Teaching Students Skills for Telling
Gail N. Herman
Nowhere in the profession of theatre arts is the phrase, “A willing suspension of disbelief” more necessary than in the telling of tall tales and lies (better known as whoppers). Each member of the audience has to be willing expend the effort to create in their mind’s eye a visual image of the actions of the characters in order to “get it.” Once they do, they are hooked. Storytellers use everything they can to assist in this co-creation with the audience of the scenes and actions; besides words, they use voices, gestures, signature postures, and facial expressions for characters and even objects.
The task of helping students to retell tall tales or to create whoppers includes these skills and more. We also have to help students establish a connection with the audience so the listeners will want to willingly suspend their disbelief and therefore create the visual scenes we provide while standing in a small performance space on stage or in a classroom with nothing but our words, voices, and movements. We have no scenery and no fellow actors to rely on. This skill, establishing audience connection, is the most difficult to impart to our students.
As a storyteller for over 30 years, I have learned to spot those few students who seem to have a natural ability to demonstrate to their audiences that they really, really want them to understand what they are saying. They do this with a certain kind of eye contact, some first person revelations, and references to the audience’s possible state of mind. However, what I have learned is that many other students can be taught how to do this skill and make it look natural.
Here are some quick ideas to get students started on audience connection for their tall tale or whopper.
1. When we teach eye contact, we usually help students get over their nervousness by looking just over the tops of the heads of the audience. We say, “Look right. Look at the window. Then look left. Look at the bulletin board. Then look center at the clock in the back of the room.” That action might help them but the audience really begins to notice that the storyteller is serious about their listening when the storyteller focuses for a minute on a particular group and bends a little bit into them, and speaks directly in the groups’ direction.
2. When the storyteller throws in some first person revelations, the audience begins to connect. For example, when telling a whopper about a pet’s strengths, the teller uses the word ‘I’. “I saw….” “I wanted ….” “I taught ….” Now that doesn’t seem like much but it is a beginning. From there the teller can begin to describe feelings, such as fears or surprise at the events. Simple, but it is a very helpful technique in connecting the audience to the teller. The teller can also make first person analogies. For example, when second grader Kerri was telling about the snake that thought its fangs were powerful enough to bite into Johnny Appleseed’s feet, she pointed to her own teeth near the end. Then she described how the snake’s fangs fell out, just like her two front teeth did. The only difference, she explained, was that the snake was embarrassed but she was happy! Hers would grow back but the snake’s would not. And that is why that snake had to hide under rocks ever since! This reference to herself and to her missing teeth, to her feelings and to the snake’s, made the story live in the minds of that audience. They all chuckled and said, “Ooohhh.” She had them.
3. In telling tall tales and whoppers, connecting with the audience can also be done by letting them know that you know this is hard to believe. Tellers sometimes say, “Now I know this is hard to believe, but ….” Or “Now, stick with me on this. You’ve got to get this picture to understand the trouble I was in. Let me recap it for you.” “You won’t believe what happened next! I was as amazed as you are going to be.” “I know how you are feeling; I couldn’t believe it either, but there we were!”
These are just some of the ways students learn to connect with the audience.
Organizing a festival? Now, that’s another story.