"Year of the Adopted Family" book release

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Gracing the Perfect Stage: Ideal Worth Asking For

Before an audience steps into the place to find their seats, there can be an aura that says to all “this is the right place to be”.

Any sponsor of an event wants their audiences entering the doors with smiles and leaving for home with smiles. Sometimes with the rush of planning, storytellers and sponsors do not get a chance to discuss how to make this magic happen.

When I get a call about a gig, I set up an appointment to see the performance area. Not only does this help me mentally prepare for the concert, but I can also make note of any technical issues that need to be resolved. In no way am I trying to be difficult. Most of the time it seems that a sponsor is grateful to hear what could be done to create the ideal setting.

If for some reason I cannot go to the location to see the stage before performance day, I request that the sponsor email me pictures of the intended area. Suddenly I have a virtual tour so that when I stand on that stage, I feel like I am at home.

One of our responsibilities is to educate sponsors on how to create an ideal environment for storytelling.

Here are things to ask about—whether in-person, by telephone, or through email:

1. Distracting noises

2. Position of the doors and other objects

3. Background busyness

4. Schedule to tell in relation to meals or other entertainment

5. Acoustics of room and need of amplification

6. Room temperature

7. Emcee

Distracting noises
Audience members may not only be hearing the words from your mouth. You may be placed near other entertainment venues that host loud music, megaphones, dance groups, or any number of activities. Hopefully the sponsor places you far enough away to respect the magic that you create through your tellings. It is hard to have a dramatic pause without silence.

If you are telling at a school, there may be intercom announcements or bells that could interrupt your stories. Even libraries are not the quietest places as they may have intercom systems, too. Sometimes it is possible for these places to quiet or even turn these distractions off. All you have to do is ask.

Loud heaters or air conditioners could be a problem. Unless the room temperature needs to be fixed, see if these devices can be turned off for the performance.

Position of doors and other objects
The storyteller needs to face the doors so that the audience is unaware of any latecomers that are likely to arrive.

One time I performed at a library with a raised carpet stage with the entrance to the right of me. Though the architecture deemed the stage as the place for me to set up, it would have been better to place my portable backdrop on the opposite side.

If there are windows, I prefer for the shades to be closed so that my audience focuses on me rather than the outside.

At times, there may be objects in the way such as at East Tennessee State University with national storyteller Jon Spelman. Being a classroom, there was a computer/desk fixture bolted to the raised carpet stage. Originally someone had placed chairs in rows across the whole length of the room. We rearranged the chairs and shifted the center of the stage more to the right. We may have had more space on the left, but it was better to add more rows of shorter length than to cause any audience members to have a poor view of the teller.

Background Busyness
Some of the most colorful places I have performed have been in schools. The teachers work so hard to make their classroom exciting for the students. To tell in such places as a storyteller can be tricky due to the busy backgrounds. There needs to be some type of focal point for the audience.

To solve this riddle, I created a portable backdrop, which consisted of two 6’X6’ panels that came together at roughly a 90 degree angle. Sometimes I hung a sparkling gold-lettered sign of “Storyteller” so that I could hear the oohs and aahs from the audience before I even spoke.

Schedule to tell in relation to meals or other entertainment
One time I was asked to tell stories for a church group while they ate. I was too new a teller to realize how dangerous this request would be with the clinking of the utensils and the volunteers clearing plates. I could see the audience but, for some reason, they needed to look at their food. With storytelling being an interactive art form, this lack of eye contact was frustrating.

To add to the craziness, they had me sit on top of a piano. This was not the most comfortable place to tell stories. Perhaps it was the only way for me to be tall enough for the audience to see me. Now I know to give my sponsors an idea of how much room I would like such as having a 6’ by 10’ area.

You may not have to worry about telling through meal times, but you may be competing with other activities. There was a festival that had two stages—one for music groups and one for storytelling. Sometimes the musicians would go over time and could be heard while one of the teller’s told a touching tale. I tried to tune my ears to only hear the teller and sit on the front row.

If at all possible, have the sponsor be aware of the scheduling conflicts. It may not help for the current gig but may improve future tellings at that event.

Acoustics of room and need of amplification
All attendees need to be able to hear the storyteller. With groups of 25 people or more, some sort of sound system is recommended. The sponsor may need to reserve or rent the equipment so be clear about your request.

One time, for a Halloween party, I was asked to tell stories in the gymnasium. With the high ceilings, already I knew the sound would be lost. I asked for a microphone. The organizer shooed the idea and said I would be fine. To make matters worse, I was not placed on stage and there was no announcement that I would share stories. Some kids gathered around me, but as the adults were not asked to be quiet, I had to compete with their chatter. Suffice it to say, I am now quite firm when it comes to sound systems.

Sometimes it is not about the sound system. Sometimes it is about choosing another room, if available. About a year ago I told at a school that had two options—the gymnasium or the music room. I chose the music room as the students could fit without being cramped while having a more intimate feel.

Room Temperature
Indoor venues can sometimes be as hot or as cold as outdoor venues. Once in a while there may be someone who forgets to put on the air conditioning or the heat. This can be a shock for audience members.

If it had to one of the extremes, I would prefer that the room be too cold than too hot. At least with the cold, the audience would be inspired to sit close to each other rather than leaving empty seats between each family or group. Plus, the coolness keeps one less grumpy and more awake. Of course, if the theme is “bedtime stories” then perhaps warmth is a good idea!

By arriving at least 45 minutes to an hour before performing, you have enough time to adjust the temperature.

The emcee has a direct relationship to a successful show. Their time may be brief on stage, but their presence and excitement are felt.

When I go through my questionnaire with the sponsor, I always ask who will be my emcee. I provide an introduction card that the person paraphrases or reads.

If at all possible, I like for my emcees to stay for the whole performance. At certain places they may be understaffed so I understand if they can only introduce me and then excuse themselves. Even so, I remind them that they need to be there for at least a moment to show the audience that they sponsor this performance.

When I lived in Fresno, I told at a museum along with some storytelling friends. No one from the museum introduced us. We did not even have a normal room to perform; it was in the walking area by the paintings. With no official person to organize the event, my friends and I almost felt like we had to chase down our audience. We still had fun, but the event could have touched more of their patrons if only an emcee was provided.

Having the perfect stage is possible, especially when you share with the sponsor that you want to create the best possible experience for everyone involved.

So smile as you step onto that stage. With the mood set, you are ready to do your best.

Until we tell again,

Rachel Hedman
Professional Storyteller
Co-Chair of Youth, Educators, and Storytellers Alliance
(801) 870-5799

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Losing Your Voice & Finding it for Showtime

Once I was told that my voice would be confiscated. It was said in fun, but the threat is real. The show must still go on for a storyteller.

This tends to be the season that I lose my voice for a day or even a week. Rarely is my voice totally gone, though hoarseness or super-low pitch is common. This is not due to allergies, irritants, sinuses, or acid reflux. The cause: overuse and abuse of the voice.

Sometimes the stories I share involve characters that use raspy, gruff, or high-pitched sounds outside my normal range. My witch and goblin voices are the most taxing on my throat, especially when these two characters make “cameo appearances” in folktales or Halloween stories.

Lessening the thickness of the accent is possible. Every so often I use my witch voice as my narrator voice for 30-minute to even 2 ½-hour sessions. To say that my voice is sore after such strenuous use would be an understatement. I could stop using my witch or goblin voice altogether, but I enjoy these characters too much. However, I have learned that longer gigs means I should let my sponsor know that I could not do my witch voice the whole time as more than 30 minutes could endanger my voice, the key tool for which I make a living as a storyteller.

While at an elementary school, I avoided using 30-minutes nonstop of my witch voice by telling one story as the character followed by a “magic potion” that changed my voice. I took a glass of water and added a red powder (Kool-aid, though it is more fun to say it is ground dragon’s tongue) that turned green when mixed. I fooled around with the audience by having one sip cause a ditsy girl voice, another sip cause an opera voice, and so on until I came to my normal voice. Finally, I completed the rest of the program without straining my voice.

Things to Do—

1. Drink a lot of water

Our bodies are at least 66% composed of water so it is only natural to keep hydrated and soothe the throat. The mouth, throat, vocal chords, and especially the lungs have much higher percentages of water compared to other places in the body. In case the sore throat has bacterial or viral issues, water can clear the germs and remove toxins. You may feel fatigue, dizziness, or fever with your sore throat though water relieves all these symptoms.

2. Warm-up voice

Most people stretch to run a marathon. Telling stories could be considered a marathon for the mouth. Before opening your mouth to talk, breath deep. The more oxygen to the body, the more the blood circulates and heals itself. My favorite is to purposely yawn loudly. If you do it right, you sound like a lion’s roar. Next, you can limber the mouth muscles through chants, tongue twisters, and songs. Even neck rolls and common exercise stretches like “touch your toes” can ultimately affect the voice.

Here are examples—

· Inhale for eight seconds through the nose and exhale for eight seconds out the mouth.

· Smile with exaggeration so that your teeth show. Say “eeeeeeeeeeeee”. Then stick out your lips and say “ooooooooooo”.

· Exaggerate jaw movement when you say, “thaw-daw-thaw-daw-thaw-daw-thaw-daw”.

· Exaggerate lips and jaw when you say, “hoo-hah-hee”.

· Say quickly three times with articulation, “A big black bug bit a big black bear.”

Things to Avoid—

1. Clearing your throat

Be aware of when you clear your throat in the first place. If you do, then you are slamming your vocal folds together in a harmful way. Instead of clearing your throat, take a sip of water or close your mouth and breathe an “h” sound as in “help” followed by a swallow.

2. Speaking in screams or whispers

Any extreme in volume will cause extra strain to your throat muscles. If you are in a loud environment like in an airplane or social gathering, it may be tempting to shout. Do not attempt to overpower the noise above. Perhaps you need to have a microphone or be three feet or closer to whomever you want to address. As for whispers, there are more muscles involved and the more muscles you can rest, the better.

3. Surrounding yourself with irritants

Some gigs may give no choice but to be around irritants such as smoke from a campfire. Attempt to stay away from the smoke’s path. Other high-risk conditions are night, dry, or cold air. Combine all three of those and prepare to feel the consequences. Other irritants could be dust, chemical fumes, or smoke from cigarettes—whether first or second-hand.

4. Talking for long periods of time

For any performance over an hour, discuss with your sponsor the possibilities of breaks for your voice. Five-minute breaks between sessions are better than nothing though 30-minute breaks are ideal. I learned the hard way that 2 ½ hours without breaks is suicide to the vocal chords. My voice was not the same for a week and a half.

After Performance
Things to Do—

1. Drink a lot of water

Especially when you wake up the next day from a performance, your throat will be dry partly because you did not swallow as often asleep than awake. This may seem great because swallowing could be painful with a sore throat, but this also means that you did not create as much saliva to send out more moisture throughout your body.

2. Rest voice and body

Certain healers in your body prefer to work at nighttime. Besides sleep, you may want to think about how often you have “quiet time”. If you like to sing in the shower or talk to yourself in the car (like me), then you may stop these habits until your voice is back to normal.

3. Humidify your room and body

Drinking water is not the only way to get moisture. A hot shower can build up steam for your lungs to enjoy. A humidifier can share the same results. You can even humidify your insides by having the classic chicken soup. If you throw in some garlic in the soup, then you have the added bonus on thinning mucus.

Things to Avoid—

1. Gargling mouthwash, alcohol, or other liquids

Alcohol is a drying agent that reverses the benefits of drinking water. Gargled liquids do not reach your vocal chord area. Rather, your vocal chords will slam together and increase swelling.

2. Drinking or eating caffeine

Besides alcohol, caffeine is a drying agent and takes away the needed moisture to heal. Coffee, some sodas, and chocolate fall in this category.

Home Remedies/Other Options—

1. Lemon Juice/Lemonade

One teaspoon of lemon juice (add little honey if desired) could be slowly sipped once every hour. This concoction takes away the itchiness often felt with sore throats as well as reduces fevers.

2. Honey and Warm Water

You may notice that several home remedies give the option to add honey to the mix. Otherwise, you can simply mix water with about two tablespoons of honey, which soothes the throat and takes the itchiness away. It also reduces fevers, boosts energy, and even fights depression.

3. Ginger

Peel the skin from a ginger root. Slice the root into thin coins and place the ginger in water. Use no more than one ounce of ginger per day. Boil the water and drink (add three tablespoons of honey if desired). This mixture reduces fever, dizziness, and headaches while also recovering your voice.

4. Pomegranate

Boil some pomegranate rinds in water and drink as the rinds have astringents that shrink mucus membranes and allow better breathing. It is bitter to the taste yet effective.

5. Cough Drops or Hard Candy

When you cough, your vocal flaps hit each other at over 70 mph so you can imagine the damage if you do not calm the coughing through medicine or cough drops. Sucking on the cough drops or hard candy creates more saliva, which in turn can thin out mucus and send bacteria-fighting germs throughout your system.

May your voice sound out across the stage.

Sore Throat Health Sources:

Until we tell again,

Rachel Hedman
Professional Storyteller
Co-Chair of Youth, Educators, and Storytellers Alliance
(801) 870-5799