Storylistening and the ability to review performance

By Limor Shiponi

This year, my youngest daughter joined the trip to Beyond the Border storytelling festival. She is the youngest of three, almost 18 and her age is the age of my storytelling career. She attended my first six months of training (breastfeeding…), many of my and my colleagues performances, storyteller’s gatherings and lately she decided she wants to give it a try, although this thought has not materialized yet.

She has been listening closely for many years. She’s heard the best, the worst and everything in the middle. She hardly reads books but she listens a lot. She has the wisdom and tolerance of a wise old woman, although in a folktale she would be the youngest sister of three as she is in life. At the same time she can be the usual “speak to the hand not to the face” kind of teenager.

She asked to come and she payed for it. It took her six months to collect the money. We were seven –  six adults, professional storytellers and her. If you are wondering about her motivation – so was I. She never gave up on her plan, even when friends asked her why she would do something like that. She just said “I want to go and see for myself”.

She is not fluent with English but she managed well, with the adult environment too. When we got to the festival she could see she was not the only “kid” her age but she didn’t make friends with others her age really. She was there to listen.

She got her own program, asked a few questions about performers and performances and went off her own way. Sometimes we attended the same shows, sometimes we didn’t. After a day was over she said “I’m managing OK with the English”. After two days were over she said “I’m enjoying myself and enjoying the fact I’m enjoying”. After the festival was over I asked her “well?”

Listening to her reply, I felt astonished. She went through all the performances she attended reviewing them in detail with a language that demonstrated a deep understanding. Although I tend not to mention storyteller’s names when I write or speak about storytelling in public (unless we are in a workshop and I’m speaking about the participants and to them or when I speak in private) this time I choose different. If someone will not like the next part of the post – so help me God, Goddess or whatever…

Details about performance in bold
Her voice in italics
My voice in simple text

Not all performances are reviewed here, just a few demonstrations:

Atinuke, West African tales for children

“She is charming, cute and her accent is cool, like her movements. She knew the story well, I felt it was too well. She took it places which was really nice and funny and she could do all kinds of things with it and with the children. They loved it but sometimes she lost the story’s home, she went too far as if she could go anywhere, so why need a story?

She is full of energy from the first moment and keeps it through the performance. But starting from such a high level of energy does not leave much place for building the drama when it arrives in the story. So for a lot of the time I  felt she was shouting at the top of her voice. It has a large capacity but it also has a limit, like any voice.

The story was clever and good for everybody, not only children, but her performance was really better for children. I’d love to have the opportunity to hear her telling to adults. I’m sure she would produce something else, a different direction.”

Well, I don’t think I have much to add here. Just notice what she was noticing, what she was evaluating and the ability to differentiate performance indicators as well as sense of story, the relationship with the audience, the skills.

Jan Blake & Kouame Sereba, Kirama & Kankejan + The Girl & The Snake

“Wohohow, now THAT’s a woman! she moves like life and she moves everyone with her! the guy is pure sex but she is really amazing. Can we bring her to Israel?

Her stories are strong, penetrating, they are about truth the difficult way although she is fun. She just tells you the story the way it is and it does things in your mind and heart. It makes you ask yourself questions. You can’t stay uninterested. She holds the plot-line in her hand so tight she could have an hour brake and we would be sitting there carrying the part she told us for her until she comes back to continue. You can’t guess what will happen, her stories take turns which are unpredictable. I think that is because she tells folktales and they are not only like life. There are other things in them too, as if someone collected several possibilities into one story. Life isn’t like that really. When things happen, you don’t get so many perspectives.

She feels everybody in the audience, she is in full sync with everyone. She gives energy and she receives it back with no barriers. She is not afraid of the audience and you feel she loves you unconditionally. The power of her voice is amazing, she moderates it with ease, she leads the drama with it and it comes from a deep movement in her body. That movement is about what the characters feel, what she feels about the story, the situation, the act, she is having fun but she doesn’t have the need to be funny, which is something I don’t like about some storytellers.”

If you have never seen Jan, add her to the list of experiences you want to go through before you die. She tells folktales, mainly from West Africa, but there is nothing ‘unsophisticated’ about her performance. It is a primordial experience and at the same time I can sense she is fully aware of what makes up this art.

Ben Haggarty w. Manya Maratou, Gilgamesh

“Powerful. I could hear people saying it is violent and rude. I think it needs to be that way. It is part of the story so the storyteller needs to commit to that. I think I could see he has those parts in him and he took them to the limit. That’s brave and as a listener I thank him for showing me the story full scale. It’s a very big story, bigger than a person. See how many generations of gods you get to meet.

You tell a big story like that, I’ve seen you work on it for a very long time. It’s about finding the way to serve what is really going on through so many generations, people, places, actions, desires, suddenly I understood that. I got curious about where he was taking certain place, will he manage to carry them through. He did. Sometimes he had to put all his body into something bigger than him and he is no small man. He let the story live through him, it didn’t look very convenient, sometimes it looked as if the story could finish him up, but that’s not the point. He found the solutions.

He is in full control of what is going on, although I felt it took him some time to feel comfortable with the audience. Funny, because I’m sure he’s been with an audience thousands of times but at the beginning he seemed a little detached, afraid. Can that happen?”

This review of her’s really amazed me because from my eyes Ben actually copes in this performance with some of the most sophisticated issues in storytelling. Matters of identity, vastness of narrative and time-frame, physical effort, scale of characters and scale within characters. At moments he seemed like the devil’s himself, then he looked like an enchanted, happy, worry-less five years old child. The story is huge and a complicated endeavor. It requires honesty with your ability and there are many issues to cope with, solutions to find, motivations to detect so the story does not sound like pathos, positioning of characters, just name it. It’s a real challenge.

As she said, something in the beginning felt awkward. To me it felt like telling all that part of the narrative could be diminished into a shorter phase so the actual action in the story could begin earlier. Reading it would be one thing, telling – another.

Hugh Lupton & English Acoustics Collective, The Homing Stone

“Obviously the guy speaks great English but I didn’t get all his words. At the same time, that didn’t bother my experience really. I’m just a little sorry because I’m sure that if I could get it all I would enjoy even deeper. He tells beautifully. He masters the words that come out of his mouth. He decides what will happen to each and every one of them. He weighs them carefully and with full awareness of their power. He can physically touch you with a word, he knows how to do that trick.

The story was moving. I know it was made out of all kinds of materials. it’s not a folktale but it felt like one in a way. He spoke about people he knew I think but at the same time it sounded like many people, many years ago, many lives, many loves and fears. The story is thick and beautiful. The music was just the right one, it was lovely and clever. It touched the story exactly in those places you would say thay are beyond words. Lovely performance.”

If I was to crown a performance as my favorite for this festival, this was the one. Hugh combined various materials including poetry to sound like a plainchant but there was nothing plain about it. I couldn’t stop crying once I started, it was so moving and beautiful. The deep sense of story form managed to carry it all with ease, the music was intelligent and beautiful and the story crafted with such care it was fragile and dense at the same time. The English? well, I was not surprised about her remark. Hugh always sounds as if he swallowed the lovelier part of the Thesaurus. Something I can say about Ben too.

Daniel Mordan, Oli Wilson Dickson, Dylan Fowler, Sleeping Beauty & Alcestis

“This guy understands how to make a picture with words. He places the right selection of words for me to see the picture, and not even one more. He’s work is clean, tight, he has a sharp mind and view of the events in the story, but he is not ice-cold. He can heat-up like a red flower in the sun and it takes him a second to get there through the real path of feeling it happen, feeling the change inside himself.

He connected the stories beautifully. He had that repetitive sentence which was so clever and a beautiful choice, passionate and still at the same time. It gives me shivers to remember it, painful and full of beauty. Connecting those stories makes many reflections and it seems he thought about all of them, but he doesn’t tell you that. He let’s you find those you need.

The music combines in as if it is speaking with the story. There were some points I would move a bar away or add one but it’s really lovely and the violin player is really good looking.”

Daniel’s work is clever and full of beauty. The combination of the three stories he told (Demeter and Persephone were also included) was wise, connected from a deeper core of relevance to each other. He combines with music in a way that turns the entire performance into a single musical piece, adhering to musical syntax which is always very well received.


So now I’m asking you – is it really true that storytelling cannot be reviewed or evaluated with it’s own relevant tools?


19 thoughts on “Storylistening and the ability to review performance”

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  2. What an utterly astonishing and perceptive series of “reviews”! Your daughter really sees storytelling from both the teller’s and the audience’s perspectives — as good tellers themselves do. I can hardly wait to hear her as she develops her own style and repertoire.

    I wish more of us would share these kinds of comments about each other’s work.

    1. Hi Jo,
      I too feel she sees from both sides which really makes me curious. She’s been learning something through all these years of listening and observing. She can give it a language – I chose not to refine it into accurate definitions but her’s are already workable in many ways. For me it was another indication this is possible.

      Suddenly I realize, after reading your comment about sharing comments about each other’s work, that this kind of sharing is necessary. Talking “in general” is not good enough, we need to be more specific.

      1. What a great reviewer with her own vernacular for reviewing. I agree that it would be a great development tool if we could critique each other’s work that way rather than “just” be supportive and encouraging. “Out of the mouth of babes”.

  3. Loved reading both your daughter’s and your reviews.
    Yes, the language is there to review story crafting and performance skills. And it does not have to be unkind — an honest review of essential elements that make for a program worth attending. What you and your daughter speak of, that is art. Your reviews speak to being professional in working at your art.
    Showing up on time? Staying within time limits? Those are good manners.
    Words, imagery, feeling, audience connection …. art …. reviewable art.
    Thanks for posting.

  4. Limor and her daughter (name)
    What a rich read! I truly believe that listening is a form of telling. The new U.S. standards of english language are discussing the word “writing” as limited. They are now using the word composing. Although you stated that your daughter is only now beginning telling, she clearly has been composing for a long time.
    Your daughter composed sharp inquiry that storytellers and story listeners need to hear. This is a strong argument for the vital connection between teller and listener.
    I appreciate her youthful energy and sharp discerning observation and analysis. It is raw and alive! Please thank her for it.
    I have learned so much from people her age. This is a reminder.
    I wish her well on her storytelling journey.
    all the best,
    Plus, having a storytelling mom helps build more of that connection. I hope that we continue to learn the value of story in our families and schools.

  5. Wow! I can find no words to describe my reaction to this beautiful column. This young woman understands the storytelling world better than most “tellers” of many years. Kudos to her (and to you.)

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  7. I’ve just woke-up to see all your interesting and lovely comments. There is a lot of food for thought here.

    I think I’ll show her all this and see what she has to say. I as usual have a lot to say but it feels I should speak-mum right now.

    Thank you all, will be back.

  8. Limor both you and your daughter have done a great service to the art.
    These reviews show the world that structure and an understanding of Story Performance can translate the oral form into a written review.
    If reviews such as these are published in main stream media then those who misunderstand our art-form may finally think of us as more than just readers to children!

    Thank you

  9. Dear Limor and daughter

    I think this informs the argument that storytelling does not seem to have a critical language by which to measure itself. Unlike Theatre or Music or Dance, storytelling is not reviewed publicly and the different levels of telling make it difficult to draw comparisons.

    Your daughter’s reviews obliterate this difficulty because the very nature of storytelling is difference. However there are basic pillars that we all must stick to…
    are you telling the story?
    Are you inhabiting the story?
    How far does your magic reach?
    Do you lose us?
    What do we gain as audience? and so on.

    Criticism is relative to each telling and each teller, but there is a language there, should we chose to uncover it.
    Perhaps it is a language closer to the experience of life. To say that Daniel is not ice cold but can sometimes heat up like a red flower clearly tells of Daniel’s style and competence. As well as his emotional fluency and relationship to his audience.

    With Ben she said “Sometimes he had to put all his body into something bigger than him and he is no small man. He let the story live through him, it didn’t look very convenient, sometimes it looked as if the story could finish him up, but that’s not the point. He found the solutions.” It is as if she is describing a great fight, and this sums up Gilgamesh.

    Thank you to you both, and Limor as always for stimulating such conversations…now is the time!

    go n’eiri libh

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  11. sorry I’m so late to discovering this amazing post!!!
    what a treasure of perception and heart! I think the greatest thing she’s offering is the experience of a listener with the brilliant analysis of what they’re doing. a deep understanding of story.
    this is the first time I’ve ever encountered a real meaningful critique of storytelling. usually critics describe the story they heard and then say something general about “spell-binding”. We need this kind of specific heart-mind feedback. Thank you both!!! Limor, thank you for raising a true story listener!!!

    1. Never too late and thanks for visiting and commenting 🙂 Yep, the “spell-binding” part is nice but I feel we need more tangible language.

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