Before a recent performance, someone asked me, "How do you learn your stories? Do you just read them in a book and then tell them?"
How simple it would be if that were the case. Developing a story for performance takes time, research, thought, practice and a bit of luck.
Finding a story is not as easy as it may sound. I'll use this summer's library reading theme as an example. One would think that "One World, Many Stories" would be a piece of cake for a storyteller, right? And it is, in a sense. There are so many stories to choose from! Where to start? A teller could pick one country and develop a program on that country's stories. Or pick a continent, and tell stories from that continent. Maybe just pick one story from each country, or each continent? Focus on bi-lingual stories? Stories about animals, or about peace? Environmental stories from around the world? True stories of immigrants to the US? Where to start, and what to choose?
Once a focus is found--let's say, the teller chooses to tell one story from each continent--then it's time to track down the stories. And further refine the focus in the process. After all, many continents have more than one country! Which to choose? Then it's time to hit the resources to find the stories. Most storytellers have extensive personal libraries; almost all know many online sources for stories. We have to be careful about copyright, too--stories need to be in the public domain, be original versions of a traditional tale, or we need to have permission from the publisher or author to tell the story. That could involve the payment of royalties.
The work is not finished yet, though. The story may be selected but how to arrange it for telling? Will I tell it as found? Rarely does that happen! Or will I change it in some way so that it works better for my style of telling? When I'm telling with children, for example, I include participation whenever possible--a chant, song, repetition, parts for someone to play, maybe puppets or other props. I will read the stories looking for those kinds of telling opportunities if I need stories for young audiences. Subject matter is important--it is a topic they will understand or be interested in? What would I need to say to introduce the story? What vocabulary might need to be changed? Is the story too long, or too short? How can I modify it and still retain the original intent or the story--or should I modify it at all? How will this story fit with the program as a whole and with the other stories I've chosen to tell?
These are just some of the questions that went through my mind as I researched stories for my summer reading programs for this year. Different programs will have different questions. A ghost stories program may have me asking, for example, is the time/place accurate? Is this fakelore (made up folklore)? An urban legend? Are there other versions of the story available?
Once I'm satisfied that the story is one I want to learn, I begin the process of learning to tell it. I do not memorize stories; I learn their "bones," the basic plot, main characters, setting, etc. Then I try describing the story to my husband, or maybe just to myself to see if I have the hang of it and if it's really interesting. After that I try telling it, practicing until I have the story in the form I want it. If it's for children, I may check my stock of puppets and props to see if I want to use any of them; I may work on a repetitive verse or song to add to the story, or I may find a song that works well to introduce or follow the story. I might want to use other props, too--"skinning board" might not a term that is familiar to all children, so I might want to bring one to show them. With this summer's stories, I have brought a wide variety of items from my personal collection of world artifacts--matryoshka dolls, kokeshi dolls, rainsticks, flags, etc.--that add interest to the program. The kids have enjoyed seeing and discussing all of these things and I believe it has enriched the experience for them.
In performance, things can happen that change a story for the better. In one of the stories for this summer, there is a chant as the animals "run for their lives." I had the children walking (with their animal puppets) in a small circle in front of the room. At one program, however, a little girl with the lead animal led the group all the way around the audience as the audience chanted "run for your life." It was so much fun that at all future programs I've had the children circle the audience if possible. At another, when the lion in the story snored, a little one piped up, "That's how my grandpa sounds when he's sleeping." After that, I've asked the children to make the sound of their grandfather sleeping. There are some real snorers out there, it seems!
Sometimes a turn of phrase works so well that I store it away to use in that story in the future. I may find that a longer pause works well in a story, or changing the tempo. Always there is room for change and improvement. Working with children in participation stories can be like improv as the kids will say completely unexpected things, refuse to say anything at all, or want to take the story in a new direction. I have to be quick on my feet to keep the story on track while still enjoying and acknowledging their surprising additions to the telling. In adult audiences there are occasionally those who don't understand storytelling is about listening and want to talk to me while I'm telling, or there are (rarely, thank goodness) hecklers who can make a performance real work. It's all part of the job, and a teller has to be mentally nimble to field all of it as it comes. Unlike theater, most storytelling is not a carved-in-stone script and there is no director to keep things moving right. The storyteller manages it all alone.
Once a program is developed and performed a few times, I evaluate. I take some things out, add some, tweaking here and there to get it right. A program is never really carved in stone; new things are added, others removed, wording is changed depending on the age/understanding level of he audience...there are many variables constantly in play.
So when someone asks me, "How do you learn to tell a story?" I might just be at a loss for words. Maybe I should just direct them to this post. Or maybe I should just say, "Do you really want to know? Sit down. This might take a while."