The power of a spoken word

By Limor Shiponi

“I’m ready to tell the text” proclaimed G immediately at the beginning of our session. “Sitting down? standing up? take your pick.” G took a standing position. He told the lament, concentrating on his dramatic choices, trying his very best. After several sentences he stopped, saying “everything got mixed up here,” which was true.

“Care to tell again?” I asked. “Of course,” he replied and took a ‘swing’ at a second attempt. “Just a minute,” I stopped him, “what are you going to do different this time?” G looked stunned. He approached me to take a seat about a meter away. “I need to go through the turning points in the text,” so he did. “But what are you going to do different this time?” I insisted. “I’ll tell sitting down,” was his choice. He told again and this time the telling was more authentic.

“What’s the difference between this G and that G?” I asked next. “That G is using body movements that have nothing to do with the inner movement of the text. Standing up makes me behave like that. I’d rather manage to create the pictures with words”. I reminded him of our previous session and what he found there. “You already know the inner movement of this text, you had a choice there. What happened to it?” “When I stand up I feel ‘stage’ and those disconnected movements appear automatically”.

Presentation elasticity

Storytellers change their presentation style in different situations. What is suitable for an intimate venue, will not work as well in a large venue. What works for a circle of ten people, does not work in the same way for a circle of twenty-five. Even the hour of day, among many other things, might call for a different capacity or approach. Not everything is possible or fit for storytelling. Amplification might solve a volume issue but it doesn’t do much for intimacy. On the other hand there are situations where it does. The way to gain ‘elasticity’ that will enable a storyteller to adapt as needed, is by learning how to stretch and fold his own wings. It’s like learning how to diminish and increase sound in music. It’s not only changing the volume – the entire sound-production mechanism adapts.

“What do you feel like doing now? I mean, physically?” I asked G. “Exaggerating,” said he. The body knows… so he went for an ultra-dramatic performance style which he quit after two sentences, “that’s idiotic,” he added. “Is there something good in the idiotic?” I asked. “Hmm… yes, the words come out very clear, that feels good, although pathetic”. So pathetic isn’t all bad, for it can teach us something. What exactly? after a short conversation G managed to differentiate the good from the bad. “Clear pronunciation is needed but not that tudum-tudum-tudum voice.” He was referring to the monotonous voice-production people use when speaking with pathos, a voice disconnected from the actual meaning of the text. It’s a ‘not feel’ mechanism that can be helpful to a community in times of great sorrow, when feeling is too painful.

I spotted a shade of joy in G’s expression “you mean I can use pathos in ‘David’s lament’? it was a time of great sorrow you know…” “no easy way out here, G. If you are going to use pathos you’ll have to persuade me it’s connected to the lament from the core. Was David feeling only intolerable pain?” No he wasn’t. But, it might be there are a few short places in the lament where telling with pathos can be in place. I just want to be sure you can truly argue in it’s favor.”

“I feel confused,” said G after a couple of silent moments. “I know, and that’s because you haven’t met your telling-desire yet. You’re working seriously, yet something is still missing. Can you tell me what it is?” G repeated his desire – to be able to elicit a vivid picture with his words. “Words is where we are going next,” I promised.

Pronunciation and phonetics

We turned back to the text and practiced word-by-word, exaggerating pronunciation. After a couple of words G’s neck and shoulder muscles looked stiff. Although he couldn’t notice it, he shrugged, trying to ease tension and help voice production – which was counter productive; he was forcing it.

While many storytellers keep themselves busy with pronunciation and diction, too many leave out phonetics. In a way it reminds me of young wind-players learning Jazz; they get all worked up getting the effects right, but they neglect sound. We practiced speech sounds, taking close notice of what is actually working there: breath, sustained air release, noticing the diaphragm and what it does for speech, different syllables and the way they are connected in words, how to work with them in order to gain sound and meaning in a word.

It’s physical work and after about 20 minutes G got slightly dizzy. On the other hand he could sense how producing words with full intention and proper phonetics, influenced their meanings and the ability to work with those meanings. You mold the word to fit your intention and at the same time you learn something about meaning from the word itself.

This idea, echoes deeply in Jewish practices: “And God said, “let there be light” and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3) is just one example. We are not the only culture that believes spoken words have creation powers.

“I’m back to square one now,” said G. “Suddenly, all those decisions I had, seem premature. This session was difficult but I realize I’ll have to go through the entire text again and learn it from this new perspective.” Well, that’s a good idea if G intends to get where he’s heading.

Since working with a single text for a long time can create antagonism towards it, I asked G to select another text where phonetics seem very important in that they can help extract meaning. He chose a short segment from Maxim Gorky’s ‘The old woman Izergil’ – the story about Danko.

Food for thought: what happens to the power of creation when you work with a translation?

Next Tight focus on missing visuals

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