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Finding the Heart of the Story

from an interview with Doug Lipman
by Glen Morrow

(This article appeared in The Museletter magazine.)

I am currently working on The Soul of Hope, a two-act storytelling piece about the Baal Shem Tov, a Jewish spiritual leader who, through hopeless times, dared to hope for the coming of the Messiah. The stories are traditional; turning them into a single story that will work in performance is my creative challenge.

Working on this complex and emotionally challenging piece has enabled me to reflect on my own process of developing a story for performance.

How Do You Practice?

I'm a strong partisan of doing as much as possible with another person listening. When there's another person listening, your storytelling naturally responds to your audience's response. When you work by yourself, you don't get that.

When I coach other storytellers, I can tell almost immediately those who have practiced too long before a mirror; they've worn a groove with their story, perfecting the ways that seem most effective to them, and they can no longer tell where the story is not effective for others. You need others there throughout the process to see where the emotions are conveyed, when the jokes work, and those blank expressions that show something is not understood.

Another advantage of developing a story with an audience is that when I have an audience I have more focus, I pay more attention to the story. I more quickly notice things that need to be corrected. The gaps, flaws, and redundancies are easier to detect.

Early on in the process, the story is not going to be very good, so you need to find people willing to see rough material. Mostly I work with a rehearsal buddy.

I use a mix of different people to get different kinds of responses. For example, Jay O'Callahan is really good at telling me whether or not each moment in the story lives. Someone else might have a special talent for giving me feedback about the overall structure of the piece. Some people are good at helping me find my bearings with very rough material, others are better at helping me with polishing. So I seek out different people for different points of the development of a story.

It is important to nurture a steady relationship with at least one story buddy; over time, people who witness each other's creative process grow in their abilities to be coach for each other.

With a long story like The Soul of Hope, I work with my story buddies by telling the bits and pieces of the story. But before I tell a piece of the story, I talk about that piece of the story. Why do I want to tell this particular episode, what does it mean to me, what moved me about this episode? Donald Davis, I am told, uses this preparation method of talking about the story almost exclusively. The route to telling the story can grow almost unconsciously out of the process of talking about the story.

In talking about the story I come back again and again to the Most Important Thing, the thing that I most want to communicate. Keeping focused on the Most Important Thing is crucial. If you keep your purpose in telling the story clearly in mind, the story can change fluidly, but will never be lost in a welter of anecdotes and details.

When I talk about the story, I also talk about where I am with the story, the points that don't yet make sense to me. I use this "talking about" process throughout the development of a piece. The more trouble I have with a story, the more I use it. The trouble is an indication that there is something within the story that I haven't faced yet, perhaps because it is too emotionally charged and I am trying to skirt it.

It is important in talking about a story that I do most of the talking; it doesn't matter what the story means to my coach or people in general. What matters is what the story means to me. For the story to work and have unity and integrity it has to hold emotional meaning throughout for the storyteller. My audience may have a completely different take on what the story means, but if I don't know what the story means for me, it won't be compelling to me or my audience.

Inevitably, after many hearings of the same story, regular story buddies will lose their freshness in responding to it. They've heard the story too many times. When I am coaching a storyteller and this happens to me, I get someone else who is fresh to the story to sit in, and I watch their reactions to the story. Watching and learning from their response keeps me from responding to what the story has meant to me in previous hearings, rather than what the story means this time, this telling.

In rehearsing a story I usually work one-on-one, both because it is easier to schedule and because you develop a fruitful working relationship with an ongoing story buddy. But there are times when assembling a group of people is extremely useful. I tell to more than one person because the attention of a group is more powerful than that of a single person. This is especially useful when telling the whole story through to get a sense of its flow.

One thing that's daunting about the Baal Shem Tov story is that it is composed of many smaller stories which I am trying to form into one big story. In the heat of telling with other people, I notice how these pieces fit together, where they are reinforcing the Most Important Thing, and when they are irrelevant or redundant. In telling the story through I often find afterwards that I have forgotten to tell a part of it; this is often a pretty clear indication that the real story that I am telling doesn't need that part, and I should omit it.

Act One of The Soul of Hope was originally 45 minutes long. After repeated rehearsal tellings it is now an hour long; during this process I have omitted four major episodes from my original telling. When I omit an inessential episode, it lets me focus more on the essential ones, which then grow to fill more time.

What About Writing a Story Down?

I only write down a story as a tool for shaping it, when the story is feeling unwieldy to me and I need to work on the details. Generally, I use writing for tightening up a story, making it shorter, more economically expressed.

I tell to an audience, tape the performance and transcribe the tape. Otherwise, if I attempt to just write down the story, I start using written language, not oral language. I risk falling in love with the written form of the tale; an elegantly written story is generally not the most effective tale for oral telling.

Where a transcript of telling helps me is in spotting what can be taken out or, occasionally, when I have summarized something in one sentence and there's more to say there. Also, it helps to see the details as they go from one place to another, to see connections between widely separated scenes.

Working with a transcript of a telling is like putting a magnifying glass on the story. As a storyteller you are working on a piece like a sculptor. The most important thing is the overall effect; if it doesn't work overall from a reasonable distance, it's not a good sculpture. But the sculptor occasionally has to work up close with the small chisels to shape the details that contribute to that overall effect. Working with a transcript gives you this close-up focus.

At times, a close focus will even inform you about overall effect. A sculptor working on the texture of a detail may discover that the sculpture is really about texture.

The edited transcript is a tool for understanding the story; for me it is never the "finished" or definitive story.

What About Working On Stagecraft?

I don't usually "work up" my gestures and other nonverbal behavior. If you work with people in developing a story, you learn things "of a piece." The telling of the story draws forth the words, gestures, facial expressions as part of a unified whole. The nonverbals arise naturally from the telling of the tale. I don't believe that it works well to separate nonverbals from words, that's the risk of writing down the tale.

However, sometimes there are problems with the words. That's where the close focus of writing it down is useful.

I have to resist my tendency to make the story overly dramatic, mythic, filled with large gestures. This is a way to keep the story at a distance from myself because I don't want to feel the difficult emotions of the tale.

Fundamentally, you image and tell. The more fully you imagine it, the better you tell it. When there's a box in your story, you need to imagine exactly how big and how heavy it is.

Imagining the story means having to imagine not only the locations and characters but also their emotions. How much I express of those emotions is a decision I make at every moment of the telling, but how fully I imagine them is central and informs every moment of the telling.

The key is to be present. That is more important than anything. The told story is a unique event with a unique audience.

A person piloting a sailboat takes into account both where they are heading and the prevailing winds and currents. A storyteller must do the same thing. You may have a very clear idea of what you want to convey. But like a sailor who set the rudder to a predetermined angle, if you do the same thing each time out, you'll end up at a different place each time. You have to read the audience and respond to their reactions, each and every time.

I try to learn from what I did that worked before, but I try not to get rigid about it. That is both terrifying and exhilarating because I'm so vulnerable each time I tell.

With a cutting-edge story (a story like The Soul of Hope that pushed me to my limits as a storyteller), I find it difficult to let the full, unrestricted river of emotions flow through me during each performance. I have to fight my tendency to try and make the telling safer by making the tale uniform.

I never tell a story exactly the same way twice. In responding to the audience, I often perform unconscious editing, leaving out a scene because, after all, I really didn't need it.

The storyteller's fear is that we will accidentally leave out something essential that we will need later on. This happens, but it is important not to exaggerate its importance and kill the spontaneity of the story by trying to preclude it from ever happening. When this happens to me, I simply say "What you don't know is..." and fill in the missing detail. Usually the audience hardly notices the patch.

Presentation is not something worked out in advance. Mostly, notice how you are communicating to the audience and modify your presentation in response. Be present with your audience and change you enunciation when you see that people are having trouble hearing. Often we get focused on details of stagecraft like enunciation, and lose sight of why people would want to listen to our story to begin with. Most presentation problems are problems of storytellers not dealing with their own tension, their own vulnerability. My best response to this tendency to distance myself from the material is to take a breath and get in touch again with the story.

If after repeated tellings a story starts to feel stale, it usually means that I'm trying to go on automatic pilot and it feels stale because I'm not letting myself feel it. There may be some peripheral thing in the story that I didn't notice the first few times I told it that start getting in the way emotionally. Something that calls forth in me the response: I don't want to be present, I don't want to feel this.

You have to be willing to let the story change; if you're not willing to do that, the story is going to become stale, perhaps even the second time you tell it.

In creating a story it is essential to start with the whole, not the pieces. What is the Most Important Thing? In The Soul of Hope, it is a man who dares to hope against hopelessness. He does not succeed, but his hope gives hope to other people. When I know what the big thing means, then changes in the telling aren't a big problem.


Copyright © Doug Lipman

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This page was last updated on Friday, November 28, 2003
Copyright©2003 Doug Lipman