"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

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