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Thoughts on the Space Between Teller and Listener

November 2002

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, and hoarse.

"I've been doing this for too many years," a voice inside me said. "I should know how to deal with audiences like this!"

"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 Hall?"

"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...?


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