Using the word theater to sell storytelling

By Limor Shiponi

Eric James Wolf asked “If theater uses the word storytelling to sell really good theatrical performances… are you comfortable using the word theater to sell really good storytelling?” Let’s look at some of the answers he received. I’m grouping them by nature without directly quoting anyone:

Definitions are not important/ definitions are not important – reaching the required outcome is.

Yes, we are all believers aren’t we, what does it matter if I’m Jewish, you’re Muslim and he’s Christian, hey? We could switch anytime we want because definitions are not important! Aha…

Taking the more practical approach: this is what enables anyone in the last two years, especially if they are trying to market, sell, push, tempt or differentiate from competition, call what they are doing “storytelling” including iPad apps. Are you comfortable with being in the same pool with apps?

From my humble experience, definitions are highly important – both to speaker and listener. The first questions people ask when they meet are about collecting info that will help them define who they are talking to. They need that info for various reasons; most of them connected to deep behavioral mechanisms. We seek definitions by nature and if we don’t have them we are confused and too vulnerable.

Storytelling is a form of theatre/ theatre is a form of storytelling.

In this case, I wouldn’t go to Wikipedia for definitions because at least the storytelling page is wrong. I can’t say anything about the theatre page since I’m not part of that discipline. Yet by the means of simple logic I do know several things:

If they were not different things they wouldn’t have been given different names and those names were given many years ago when the previous phenomena (everybody into the pool) did not exist.

Homer wasn’t an actor. The definition “singer of tales” is proper when you check exactly what it is that he was doing. We also know that these people used a combined technique of singing, chanting and speaking – which exists until today in the west under the names Sprechgesang and Sprechstimme (spoken-song, spoken-voice). Other cultures have other names for it.

Trying to keep this ASAP (S for short) I don’t think many storytellers ever tried to track back the origins of even better the cause that gave birth to this form of expression. Maybe it is about time. That will also help reveal the borders of storytelling and stop the wild inflating process we are observing.

I have a simple rule of thumb for deciding what is the core and what is an application – the core is defined in a single word: theatre, dance, storytelling, art, music, photography.

Storytelling can be defined by what it does mechanically/by skill

So you get things like performance, art of the spoken word, theatre of imagination, speech art, one person show, narrative art, etc. What these names do is something very simple – they tap into what people already know, trying to bridge what they don’t know or understand fully – storytelling. They also have a certain charm to them which derives its power from the unique blend of words that creates possibilities, opening the known to new horizons.

The thing is that the more you go in this direction the more you draw away from the day people will know what storytelling really means until the day the word will disappear together with the discipline just like dying languages under the burden of globalization.

Look at Eric’s original question; it is about “to sell”.

Eric is spotting out a well known problem: storytelling does not sell as well as other art forms, especially theatre and cinema. It seems people will buy anything the latter two will offer even if it’s a total disaster and still, will not buy storytelling. On the other hand there are storytellers who fill halls but they are not many, some of them not necessarily storytellers.

I think it takes some real honesty and bravery to try and figure out why things are the way they are. Part of it has to do with the “feel good” culture the west is running after and if you’ll talk to theater producers they will complain about not being able to schedule only fine repertoire. Populist seems to rule. But part of the inquiry has to turn inwards, into the storytelling community and as long as people are afraid they will be hurt from such an undertaking, it will not happen – which harms the entire field.

This issue comes up once in a while and after the first round of “feel good and be nice” the silence that follows sounds like muteness. So word-crafters and masters of the spoken word, shall we start talking?  

10 thoughts on “Using the word theater to sell storytelling”

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  2. Very interesting! The problem from my very narrow perspective, is not theatre. At the University where I work partly, storytelling/oral tradition is a part of the bachelor in drama and theatre. We use quite a lot of work on discussing the difference between the identity of the storyteller and the identity of the actor, and their communication with the audience/listener. The style of storytelling in Norway, can for an unknown listener be close to an actor’s way of performing, except that the storyteller does not fully engage into a role. BUT the traditional storyteller, documented in from the middle of 1800, was moving, dancing, ”miming” etc. I am saying this, because some claims that it is not storytelling ”if your body is enganged” in the storytelling. As soon as you start moving ”on the stage” (to use a expression from the theatre), you might be claimed to not being a storyteller. Nor must we not forget that a lot of storytellers actually are trained as actors or are coming from the theatre.
    My main problem is the word ”storytelling” itself. ”Storytelling” is so diluted that it has no clear meaning. It can mean anything from being an author to a organizational structure where the conversation is the main tool. And usually the ”aesthetics of the performance” is neglected. Not seldom do you see storytelling as: a person having a speech in a microphone using power point.
    Now, speaking of epic poetry, many storytellers themselves use the ”Aristotele dramaturgy” to structure a story, meaning the dramaturgy he used to describe the tragedy. Even though Aristotele himself clearly makes a distinction between epic poetry and tragedy/comedy.
    Personally I never use theatre to describe what I am doing.
    You write:
    ”I have a simple rule of thumb for deciding what is the core and what is an application – the core is defined in a single word: theatre, dance, storytelling, art, music, photography.” – I ask are they not all art forms?
    Interesting topic, always.
    With best greetings from Heidi Dahlsveen.

    1. Hi Heidi, happy to see you here – welcome.

      In storytelling the body is fully engaged even if you don’t move your little finger. The body is a physical channel for the story, the body comes with the listener too and it comes with the story – although this is a more abstract idea to capture. If humans are involved, the physical and the mortal are involved and this understanding has implications unique to storytelling for instance – you cannot afford to harm or be harmed; the level of mutual responsibility is very high.

      As to myself what storytelling means is very clear – you can see my definition on the sidebar for the short version and find the deeper explanations all over this blog. Yet I agree that for most people it is not. One of the main reasons for that is the perspective they start from and the time the storytelling revival appeared in the world. By then, most linguistic disciplines have already turned into fully developed areas of knowledge backed with methodologies and academic studies and research. A third year theater student is treated with more acknowledgement than the best storytellers alive. Not complaining but to myself and to the storytelling community – it’s our responsibility to change the situation if we truly believe in our art.

      As to the definition “art” I agree with you – all those disciplines are called “the arts”. In the classical single form the word art usually refers to “fine arts” or “visual arts” i.e. sketching, painting & sculpturing.


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  4. When I tell stories, I don’t call what I do theatre. But– I will often choose to perform in a theater or a theatrical venue such as a theatre festival. I do this based on two assumptions: 1) that the audience who chooses to attend live theatre is much greater than the audience who chooses to attend live storytelling events; and 2) this theatre audience would likely enjoy a storytelling event. So while I would not use the word “theatre” to sell storytelling, I would certainly sell storytelling to a theatre audience.

    1. Well Tim, I don’t think anyone will argue with that. Theater venues widely exist, storytelling venues exist but they are scarce. The larger libraries in Israel have devoted spaces for storytelling – not only a room with a name but an adequately designed space. Beyond that, if it’s a stage setting to a ticket buying audience, the venue will be theatrical. I like looking for special venues like wineries (you get a happy crowd :)), gardens, caves, historical buildings, small cinema spaces, small concert halls etc. the atmosphere that comes with them is away from the mundane.

      And obviously, theaters have marketing systems already working for them. In order not to mislead the theater audience, I work together with their systems and create a special framework that will help the audience realize what they are going to meet and why it’s worth their while.

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