This lovely blog post by my friend the storyteller Wendy Shearer reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write about some of my worst storytelling gigs ever.
I realised a long time ago that you learn very little from the good gigs. All the really useful lessons seem to come from the moments when things go wrong! So here’s my gift to you: a list of the worst things that have happened to me and what I learned.
1. Forgetting the story.
The amount of rehearsal and practice I do, you’d think it would be impossible to forget the damned story but it has happened three times.
Each time it was, obviously, a long story with important fiddly bits. As a storyteller you don’t use the written word so going blank is a real possibility. It always happens when something unexpectedly distracts me. For example, a few years ago I was telling at a high-profile event for doctors at a big university. We had a break for them to discuss a point before the next part of the story. I watched them chatting and was overwhelmed with relief that the first part had gone so well and excitement about the interesting points they were making … and that was when I forgot what happened next. (Thank GOODNESS my sister was there – I’d done a rehearsal for her last week and she was able to remind me.)
Lesson Learned: This hasn’t happened to me for a few years but now if I have a complex story to tell I hide a paper crib sheet in my pocket. I’ve never had to use it but just knowing it’s there makes me feel safe!
2. Unsafe space
Many years ago I was commissioned by a well known organisation to run a storytelling event in a shipping container for some ‘difficult’ kids in the local community.
It started off fine. Taken in pairs or singly the kids were delightful, but as more and more crammed into the shipping container with no parents or adult-in-charge around, the chaos just erupted. The commissioner looked on helplessly and kids realised instantly that we had no sanction if they disobeyed us. They started to get aggressive and refused to do anything we asked. It was not a safe space.
Lesson Learned: Ever since then, I have insisted that at least some responsible people (usually parents or teachers) are in any session that I run… and that there is a clear set of sanctions available if kids won’t participate. I make absolutely sure that we have the ability to keep the storytelling space safe. This is especially important with vulnerable kids or adults. In particular I never make the mistake of assuming that just because a company has a “big name” that they have all the bases covered.
3. No audience
Having no audience whatsoever can happen for a number of reasons. The event might be much too expensive, it might be in a dark cellar on a glorious sunny day or it might have been promoted badly. It can also happen if the storytelling space is difficult to find (e.g. at the end of a long set of stairs and corridors)
It can be pretty disappointing for the storyteller and the client.
Lesson learned: If the audience is outside in the sunshine, I have various methods of making noise and attracting them and gathering them up for the session. But sometimes they are in the middle of their day and simply don’t want to sit and listen for 30 minutes! In that case I might alter my material to “walkabout”- including lots of tiny stories and little games which they can participate in for a minute or so. BUT ALSO now I always consult with the client first, offering my experience to help them design a storytelling event which will work for their needs including price, location, duration and subject for stories!
That leads me onto the tricky subject of selecting exactly the right story for the event- but that’s another blog post I think...
(Below, storytelling for Hunter Boots store in Regents Street- a resounding success!)