us your story both as a king and as a most humble servant. It is a complementary movement between opposites.
When you finish your story, you are the king again. Just finish your story. Stop talking and let the listeners speak. Don’t apologize and don’t ask for their sympathy. Just relax and let the listeners give their feedback.
If you want to see a storyteller that shows how the interaction really works, Jan Blake from Manchester in UK is a master:
Between Meaning and Images
If the story just contains a lot of beautiful images and means nothing, you will have lost your audience, and they will never come back to you.
So you have to pick a good story with new insights for both the listeners and you as a storyteller. If you don’t know what to say, say nothing. Just as important, however, is the need for clear and creative images in the story. Read the works of Hans Christian Andersen. Every story stimulates. He creates images, tells about the sounds and the smells. In this way, he activates you; he invites you to work.
My Swedish colleague Anders Granström tells about a city that had a wall around it. When he has finished his story, he asks the listeners, “What colour was the wall?” A woman in the first row saw a red wall; two men at the back agree on yellow, and soon the room is filled with suggestions.
As long as the details are irrelevant to the meaning of the story, listeners can create their own images. There are always two stories being told: the story of the storyteller and the story of the listener.
Between Silence and Words
When you the storyteller are quiet, the silence is filled with tension. In the silence, the listeners create their own story. They imagine the ending; they ask if it’s a reliable story; they create the images of the story; they are very active.
The silences create a rhythm, and the story is like a piece of music. Some of the parts should be told very fast; others slowly, with lots of details. It depends on the story and the only way to find the rhythm is to tell the story.
Silence is a key word here. It is in the silence filled with tension that the listeners create images.
Between Epic and Dramatic Storytelling
”Once upon a time” is a typical epic phrase. You describe the scenario. Where does the story take place? Who is in the story? When you change your voice so it sounds like one of the characters in the story, you are dramatic. You can also change your body gestures, as long as you remember that an oral story is not theater.
It is of the outmost importance that the storyteller links organically with his or her movements, gestures and voice changes. If it doesn’t feel natural, don’t do it.
There has to be a balance.