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Story Pitching Tips

Dec 16, 2013-Story Leauge Debauchery-105

Unlike any other story “slams,” Story League’s contests are semi-curated in the sense that three expert judges pre-select which stories they most want to hear (and those people selected get coached aforehand). Many good stories do not get chosen because A) We get more submissions every month; B) The pitches are not as good as they could be. Here are a few tips to help you convince the judges to pick your idea (Note: The judges do not see the names of the pitchers)

  • Step outside yourself and give it the So What? test. This is more about how you choose what story you want to tell, but: Is it 1) something no one has heard of before; 2) a well-worn subject but you bring a totally fresh angle to it? Those are a good start.
  • Brevity is best. We ask that you keep your pitch to 100 words, and if you do it right, that is enough to entice the judges.
  • Don’t bury the lede: Knock us out with the first line. Make us say, “I HAVE to hear what happens!” Think hard about why you want to tell the story, then put that into words as punchily as you can.

Here are three examples of pitches that got the story selected for inclusion:

You would think that an obese teenage geek girl would be a compassionate protector of fellow geeks. So I thought, as a skinny, uncool, and nerdy Asian geek in high school. But this obese geek turned out to be the villainess of my life in high school. This story recounts that torments she incurred on me, and the story concludes five years later at a bus stop at UC Berkeley. [70 words]

I have a psychic superpower: Everything that I draw happens. It started when I drew myself surrounded by dollar signs and subsequently received a mysterious check for $900, and my salary was doubled. I have successfully drawn numerous engagements, dream jobs, successful childbirth, my arch nemesis getting fired, etc. But I made a dreadful mistake when I drew a friend (who was desperate for money) with dollars coming out of his pants… it caused him an unexpected problem at work. [80 words]

I found myself lying on the pavement in Wuhan, China. It seems the cab I was in collided with a truck. But I didn’t know that. I only knew that my eye—I was sure!—was missing and I couldn’t find it. My eye was fine, but I spend the next 16 days in a Chinese hospital repairing the rest of my face, grappling with police and the media, and trying to remember what happened. The food was BYO. The meds were self-serve. But hey, at least there was booze! [90 words]

Crabb and Shrake: Story Talk

SM Shrake: David! You are especially adept at and well known for bringing to life the “characters” in your stories. How much of that has to do with also being an actor in addition to a storyteller?

David Crabb: A lot. I’ve always performed my anecdotes and stories for people and included characterizations. As a little boy I did this to crack my mom and dad up, playing drunk hobos, foul-mouthed robots and pregnant hookers in makeshift costumes. (My sense of humor was a little blue even as a kid.) That kind of thing led me to acting. And now I suppose I’ve circled back to doing what I did when I was 8 to entertain my family. But I do it onstage without tinfoil hats and pillows shoved up my shirt.

Shrake: You are an avowed homosexual. We’ve seen lots of articles lately about gay standup comedians, how finally a few (mostly males — the lesbians have seemed to have more representation) seem to be getting their due and “representing.” What’s your feeling on that, but also: How does that compare to things for gays/lesbians in the story scene?

Crabb: I think all that coverage is interesting but seems to miss the point. As time moves on and culture progresses, more gays and lesbians are living their lives out of the closet. So it’s only natural that there should be more out, queer comedians and storytellers, just as there are more out, queer writers and parents and accountants and waiters, etc. The only difference is that our jobs as performers are ABOUT sharing our experience, which includes our sexuality.

Shrake: What are your top quick-hit tips for a novice storyteller?

Crabb:  1. Look at everyone and “share out.” The moment you stop doing that, it’s over.

2. Ignore any rule you hear that starts with “Never.” (e.g. Never start with saying the year and your age, never end with saying “I learned a lot about…”, never start your story with “So..”) Just tell the story the way only you can.

3. Remember that you don’t ever look as nervous as you might feel. I learned this from years of teaching storytelling and it’s been encouraging to see. I’m still amazed at how much I learn about performing from teaching.

4. Know where you’re driving the car. It’s better to know your ending and be unsure about the middle than to be confident throughout and try to wing your ending. What people remember most is how you leave them.

Shrake: How did Ask Me Stories get started, and what have been some highlights of hosting that show?

Crabb: Cammi Climaco and I took a storytelling class together and wanted to keep performing with that wonderful group. So we put together a show in the basement of a bar and that led to another and another and so on. Getting to hear so many stories while only worrying about hosting and producing is fun.

Shrake: Tell me about it.

Crabb: It’s a different kind of pressure that I like. And working with Cammi this long has been a pleasure. She’s a kindred spirit and nut job of the highest order. I kinda sorta love her.

Shrake: Same question for The Moth.

Crabb: Hosting the Moth is just an amazing gift. Hosting without worrying about any of the production concerns or storytelling myself is quickly becoming my favorite kind of performing experience. It’s probably the time when I feel most like I’m really “with” people in the audience. I feel spoiled and honored to get that opportunity.

Shrake: “Ask me” a question!

Crabb: What is the worst fashion mistake you made in the ’90s?

Shrake:

David Crabb hosts Story Contest: The 1990s at Busboys and Poets 14/V at 9 PM on Wednesday, November 28, 2012.

 

Spell and Shrake: Story Talk

SM Shrake: Hi, Sharon. You have told stories all over New York, at shows like Ask Me, Bare!, My High School Boyfriend Was G*y, and of course The Moth. What makes for a good story?

Sharon Spell: A good story has a point and is relatable to the audience. You may not have gone through the same situation as the storyteller, but as a human being you can identify with feelings and motives behind actions.

Shrake: I think there are “story-stories” where the teller cannot even screw it up because the plot itself, in its raw bones, is so storylicious; and then there are the stories where nothing much really happens but the teller injects so much style and interest into it that it is even better than a story-story.

Apropos of that: Do you agree with my rather black-and-white pronouncement that “You either are an interesting (funny) person with something (funny) to say, or you’re not”? Is that too… harsh?

Sharon: Well, something has to happen in order for it to be a good story, to move that good story forward. I really don’t care to hear anybody’s laundry list of what he or she did during the day, unless that person is Betty White. If that’s the case, then yes I agree.

Shrake: You host The Big Shrink at UCBeast, and you have a comedy podcast called The Sharon Spell Show. What is the essence of being a good show host?

Sharon: Don’t talk too much. Or too little. Don’t talk too much or too little. Figure out how to make sure people still like you by the end of the show, especially the other performers and the booker.

Shrake: I thought hosts were supposed to create a Phil Spector-esque Wall of Sound. No silence.

Sharon: Nobody likes a windbag.

Shrake: Unless it’s Betty White

Sharon: But there is a craft to hosting a show. I try to have enough little somethings to say that can fit in between acts, long or short. You have to be versatile, and I’m OK with cutting my own material if a show is going long.

Shrake: How did you learn the ropes of hosting? What’s been your worst experience at it?

Sharon: I started hosting shows when I lived in Pittsburgh, some of them drag shows. These shows helped me think on my feet. But then I booked myself on a drag show in LA to do stand-up. That was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Totally different energy and I wasn’t prepared for the heckling I received. But afterward, I thought, Next time I’ll be better prepared, because it won’t get worse than that!

“Then I booked myself on a drag show in L.A. to do stand-up. That was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.”

Shrake: You’re hosting our Story Tournament 3 at the legendary Black Cat tomorrow night. What’s your impression of D.C.?

Sharon: I have a lot of things to see on Friday before the show. I want to make sure everything’s still at the Smithsonian and that The Mall is still there. Will let you know how that goes!

Shrake: Oh, they’re still there, unfortunately. Full of mobs and hordes of lovable tourists! So, speaking of mobs and hordes, what do you find most bothersome and most glorious about living in New York?

Storytellers Michele Carlo and Adam Wade, as sketched in New York by Sharon Spell

Sharon: The subway system. It’s a fantastic way to get through the city until it’s a horrible way to get through the city. Also, wherever you are in New York City the most glorious thing is always this: looking up.

Shrake: So: What made you want to do what you do? When?

Sharon: When I was a kid I wanted to move to New York. My parents let me stay up and watch SNL, and when they said, “Live from New York…” I thought, that looks like a fun place! I grew up in a funny household, so eventually my joy had to spill out on stage. Sorry about that, stage crew.

Shrake: What’s your process (for writing, performing, etc.)?

Sharon: I just put words to my experiences. I try to get out and live life and interact with people, then talk about it. Confirmed eye contact usually leads to better stories.

Shrake: Do you still have stage fright, and if so how do you conquer it?

Sharon: Yes. Every time. Looking my best helps my fright…

Shrake: I huuuuuurd THAT!

Sharon: …but then inevitably right before I get on stage I look down and I have some stain on me. Then I remember everyone in the audience also has some sort of stain on them, somewhere. So then I remember to relax and have fun!

SHARON SPELL hosts Story League Tournament: Tricks on Friday, October 5 at 9PM (Doors 8PM) at Black Cat, 1811 Fourteenth Street NW, Washington, DC. Get tickets here.


Gasiewski and Shrake: Story Talk

Dan Gasiewski is Managing Director of First Person Arts, a storytelling organization in Philadelphia. SM (“Scott”) Shrake is the co-founder and leader of Story League in Washington, D.C.

Dan Gasiewski (L) and SM Shrake (R)

SS: Why do funny stories almost always work better than serious ones?

DG: I think that people use funny stories more often than serious ones in a StorySlam/contest context, but I don’t agree that they always work better. I think that they’re popular because, as a storyteller, when you get up on stage, especially for the first time, it can be very hard to really open up to a room full of strangers. A silent audience can be very scary for a beginning storyteller — you’re not sure if they’re with you or not.

And of course, if you don’t have confidence, it makes it hard to hold the audience’s attention. Whereas if you tell a joke and they laugh, it’s easy to tell where they are. If your story is quieter, or more emotional, it often takes a more experienced storyteller to tell that story with the confidence it can take to get it across.

SS: Even pretty mundane occurrences can be artsified into a great story if you know what you’re doing.

DG: A serious story takes more careful plotting to keep the audience involved and interested for the whole time, even though what you’re telling them might be something that takes longer to sink in.

With a funny story, even if the story didn’t actually go anywhere, the audience still enjoyed the jokes.

SS: Excremental (poop) and bacchanalian (drunk) stories seem to be perennially popular, regardless of how original they are.

DG: I am always impressed when someone has the wherewithal to tell an emotionally charged story really well. The tension in the crowd is so electric when you can sense them hanging on every word, waiting to see what will happen.

SS: People’s first temptation is to tell a story that means a lot to them and those close to them, personally. But no one else cares, usually! So I could tell the story of my bicycle accident where I was scalped, and that is sort of unusual, and the story has a lot of vivid and horrifying details, but… ultimately we’ve all been to the emergency room. It’s just “poor me.”

We’ve also all been in a drunken or sexual misadventure, too. I guess for both you have to have a twist.

DG: To me, that gets to the point that it’s the structure and the telling of the story that makes a great performance. Even if it’s a funny story, if people figure the joke out before you give them the punchline, it’s not funny. If the story is, “I was in a terrible bike accident, and that was not a good day,” there’s no surprise there. There’s no tension or structure to the story. You have to keep them engaged and guessing what’s going to happen, or at least what the emotional payoff of the experience is — throughout the whole story.

SS: So for my accident story, it would have to go to a next level and then flip in the air, much as my body did during the accident!

Like, maybe I fall in love with the person who found my bloody body in the park where it happened… we live happily for a while… then they actually die in their own bicycle accident and I’m not there to save them. That’s not what happened, I’m just using my imagination there.

Speaking of which: How much license can someone in our story business take with the “truth”? The consensus seems to be that there’s the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. This is not sworn testimony in a court case. I think it’s all closer to “Based on a True Story…” Creative non-fiction. Because life is not a movie.

DG: It’s the difference between “memoir” and “History with a capital H” — in a memoir, people are free to tell a story how they remember it — how they want to tell it. History has to stick to the facts, and if it comes down to it, history has to (or at least should) let go of a good story if it can’t be proven. Most of the memoirs that I’ve heard couldn’t possibly be fact-checked. That doesn’t mean that they’re not true, it just means that they’re not history — they are simply a record of one person’s own personal experience.

SS: But the license does not permit you to invent things out of whole cloth. If you never went hiking in the Grand Canyon, you never did and if you say you did you are just lying. No need to make things up!

The license would, though, permit things like consolidating nonessential characters and events: In reality three different people said the same thing to you at once, but one of them said it most interestingly, so you pick that one and the other two people disappear in your final version. Who cares?

DG: I just think that letting people know what the boundaries are is important. I don’t think that we should over-promise that everything said on our stage is the gospel truth; after all, if you asked for all sides of any story, you’ll get different answers from everyone involved. But it’s also important to let people know that it’s not fiction.

SS: Let’s talk about stand-up versus “live true story-telling.” The differences, I think: 1) You must be funny the whole time in stand-up, and 2) you can make things up and just bounce around from topic to topic, which you can’t do in our shows, where it’s one story, on a theme someone gave you, basically true, maybe funny, but laughs are just gravy.

DG: I think you’re right: The differences between stand-up and this “new” kind of storytelling are really about the rules of the form more than they are about how individual performers use them. Sure, there are stand-ups who use their lives as part of their act, but that’s just a style — a performer whose stage show seems to be very personal could, actually, just be constructing an elaborate persona. But that’s OK as long as they make you laugh. That’s what you’re paying for.

But when you go to our style of storytelling show, a lot of people will try to make you laugh, but what’s really electric, what keeps people coming back, is the truth, and I think especially the vulnerability that you display when you get up and share a true story from your life. That’s the sense of connection that people are looking for in our kind of storytelling.

SS: Here’s a question: Will there eventually be Story Clubs — actual brick-and-mortar locations where only “our” type of storytelling takes place — in the same way that there are dedicated stand-up comedy clubs? And will storytelling have the same longevity as a nightlife entertainment activity as stand-up has? And what is next after storytelling?

DG: Who knows? For our part, First Person Arts loves the flexibility of being able to bring these events out to people where they are — whether that’s in different neighborhoods, or in different spaces. We’ve held storytelling events everywhere from bars to museums to Independence Mall in front of the Liberty Bell.

As for longevity: yes. I don’t really think of what we’re doing as “new.” People have been enthralled by true-life stories at least since Augustine in the 4th Century, people have spent their spending money and their leisure time finding out about other people’s autobiographies, and I find it hard to believe that even that didn’t come from some kind of oral tradition — who knows?

I do think that new art forms will come out of this new way of telling them, but I wouldn’t put a limit on people’s creativity by trying to guess now what it will become.

SS: Storytelling: the world’s second-oldest profession. And yet for the nightclub variety, no one has come up with a good name. “Storytelling” is just a terrible descriptor, because it is forever identified with children’s tales about dragons and princesses. Maybe “stand-up storytelling” vs. “stand-up comedy”? We need a visionary to come along here soon and give it a new name.

Wexler and Nathan: Story Talk

LAURA WEXLER, co-director of Baltimore’s The Stoop Storytelling, is one of the judges for Story League’s first Story Contest, and VIJAI NATHAN, storyteller/comedian and the producer of the Fan-Freaking-Tastic series in D.C., is one of the hosts. Here they exchange ideas about the mechanics and ethics, the dualities and necessities of storytelling.

Laura Wexler: Do you think everyone has a least one good story? In other words, can everyone tell a story that others will care about?

Vijai Nathan: I think the only requirement for having a good story is that you are human. (Okay, the bonobos may take offense to that, but they can just write me a letter.) We have all experienced the awkwardness of growing up, falling in love, being part of a family, losing someone close to you — these are things that make you human, that make for great stories, that make for stories we can all relate to. I think each of us has several good stories, but the real challenge is learning how to tell them and trusting yourself.

LW: When did you first realize the power of storytelling?

VN: You just got me to think about something I have never thought of! … I think I first realized its power when I was giving a book report in the 6th grade. The book was “Tuck Everlasting” and I decided to do my report in the first person as a character from the book and I spoke in a Southern, hill-billy dialect — not really sure why I did that, since the setting was in upstate New York, but the story took place in 1909 and I guessed everyone talked like that in “olden times.”

I was a really shy, quiet kid who got picked on, and usually I wanted to blend into the background as much as possible — but when I did that report, the entire class was silent and hanging on my every word. I think that is when I realized that how I communicated my ideas was as important as what I communicated.

How about you? How did you get into storytelling?

LW: I let a friend drag me to a storytelling series called Porchlight in San Francisco. I wasn’t psyched at all about going — it sounded lame to me, calling up visions of overly dramatic storytellers coming to our school to perform folk tales. But when we showed up there was a massive line to get in, and instantly I wanted to, yes, get in. We didn’t have tickets. We were totally stewed. Somebody took pity on us and gave us a few extra tickets.

I walked out a few hours later having had a different experience as an audience member than I’d ever had before. And I said to myself, “I gotta start one a these in Baltimore.”

For me, the impulse was really to create a venue where others could tell their stories — in the 6 years we’ve been doing The Stoop, I’ve never told a story myself. I’m not sure why that is, except that I think I get more out of being midwife to others’ stories than being the teller myself.

VN: Do you have certain personal rules or “must-haves” for what makes a good story?

LW: I think there are lots of shapes and structures of stories that can be successful. I guess the must-have for me is that the storyteller must know what the story means to him or her. I don’t mean that this should be stated explicitly — in fact, I usually hate that. I mean that the storyteller has thought and reflected on the story enough to know why the story is significant in his or her own life. Simply knowing that gives the story a stake.

At The Stoop we want stories that are more than funny anecdotes that make you say, “Wow. Huh,” and then you move on. We want stories that linger… and I think it’s that sense of a deeper meaning, even in a comic story, that allows for that.

Speaking of comedy: Where do you see storytelling in the continuum of stand-up and theatre?

VN: Well, my background is in stand-up, and my evolution as a stand-up who can tell stories has been a long one and it is something I work on constantly. For me, stand-up has a more aggressive energy than storytelling, so fusing the two together skillfully and still keeping an edge is a challenge.

LW: We’ve found that the stand-ups who tell stories at The Stoop really struggle to tell stories — not jokes. Also, because they’re professional performers, the audience senses that, well, it’s a performance (as opposed to a telling) and I think they’re a bit less supportive of that storyteller as a result.

VN: From my perspective, whether I am telling stories or doing set-up/punchline jokes — all of it is comedy. The best stand-up comedians are natural storytellers, though an audience may not notice it is listening to several jokes that make up one story.

So, speaking of dualities: You teach creative writing and creative non-fiction writing. How is writing for the page different from writing for performance?

LW: It’s hugely different, which is why we at The Stoop beg and plead with people not to write their stories out and memorize them. When they do that, the stories sound too… writerly, which is to say, there is too much emphasis on the words, often at the expense of the story. As a reader, I want beautiful language and all that craft, but as a listener, I want a tale that will keep my interest, keep me caring, lets me follow along and create a picture in my mind, and not distract me.

What do you think is the line between authenticity and artifice in storytelling?

VN: I think the most important thing is to be emotionally authentic to the story — it doesn’t have to be word-for-word what happened to you, you can edit the timeline, use hyperbole, fuse two characters into one person…

That’s not to say I want to be lied to: If you tell me a hilarious and gut-wrenching story about growing up biracial in the South, but you are really just a swarthy Irish Catholic dude from Boston — well, that’s just bullshit.

LW: Yes. With oral personal storytelling, I think the most important thing is the intention to be truthful — both factually and emotionally. We always tell people [working on their stories with us] at The Stoop that if you can’t remember what someone’s name is, tell us that and give them a fake name; or just leave it out… etc. Admitting to not knowing actually earns you credibility; it shows the audience you’re not making up stuff.

This is a tricky one because at some level, we must acknowledge that all art is artifice. I guess I would say that my theory for live personal storytelling is that one should use artifice wisely so that it does not detract from authenticity. Both have their power, but they need to balance each other. Too much authenticity and you get a transcript of a life rather than a shaped tale. Too much artifice and you lose the feeling that the story is true and lived.

Pittman and Na: Story Talk

Jason Pittman: We’ve both got stories about teaching science for the Politics of Science show, and I’m really looking forward to your debut as a storyteller, by the way. You describe putting on a show of sorts for your students. What parallels do you find between performing in the classroom in order to turn kids on to science and performing on an actual stage?

Chuck Na: I guess both cases hinge upon belief in the material that’s being presented, and by belief I mean having a thorough knowledge and excitement, a passion, for the material.  The best performers I’ve ever seen, both teachers and stage performers, seem to enliven and embody the material. What similarities do you find between teaching kids and telling stories to adults? What differences?

JP: It’s funny, I think I’ve learned a lot about telling stories to adults by teaching kids. In both cases, keeping information concise and simple, making your presence fill the room, and if you start to lose them, shout something about diarrhea. The difference is that some adults will feign disapproval at the diarrhea joke, every kid will laugh.

I get really excited about the expansion of performance genres that storytelling represents as it becomes more popular, and its afforded more opportunities to try out new things on stage. What types of performances do you find interesting or think you might try next?

CN: First off, thank you for trumpeting the value of scatological humor. Poop jokes will entertain everyone worth entertaining. Second, I hear what you mean about staying on target with your message. Some of my favorite teachers were those who knew the value of tangents and asides, but used them sparingly and always found a way back to the main topic that was organic. It was enthralling and had the same excitement as a stand-up hitting an unexpected, delightful call-back. As for other types of performances, I’ve been fascinated with what’s called alternative comedy, and storytelling fits right in with alt-comedy. I wish I were more of an absurdist, but I find the bravery of honest storytelling appealing, like the work of Louie C.K. and Mike Birbiglia, and hope to do more of it.  What are some topics that you hope to explore with your storytelling in the near future?

JP: In the future I’d like to able to blur the lines with storytelling, comedy and more dramatic performance. I’m actually working on a musical comedy project with local artist Tommy Gann and we’re merging storytelling and comedy with his exceptional talents. I’d also like to get out of the character of “science teacher,” as there is a lot of material I can’t seem to do without losing an audience. I also enjoy the idea that an alt-comedy crowd doesn’t come with a set of expectations for the show. If you went down the absurdist path, what might a Chuck Na show look like?

CN: Obviously, any kind of Chuck Na show would have to feature prop comedy, because if there’s one thing America loves, it’s non-sequiturs with visuals. To treat your question seriously, I’ll admit defeat under your endless questioning — I don’t know what absurd means and I was just trying to impress you.  Are you not entertained?

JP: Have been nothing if not thoroughly entertained by Chuck Na. See you at the show!

MORE INFORMATION AND TICKETS FOR “THE POLITICS OF SCIENCE” 8/11/11

Buckholtz and Knapp: Story Talk

 

Hillary Buckholtz: So, we’re in the show together Thursday! We should chat about performing. What’s your process of preparing for a performance?

Lauren Knapp: I’m new to storytelling, but I’ve spent years performing on the stage as a singer-songwriter. When I was preparing to perform with Story League in the “Powers That Be” show, I found that the process was pretty similar. The biggest hurdle for me is always remembering what to say. With music, the tune and rhythm help me out. And if I can’t quite remember the words, I can always add a couple measures of instrumental while I remember. Unfortunately, you don’t have that luxury with live storytelling. So, I spent a lot of time just reading my story over and over — to myself, to my roommates, to my friends. It also helped to practice eye contact on them. I also like practicing in front of a mirror. I like knowing what I am going to look like to the audience. Narcissistic? Maybe. But it definitely helps me.

HB: I’m also pretty new to storytelling. I do stand-up comedy as well, so I try to go about it from the perspective of stand-up. Meaning, I prepare as much as I can and I go over it by myself, but I truly work it out onstage. So I like doing a story a few times because that’s how I can best edit it according to the way it feels live, the audience response and my comfort level. I always learn something new when I perform that enhances my next telling. I’m so glad I’m not the only mirror-practicer! My mom taught me that tip in high school when I would egomaniacally run for class office over and over… it really works.

 

LK: With music, I have almost no stage fright… with storytelling, a lot. It’s just you, the microphone and your story up there. I tend to go over the story in my head before getting up onstage, and try to remind myself that the audience is on my side. They want me to do a good job. But once I get going, the nerves tend to settle a bit. The first laugh is actually key. Once I can get a good laugh out of the audience I feel like we’re on our way. We’re going to make it. The nerves die down, and it becomes a lot more fun. You?

HB: With singing, A LOT of stage fright. JK, I’m amazing. JK, I’m a terrible singer and would DIE if I had to sing anything on stage. JK I would love to sing Les Miz on stage because I know it by heart and I’m kind of good at doing all the parts. But for real, I get nervous but I just accept those nerves as part of living and doing creative things. I heard once that “Fear is just excitement with a bad attitude,” so I try to remember when I’m fearful that maybe I’m just totally psyched. I lie to myself a lot.

So, since we agree we’re both starting out in the live, true story business: Who are your storytelling idols?

LK: I’d say: Dan Savage, Mike Birbiglia, Sarah Vowell (can you tell I listen to This American Life?).

HB: Oh my god, Mike Birbiglia is one of my favorites too. His stand-up and his storytelling. HERO CITY. My friend Julie Kraut is an amazing storyteller, she just won at The Moth GrandSlam the other week. Honestly, there are some incredible storytellers in my family who I greatly admire. My siblings are all writers and my several of my cousins work in television, so family events are always a blast. My mom, Marjorie Buckholtz, tells a killer story.

So, what do you think makes a story great?

LK: Humility! That seems like a bit of a contradiction, since you’re already standing on stage telling people they need to shut up and listen to you. But, humility is what invites people into the story. When you show your own weakness, and even more, show that you’re OK with it, it makes others more comfortable with it. It’s easier for the audience to connect with the storyteller when they are able to laugh at themselves.

HB: I agree and couldn’t have said it better. There’s nothing like vulnerability. My favorite laughter is that laughter when the person is nodding their head in familiarity and identification — the laughter of “I thought I was the only one who did that!” — the laughter of knowing.

 

Carlo and Ivey: Story Talk

Michele Carlo: Hi, Diane. My first question is something easy: How long have you been a storyteller?

Diane Ivey: I just started this year! I’m 24, and I seem to always be the baby of the group. But I think we need more young people, and when I did Mortified DC for the second time (last fall; SM Shrake was in it too, that’s how I got involved with Story League) I got a really positive crowd response because there were a lot of girls from my generation who also grew up with Britney Spears and butterfly clips. For a reference point: I was 13 in 2001, so I might be too young for the “nostalgia” shows, but I believe adolescent awkwardness transcends time.

MC: I’m doing Mortified for the first time this fall—and the stuff I’m reading is from the 1970s—so I’ll probably be “the lady of a certain age” in that crowd—haha!

DI: Let’s talk shop. For a show like this one, the one we’re in together (Encore, Encore!), do you write your stories out first or do you tell them straight out of your head?

MC: I’ve done both. When I first started telling stories I’d write them down and memorize them—and then freak out—sometimes quite visibly on stage—if I forgot or transposed something. [EDITOR’S NOTE: This is why you should never memorize your story!] Then I finally realized, hey, this is my story, not a monologue from ”that Scottish play” so I can’t “go off my lines,” I know my story. Once I realized that, it got a lot easier and I started composing things in my head. I always write them down eventually though. That’s how I got my book Fish Out Of Agua.

DI: I know you are adapting your book into a show. What is the biggest challenge when turning written material into a live show?

MC: Definitely the writing style! I actually have two versions of many of my stories: one I do for “readings” and the other I do in “storytelling” situations. I’ve found that when writing for a book (or any printed matter), I use more detail and description, plus I can use the full extent of my vocabulary (it’s said that our “reading” vocabularies contain three times as many words—or more—as our “listening/speaking” vocabularies). Because what sounds easy and breezy, when listened to, will seem incomplete when read on a page—and too much exposition or certain word choices in a told story can make it sound overworked or stilted.

The other challenge when adapting a written work for a performance is deciding which one particular story to explore. In a 300-page book you can easily have multiple story arcs smoothly converge into one (well, maybe not easily but it can be done). But for an hour-long show, you need to pick the arc you think is most compelling.

DI: How do you prepare for a performance?

MC: If there’s a time limit, I’ll run through the piece several times with a timer (I have an old, beat-up cooking timer that belonged to my grandmother that for some reason I like to use if I’m at home). I always try to go slightly under time… ’cause it’s live, you know… and anything can happen! How about you?

DI: Sometimes I write everything down, and sometimes I just use a scribbled outline. Most often, I start a document on Google Docs and I make note of the order of events, specific jokes I want to include, and feedback from workshops or coaching sessions. I like Google Docs because I also have the app on my phone, so it’s always with me in case I think of something new. My best ideas usually occur mid-commute on the bus or Metro.

So, related topic: in our Story League workshops, we’ve talked about “willful forgetting,” which is when you subconsciously leave out a section of your story. When performing a timed story, have you ever lost a chunk of it in the final performance? Did it make your story better or worse?

MC: Ha! Some people might say that nothing is subconscious and that if you leave something out you really didn’t need it. But not only have I forgotten a chunk of story, I’ve transposed events and even added stuff that wasn’t in originally. Sometimes it worked out, sometimes it didn’t. That’s how the story crumbles… uh.. flows… uh… goes.

DI: What is your stage fright level?

MC: I’m generally fine until five minutes before I’m to go on… but then I go into what I call “the lightning zone,” where I can literally feel electricity (caused by adrenaline, I’m sure) running through my body. The hairs on my arms stand up, my insides churn and I’ve sworn that if you stuck a light bulb in my mouth, it’d glow! All joking aside, over the years, I’ve learned to channel that energy and give it back to the audience. In other words, once I start speaking, all nerves are gone and I’m able to enjoy myself. You?

DI: I don’t get particularly nervous unless the story involves someone who might actually be in the audience. I recently told a story about my ridiculous antics toward a former crush, and knowing that guy might see the video on YouTube? Terrifying. But definitely worth it.

Another subject: Do you think stand-ups can be good storytellers?

MC: Absolutely. Tom Shillue, Liam McEneany, Ophira Eisenberg and Irene Bremis are four who immediately come to mind. But even their stand-up seems to me to be more story-oriented. It’s hard to explain, but if you’ve seen any of them perform both, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

DI: Interesting. I see the two genres as the difference between setting up a tent and building a house. In stand-up, you want to get to the point as quickly as you can, and like building a tent, you want a temporary structure. In storytelling, you’re building a house. The audience wants more detail and foundation before they can really feel at home. They have to know and trust you before they can laugh.

MC: So, do you have any storytelling idols?

DI: David Sedaris, Elna Baker, and Tina Fey. I’m currently in love with the champions of awkwardness: Issa Rae of “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” as well as British actress/writer/stand-up Miranda Hart. And of course, my best friend Sara, whose childhood adventures blow my middle-class Midwestern upbringing out of the water.

MC: Final question from me: What do you think is the number-one component that makes a story great?

DI: Being relatable is the number-one thing for me. When I’m watching performances, I have to find the relatable part of the story, the part where I really connect with the storyteller’s feelings. I think the most powerful response you can get from an audience is “me too.” If you can get that, you’re golden.

MC: For me, the best stories are not just one note. They’re about the “thing” and then they take a turn and are really about “the other thing.” Do you know what I mean? You think you know how the story is going to turn out and then it takes you to a whole other place. Your investment in what you’re telling is also very important. If your story doesn’t mean anything to you, it’s not going to mean anything to anyone else.

DI: Now my final question! Where do you see the storytelling scene going next?

MC: Drive-in storytelling! Storytelling on ice! Stories in space! Oh wait, they grounded the space shuttle, didn’t they? Well, there’s already shows based on who is telling the truth and who isn’t (The LIAR Show); music (Soundtrack Series); music and burlesque (BTK); art (Drawn Out Storytelling); science (The Story Collider); telling something you hadn’t thought you ever could (Risk!); and I even did a show with only native New Yorkers (It Came From New York), so I think it’s safe to say that there will be as many twists on storytelling as there are people who can think of them. Here’s hoping we both get booked to do them all!

Shumaker and KKT: Story Talk

 

Kelly Keenan Trumpbour: So, Scott: Since we’re both telling stories in the Encore, Encore show next week, this is a fine time for us to chat a little about the story business. First, an essential question: What, for you, is the number-one component you think makes a story great?

Scott Shumaker: I would say that if a story is a mirror—if it reflects a facet of life that is universal and shows it in an interesting and usually funny way—it’s a great story. If people immediately see themselves in the situation, they are drawn to what you say and take something away from it. What do you think?

KKT: I completely agree. I also think there needs to be an element of surprise, and I think it helps if it’s something a little bit beyond your own self-discovery. You want the audience learning about something they have a stake in, no matter how tangential the connection.

Everyone is connected by how we experience relationships, work, life in general. But a really good story takes the mundane up a notch.

SS: That connection is crucial. It makes or breaks a story, really.

KKT: I’m curious: How do you prepare for a performance?

SS: Well, I haven’t done a lot of storytelling, per se (instead I played piano at the first two Story League shows), but I did tell a short one at the second show. I usually prepare by… well, procrastinating. I have in my mind exactly what I want to end up doing, and eventually, I get there. Usually it’s very close to the actual day of the performance. It works well for me, that bit of nervousness.

KKT: There is something to be said for a little bit of procrastination.

My best stories began life as conversation gems I would tell friends over drinks. I try to remember what made me want to share it with them in the first place, and then I try to think of where I felt my friends connect with the story. No matter how much the story evolves before I get on stage, I try to hold on to what was behind the first, unrehearsed telling.

SS: Very cool. And how much stage fright do you have, and how do you deal with it?

KKT: I’m okay once I’m up on stage—it’s the first runthrough that kills me. Once I’ve decided I’m going to use a story and get it ready for a performance, trying it out in front of my friends and colleagues brings out the butterflies. I think I’m lucky, because if a Story League workshop is where I feel the most nervous, I am in good shape because that’s probably the most supportive place to have a case of the jitters. A glass of wine doesn’t hurt either.

How about you? Is storytelling stage fright different than piano stage fright?

SS: It’s completely different. With the piano, I usually end up “miming” the next bit I’m going to do, even placing my fingers on the keys, while folks are telling stories. I also do it over the applause, generally, so it’s almost like I’m just sort of background noise, if you will.

When doing a story, the pressure is definitely on. I become conscious of how fast I’m speaking, whether I know the next part of the story well enough to breeze through it—and of course, I’m anxious about whether, when I reach the end, I will have actually made a point. With piano, you know if you’ve made your point in 10 seconds.

KKT: And of course there is judging how close to get to the mic. Answer: Very close. That’s hard for me because I always feel it’s in my face. But I know what you mean about talking too fast. I have to constantly tell myself to go slow. It never sounds too slow to the audience.

SS: Absolutely.

KKT: I don’t think you are just background noise, by the way.

SS: Very sweet of you to say. So: Do you have any storytelling idols?

KKT: I come from a family of witty Irish storytellers, and I swear by the age of 5 I was plotting how to get enough life experience to use “that horse’s ass” repeatedly in a sentence. I’ve learned something from every group I’ve worked with. I was probably the most starry eyed when I saw Audrey Niffenegger perform at Joe’s Pub in New York. How about you?

SS: I could listen to [British comedian and writer] Stephen Fry tell a story all day long. His mastery of the language, the way he structures his thoughts, the interesting, albeit somewhat pretentious words he drags out now and again—all add up to a riveting tale, no matter what the subject. I find I can be far more experimental in language when I’m writing than I can when telling a story. Somehow, those fifty-cent words can come across as really alienating to an audience.

By the way, my family was better at small punch lines than bigger stories!

KKT: Ooh!  Good call on Fry. And I completely understand what you are talking about getting comfortable with the spoken side of storytelling. I’m a writer, too, and I completely agree that you and the page and you and the stage are two completely different places.

SS: I try not to write out stories verbatim, but sometimes if you find a great phrase, you need to write it down so you can remember it. The key is not making it seem as if you’ve memorized it!

KKT: Do you have a dream venue?

SS: For me, I think Speakers Corner in Hyde Park, London, where traditionally people came to speak and folks gathered in support or just for the show. You’d need to be immediately engaging, intelligent, funny, and, of course, loud. And my voice carries, so I may be all right.

KKT: See you at the show, Scott!

SS: See you at the show, Kelly! Bye for now.