On Telling Stories

By Kim Ruff

I hate the laundry list of occupations I spout out to people who happen to ask what I do for a living. I don't hate my jobs, some of which I don't even get paid for, but when I go on and on about what I do, my tone shifts and suddenly my list of occupations doesn't sound like much of anything but a list. When in fact, I’m passionate about each one - from grad student to college instructor to assistant manager of a literary festival to storyteller.

"Ooh, a storyteller? What’s that?" is the typical interruption that occurs before I’ve had the chance to say, "and all that with two kids at home."

In a traditional sense, a storyteller tells stories in an intimate setting to close family and friends for the purposes of entertaining or to keep a family legacy alive, but my answer to the question is a one-sentence-summary that I’ve developed through my experiences with a different style of storytelling known as performance storytelling. And my answer is this:

"Storytelling is the telling of true stories on a stage to a live audience."

Really, there's so much more that needs to be said, but to get the conversation going might take several bottles of wine and not in the indulgent way I would normally drink wine, but slowly like a connoisseur. It's not that a performance storyteller's life is glamorous or complicated, but crafting a story to be told on a stage in front of hundreds of people is a process. A slow, reflective process that needs to be seen, smelled, swished around a little in your mouth, and savored like a good glass of wine.

The follow-up response to that answer is: “You get on a stage and tell your story to a bunch of strangers? Why would you want to do that? It must have been a great story!”

When we hear the word "story," we’re likely to think that the experience must have been larger than life, but why? Our lives hold enough meaning in just the everyday, enough to tell a story. Besides, not all of us can afford (in so many ways) to pick up for an adventure and come home with an exotic experience to share, so most performance storytellers find meaning from their memories or familiar places they encounter each day. And there are many reasons people choose to use a stage to tell their life stories and the most common is validation.

Performance storytellers are like anyone else - they want to know that they’re not the only suckers out there experiencing life, often times making dumb decisions and sometimes good ones. And don’t we all feel that way. Aren't most of us equipped with cell phones and pick them up at will to call someone we love after a song comes over the radio that reminded us of them, or don't we have certain people we talk to when we did something embarrassing and need advice, or have gossip or news to spread?  For most people, a phone call or a text is where the story stops. We take for granted the details of our past and our present, while a performance storyteller chooses to examine the most minute detail of any day because they believe there's got to be more than what meets the eye. In other words, it's not enough to have an experience; a storyteller feels drawn to convey these moments on a larger scale to connect with a myriad of people. And to feel normal.

When I explain storytelling in this perspective, most everyone can understand how a story can be crafted from something that happened last week, but immediately I hear a tinge of skepticism in their voice when they say, “But how does anyone remember details from years ago?”

I’ve been a performance storyteller for more than a year and I have been given the benefit of the doubt on the details of my stories. At least it seems that way because nobody has ever come up to me after a show and asked how I remembered the details of a story I told from my childhood. This would be a difficult question to answer because it’s hard to place a finger on how you can remember details from 30, 10, or even 2 years ago.

Growing up in the 80s, I remember overhearing adults say, “Everyone remembers where they were when Kennedy (or Lennon) was shot.” Now I’m the adult and the saying goes, “When the first plane hit the twin towers.” It makes sense. These moments trigger an emotional response and studies show that people categorize memories based on emotion. I realize now that emotion is the reason I can remember the details of a story that happened 20 years ago. Of course, my stories are not as monumental as the killing of a president or act of terrorism, but the details I remember for the stories I tell are triggered by an emotion that is elicited by the theme of each storytelling show.

A theme is at the heart of every performance. It's what begins the story, keeps it moving forward, and brings an overall understanding and a connection to the audience. Storytelling companies always advertise a theme and they are always based on common life experiences like broken hearts, making resolutions, competition, or lying. A theme serves several purposes, such as a prompt for the storytellers to trigger detailed memories, to focus ideas and shape stories, and it offers a way for the audience to connect with the tellers and those around them. People like to know that they’re not the only soul in the room who has ever had their heart broken!

But how do storytellers transform their themed experience into a story that's worth telling to an audience, and within the standard allotted 5-7 minute timeframe? In other words, how do I tell the story of how my 17-year-old heart was broken for the first time and make it matter to an audience that ranges in age from 10 to 70? It all comes back to a process.

When I'm contemplating what to write for a show, I think about the details that will get a reaction from the audience and then I think about the relevance of those details. Because it's quality over quantity when you only have several minutes to convey a story on a stage that would take up to twenty minutes to read from the page.

So, what's a storyteller to do? How do we, as they say in the writing business, kill our darlings?

What we have to keep in mind is that we need to deliver a story, and the story has to be interesting enough to captivate our audience for those fleeting moments when a storyteller is on stage. To do that does not require bells and whistles, actually, that would be a piece of cake. In fact, on nights when the room falls silent at a place in my story that I thought would make everyone laugh out loud, I'd rather jump out of a cake, ringing bells and blowing whistles.

Our first impulse is to tell a story as we experienced it - in chronological order, which is okay when you're having a cup of coffee with a friend but not when you're trying to entertain hundreds of people. To find a happy medium when crafting a performance story requires experimentation in learning which details will push your story forward, confuse the audience, or add a bit of flavor.

When I wrote a story for the themed show “Road to the Altar” with the Northern Virginia storytelling company Better Said Than Done, I had to condense the details about the many funny and quirky dates I went on with my ex-beau to keep the story moving and to keep the audience interested. Because no matter how entertaining, there's only so many circumstances anyone can listen to before the stories become redundant and painfully boring. Looking at the details of a written story and deciding what matters is how I have learned to kill my darlings on the page and leave only the most crucial details for the stage.

If details of a story aren’t enough to keep the audience’s attention, there are two great tools that all performance storytellers come equipped with and should never underestimate:

1. Their voice and 2. Their body.

Performance storytellers transform themselves and their story for the stage. Transforming for the stage doesn't mean becoming someone else. It's worse. It means becoming more like the self that only you really know you are when no one else is around. This is the self that one might never share with a lover or best friend, but it's this boldness one brings to the stage to tell a story.

When I come to the stage I bring my "raunchiness," as an audience member once told me. I like to think that she meant it was clear that I told my story in a voice true to my experience and myself. Most storytellers take advantage of tone to add richness to their story. Unlike writing a story, a performance storyteller can scream, imitate another character’s voice, make sound effects, and even pause. I do all of these and more to not only entertain the audience, but also to provide an experience for them.

As for the body as a tool, of course I'm talking about body language. Nothing says “I’m annoyed” better than someone rolling her eyes! However, body language is a strong tool and unlike the voice, a performance storyteller should use it minimally, otherwise, one’s body becomes the story and everyone quits listening to the words, sort of like those people who happen to ask what I do for a living.

The take away is simple. Our lives are stories that unfold and surprise us. With a little digging, those moments can be brought to light. Like French fries you discover at the bottom of a fast food bag.