Tuesday 7 October 2014

Surfing the performance spectrum

I get storytelling vertigo, sometimes, these days.  In the course of a week I tell stories to a group of three 14-year-olds who are playing with clay and interrupting me continually to tell me what ought to happen next; to a roomful of silent, wide-eyed, troubled, inscrutable adolescents whose reactions are unpredictable and momentous; to an adult audience in near darkness in a theatre with lighting and staging. 

Any storyteller would recognise this.  It’s what Mike Wilson (1997) calls the ‘performance spectrum’ – from very informal, almost conversational storytelling at one end, to ‘performance storytelling’ more akin to theatre at the other.  But the cramming of my current working life with all of these varieties on top of each other makes me keenly aware of their different ethos and demands. 

More than that, it maybe makes me uncomfortably self-aware, of my own habits and processes.  Putting together a performance with musician colleagues recently, I was almost paralysed with embarrassment when we rehearsed – perhaps because the whole idea of ‘rehearsal’ is anathema to ‘everyday storytelling’.  ‘How will you end that one?’ ‘Emmm….I’ll probably repeat the thing about the mountain and cock my head to one side…’ All my tricks and tropes became evident; I had to give them reliable cues to start playing; they helped me shape the stories to make certain points; I squirmed when they heard the same lines repeated each time.  We found ourselves incapable of any banter between stories, because this highlighted the lack of spontaneity in the rest of the show.  

It was easier to accept the fact that this was, essentially, a scripted performance, and remove any pretence of its being otherwise.  When we did so, I was able to relax, and welcome their (extremely helpful) input, which enabled me to present something more crafted, more careful than I usually might.  But I feel there is an elusive form, beyond my current abilities and instincts, where the planned and spontaneous elements of a storytelling show are more synergistic.  Where the audience still come away with a feeling that they helped create the show, and have been given the stories to keep.  I can think of a few performance storytellers who manage this, but not many. 

This was all at the forefront of my mind while I was reading Walter Benjamin’s essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’.  Benjamin suggests an interesting way of looking at this spectrum within artforms, according to how reproducible and transportable they are.  He points out that the original function of art was primarily ritualistic – it had a cult value, even if (or because) few people ever got to see it – like the engravings high up on the walls of the Minster.  I think you could understand a ‘traditional’ storytelling event like my small gatherings of teenagers to be of this kind, in a secular sense – it is unrepeatable; you have to be there to bask in its ‘aura’.  Its social or ‘cult’ value is perhaps of greater significance than its artistic quality.

As technology developed so that art became gradually more reproducible (e.g. woodcuts, lithographs), it became correspondingly less sacred and more about exhibition and artistic value.  And its form started to change to meet the different demands of exhibition.  Here I think you could place ‘performance storytelling’.  Virtuosity is important here; ‘authenticity’ in the sense of uniqueness is much less so.  There is an acceptance that the same performance will be repeated elsewhere; it is not about the particular set of people gathered here to listen today.

Benjamin suggests that as art becomes ever more reproducible (and of course he could not foresee the digital revolution), the form changes once again.  Artistic criteria diminish in importance again, and the primary purpose becomes political – it’s about communication, voice, participation.  And here I think you could locate most of digital storytelling, and a lot of what drama practitioners mean when they talk about ‘storytelling’.  No wonder that when people profess an interest in ‘storytelling’, it’s not obvious what they mean without probing a little further.  It is in fact several different artforms.  When I say I feel vertiginous from surfing this continuum within storytelling every week, it’s because I’m sliding along a scale which has big bumps along it. It demands that I reset my sense of purpose and role.

As a postscript: Benjamin’s comments on film in this essay cast some light on my discomfort in rehearsals.  The close-ups, slow-motions, the perfect detail of film allow a testing and examination of an actor’s performance, while alienating him from his own body.  The absence of an immediate audience against which to form his performance make him perform a language of gesture in a kind of vacuum, in which each of his gestures are subjected to scrutiny which is not social, but technical.  Likewise, informal storytelling allows huge latitude for idiosyncrasy and habit – the usual inconsistencies and inaccuracies of face-to-face communication can pass unnoticed, or are just taken in subconsciously as in everyday life.  Whereas performance storytelling under a spotlight, with the audience removed by poles of light and darkness, forces the performer to consider the effect of each gesture, analyse his own habits, and commit to them in advance.  Perhaps this is why it leaves me feeling exposed and inadequate – and also why it feels like a rigorous discipline I should not shy away from!