Bringing old stories to light

[This blog post was first published on the National Storytelling Network blog in May 2014]

What is that? See it, down there, under ages of dust and grime, just a glint of gold? Pick it up, use your shirttail to wipe it off. Wow! What a marvel! Needs a bit of cleaning, polishing, maybe a small repair or two, but it’s all there, a new story from the depths of tradition.

I’ve found great satisfaction in bringing old stories to light, specifically (though not limited to) long-form traditional stories. I started with Tristan and Iseult, not a terribly obscure story but one that is rarely told. In a remainder bin at a bookstore, I’d found a paperback edition by Joseph Bédier. One day while casting about in my office for a new story to tell, I picked it up and read it in one gulp.

Despite an archaic quality to the written language, I fell in love with this epic tale of good luck, bad choices, giants, dragons, fools, betrayal and of course, Romance. Call me fickle, but I later fell in love with another Medieval tale, Queen Berta and King Pippin, and now have a dalliance with Amleth, better known to audiences since the 1590s as Hamlet.

Falling in love with the story, though, is only the first step. From there, we have to go farther, to create a story worth telling and worth hearing. Long-form traditional stories, generally at least an hour long and sometimes much longer, can be a rewarding challenge.

How do you tackle a long traditional story? What are the cultural considerations? How do you craft the language for modern audiences without jarring them or boring them? What do you do with conflicting versions? How do you practice the story? How do you break the work into manageable bits? How do you find the stamina for the performance? Where are the venues for stories like this? Will people really listen? What works? Those are questions we’ll consider in my workshop this summer at the National Storytelling Network Conference in Phoenix, Bringing Old Tales to Light: Long-Form Traditional Stories.

Many years ago, Liz Warren, Olga Loya and I started Going Deep, the long traditional storytelling retreat, because we wanted to tell long-form stories and play with the questions they raise. We found many storytellers who yearned to tell and hear this kind of deep story, but didn’t know where to start. We found storytellers who already tell long traditional tales and wanted a place to perform them and to talk about the process. We can’t cram an entire retreat into a workshop session, but we can at least catch a glimpse of that gold under the dust and grime. Hope to see you in Arizona!

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.