Copyright © 2013 STORY LEAGUE. All Rights Reserved.
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.
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.