Thoughts about the current state of storytelling | Dec. 2010

By Limor Shiponi

Through the past decade I’ve seen major shifts happening concerning storytelling perception in parallel with the never stopping deep heartbeat of the art & craft. The sad ‘Eureka!’ moment arrived this week while visiting the Tel-Aviv museum with my art instructor and fellow students.

I’ve been a musician for almost my entire life and a storyteller for close to a half. Last year I’ve decided to start learning art and especially sketching. Sketching is not always favored these days by artists who are too often happy to slip-away from its disciplined demanding diligence; a phenomena known to other arts too which in a way pushes artists into the greedy arms of art-politics, the entertainment industry and populist behavior, lost from the art itself after a rather short while. Right now anything goes and where artistic considerations are no longer practiced, other forces take over. Art is turning into consumer goods.

So it happened that as I sat in the lobby waiting for the other students to arrive I saw a couple of young musicians coming in. They were light and easy going, happy to be greeted warmly by the receptionist doing her best to brush away any procedural nuisance. I could feel something bubbling inside, a sense needing words. As a musician the scene seemed nice and normal, but not as a storyteller.

They were artists, coming to play an evening concert at the Tel-Aviv museum – a respectable residence for chamber ensembles. I’ve appeared there as a musician and even once as a storyteller – the only storyteller ever to appear in this middle-of-the-Israeli-artistic-consensus home. I was supposed to suddenly be rather proud of myself but then the memory of that event stabilized in my imagination and with it a bitter load:

It was an amazing production and I’m saying that being my own toughest self-critique. They wanted a concert for the children series and thought about combining it with me as a performing storyteller since they figured the theme “faeries and other woodland creatures” would be easy to market. It was, the hall was full through all eight performances.

I chose two old Irish fairy tales and combined them to create the frame for the story. I chose the music – classical, moving between eras to find the best scribed moments written by musical geniuses to create a whole arch that would sound like one coherent piece with the story. I cautiously went through the music snipping it so I could weave it perfectly with the tales and realized I need an inner voice for the heroine – solved by inviting in an opera singer to sing three Mozart arias I’ve given words in Hebrew. They asked me to find a place for a group of young ballerinas “so the kids will see children doing art” – I found a respectable role for them too and they were gorgeous and well prepared. Their teacher – an elderly woman who knew a thing or two about real art – realized I was serious about what I was trying to do and walked in with full intention. It was dense and in order to amplify the density I added a lighting expert and the piece was there – well orchestrated between many who realized something special was going on.

But, and stories need a ‘but’, the conductor and artistic director were not happy. They wanted the end of the tale to be “good”. Well, people who visit fairy lands have to pay a price… in this case it was not that high but it was not a sweet ending. There was a lot of ego involved on their behalf but on the other hand the cashier was smiling. Canceling was not possible at this point. They were not even considering the possibility the children in the audience will go with it as is. I changed a little – at least in a way they would think I did what they demanded. The day came and I saw the pamphlet given to the audience stating “Limor Shiponi, actress”. Too late…

The concerts were magical. The children were in a state of close listening, fully engaged, following the events of the story and sounds when music took the lead. They were between 3-8, listening to an opera singer with total devotion. The musicians came up later to tell me they have never seen the kids sit like that through a concert and a leading musician sitting in the audience arrived back stage to ask me who wrote Hebrew words to Mozart with such grace – a task considered impossible. Long after, I still met parents who where there with their children and wanted to tell me how moved they were witnessing their children in such a state.

Nothing ever came from the orchestra’s management though. Not even a single word. The last performance took place in a different city where I was confronted by a stage manager I’ve never met who came up and shouted at me, “listen lady, you better go out there and be way more theatrical than you’ve been in Tel-Aviv. I’ve seen a performance and its shit! You’re not doing enough for the money they are paying you! Here you will not get away with that!”

So there I was sitting in the lobby with all these thoughts coming up while my classmates were slowly coming in. The tour started and we navigated several exhibitions. I was observing and listening but my guts were burning from inside. All these people who dress-up so well to come to the museum, later on to come to the concert – where is storytelling in all this? On the other hand an antagonist thought appeared – is this entire storm about recognition? Yes? No? Other? If it is – is wanting recognition connected to art or to a human need? But just a minute! Art is a human need too… you can imagine the inner turmoil, I hope.


Conceptual art: Storytelling is conceptual art but it has no matter. Therefore it cannot be owned; a difficult musing at the end of 2010 when matter is all that matters for so many people.  Do other art forms have that “problem”? Well, visual arts don’t, what about music? Music is total abstract but people found a way to bring matter in – expensive instruments for one, phenomenal skill, recordings, original manuscripts.

Musicians found a way to slip ownership and matter through skill, documentation, craft and manufacturing technology elevated to art. Clever… authors own their texts, matter solved. What about dancers? They too suffer some disrespect although their position has improved noticeably lately. High skill, short career in most cases, eventually a way was found connecting riches to beauty, aesthetics and ‘persona’.

If you wish to travel down this road in storytelling you’ll find recordings, printed texts elevated to a sacred state (stories), technological tools – a highly sought ‘evolution’ of storytelling instruments to take over the place of the primitive human storytelling-tool and with them the need for high skill – in technology.

The fact is no storyteller is paid thousands of dollars for a performance. I wonder why and assume that if we aren’t it is because storytelling skill and interpretation are not highly evaluated if at all understood. Another reason could be the fact storytelling is not scalable which is not good for business ‘matter’.

Figurative art: Storytelling is also figurative art but it treats objects in a very different way than painting, sculpturing, photography or video-art. It’s not an observer trying to tap into the interpretation of an existing recognized object. In storytelling it’s about tapping into the context and actions around an object never totally agreed upon. The pictures become vivid in the listeners’ imagination yet the absence of matter prevents the possibility of comparison which becomes totally irrelevant; who cares if the king I see in my imagination is the same as the one you see? In storytelling we are interpreting something totally different. That’s the reason cinema is not storytelling either, neither is theater. The appreciation of the art is in a very different place and the way I see it right now, most people don’t know what that place is. What would be a nude model in storytelling?

Megalomania vs. sublimation in art: “I’m standing on the shoulders of giants, connecting to the chain” says one of the artists we are observing. I don’t see that as pretension but as a realization that you connect to what has happened before with people who took a close choice. You can’t live un-connected and you connect to some kind of essence not to every tiny detail. Everything sprouts from something that existed before; blood is not water even if you don’t like your blood.

‘Words create reality’ will say many. Yes, but words in reasonable proximity to a possible truth, a reachable change, even a surprise but not spilling the entire pot with an instant make-over. Storytelling changes very little at a time, trickling clear water into the old, diluting the viscous material very gently.

Through the past decade the word ‘storytelling’ became as-if not good enough and is married with things like “the most powerful influence device” “senior storytelling executive” “radical” “reinvention” “the ultimate weapon” “hypnotic marketing””all” “top” “the first” “powerful”. Megalomania or a fear of diminution? What is working here? Storytelling is sublime and humble, nothing of the above and very well settles for “just” storytelling.

Symbolization in art: when does sign turn into symbol? When does narrative turn to metaphor? When does story-activity turn storytelling? Storytelling acquisition has become a business trade but to tell you my truth – all that stuff is in sign-state, not storytelling, coming from industrial minds, technicians stating daily storytelling is a tool for X, a device, something you can buy and put in your toolbox, implement.

Combine this trend with seeking scientific proof about the effectiveness of storytelling and you start believing that understanding storytelling is a technology problem that can be answered only by scientists and engineers. I’m not sure this is happening to any other art.

Authority in art: I can hear it coming “… says who?” well, says a storyteller from the oral kind, a person who actually meets people and tells them stories because they want to listen, they want to know a little bit more about ‘us’. Not a CEO, a consultant or a marketer, not a scientist or a screenplay writer, nor author or organizational professional something, digital editor, photographer, psychologist, folklorist or game designer, not even (God forbid) an academic of any kind other than art theorists. Storyteller – artists, that’s says who when it comes to storytelling. What I’m trying to reflect upon is the answer to why do so few of the above consider working with a storyteller when doing something around storytelling.

The researcher returned to his people, craving to hear about the Amazon. But how could he even start putting to words the emotions that overrun him when he saw exotic flowers and heard the night-calls of the jungle, when he sensed the danger of being in close proximity to predators or when he rowed his canoe over treacherous waters?

He said, “Go and experience for yourself”.

In order to guide them he sketched a map of the river. They fell upon the map, framed it and hang it in the city hall, they made copies of it and anyone who owned a copy thought himself a river-expert. Why, did they not know every twist and curve, its immense width, the currents and waterfalls?

Materials of art: line, shape, stain. Sketch, composition, color. Sound, gesture, word. Idea, relationship, conversation, all in real presence and time. None of the other things calling them-selves storytelling uses all the materials of the art in real presence and time. People seem not to understand the importance of the physical elements in storytelling. Being actually there carries a whole set of responsibilities absent in other constellations. In the same way they don’t realize an important component that creates ‘The magic’ lies in the physical domain – irreplaceable to the point.

The great masters: who are they in storytelling? Never documented in museums or encyclopedias unless someone wrote something about them, recorded them. What about those who lived long before scribes and tape-recorders appeared? Stories about them are still told among storytellers. Every storyteller that dies is sent into the ocean of souls with prayers and stories that will help his story join the bigger stories about those who walked this path. We have our great masters, we need to keep their stories going, tell about them, tell the stories they told. They would be happy to know we are doing that.

Naïve art: being in your moment – storytelling is being in your moment. You can’t capture storytelling through content-management systems and when you replay the documentation it is not storytelling that you get. It loses the naïve feeling that rise in storyteller, listener and story when a story is told, it loses some of its goodness.

Decorative art: People like it – the skill, the discipline, patience, pace, devotion. There is plenty of decorative storytelling lately. You know what? I’m not against it if it’s art. I can tell by zooming-in on a fragment. If I can hear intention, charging, common-sense, a valid argument coming from the storyteller in any tiny fragment of a decorative performance – I’ll call it art.

Intimacy vs. industry: “it’s like making love in front of an audience”. Storytelling trainers hear that phrase once in a while from their students. This indicates the student has reached the realization storytelling is very intimate. But then you have people calling themselves storytellers from an “industry” often connected to “entertainment” drifting away from culture and pulling storytelling over in that direction too.

Minimalist art: storytelling is minimalist art in its essence, a little which holds a lot. Everything is known before the composition unravels, rich embroidery of questions, nuances, complexities, even the as-if unclear passages containing plenty of processing.

Storytelling is about sustainability – this way and the opposite living in the same place; a non-casual dynamic paradox in the making, the reflection of ‘us’.

I took the past decade to walk into other domains. I took it seriously, learned the cultures and languages of very different mindsets. After participating in all those other fields and with no intention to stop, I realize the most important thing to do as a storyteller is more magnificent art and helping others get there.

5 thoughts on “Thoughts about the current state of storytelling | Dec. 2010”

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  3. All I could think of as I read your musings on storytelling is the ephemeral, yet eternal nature of flowers. A flower is ephemeral, yet prepares itself to sustain its kind that will produce other flowers like itself. And so, it is both ephemeral and eternal. A silk flower is beautiful, but it lacks the eternal. Only the real, living flower can be both at the same moment. Storytelling, as you say, is about the moment and the future. Well done, Limor.

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