Storytelling live-ish

Imagine this: students in five schools in different parts of the world listening to one storyteller (me) in their own classrooms, and asking the storyteller questions via chat. I'm in my studio (otherwise known as my dining room). The stories are tailored to the audience. The schools pay a fraction of the price of a regular storytelling performance, with none of the travel fees. They can use smartboards, projectors or individual screens. The teacher clicks a link and they're in the session. 

Over the last ten months, I've been testing live online storytelling events using the Zoom platform. From the comfort of home, I tell stories to listeners wherever in the world they are. Here's my setup:

Online storytelling setup

The first try was a short puppet workshop for a group of teachers in Brazil. The next was a presentation for a middle school in Texas, with a goal of bringing kids into an existing storytelling troupe. Then I told stories to two homeschooling families (full disclosure, they were already fans). Today I had two middle schools, one in Florida and one in Tennessee. The school in Tennessee had me in multiple classrooms at once. (Thanks to Mariana, Sue, Melanie, Kelly, Tom, Elizabeth and all the other teachers for being my testers.)

Here are a few things I've learned in the guinea pig sessions

  • Make sure the cat is outside before beginning. He is charming, but a distraction.
  • Mute the audience during the stories, or there will be a lot of extraneous noise (chairs scraping, the intercom, etc.)
  • Use a wired connection, not wireless, for the strongest possible signal.
  • Put a "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door.
  • Don't use a lot of fast hand gestures. Movement on a screen can get blurred. 
  • Dim the brightness of the laptop screen for less glare on eyeglasses.
  • Plan for extra time for questions, since it requires using the chat window.

I still prefer telling stories in person, but this is a great way to get more stories and workshops out into the world.

I'm ready to go live, er, live-ish. Soon look for pricing on my website for full performances, workshops and "story snacks" (5-10 minute mini sessions).

Have questions? E-mail me or put a comment below. 

Skype-telling

It worked! Last year I wrote about considering telling stories remotely, using Skype. I once did a puppet workshop for a classroom on Skype and didn't like it much. I couldn't see the kids very well. I've also coached storytellers on Skype, which is much better. My friend Carol asked me (again) if I would tell stories to her niece and nephew who live in Massachusetts. Carol lives abroad and has introduced the children to me via CDs.

Yesterday, I met the children not in person, but through our computers. I spent about 35-45 minutes with them, telling five stories and one song, with three puppets. Rachel (age 5) and Gabriel (age 7) were excellent listeners. They—through their mother—sent me an e-mail afterwards saying, "I liked skyping with you and I would like you to do it again sometime :) It was fun! The baby was hilarious. Please bring out the puppets again" and "It was really fun skyping and I hope to do it again soon. The baby was funny! Next time, please bring the puppets again."

Here are some thoughts on the experience:

I spent time setting up the environment. First, I moved from my office, which has blood-red walls, to the dining room. I set myself up with the neutral backdrop of the curtains on the puppet room. I wore a green sweater and turtleneck that contrasted with the curtains as well as with the puppets.

 

It was a sunny day, so I closed the blinds and turned on the overhead light to avoid my face having a vampiric shade. In order to minimize the number of chins I appear to have when the camera looks up at me, I raised the laptop, using thick books.

 

A few days before the call, I tested the setup with my sister. The day before, I made sure I had added Carol and her sister to my contact list. I didn't want to be messing around with that on the day. I subscribed to Skype Premium so I can have more than one other video up on the screen during a call. On the day itself, I turned off all other computer programs and shut down some of the services running in the background. 

Because I wanted to introduce the children to a few of my puppets, I had the puppets out of their bag and ready on the table. I also had a glass of water. I should have put the cat outside, but alas, I had to do that in the middle of the session. Nobody seemed to mind. 

Unlike real life, the kids could only see my head and a bit of my upper body. I made gestures higher than I normally would, so my hands would be in the frame. I also slowed the gestures down, as going too fast makes the image blurry. 

I was worried about the connection. On Christmas day, my family tried a five-way Skype call and found it frustrating. The audio was garbled and the video didn't work for one brother. Fortunately, the Skype-telling on Friday was clear, with only a few odd voice distortions from time to time. The video was good for the kids and mostly for Carol, but the video of the kids that I saw froze for about the last ten minutes of the 35-minute call. 

I wonder if Google+ Hangouts would be better. My sister and I played with that after the Skype call on Christmas. The video was so-so, but the sound was better. 

What do I charge for this Skype-telling, you ask? It's for families, not for birthday parties or for schools, and I'm offering it at a low introductory price of $30 for half an hour. Feel free to spread this around—I'd love to do more of it!

Comments? Questions?