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THE FACT THAT YOU WERE BORN IN A GARAGE DOES NOT MEAN YOU ARE A MOTORCAR!(AGREE OR DISAGREE?)

Improving
Narratives and Narration at the Kenya Schools and Colleges Drama
Festivals

by

Oluoch-Madiang’

The National Workshop for Drama Teachers and Adjudicators

Tom Mboya Labour College, Kisumu

24th January to 27th January 2005.

In The Beginning…

This paper seeks to invite participants in this workshop to reflect on some of the sticking points that have for long
bedeviled the narrative genre in the schools and colleges drama
festivals. At the onset, this paper acknowledges, appreciates and
salutes the positive effort of participants that has contributed to the
improvement of the narrative genre and its performance. In some
instances, the paper will set the record straight while at other times
it will address the contribution of narrators and/or their directors,
which may have been contributing to the lowering of the standards on the
narrative genre.

This paper will also try to challenge narrative producers to creatively use the repertoire of stories that
abound in our cultural heritage to address contemporary issues. A
reincarnation of Mzee Kobe, Sungura Mjanja, Kaka Mbweha, Fisi Mlafi,
Nyamgodho wuod Ombare, Abunuwasi, Wangu wa Makeri, Simba Marara, Ogres
and even gods should be considered, as narrators engage their audience
in reflecting on the social, economic, physical and political realities
that obtain in our times. It will be a most interesting and fulfilling
experience to see these characters adapt to our current lifestyles and
interact with us as we seek to come to terms with the occurrences in our
daily lives.

Finally, this paper will also seek to raise the bar for producers and narrators to cover new ground and explore numerous
possibilities of stories and storytelling techniques. Overall
therefore, this presentation aims at improving the quality of the
narrators and the narrative genre in general

How Many Male Angels Can Dance on a Pinhead?

A recurring perplexity amongst narrative producers has been determining the number of narrators to perform a
story. The history of this bafflement can be traced to the original and
experimental thinkings that defined narrative performance at the
festivals and the subsequent guidelines for the narrative genre.

Not only was a ‘narrative with a stage audience, e.g. by the fireplace’
identified, but also a maximum number of 15 participants set for the
narration. Simultaneously, narration possibilities in terms of numbers
and methodology were offered. Thus we had solo narration, multiple
narrators’ narration, mimed narration and sung narration. Producers were
left dazed and confused. What followed were preposterous inventions and
innovations on stage, where narrative settings in the days of yore were
dramatized and student performers took advantage of the confusion to
lynch the narrative genre and instead promote an alien genre of part
stand-up comedy, part clowning and part stupidity. And as the charred
remains of the narrative lay in makeshift coffins ready to be dumped in
shallow graves, pseudo-adjudicators emerged from somewhere and proceeded
to invent and prescribe diverse misinterpretations of the genre. Some
thought that the narrative was a wall, others a spear, others a tree,
others a fan, others a snake, others a rope, and still others thought it
was an afterthought! Arguments and counter-arguments flew on numbers.
Narratives nearly became a statistics course dealing with peddling of
numerical matters.

Now that the funeral is nearing a close, I think it is time for us to do unto the narrative as the Christ did unto
Lazarus. With him we must shout, ‘Narrative, come forth!’

A peep into the methodologies that have been existent over time bears
testimony to the fact that all the abovementioned arguments have only
been about the number of female angels that can dance on a pinhead.

• Classical oral narration of stories on earth has been universally a
solo, individual and/or personal affair. It is the one person who has
the story and who tells it from his/her perspective, subjective point of
view, capacity, idiosyncrasies, wisdom and foolishness. If another
person disputes the story, then he/she also gives his/her own individual
account.

• There is evidence of two-man storytelling, amongst the Khoikhoi of the Namib Desert and also amongst two children caught
stealing sugar. While the Bushmen have baffled us with their competitive
and simultaneous two-man narration, the guilty children have always
respected turn-taking, each other giving their own accounts in a
cooperative attempt to tell of their innocence. Never ever does their
narrative degenerate into noise.

• Relay narration of extremely long and epic narratives has also been practiced. One narrator picks the
story and runs with it like crazy up to a certain point and hands the
baton to a colleague, who bolts with the story in renewed vigor until
he/she pantingly gives another storyteller the story to continue. On and
on until the marathon narrative has been told.

All these are acceptable and classical possibilities. For these festivals, it would
make quite some educated sense if the number of narrators was limited to
one or maximized to two. Thus we should allow and contain only the solo
and tandem narration styles.

Without prejudice, storytelling, like creativity, is a solo affair. It is the individual that perceives
the world and chooses what to narrate. In his/her narration lies his
interpretation and instantaneous creativity as he/she re-tells a chosen
occurrence. This creativity and narration may ignite excitement in the
listener, who may react in several ways, either contributing to that
story or choosing to retell it totally.

Multi-narrator presentations must be approached with this in mind and be considered as a
creative exploration of cooperative rendition of human ideas and
experiences. The challenges it presents have to be appreciated and
considered if one is to embark on it. I will address this in the topic
on 'Tandem Narration' below.

There is nothing like a ‘stage audience’; the audience is already in the auditorium. When some
distracting crowd is assembled on stage and directed to behave in a
certain manner in a purported rendition of a story, we violate the
boundaries of narration and trespass into a different genre.
Significantly, the spontaneous and instantaneous principle of the
storytelling genre is compromised. The narrator’s audience must be
identified as that gathered in the auditorium. Anyone who uses his head
to assemble backstage staff and force it to sit before the auditorium
audience to be told a story should have his head removed from him so as
to prevent him from further sinning lest he misses the glory of the
final days.

Let’s Chew This Tandem Narration Thing

Sometimes an institution may decide to have two narrators perform their story. I
choose to call this, ‘Tandem Narration’. In this scenario, two narrators
work alongside each other to effectively communicate a story to and
relate with the audience. Tandem narration comes with its advantages,
the most obvious being the provision of variety. The two narrators may
effectively depict the different characters, moods and actions in
well-timed turn-taking and cooperation.

Apart from variety, tandem narration offers the audience different points of views and
interpretations of a particular episode. The narrators may use this
opportunity to draw different albeit appropriate deductions from a
single issue and thus engage the audience in a deeper reflection of the
matters at hand.

As a social development experience, tandem narration offers student-narrators an opportunity to improve their
capacities to work as members of a team. The respect of and cooperation
with each other needed for this sort of narrative performance dictate
that tandem narrators develop individual skills of tolerance and
open-mindedness.

Tandem narration may also be advantageous in situations where the oral narration needs to be simultaneously
accompanied by the use of stylistic devices like songs, chants or
instruments for mood creation and effect. This possibility of labor
division may be significant in achieving narrative credibility and
audience appreciation of the story.

On the other hand, tandem narration presents its own difficulties and challenges. The most glaring
is dealing with the individualism and spontaneity of a story and its
performance respectively. A story is more of an individual and personal
genre. No two people can see the same thing in an identical manner. This
human nature may interfere with the plot and flow of the story in a
tandem narration situation. Narration is also an art that accepts
spontaneous creativity, on the spot improvisation, adoption of the
occasion and incorporation of the audience’s interests and needs. This
instantaneous enrichment of the story based on observations of the
storytelling venue and participants may cause confusions and conflicts
between the two narrators, especially when one is ambushed by an
impromptu episode that he/she has no clue how it arose. One narrator
might infuse something in the story that totally throws the other off
balance.

Another challenge comes from reconciling the capacities of the different narrators. If one is evidently stronger, then the other
will only act as a counterweight, pulling the one down and with him,
the story. Dissimilarities in language mastery, observatory skills,
creative manipulation and even voice engineering may wreck havoc in the
course of the storytelling. Before embarking on tandem narration, these
capabilities must be checked. It is better to have a solo narrator than
to burden him/her with a back-rider!

A common challenge in tandem narration is timing and cueing. If turn-taking is not timed well,
then cases of ‘noise’ may occur. These are situations where both
narrators are talking at the same time about the same thing but in their
own individual interpretations. In some cases, embarrassing gaps are
realized because the one to take the cue is absentminded or overawed by
something in the audience. Cueing and timing may be resolved by agreeing
earlier on who will tackle which part of the story, and also by
improving concentration skills of the narrators.
Finally, a challenge of tandem narration has been what space the passive narrator has to
occupy when his/her colleague is taking the turn to tell the story. Some
co-narrators have been seen to get stranded on stage and become
distracters. The best thing is for the one to stay off a little and
listen unobtrusively to the other’s narration, then appear as
appropriate when his/her turn comes. Silently slipping into the audience
space or audience role should be a skill of tandem narrators.
(Ironically, this explanation just means episodic solo narration!) When
situations demand, the one may accompany the other in songs or
instrumentation. Ideally though, it is important for tandem narrators to
agree on each other’s space and how they will alternately take the
limelight or the shadows.

A point of caution here is in order. Tandem narrators should resist the temptation of alienating the audience
and telling the story to themselves. In some instances, we have
witnessed two narrators alternately take the position of audience and
enjoy their story themselves with total disregard of the audience.
Again, there has been the temptation of turning the narrative into a
choral verse, where a whole episode is collectively told. Similar to
this is a scenario where tandem narrators take advantage of their
numbers to present a skit in the place of a narrative. All these
temptations must be acknowledged and directions given on how to avoid
them while on stage.

Striking a Balance Between Content and Comic Relief or Entertainment

A story, in the context of these festivals, is an oral account of happenings within the real and
imaginary environments of human beings. Most stories are therefore
functional, with the aim of informing, explaining, educating and
entertaining.

Emmanuel Obiechina in ‘Narrative proverbs in the Africa novel’ contends that,

‘The story itself is a primary form of the oral tradition, primary as a mode of conveying culture,
experience and values and as a means of transmitting knowledge, wisdom,
feelings and attitudes in oral societies.’

It is in the story’s content that this functional nature is to be found. The design and
choice of subject matter epitomizes the profit that an audience gains
from a story. It should be expected therefore that all stories presented
at the festival are sound content-wise.

Now, the delivery of this content, commonly understood as narration, must of necessity
embrace the use of stylistic devices to spice up the rendition and the
story. Appropriate stylistic devices help the audience to chew and
swallow the story. The desire by the audience to listen to a good and
enjoyable story gives stylistic devices their place in narration. These
stylistic devices may include comic relief or deviations, songs, chants,
mimics, pauses, speech distortion, accent exaggerations, metaphorical
references, etc.

The function of these devices is to enrich the story. At no one time should they subordinate the content. There have
been situations where narrators have presented narratives too saturated
with stylistic devices, so much so that the audience is forced to take
the story with a lot of water and mouthwash. Your narrative should not
be too spicy. It should not be like cooking salt with a little
sprinkling of meat and a pinch of sukuma-wiki.

The adoption of an old, wrinkled man’s voice and tonation, costuming in tattered, crumpled
and dirty clothing, adopting a crooked walking stick and uncoordinated
gait, exaggerated and frequent facial malformation, elongated episodes
of laughter and mirth etc. have reduced the narrative genre into an
unpalatable and mis-spiced food!
The mark of a good narrator lies in resisting being carried away by the audience’s reactions as a result of
his/her masterly application of a stylistic device. The narrator should
control the audience despite drawing his/her spices from them to enrich
the story. The story is lost the moment the audience grips the narrator
by the neck and has him/her play to their whims. It is at such times
that the spices grab the story’s content in a death-lock and re-enact
Okonkwo’s conquering of Amalinze the Cat!
So be watchful. Elevate the story’s content and functionality before occasionally sprinkling a
little salt or trying out a wee pinch of pepper.

It is all in the Detail

The credibility of any story lies in the narrator’s attention to detail. The weakness of most narratives presented at the
festivals is evident in their sketchy and skinny nature. Not enough
information is given to the audience so that they can imaginatively
reconstruct the story's experience and hence relate to it.

If we are telling the story of a rapist, for example, we want to know the 5Ws
and H about him/her and the story. Who is he/she; Where is he/she; What
does he/she; Why does he/she; When did he/she; and How does he/she. We
might want to know her age, his name, marital status, how his eyes look
like, his size, her reputation, how he got that mark on his thigh, her
friends etc. The audience wants to know and understand this character,
his motivations, his actions and their consequences.
Seldom however, do our narrators describe the characters and settings of the story so
that the audience understands and enjoys the story to the fullest. On
the contrary, they rush it through and leave a lot of gaps and unknowns
in the story. Engaging in a descriptive telling of the story may be a
solution to this problem. And resorting to figures of speech, amongst
others, can do this.
A dismal percentage of our narrators use figures of speech to enrich their stories. Similes, oxymorons, proverbs,
idioms, hyperboles etc. are shunned or left unexplored. Yet these are
the tools with which we can achieve detailed and vivid description of
events and characters.

Our directors should encourage and train our narrators in giving detailed descriptions of scenarios. Holding back
detail and presenting a sketch instead is like inviting a hungry mob to
your kitchen to admire the utensils and crockery!
The other point is to explore techniques that would help in improving the audience’s
retention and remembrance of the narrative. Repetitions, exaggerations
and use of particularly peculiar traits or names of characters would
help us achieve this. Repetition of particular instances that form the
turning points or key dramatic moments of the story not only heightens
the expectations of the audience, but also helps them to live with the
story longer after it has ended. Exaggerations may be useful as the
narrator, who is all-powerful and omnipresent in the lives of the
characters, conjures instances and aspects beyond human ability to
enable the story move forward or flow to a certain direction. The case
of Lwanda Magere’s body made of rock is an example.

Finally, poorly composed or scripted narrative texts and the insistence by some
teacher/producers on text mastery has also robbed narratives and
narrations of their richness and glitter. When institutions present
narrative compositions whose texts are thin in information and
descriptions, the narration's decline immediately begins, especially for
weak narrators who depend on being spoon-fed by the producer. Further,
drilling narrators to cram a narrative text word-for-word robs them the
opportunity to creatively enrich their narrative with occurrences at the
festival venue. Cramming also means that the narrator does not work to
understand and own the story. They only mutate into dubbed cassettes
filled with words, words, words.

In a test of one student/narrator who asked that I help him with his production, he could
not re-tell the story (which was in English) in either his
mother-tongue or Swahili. When I interrupted him in the midst of his
strained regurgitation of his tutor's text, he could not proceed without
starting all over again! Let us compose fully detailed narratives and
encourage our storytellers to understand and own them, rather than
photocopy them in their minds and engage in an exercise of vomiting
frozen pseudo-stories. (Because we anticipate audience involvement and
narrator creativity and improvisation as the narration goes on, it is
virtually impossible to faithfully stick to the narrative's text.)

Chiffon or See-Me-Through Narratives

There are narratives that are so predictable that they are as embarrassing as the see-through shirt of a
potbellied, bloodied and hairy butcher! The audience gets frustrated,
especially when they can predict the sequence and results of actions and
events in the story, only for the narrator to confirm their
predictions. A narrative becomes useless the moment the audience can
piece together the jigsaw.

Narrators need to learn how to temporarily hoard or suspend some information and create teasing and
unforeseen twists and turns in their story. As some information is
suspended, the narrator introduces new ones that are equally intriguing.
In essence, the audience should be sweetly invited and escorted to the
edge of Canaan and then be unexpectedly and rudely frustrated by an
entry into the Sahara desert! They should be taken through a frustrating
waiting game, the kind that soon-to-be fathers go through at the hands
of tight-lipped and everlastingly busy birth attendants. This can be
achieved by designing stories that have several points of suspense.
Suspense ensures audience anxiety, involvement and interest. Their
desire to ultimately get to the crux of the matter ensures that they
will provide an environment conducive to enjoyable storytelling.

So do not dress your story in chiffon. Wrap it into an onion ball and
tease the audience to join you in the painful revelation of the mystery
behind the watery eyes! It is not unwise either to end a story in
suspense and leave the audience to guess what went on.

Gadgetry: The Alien Narrators From SONY

The narrator’s personification of characters in the story, facial expressions and malformations, gestures,
dialogue imitation, chanting, singing and general voice manipulation
are significant in tickling the audience’s imagination so that they may
understand and relate to the story. All the abovementioned stylistic
appropriations must be automatic to any narrator. The competence and
effect to which they are employed determine the rating of a narrator as
either good or poor. This is because narration is a human, verbal art
that targets the recipient’s imagination for effect.
For this reason, and in particular, in a festival scenario, the use of gadgets robs the
audience of a chance to test the worth of a narrator. When mood, sounds
and songs are delegated to gadgetry, a robotic and strange narration is
realized. The narrator’s weaknesses are bared naked and the arising
incompetence reduces his/her credibility and that of his/her story. It
is unwise to aid the narrator with any pre-recorded elements of style.
The role of the narrator is well-defined: to use his body to tell us a
story!

Granted, instrumentation is an accepted element of narration. But instrumentation must be understood as totally separate
from gadgetry. Whereas in gadgetry the electronic inventions of man
robotically take over the narrator’s duties, in instrumentation the
narrator’s skill in the manipulation of the instruments for effect are
observed, tested and interrogated. The difference is between actual
drumming and pressing a button to realize a sound of a drum from some
gadget.
Gadgets deny the audience their rightful chance of witnessing the narrator’s all-round skill and competence.

The Fact That You Were Born in a Garage Does Not Mean You Are a Motorcar!

Like any other genre of performance, narratives too need a lot of preparations,
from composing to the final rendition before an audience. It is true
that preparations may not be conclusive, as it is understood that
circumstances within and around the narration venue provide fodder for
improvisation and creativity in performance. This notwithstanding,
narrative production and direction by the teacher-producer-director must
be as professionally conclusive and competent as possible. When the
master of ceremonies announces that the narrative coming next is
produced by Mwalimu Mkubwa, who is the Senior Principal of Hadithi
Academy, the quality of the narrative presented must be directly
proportional to that alleged title!

A director-producer needs to understand the festival rules, narrative genre guidelines and the
intricacies of storytelling. He/she must help the student/narrator to
understand the use of body and mouth in the performance of a narrative.
Giving directions and suggesting possibilities to be explored by the
narrator are duties, which, if carried out satisfactorily by the
teacher-producers, then the quality of narratives at the festivals will
go up.
Unfortunately, some of our teacher-directors are abdicating this important role to quacks and cons in a very shameful and shocking
manner. Propelled by the desperate desire to be winners by all means
possible, our teacher-directors obstinately cling to water snakes for
survival as they drown in two-foot deep rainwater!
There is a growing trend of teacher-directors hiring school leavers and past narration
winners to mis-produce and mis-direct their narrators. In the most
horrible scenario, I have seen a teacher-director hire a quack whose
only claim to narration prowess is having attended the same school as a
past winning narrator! It was even flabbergasting for this hired goon to
attempt to explain to me the principles of narration with a stage
audience as presented by one Dr. Oluoch-Madiang’ from Kenyatta
University. When I pointed out that the only Oluoch-Madiang’ that I know
of is neither a PhD holder nor a University don, the impostor suggested
that I increase my presence in the school drama festival circles and I
will surely bump into this animal propagating narration untruths. You
can imagine the shock and near paralysis that gripped this nitwit when
he was informed by his employer that I am in fact the Oluoch-Madiang’ he
is referring to! I still can’t believe that I did not have the presence
of mind to split his skull!

What I am saying is that our producing institutions are shockingly naïve and are being fleeced of a
lot of monies, and abetting a scenario where the festivals are robbed of
quality productions. Teacher-directors of narratives must be
intelligent enough to see through the fallacious association of
narration competence with personal proximities. Neither should
teacher-directors depend on the accidents of history to determine how
successful their items might be at the festival in future. The fact that
one is born in a garage does not make that person a motorcar! This
applies too to those pseudo-adjudicators who imagine that past fame and
success are the parameters with which current winners are chosen!
Narrative expertise is not acquired by osmosis or lineage or the kitenge
or agbada that challenges your gait!
Quackery also continues to lower narration standards on a different front. This is the case where
producer institutions purchase shoddy items from peddlers and hawkers of
stinking incompetence. I need not belabor this point. Instead, I want
to dramatize the sleaze we are engaged in by producing herein-below
(verbatim) evidence of our laziness and insensitivity. This is a ‘story’
that was bought and presented by a provincial institution in a certain
province. Read it and be ashamed. Really ashamed!

THE KEY
It is said that every community has a person who exhibits peculiar characterized and who becomes he
fulcrum on which a lot revolves. Such a person once lived in the hilly
areas of lower, lower, few remembered what his real name was because
they used to call him Ben, Benu, Benson, but he was lucky to be brought
up in a victory why women were not allowed to carry a key. They believe
that old job like cooking, belong to women, washing; women, magic of
maize to become flour women and eating no no, it was a work of men
oooooh.
Ben at last he make the right choices and one year, two years and thanks went smoothly and he thought he was a chief in his own
house. He walked with keys whenever he go even his wife had to wait for
him to come back home. One day Ben and his wife leave the village to go
visit a friend in a nearby village and the elders warned him not to give
his wife the keys because it bring curse to him into the village. He
thought the different between men and women that men wore trousers and
women wore dress beyond that there was not much of a difference and so
he had over the keys to his wife.

Somewhere along the way, the Lord left him and his eyes grown dim and his voice fail in the wind. It
was a compulsory retirement the shame he brought upon his people, the
crush of his dream. So he took his cross into the darkness and began to
think think think until moments ago when he found the answer that truth
is the only thing that last and he was about to die where he say to his
wife “take my body back to the land of lower lower and bury me in our
family burial grave”. He died with disbelieving wife staring at him but
which is worse my friends, cursed or death. At the village emotions
welled over but everyone have a reason to have a sad memory of happy
ones depending on which side of the fence you are and after some few
days his wife decided to use the key and she that we all have one life
to live here on earth and because history tends to carry on what is
better forgotten.
At the village people started to count days and mourns. At the third moon whispers ere heard and by filth everything was
obvious and to God of the eye of the rising sun. curse did not follow
them so they believed that a woman can also carry the keys and elders
were wrong.


That is the caliber of some of our teacher-producers and the level of stories we rely on! But this is the
exception rather than the rule. We have some tremendously wonderful
narratives that have been produced by our more dedicated
teacher-directors. And we have also had insightful performances by our
student-narrators, facts that bode well for the narrative genre in these
festivals. These must be encouraged and nurtured for all to be proud
of.

Return to Roots?

In light of the above shame, one shudders at the thought that we cannot trust ourselves to compose or
access competent, relevant and interesting stories and present the same
for the festivals. The lack of confidence in ourselves is appalling, and
it is this low self-esteem that is giving the quacks a field day,
making easy money. We must arrest this situation.
Our oral traditions have numerous stories that are relevant and entertaining, even in their
as-yet-un-narrated state. A lot of ‘traditional’ tales have been
recorded in books and others are forever etched in our minds. I think
that it is time to explore the possibilities of going back to these
stories and creatively applying them to our contemporary life. For
whatever it is worth, we must consider and try to understand our present
times by borrowing from the wisdom and characters of the past.
This past presents us with stock characters that we may superimpose to our
friends and foes of today. Therefore, Fisi Mlafi, Kaka Mbweha and Simba
Marara must be given seats in our noisy parliament; if the Ethiopians
are proving too tough for our runners, then Mzee Kobe and his family -
who won the race against hare - must register and compete in the Nairobi
Marathon; Beautiful Gazelle should compete for the Miss Malaika beauty
contest; Sungura Mjanja who beat the combined team of elephant and
hippo in a tug of war must be called up to play as a scrum-half for our
rugby team; Wangu wa Makeri must ressurect and take over the leadership
of Maendeleo ya Wanawake and sit on all those men who hold executive
positions in women's organizations; Ugly Vulture, Lying Snake, Stinking
Mongoose and Ng’ef Ng’ef Monkey must form a coalition of perfidious
political parties and Abunuwasi must adjudicate at the zonal level of
the Kenya Schools and Colleges Drama Festivals.
On the other side of the coin, today’s characters must also be matched against those of yore.
Our politicians must be compared and contrasted with Odera Akang'o and
the chiefs who used to lead hunts and provide for their subjects; our
abortion doctors must be pitted against the Ajuogas and medicinemen of
days past who could remove chickens from one’s stomach without touching
the body etc. etc.

In so doing, not only will we be enriching our present life by drawing on the familiar and popular tales of yesterday
to tackle the emerging unknowns of today, but we will also be utilizing
our popular wisdom and repertoire of stories. We shall thus be winning
the war against the cons and quacks that have for long been eroding the
glitter of the narrative as a genre.

In conclusion, let us respect and adore the narrative just as the warthog respects its food.
We must kneel before stories in supplication, even as we drink from
their reservoir of wisdom, just as a warthog kneels before its fodder as
it profits from its nutritional value.

That is my story…like it or like it, that is my story!







‘RAYILA NA MPIRA…A STORY OF THE POWER OF NARRATIVES’



‘RAYILA NA MPIRA…A STORY OF THE POWER OF NARRATIVES’

as told by
OLUOCH-MADIANG’


Audienced by
THE KENYA NATIONAL DRAMA FESTIVAL WORKSHOP


At the siwidhe of
MOMBASA POLYTECHNIC


In dark the days of
25th-29th AUGUST 2003.



POSSIBLE GUIDES:
‘The narrative is neither a filler-material on the festival programme nor a comic relief
tonic’. ADJUDICATORS’ REPORT, APRIL 2003.

‘We encourage them to go back to our fables (sic), stories with animal names and human
characters; stories narrated by our grands; complete stories, brought on
stage creatively with modern (utility) for us.’ JOB OSIAKO, CHAIRMAN
KNDF.

‘.... that African stories are above all designed to convey morals….But there is no evidence at all to suggest that this is the
only or primary aim of the stories-and plenty of evidence that many
African tales contained neither direct nor indirect moralizing.’ RUTH
FINNEGAN.

‘I ming’ ka ng’ama nene ok onindo e siwidhe’ (You are so uneducated like one who never slept in siwidhe) LUO PROVERB.


THE POWER OF NARRATIVES
The courts of law and justice (today that assertion is not necessarily a truth) rely so much and heavily on a tool
called evidence so as to come to a binding ruling. This evidence must
be corroborated for it to pass the test of credibility. Evidence is
story! The giving of it is storytelling. The corroboration of it is the
storytelling of the same story from a different point of view! And
because of evidence, a man has faced the hangman, a murderer has walked
out scot-free and an old woman has rightfully left her tribe-in-law for
another that can provide a younger, stronger and fresh looking mason for
a husband. And in some cases, the absence of evidence, the lack of
story, has led to a young girl, raped by an honorable missing access to
justice. The power of evidence is the power of a story!

The Bible and the Koran and the Gita are the bedrock of spiritual alignments in
the world today. These good books and many others that I haven’t
mentioned here are essentially recordings of past happenings, presented
in such soothing, persuasive, musical and mysterious manner that they
have come to define what one has to believe and practice in life. And
because of these spiritual stories, India separated from Pakistan and to
this day threaten brimstones and hail against each other; a woman has
sold her all and donated the money to the service of the Lord at the
expense of her family; the Irishmen still go after each other’s necks in
a festival of murder and the catholic church still fight off the
condom. The power of the Gita, of the Koran, of the Bible is the power
of a story!

In a certain far away country, two political groupings were pitted against each other in search of the right to lead
and rule (and by extension enjoy all the executive juices that come with
being the rulers of the day!) The competition was ferocious, expensive,
emotional, confusing, comical, dangerous and even fatal. A whole
population of that far away country abandoned their daily chores so that
they could partake to this battle. In the workplaces in that faraway
land, people picked up quarrels with straws and in the homes, children
and mothers and fathers quarreled with their bread and butter. Foreign
countries, even our own, were glued to the proceedings with bated
breaths. Aliens who had gone to that country to make money hurriedly
withdrew their accumulated cowry shells, deposited them in overseas
banks and promptly bolted to escape possible bloodletting. Things were
bad and uncertain. Cocks had their heads chopped off in public and their
red colors added to the rainbow and, in retaliation, the cockerel
owners started a project of pouring black indelible paint all over
rainbow drawings done by the children of the nation. It was a battle
like no other. In the end, and out of some simplistic inspiration, a
member of that faraway country who was known for his trickery, boldness
and shiftiness told the story of a football match. And that conclusively
settled the political competition. The one group was so thoroughly
defeated, that they too have started courting storytellers within their
ranks. That political power is the power of a story!

Within the setting of performing arts, and even as set out by the practice of the
schools drama festivals, the narrative supersedes all the other genres
of performance namely drama, dance and verse. This, even if only for the
reason that the other three genres have, as a test and parameter, the
extent to which they tell a story. What is the story in the play? What
is the story in the dance? What is the story in the verse? Conclusion?
The power of the Kenya National Drama Festivals is the power of a story.

THE NARRATIVE TEXT
In normal circumstances, texting connotes the permanence and inflexibility of an artistic piece. The student performer
is expected to cram the words in the play and then act the
conversations and dialogues out. The words have a reason for which they
are sequenced in the play, and a deviation from it has the potential of
grinding the whole play to a halt. The significance of words for
musicality and mood effect in a verse cannot be gainsaid. And who has
ever heard of the replacement of the words in a dance without fatally
affecting the piece of art?

Now, if the other forms of art are primated on the word, the narrative by contrast is based on milestones.
These are the never changing points of reference of the artistic piece.
They are the instances that give impetus and direction to the story. The
forward movement and flow of a story depends on these landmarks. For
example, in the story in which Hare defeated Elephant and Hippo in a
duel, we can identify the following signposts;

Hare challenges Elephant to a duel…Elephant laughs at Hare’s folly and vows victory…they
set a date for the duel…Hare challenges Hippo to a duel…Hippo laughs at
his folly and vows easy triumph…they set a date of the duel…Hare
provides the rope to be pulled…Elephant and Hippo struggle with the rope
pulling as Hare basks and enjoys the duel…Hare goes back to each
individually and they concede defeat by him.

How the conversations between the animal-characters go, is completely at the
creative discretion of the student-narrator. The diction will be
dictated by the mood of the scenario, the audience’s experiences,
cultural norms and so on and so forth.

That being the case then it is imperative to note that the requirement that a script of the
narrative be given out, and that the narrator has to follow it is
unrealistic and unacceptable. What is required then is for a good
synopsis that details the milestones in the story. The narrator should
be tested in his or her ability to string the milestones together to
form a concrete and artistic whole. In a way of speaking, we are giving
the student-narrator a skeleton and then asking him/her to create a
human being. Others will come up with a female human while others the
male of that species. Others will create an obese being while others
will have us witness a skinny and hardy homo sapien! This then is a
point that the teacher-director has to strive to have the
student-narrator understand. And in the process of grasping this texting
of the narrative, the student-narrator will also have to understand the
concept of creativity in performance.

CREATIVITY IN PERFORMANCE
The most distinctive feature of a narrative vis-à-vis other genres of
performing arts is creativity in performance. In the other genres -
drama, verse and dance - creativity is distinct to two phases. The first
is the coming up with the piece, a phenomena universally referred to as
scripting. This is done away from the bringing to life of the artistic
piece. It is imaginative at an instant that is removed from the
rendition. This gives the artist an opportunity to change, refine and
even deface the artistic piece without the hindrance of time long before
the artistic piece is actualized on stage. The second creative phase is
the performance of the imagined artistic piece. What some low cadre
artists call staging. This creative phase is tested by the ability to
use one’s body to present to an audience what was scripted earlier.

Narrative creativity is however, barring the setting of the milestones, a one
phase creative exercise. The scripting and the giving of life to the
script go on simultaneously and complimentarily; the scripting instantly
dictates the performing and the performing induces scripting at that
very moment. What this means then is that a narrative is an
instantaneous artistic form. It lives in the moment. The possibility of
its being replicated in the same manner is very remote. All narratives
live only a single life – the moment of performance. What we deem to be
the same story will show evidence of subtractions, additions and even
improved manner of rendition; elements of newness, freshness and at
times, due to monotony of performance and dullness of the audience, some
element of staleness.

What then feeds creativity in performance? It is simply the performance environment and
attending/participating audience. It is from the instant-venue of
performance that the student-narrator will draw his or her script.
Audience mood; artificial interferences; competition syndrome;
performer’s mood; time of rendition; appearance of the minister in the
middle of the performance and the accompanying bootlicking rituals; the
yawn of an adjudicator; a catcall from the opposing school; the
inadvertent falling off of the backdrop; the smile from a
girlfriend/boyfriend; the fainting of the teacher collecting monies from
the overcrowded gate; all these and many more instances contribute to
the scripting during staging. The mark of a good narrator is therefore
judged by his or her ability to draw from the environment and the
audience the flesh with which to fashion the milestones into an ideal
Adam and then move on in the next competition level and fashion an Eve
who has an affinity of listening to the counsel of a snake at the
expense of God’s warning!

Bottom-line? In the narrative genre the narrator is keen-eyed and bat-eared and takes in the happenings in his
environment at the time of performance, using them to spice up his
story, spinning them creatively at that very moment of rendition, thus
localizing the tale and giving it an element of immediacy. Narration is a
spontaneous activity.

But creativity in performance has its own hazards. Out of enthusiastic and excited creativity, instances of
audience embarrassment may be realized. Thus the student-narrator
alienates his/her very partners in creativity. To curb this, it would be
worth considering when and how to draw some flesh from the
environment/audience. Involve the audience in flattering episodes and
characterize yourself in the ridiculing episodes. The audience does not
like to be laughed at – they like laughing at a removed object.
Therefore, let the student-narrator make himself a laughing stock and
see how the millionth wonder of the world creates itself. Timing and
judgment are crucial in creativity in performance.

WHAT IS NARRATING? (WHAT IS STORYTELLING)
In terms of face value, narrating connotes orality of rendition. That is, this performance term zeroes in
on the mouth at the very onset. And this is important. It is the mouth
that the narrator will depend upon mostly so as to have his audience
identify with the story. The narrator’s manner of tonation, singing,
sound imitation, voicing, laughter, wailing, chewing will appeal to the
audience depending on how he is using his lips and the general oral
cavity. But then, that is not the long and short of narrating.
Narrating as an act also connotes the manipulation of the whole body and
the parts that accompany it so as to elicit the visualization of the
story episode or happening by the audience. How the narrator’s body
moves and shakes, how his hands fly, the manner of her countenance, the
heaving of her chest, the tiptoeing of his feet, the gyration of his
bosom, the wagging of his finger and the energy of his performance are
all significant in helping the audience visualize the setting and
unfolding of the story. Body narrating, for lack of a better term, can
be achieved by mimicking the characters. The narrator not only tells us
what a character did, but she also becomes that character and
illustrates to us how she did it. She will at once be the narrator, the
ogre, the striker, the referee, the ball, the spectators, the hare, the
sun, the rain and even the tree that stood by the roadside. She will
enact what these characters did. He will run as they did, jump as they
did, he will sulk as they sulked and he will dance as the antelope
danced. And then he will comment on how slow a runner the character was,
how stupid the sulking was, how graceful or otherwise the dance was. If
performance art be work, then narrating certainly is work!

The point to note here then is that narrating as a term captures both tenets
of basic performance which are to be seen and to be heard. Narrating
appeals not only to the ear but also to the eye. And these two
appeal-points need to trigger the audience’s imagination for the story
to be adjudged a success.

A word of caution though: By stating that the narrator uses his/her body to tell a story, we do not mean that
s/he is enacting the character’s actions in the literal sense. What we
mean is that there are some vivid suggestions made that border on
acting. If we are not careful, there is a danger of turning the
narrative into a drama and thus being guilty of trespassing the genre’s
boundaries.

TESTING TESTING: VOICE CONTROL
We acknowledged above that narration implies, to a greater extent, orality. For the
reasons of audibility and clarity, narrations necessitate the need for a
better than normal voicing. However, due to the stresses we undergo in
life, our voices tend to be strained, breathy, high pitched and poorly
placed. From the physiological point of view this is due to unnecessary
tension in muscles that should ideally be relaxed. Psychologically it is
fears, anxieties and lack of security that are responsible for the
tensions. Other factors include insecurity, stage-fright, excitement,
overconfidence or lack of confidence, intake of excess sugary drinks and
even lack of motivation. For good voicing, relaxation and confidence
are essential. Voice also has a lot to do with the way we breath.
Repression of real feelings keeps the voice under stress. Short breaths
make speech choppier, quicker, sound tense and nervous; shallow
breathing causes voice to be unsteady and taper off at the end of a
sentence- the speaker sounds half-hearted and apologetic; holding breath
makes the upper body taut and tense thus disabling us from making
sounds. Breathing exercises help you control stress and in turn control
your voice. At no time should the narrator be encouraged to strain to
unhealthy levels. There have been cases of narrators losing voice on
stage in an attempt to mimic a character in the story, and in other
situations, permanent change of voice have been noted. Our voices are
important elements both to our character and to art. Lets do our best to
preserve them.

THE NARRATIVE FORMULA
Apparently, it has been suggested in some other fora that a narrative must have an opening and
closing formula. This assertion is based on the argument that
historically, most communities peddled a certain mini-ritual that was
universally accepted by all as a sign of the beginning of a story or the
termination of one. I submit that this is the wrong approach. Because
of it, student-narrators and teacher-directors have been coming up with
some absolutely unnecessary nonsense in the name of opening formula –
they even explain the formula in their synopsis to the adjudicators. Ha,
ha, ha, ha, haaaa! I would suggest that we should approach this issue
from the point of seeking the reason for which there were ‘opening’ and
‘closing’ formulae. Could it be that they were meant to set the
performance mood? Were they intended to draw the attention of those
still making noise? The same purpose that is achieved when the
master-of-ceremony does when s/he announces that, ‘next on stage is a
narrative from Misukosuko General Studies Academy entitled Kosukosumi’?
Were these formulas a way of reminding the audience that they are just
about to enter the realm of fiction and imagination, and that what was
said or heard there was not to be taken as a serious life-defining
issue? If we answer these queries and more, then we will realize that it
is time to liberalize the formulaic requirement to be consonant with
our days in time. We must not forever zombie about and close our minds
to creativity with the suggestion that this is how it used to be, and so
shall it be today, tomorrow till the constitution comes!

What advice then am I giving? Set yourself free. Analyze the reason for the
so called formulae of opening and closing, find out if your narrative
setting accomplishes those reasons or not and then creatively come up
with a formula to suit you if you really need one.

HOW WILL WE SPICE OUR NARRATIVE
We live in the age of madoido. It is only in this age that your clothes not only covers your nakedness, but also
communicates something to those unfortunate enough to set their eyes
upon you. Our phones no longer just allow you to speak with another
person far removed from you, it also allows you to play a game or two in
those lazy moments and even write, draw and send silly notes and images
to the one you are obscenely involved with. Our children’s shoes spot
lights, our vehicles have computers etc. I am saying that we are going
beyond the functional attributes of our gadgets, artistic items and even
ourselves. We are in the age of aesthetics.

The age of aesthetics is clear on one thing: that you only engage in beauty after
you have achieved the functional element. Our narratives too must first
fulfill the functional part. Then the spicing will come. Songs, mimicry,
dance, suspense, postponement of episodes, pauses and many more
roiko-mchuzi mixes are, on their face value, spice items. But they
become very important tools of narration especially when their function
is to inspire and enrich the participating audience’s imagination. In
intense moments when the audience is getting emotionally and dangerously
attached to the narrative, it is important to jolt them back to
reality, maybe by a song or impromptu dance. When the audience can so
easily predict the plot of the story, it is advisable to take the course
not imagined. When the anticipation of the audience in some episode is
heightened and eagerly expected, it is wonderful to be mean for a while
and suspend the fulfilment of that expectation as you embark on some
different thing altogether. All these are tools of spicing the
narrative.

Now, there are others that I consider fundamentally aesthetic tools that need not really hold a thousand tonnes when
evaluating the success of the narrative: costuming, backdrop, sound
effects from the most modern audio systems, gadgeting, useless propping
etc. I think that before you waste your resources by investing in dear
accompaniments, evaluate the need. Narrating is not a forum to show us
that your school, college or university can afford a set of uniforms fit
for the local security firm, a canvas fit for drying maize and beans on
the roads of Kabarnet and paint that the KICC so desperately need!
Adjudicators must not be duped by these para-artistic nonsense, but be
objective enough to look out for the artistic value of the story as
narrated using the mouth and the body. As for the rest, God strike dead
all those that waste resources in our working nation!

HOW MANY PERFORMERS RENDER A STORY
The Blue Book of Wisdom states on page nine that a narrative shall have a maximum of 15 participants. That is the
law; that is the rule; that is the point of reference. But pray, 15
participants doing what? Narrating? But narrating is a multi-tasked,
multifaceted artistic activity. Singing? Why should 15 people sing? They
should wait for the music festivals in second term! Acting? God forbid,
we are narrating, not acting. That category falls under the ‘play’ for
your information. Then, 15 whole human adolescents doing what?

A major issue has been on how to utilize this generous provision of
numbers. And the most evident scourge has been a situation where a
play-let has been instead presented in the name of a narrative. The
ideal storytelling is a solo affair. PERIOD! This calls for the narrator
to assume the roles of all the characters in his piece- he is, in deed
and in fact, the personification of the story, if you see what I mean.
He is at once the hare, the lion, then the monkey, the next moment the
beautiful maid, the ogre, the chief, the thief, and, all along, the
narrator; - reporting, vilifying, commenting, exaggerating etc. This
can’t be achieved unless the narrator fully embraces the principle of
abandonment, putting away all his inhibitions and immersing himself
totally to the duty of performing. This is a difficult task, and in the
school setting, an all-rounder pupil/actor will be ideal.

But we have been diluting narratives by trying to divide all the roles above
to as many students as possible. In the extreme, we have been having
one narrator semi-circled by a bunch of rag-dressed colleagues enacting
to us a story-telling session of yore. Let have us ONE narrator.
Turn-taking and creativity in performance are so complex and cannot be
choreographed to be executed by fifteen people on stage. Further, it is
the role of the narrator to create in our minds the story. It need not
be enacted on stage for us to see. We have to imagine it. By having so
many people on stage, we are even negating some of the very concepts of
narration. Audience participation cannot be stage-managed. Our audience
is, primarily, those people in the auditorium who have paid to come to
the festival to watch the children of Kenya in action. It is with them
that we have to create the story. I recommend that we work with one
narrator. Think of it, how many people narrated the football story with
one Rayila?

THE OTHER LITTLE IRRITANTS THAT COMPLICATE LIFE
Audience involvement is a not a military term! We need not have our
student-narrators coercing the audience to sing along, or say something
after the storyteller. Neither is audience participation measured in
terms of upward decibels. What of those that secretly cry? What of the
hushed audience? And also think of the hosting school that fills the
auditorium with its idle pupils who will laugh and sing along and
generally participate artificially. Audience participation is
spontaneous and a reflection of a student-narrator’s expertise in
churning out a story that the audience identifies with. It is not a
stage-managed, choreographed or coercible act.

A narrator has to be bold. That does not mean that he has to verbalize some words that
even my computer refuses to acknowledge. It also does not mean that he
can come next to the high table and hold out my soda to illustrate an
example of governmental extravagance.

Narration is not stand-up comedy! It is not. It is a respectable and independent genre by itself.
Who said narrators are some rag-clad old men who have lost their gait
coordination? Who ever said that a crooked walking stick is a definitive
prop to storytelling? Who ever said that clowning and comical
spectacles are the soup with which we have to eat narratives? I am
telling you a story; am I old? Am I dirty? Am I a circus clown? Did
Rayila bandy a walking stick around as he narrated the greatest football
match ever played in that faraway country? We are in serious business
and as much as I encourage laughter as a comic relief tool in the
narrative, I would advice that we do not exaggerate our limits to the
extent of creating a new genre in the process of narration.

Narratives do not necessarily talk of past events. We can have stories of ongoing
events; we can have futuristic narratives; we can have stories that
bestride the past, the present and the future. Therefore, let us not
imagine that ‘long, long, long ago’ is a formulaic need of a story.

We cannot talk of the narrator’s stage, but we can of the narrative’s
stage. For a narrative has the narrator and his audience, and these two
bodies basically fill the space available.

What is a topical theme? How do we evaluate topicality? Topical to who? When? Where? Is
AIDS topical? How? Is FGM topical? How? To who? Between a common
mwananchi and the de facto mwenyenchi, who is topical? Topicality is a
subjective matter. If a story emanates from Kakamega on how scarce
chicken are these days; and yet another narrative comes from Kacheliba
that herdsmen are no longer adept at shooting rustlers accurately; and
even yet another comes from Jawatho to the effect that you can beat the
cold by sleeping in the midst of goats, what will be the parameters of
judging that the one story is more topical than the two and the three?
Topicality is certainly important: significant in the sense that it
provides the passion and even the reason for presenting a certain story.
It is a motivator that brings out of the narrator the necessary
qualities that help her actualize a story. Therefore let us understand
it in that sense and use it to concretize the narrating and the
narrative. It should not be used as a parameter for the success of one
story over the other.

On Adjudication. In another forum, I have discussed the subjectivity and objectivity of the art of adjudication. I
have said that both are necessary when issuing hukumu on the many items
that are presented. Adjudication as we know it calls for sobriety and
an ability not to be swayed by the audience. But narratives call for
audience participation! I would say this; let our adjudicators read
widely on the narrative and balance the need for the audience, the
narrator and the functional accompaniments before they read out their
judgment. Never fall victim to mesmerization or awe at the name of a
school (some are called powerhouses, team kubwa and even tail-leaders).
Remember that narration is a one instant art, and history plays a very
remote role towards its success. Give the best the crown and flog the
worst!

CASE STUDY: WHY DID RAYILA NA MPIRA SUCCEED?
In conclusion, I would like to invite you to an evaluation exercise in
which we want to unravel the mystery of the success of a story told in a
faraway country by one Rayila, A story that, it is imagined, you are
all well aware of. That story was called ‘Rayila na Mpira’ and it had a
run of many, many weeks.

This is why I think it was a success:
• It was simple. It wasn’t circuitous and neither did it use symbols fit
for atomic science. The plot of the story was well defined by the
narrator and it was liberalized depending on the audience that was
present;
• Its characterization was functional for the purposes of audience participation. If the audience was tilted towards a certain
character, whether the character was male or female, it is this
character that was reserved the greatest praise. By extension, audience
rapport was achieved by flattering the audience, not ridiculing it;
• It employed exaggerations very well. Rayila na Mpira had one team with
14 players and another with 8. At another moment, the players were equal
in number but each team had 27 players on the pitch. That was no matter
for as long as the story was fleshed by other more credible scenarios;
• The climax was arrived at systematically. And please note that the
narrator never ever told us that the goal was scored. All his narration
ended with several repetitions of hatari kwenye lango. The scoring and
the resultant excitement and celebrations were narrated by the audience;
• The narrator’s mastery of language and the manipulation of it in terms
of accent and diction added spice to the story. In the end it was not a
comical piece but an entertaining one;
• The narrator did not go into the pretensions of being old, senile, badly dressed, dirty, carrying a
walking stick, chalking his hair white, bringing along his own audience
so that the larger audience can watch an enactment or even having a
closing formula. He had ten minutes of narration, a stage, an audience
and a story. Period!
• Creativity in performance was evident. The story was different each time it was told and all the while it drew from
the occurrences around the audience’s environment for credibility and
localization. It certainly had it’s milestones which the audience did
know in advance;
• The narrator also personified himself as one of the characters. He was a striker in one of the teams. He owned the
story.
• Finally, it is evident that the narrator did sleep in the siwidhe at some point in his life.

What else do you make of the story? Can you identify other elements that led to the success of this
story? That is your homework and I will need to get your answers during
the actual festivals. As a closing remark, while I am grateful at the
organizers for inviting me to share with you my story, it is my hope
that one of these fine days they will approach the narrator from that
faraway country to come and share with us his narrative skills.

I have told my story. May my cows forever graze in the succulent grasses
of our fertile hills and abundant mountains and quench their thirst with
the sweetest waters from our ever flowing streams; but may yours wallow
in drought and famine and be forever infested with rinderpest, ticks,
mad cow disease and all the horrible maladies that plague the cattle of
such like you! Tinda, may I grow to be as tall as the trees behind my
uncle’s homestead.

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Comment by Clare Muireann Murphy on July 2, 2010 at 6:48am
So much to digest here! I have only begun to read it, thank you for posting on here!!!!

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