By Helen McKay
If you want to know anything about storytelling, watch a master storyteller in action. Distance yourself from the story, if you can (it’s difficult), and watch the technical aspects of the performance and the interaction with the audience. From this simple experience, you can learn much about the skills of storytelling.
I was once blessed with the opportunity to watch a truly great African American storyteller, Diane Ferlatte, in action.
Her delivery was simple. Using her unique dress style, of brightly coloured clothes, to engage the audience’s interest, a wooden staff to create rhythms, by beating it against a board (in this case, my bread board that made a lovely hollow box sounds) and occasionally, shaking my rain stick, to create different effects. Her greatest tools were her voice and body movements that she used to excellent effect. She was totally engaged in communicating the stories to her audiences. There was no holding back.
The stories Diane told were simple – but interesting – stories, well developed and appropriate to her storytelling style. To accompany them, she sang rhymes or simple choruses so that the audience could join her in singing, and she encouraged them to clap and mimic her many body movements, as she told an interactive story.
She was confident, well rehearsed, and made an effort to connect fully with her audiences. I never saw children bored or inattentive. They were all involved, even though they sat for an hour, on a hard floor.
To begin each session, Diane engaged the audience in some signing (Auslan style), teaching both child and adult audiences, some key words. She often used these actions throughout the stories encouraging the audience to join her.
Before starting her stories, she rehearsed the audience through their movement or chorus activities. After her stories, she talked to the audience, about topics relevant to the story.
Diane never explained the meaning of a story though; that was the task of the listener. But she often tested the children’s listening skills, by asking them questions during and after the stories.
We talked about this later and she explained that many children have poor listening skills, a legacy of the quick grab television programmes. She had great pauses that allowed her audience time for their reactions; so important in getting the feelings across.
Diane warmed up for every performance I saw. I drove her to the storytelling sessions and she entertained me, the whole way, with her warm-up exercises, singing, and clapping and wiggling. I’m sure people, we passed, thought we were high on some recreational drug or other – we were so happy.
She told only stories that appealed to her, and would go to great lengths to research the sources of these, making sure to gain permission before adapting them to her style of telling. We searched the Australian White Pages on the Internet, to find the address of an Australian author, so she could ask permission to tell his stories.
I learned so much, from this Master Storyteller, in action. Grab the opportunity whenever it presents itself, to learn your skills from a master.