on the Space Between Teller and Listener
I had three performances this weekend.
They were so different. Friday night I was part of a five-teller
group concert in Cambridge, MA. This was "Tellabration," a national
weekend of storytelling sponsored by local groups and the National
Storytelling Network. The adult audience was small - only thirty
people - but warm and appreciative. I went on last, after a teller
had told a gentle, lyrical tale of love and loss. My first piece
was a lusty, hysterically funny song about Viagra leaking into a
town's water supply. The audience woke up, laughing and singing
along. I continued with a parody of several fairy tales, and concluded
with a humorous poem about a giant dreidel - a takeoff on "'Twas
the Night Before Xmas." I came home with the biggest flower arrangement
I've ever seen outside of a funeral home (thanks to the producer),
and a warm, cozy feeling.
Saturday's show was even better. It was
a Laura Ingalls Wilder show at a library. My helpers, the kids who
were going to participate in the show, got there extra early, brimming
with enthusiasm and excitement. The large audience, seventy-five
or more adults and children, filled the space, each person actively
listening, reacting, and asking loads of questions when I was through.
I stayed an extra half hour, talking with people. By the time I
left I was exhausted but exhilarated.
Sunday was a different story. I had a
morning show at a preschool party. The idea was that I would do
stories and songs for Chanukah (including an age-appropriate rendition
of the story of the holiday) and then the participants would do
some crafts and have some snacks. The woman who organized the event
was lovely and warm. She convinced me to perform for much less than
my usual fee, because the parent board had determined they could
only spend a certain amount for this event.
On the phone that morning I double-checked
directions and details. Only thirty people had signed up to come,
she said, but it was likely more would show up at the door. I probably
wouldn't need my sound system, I thought, but I grabbed it anyway
and headed out.
When I arrived there was a steady stream
of adults and children coming into the large room. One side had
been cleared for me. I had asked that parents sit with their children.
The children and adults began taking their places on the floor;
chairs were in the back for those who needed them. My back was against
a wall, with a colorful banner hung behind me. At my feet were cloths
delineating the performance space. There were babies and toddlers,
grandparents and parents. Fifty, maybe sixty people milled around
and found places to sit.
The preschool director got most people's
attention, and gave a brief welcome. One of the parents lit the
Chanukah candles and said the prayers, her back to the audience.
The menorah was left, still burning, on a table next to me on top
of a paper tablecloth. The director nodded to me to start.
What is it that makes an audience difficult?
Distractions. Talking. Movement. Flashes from cameras. Potentially
dangerous situations. But mostly: talking.
I began with a song, trying to draw in
the crowd with sound and movement and lots of participation. My
amplifier stopped working. I finished the song and moved the microphone
away. I began the story of Chanukah.
The crowd grew. The parents at the back
talked, scraped chairs as they moved them. A toddler pressed on
a picture book which played an electronic tune. The Chanukah candles
flickered. I talked about the rededication of the Temple. A two-year-old
stood up next to me and reached for the flames. (I gently guided
her to sit down again as I continued my stories.)
A grandpa climbed behind me to take flash
photos of his granddaughter in the front row. A young woman used
my guitar case for a seat. A woman in pink roamed the room talking
to her friends, smiled at me whenever I caught her eye - and then
began talking again. Juice was poured and several toddlers weaved
around the room, holding precariously balanced cups. I passed out
props to the children so that they could help me with the last story.
Somehow I got through the forty minutes
of stories and songs, buoyed up by the many people who were listening.
The children in the front were great participants. Most parents
sat with their children, participated, enjoyed the material, shushed
others between stories. To the others I was barely visible.
Afterwards, I was exhausted, angry, frustrated,
"I've been doing this for too many years,"
a voice inside me said. "I should know how to deal with audiences
"This audience was incredibly rude,"
another voice argued. "Forget preschool family parties. Stick to
schools and libraries - predictable audiences."
"Confront that woman in pink!" another
voice demanded. "Tell her how you're not a TV, you're a live person
and deserve to be treated the way she would treat any performer.
Does she chat incessantly when she goes to see a concert at Symphony
"Probably," answered another, more cynical
inner voice. "The material was
perfect, a lot of people enjoyed it, just let it roll off your back."
The preschool director apologized to
me, saying that no matter what she said or wrote to parents, they
always acted this way. But I'm left with questions: why? Is it the
excitement of a party, where other things will happen in the same
space? The needs of parents of young children, who are so used to
chatting with each other while their children do something, that
they don't think twice about it - don't make a distinction between
video and live performance, Gymboree and storytelling?
Obviously, as in any disaster (I'm thinking
plane crashes, here), there's a combination of events. Mechanical
error: my sound system failed. Turbulence: too many people coming
in late. And just plain bad luck: too many rude adults who weren't
thinking; the failure of the director to set an appropriate tone
in her introduction and follow-through.
Most of my performances are energizing,
joyful events for me. The audience seems to beam warmth, enthusiasm,
empathy. The stories I tell bring forth other stories in the minds
of the audience members. People smile, laugh, cry, and feel satisfied
when the performance is done. They come up afterwards to comment
on the stories, ask questions, thank me. But maybe once every two
years I encounter a situation like this and I wonder... How can
I educate these few difficult audiences, or engage them, or maybe
even just avoid potential situations like this one...?