My earliest storytelling was while I was part of a cabaret troupe in the summer after graduating college. I had a solo spot in the nightly shows, and was using my mime background to do some original sketches. With some customers returning several times over the summer, there was incentive to keep coming up with new routines. This presented a challenge and an opportunity to experiment. Before I even knew there was such a thing as storytelling, I hit on the idea of using Kipling’s “Just So Stories” as a vehicle for my mime. In addition to the great word play, the stories lent themselves perfectly to lots of nifty animal characterizations and wonderful action. I chose to memorize the stories verbatim, feeling that it would be sacrilegious to tamper with Kipling’s brilliant prose. Originally, I thought that I might use these stories on nights when there were significant numbers of children in the audience. It became immediately apparent, however, that adults relished these old classics at least as much as the kids. I ended up rotating several of the stories throughout the summer. People were really impressed by all my physical animation and character voices, and frankly, I thought I was hot stuff.
Soon after, I went to an intensive three-week clown workshop led by Bob Berky. I was psyched to show off and strut my stuff to him and to the others. Up until now, I had received only positive strokes from my telling, and I was fully expecting similar raves. Bob was an excellent instructor, but he wasn’t a gentle, sensitive coach like Doug Lipman. Basically, I got slammed and I took it really hard. Yes, I was good at animating the story, but I was told in no uncertain terms, that there was no connection to the audience, that I may as well be up there performing for myself. I don’t know if he used the word masturbatory or not, but that was the harsh gist of it.
I distinctly remember riding the bus back from that workshop, and writing myself a note about the key lesson I had painfully learned. The same asset that I had of being able to “get into” the action of the story was a potential liability. Yes, I was enjoying the story myself and I was a good craftsman, but the art was missing if I wasn’t keying in with the audience and inviting them to enter the story with me. The art and joy of performing is in being aware of the audience and feeling them throughout the telling. In a way, it was good that I had such a poignant lesson so early in my performing career. It’s almost as if I had to start all over, but with a new awareness that I believe has informed my work ever since.
The crux of my story is that it was a critical outside eye that enabled me to have this pivotal breakthrough. What I received was not the feedback that I was expecting, but it was exactly what I needed. Would I have welcomed that critique if I had had a clue as to what was coming? I can’t say for sure about then, but I know what the answer is now. After performing for nearly thirty years, I know how crucial it’ll always be to workshop new pieces and to solicit honest, candid critique.
I use the outside eyes of a small group of colleagues with whom I meet monthly. Judith Black is among them, and over the years, a great bond of respect and trust has developed within the group. We no longer need to pussyfoot with each other. We ask for what we’re looking for when showing our works-in-progress, and we are open to whatever comes back. Granted, when Judith and I coach others with whom we don’t have as much of a history, we are much gentler with our observations. But now if one of us just wants to know what’s not working and where the weak spots are, that’s what we’ll get pointblank. This candor may not be for everyone, but it works for us and makes our process that much more efficient. Sometimes, we find ourselves working on a wobbly “baby” that hasn’t yet found its legs. When that is the case, we are comfortable admitting our vulnerability, which is kindly taken into account when we ask for feedback.
Sometimes you know what you need and can ask for it. Other times you may not have a clue. When you do invite a respected eye for whatever input they are willing to share, you are opening yourself to all kinds of breakthroughs that may have entirely eluded your radar. Take those new bearings and fly with them.