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.
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.