Telling long stories

In preparation for telling Tristan and Iseult for the first time in years, today I made a crib sheet. I won't use it in performance but will glance at it before I go onstage tomorrow night. I'm amused that I can fit this 95-minute story on a 3.5 inches (9 cm) square piece of paper. The paperback underneath the crib sheet is my favorite version.

People often ask how I can remember such a long story and tell it with few stumbles. 

First, I love the story. Without that, the performance would be awful. Loving the story is only the first step. Yes, I do practice. Here are some other ways I wade in neck-deep:

  • I tell about it, talk around it.
  • I imagine each character in turn, considering what they look like, how they stand and move, the expressions that cross their faces when nobody is looking.
  • I look for real people in my life on whom to base the characters. 
  • I read and reread the source material, looking for variants online and in books. I look for writings about the piece. 
  • I get to know the settings and make sure I'm clear about the sequence of action
  • I play with the story, telling bits of it in an accent or singing it.
  • I tell it to myself as I swim laps and as I walk, to get the rhythm into my body. Sometimes I bounce a ball rhythmically as I tell it.
  • I break it into smaller pieces and choose a spot in the middle or near the end to practice, so I don't get stuck at the same point every time. 
  • I consider what Doug Lipman calls the MIT, the Most Important Thing (since the last time I told this tale, my life has changed and so has the MIT for me).
  • I tell portions to myself as I'm falling asleep and then dream about it. 

When I perform, I watch the images in my head and tell them, not the words. It's not a new piece for me, but I haven't told the whole story since 2009. In all, I've probably told Tristan and Iseult fifteen times. I know it not by heart, as I don't memorize word-for-word, but in my heart.