Professional Storyteller

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THE QUESTION: What do you do in advance to preempt the inevitable disruption when telling to children and/or mixed aged audiences?

IMPETUS BEHIND THE QUESTION: (see my latest blog, "Vexed", for a more detailed description).

Ideally, regardless of age, every crowd would sit eagerly hanging on every word. But that just hasn't happened...yet. Many crowds, yes. ALL crowds, no. So I wonder what strategies you've used (in advance and during a performance) to ensure that potential disruptions are stymied?

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Here's one of the gutsiest things I ever witnessed a fellow storyteller do . . . and it worked . . .
The room was rather large and the audience was made up of both kids and adults. A mom and her 7 or 8-year old son were sitting in the front row. She and her son started talking, and not in hushed voices, while the teller was in the middle of a story. He stopped, stepped out of the story, looked at the mom, and said, "This isn't like television at home where you can just talk over it. I'm telling a story." He then stepped back into his story and the offenders never said another word. I was certainly appreciative, since I was the next teller . . . and I knew I didn't have the guts to do what he had just done.
Now THAT'S a zippy example of risk-taking. I love it! While the offending party may ban the storyteller from their CD collection, the rest of the audience (I'm sure) silently cheered. Hurrah!!! Thanks for sharing, Debra.
I love that, Debra! I saw a similar technique at a Fringe show. The actor was delivering a monologue when two people walked right in front of her, looking for seats in the front row. She stopped, put a hand on her hip and waved the other in front of her face.

"Not a television," she intoned.

The audience roared, and she had our absolute attention for the rest of the show.

When I've had interrupters, I've handed them a microphone or invited them up on stage. Mind you, I don't usually work with children. I wouldn't risk embarrassing kids that way.

I like to set the room, if possible. If there is a raise platform to work from, I use it. If not, I make a magic tape line, the brighter the color the better. I also like (if possible) to set a place for floor sitters and chair sitters. (not everyone likes to sit on the floor. discomfort makes for disruptions.) If the room has more than one exit, I try to set the room to encourage the use of only one of them. By me setting the room I accomplish 3 things. First, I become more familiar with my space and understand where I will be telling. Second, I allow my self the freedom to use the room as I see fit, giving me the ability to leave the performance space, or walk the edge, or stay in the middle, giving to the story. Third, it give the host a sense that I know what I'm doing and they will see me as a professional.
Then I ask my host to introduce me. The intro should include a little about my background, a little about the topic (if there is one) and a reminder to turn off cell-phones, noise makers, and if a youngin is being a disruption to take them out. This intro allows the audience to know that I am a guest, not just some shmow. It make the host the authority, not me. And it give the good parents and kids a reminder that they are at a live performance, and to be respectful. (it gives the bad ones a first warning)
Then I watch the crowed gather. If they are wild, or if they are calm, will determine if more is needed. If they are crowding the tape line, I tell them why the tape line is there. (I like to tell the story of when I accidently stepped on a little girl’s hand in my pirate boots, when she sat to close. Nothing ends a night of storytelling faster then a trip to the emergency room. {I weight will over 200lb}) If they are loud, I talk about the difference between TV and Live Performance. This should only take about 5 minutes. Then I tell a riveting story.
If problems occur during a story, (what a bold move to stop the story to remind people of there rudeness. if that works for you, I say do it) I start to tell the story to only the trouble maker, be it child or adult. I don’t change the tone of the story, (only the volume if necessary) but I find that direct eye contact will engage them or gilt them into being courteous. (If eye contact doesn’t work I will walk closer to them and if I have to, I tell right next to them looking right at them. This is fun for me and it seems to be fun for the rest of the audience. There are more stories about this but I’ve made this long enough already.)
I find the best way to keep an audience from being a disruption is to tell them stories that they like. If they don’t like what I’m telling then I shift gears and find something that they do like. (I’m talking about the group not the individual.)
That is what I do. I would like to know what others do.
Thanks for the question.
Daniel Bishop, the Storyteller
As a musician I always find it easy to improvise and since I became a storyteller I have never had a strategy around interruption since I am happy if my listeners are not too "silent" (i.e.unresponsive) but the most impressive interruption I can remember was aout 10 years ago when I was in full flight and the door suddenly opened and a lady simply announced: "In case you wanted to know, the raffle at the line dancing upstairs has been drawn and the winning tickets were 101 and 163", and then she was gone. I continued: "so the wolf said, you could have won the raffle and the wining trickets are 101 and 163 - on the the other hand..." and I returned to the story amid some hilarity. People, outside noise and (especially!) mobile phones are always a hazard but, if they can be somehow incorporated into the story rather than acting to break the thread, nothing dreadful happens. The more serious the nature of the story, the harder it gets and luckily I do not do epics since a mobile phone in the middle of Gilgamesh could be pretty daunting. The one time I really got thrown was when I was still very new to storytelling and I was in the middle of a fairly long story when my son (then about 7 years old) suddenly announced, "That's not how you told it last time, Dad". It took me a moment to get over that one!
Thanks to all for these tips! You've offered some thought-provoking advice that I'll incorporate into future performances.

(I love this community!)

One thing that I try to get the organizer of the event to state right up front, is that parents must sit with their children. I've been at venues where they send the children all to the front to hear me and be with me and then the parents stay in the back and are the worst audience. They sit/stand and chat with each other. If their child becomes disruptive they are not even aware of it. If they are aware, they are too far away to do anything about it. Having families sit together does decrease the opportunities for those kinds of behaviors. It doesn't necessarily eliminate them, but I have had more success when the audience is seated that way. I also try to arrange the seating in a semi circle set of rows, so that everyone is facing me, rather than straight rows. That also helps them keep focus on me as the teller.
Wonderful tip, Harvey. I had this very thing happen to me this past Monday night. I will use your technique in the future. Thanks for sharing.

Super idea. Thanks Harvey!
The best way to handle an interruption is the one I never heard!

Several years ago I attended the Colonial Williamsburg Storytelling Festival. It was an windy autumn day that made the performance tents flap and boom. As I crossed the festival grounds a large signboard on a metal frame literally took flight, slammed straight into my head and knocked me flat. After some fuss and attention from passersby I determined that I was sore but not injured, and so continued on my way to the show. The teller was Carmen Agra Deedy, one of my favorite artists, so I nabbed a good seat close to the front-center.

Halfway through her performance a festival staff volunteer and a uniformed police officer started urgently beckoning from beside the stage. Once I figured out that it was me they were gesturing at, I got up and went to see what they wanted. All of this byplay took place in the corner of Carmen's field of vision, directly in front of the rest of the audience.

For the next several minutes I reassured officialdom that I was not suffering from symptoms of concussion or litigation, then completed and signed an incident report. Meanwhile from behind me I could hear the sound (but not the sense) of Carmen continuing her monologue, to the ever-louder laughter of the crowd. "Rats", I thought (or words to that effect), "I must be missing an especially juicy story."

When I finally resumed my seat, my wife leaned over and said, "She's been talking about you!" Turns out that as soon as my situation began diverting some attention, Carmen just rolled with it and improvised a whole comedic riff about me and the likely reasons I was being hauled in by the authorities. She had everyone rolling on the floor laughing, but no one could tell me afterwards exactly what she said. By the time I returned Carmen had already segued back into her intended story. It still drives me nuts not knowing what she said while I was talking to that cop.

But it was without a doubt the slickest way of dealing with a storytelling interruption that I've never heard....




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