Being a writer is generally a pretty lonely business. I’ve spent thousands of hours bent over a script, revising first drafts, or just staring at the blank page wondering if I should give up and become a programmer instead.
I would spend days agonizing over the right choice of words and sometimes end up just deleting the whole thing. Even when I did write something good there was no knowing if anyone would ever read it. And if they did it would often be years later by which time I’d forgotten all about it.
A Sense of Connection
I came to realize that what I was really missing was a sense of connection to my audience. I needed to share my creativity with them live and conjure up the stories that I wrote word by word, character by character. I remembered how years before I’d told stories to the children on a beach in India, spinning magical tales of dragons and magicians, kissing tribes and men who fell in love with the moon. I wondered if there was some way I could take the step onto the stage and tell these stories to a crowd.
I began to research storytelling and found that there were entertainers for children who span old folk tales, and storytellers for adults who mostly told true stories or performed a mix of humorous and blue material. But the material used by traditional storytellers seemed lifeless and jaded to me, and I had no interest in becoming a stand up comedian.
I wondered whether grown ups be willing to listen to my fairy tales?
Stepping Onto the Stage
I announced a performance in the upstairs room of a small cafe and wondered whether I would get more than 5 people in the audience. I made the event free and published it on a couple of social networks. When I turned up at the cafe, I discovered a small crowd of 30 people waiting. At first I wondered if they had come for some other meeting but no, they assured me, they wanted to hear some stories.
Contrary to the advice given by most storytelling guides online, I gave my characters distinctive voices so that the narratives were interspersed with brief moments of theatre. A sea of curious faces looked over their cups of tea and bottles of beer for me to begin and I wondered whether I was about to fatally embarrass myself. One thing I intuited, however, was that no performance should ever be an apology for itself. I thought of people who were scared they had a bad voice, and how their doubt choked their song.
The moment arrived when the first character in my story spoke and I was immensely relieved at the ripple of laughter that passed around the room at my transformation and I learned perhaps the greatest lesson of performance: when something is beautiful, funny or important to you, then it is for your audience too. If I didn’t believe in my stories how could I ask anyone else to?
The Dance of the Storyteller
After that I gave as many performances as I could in cafes, parks, open stages, even people’s houses. I wrote new stories and took bolder steps dramatically. I was confident in my ability as a writer but without any theatrical training to fall back on I took my lessons directly from the stage. A few helping words from an actor friend took me a long way though:
‘Don’t try so hard,’ he told me, ‘Let the audience come to you.‘
It seemed like a crazy leap of faith. If I didn’t reach out to the crowd and deliver my stories why would they ever listen?
But I took his advice and began to allow moments of silence in the middle of stories. Instantly I could feel the attention of the audience swell. I spoke more quietly and they leaned in to hear. I learned that performance is like a dance between the storyteller and those listening, and on good nights I felt I was almost surfing on the waves of their attention.
I could now consider myself a storyteller as well as a writer but the names didn’t really matter. What counted for me was that I learned how creativity longs to express itself through any channel available.
All I had to do was let it flow.
About the Author
Tom Thumb is a writer and storyteller and his work can be seen on www.tomthumb.org. He also organizes the Festival of Creativity every midsummer in the Czech Republic.
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