We step on a stage, we show ourselves. We show ourselves, we tell our stories. We tell our stories, we expose ourselves. Storytelling is exposure. Even if you are just relating an anecdote or recalling the plot of a film, telling and retelling stories is about revealing, disclosing and uncovering all the essential impulses, structures and movements of our world; our minds, our perversions, our perfections and imperfections, and everything else in between. But in order to expose our stories we have to expose ourselves. Dangly bits and all.
Of course human beings have never had much trouble letting it all hang out for other human beings to gawp at. The basic act of theatre has been part of our very core from the moment we had language, perhaps before. As the great dramatist Peter Brook once wrote, all that is needed for an act of theatre is for one person to walk across an empty space and for another person to watch – everything else since is just set dressing. Even clothes.
Of course not everyone feels empowered by the idea of exposure and that group so often includes writers and poets – those whose very business it is to be storytellers. Spoken word nights like First Draft offer the opportunity for writers to theatricalise and dramatise these stored up stories and in Manchester the scene is thrumming with a generation of great orators. But reading your precious poetics to a semi-drunken audience is still a mighty hurdle to o’erleap whether you’re a first timer or a seasoned dame. The original piece of writing that is being flapped out is such a uniquely personal creation that the act of telling and showing it can be a profoundly personal experience. It is the mush of your mind poured right out of the bowl of your brain into a steaming, squirming, squealing puddle on the Petri dish that is the stage. And everyone wants a taste. It’s a terrifying vision.
Those who do brave it reap hearty rewards. Taking words off the page and onto the stage often transforms them in surprising and liberating ways, as I’ve indicated before on my blogpost: Spoken Words: Tips for Performing Literature. But perhaps the most common error performers will make is forgetting that as soon as you have crossed the audience-to-stage threshold you have entered the world of theatre.
You don’t have to be acting or singing or embodying the soul of a character, you just have to be up there, on that space, with people watching you. As soon as that happens, it’s theatre: so theatricalise it. Perform those words, express them, breathe life into them, seek out the rhythm of your sentences and flow with it. The worst thing you can do is pretend the audience aren’t there; grab them, engage them, lock them with your eyes, catch them with your smile. Use them in your story; characterise them, implicate them, accuse them – make them work for you. Whatever you do, don’t lose them. And you won’t if you recognise yourself as an actor on a stage, in a theatre, performing for the world.
But theatre can learn a lot from spoken word as well. As with its cousin stand-up comedy, spoken word relies on a relatively blank and pure direct interaction with the audience. Just one person, one mic, one story, five minutes. Theatre, both contemporary and popular, can often disappear so far into its own wings that the audience get pushed out, either by physical distance or by the impenetrable safety curtain of the invisible ‘fourth wall’. In spoken word, there never seems to be a fourth wall; just a quivering sheet of paper holding the words and the thin neck of the mic stand between the audience and the reader. Sometimes not even that.
When done well spoken word out-theatres theatre by stripping back all the divides and letting the audience get within touching distance of the tale being told. Modern theatre can do well to remember that at times. Yes; there are many ways to show a story, but only one way to tell it: from the mouth of the performer to the ear of the listener. Is everything else just an obstacle for that story to get around?
Because, essentially, when it comes down to it, storytelling and theatre are the same word with the same meaning and the one doesn’t work to its full potential without acknowledging the other. Writers; perform your stories like an actor and actors; weave your tales like a writer. Your story is a show, now go out there and tell it.
Dave Hartley is a fiction writer who has been performing regularly at First Draft since we were just learning to crawl. We recently shared a video of him performing his not-so-festive Christmas story, The Jesus Placenta, at our December event, and you can watch it here.