Anyone who knows me well knows that - in all honesty - I’m not very good at telling stories.
Now, I’d like to qualify this a little since - yes - I’m aware that I’m making a career as both a writer and a performer, which are both types of professional storytelling. And when I can provide a narrative in such a structured, prepared, and well-crafted way, I feel totally confident delivering an engaging story.
But as for more pedestrian, real-life stories? It’s been a struggle.
It was first pointed out to me about five years ago when someone turned to me and said:
“Yeesh. I hope you’re a better writer than storyteller!”
Ouch. Harsh, Gretch.
But it was true! I have always loved telling anecdotes from life, particularly the funny or really out-there ones, but I tend to hold my tongue these days because I know that my stories tend not to land.
So I’ve worked on it. I’ve researched (cuz it’s me) how to tell a good oral story and what makes this craft different from a written story, and I think I’ve improved greatly. Huzzah!
But why am I bringing this up now?
Well, if this summer taught me one thing only (and it taught me waaaaay more than that), it’s that people of all walks of life respond to nothing as well as they respond to a good story.
Before heading up to Naples this summer, I knew that I would be doing several…extracurricular events in conjunction with the production of The King’s Legacy, spread throughout the entire summer.
3 Talks at local Public Libraries
A Promotional Video Interview
A Podcast Interview
And at least 2 Audience Talkbacks - one after the Open Dress and one after a Performance
What exactly was I going to be talking about? That is an excellent question, to which I really didn’t have an answer…
The show? The history? The writing process? I mean, what do people want to know???
I did know that the libraries each had a book group that was reading and/or watching The Other Boleyn Girl as a way to get into the topic and prepare some questions, comments, and comparisons ahead of time. But otherwise, I wasn’t really sure what I was going to be talking about or what people wanted to hear.
Luckily for me, before doing any of the public talks, I first sat down with our Arts Administration intern - Emily - to do an interview for promotional video purposes. She had a list filled with all sorts of questions and topics that could be cut and spliced together into different videos for marketing, but it was her very first question on the list that started me on the right path:
“Tell me about the journey of this musical. How did it all start?”
Um, duh, Michael. It’s storytelling. *Insert facepalm*
Not only did people want to know the story of the characters within the show when they sit down to watch it, they also wanted to know the story of the show’s journey and development! What a delightfully simple and wonderful answer.
Only problem was, I had somehow never really explained that journey before.
So it was time to reach into the depths of memory and piece together the story of how The King’s Legacy came into being, from a seedling of an idea to full production. (Read about that journey here)
Now, I’ll fully admit that the first time I told the story this year I was a little thrown off and unsure, so it was less than brilliant. But then again, isn’t that what first drafts are for?
And so, like with any good workshop process, the next step was to figure out the most engaging way to tell this story for the next time around.
The main issue there was that I only had Emily’s engagement and reactions to go off of, since she was the sole person in the room while I was being interviewed. And what if she was interested in different parts of the story than everyone else would be?
But, okay, let’s at least start with: What parts of the story seemed to engage her the most? Where did she react?
The randomness of the way I initially became interested in the topic made her raise an eyebrow.
The fact that I began writing in defiance of an off-hand challenge made her chuckle.
Saying it took 5 large-scale narrative rewrites to find the right structure to feature the women’s stories caused her to mouth “Wow” behind the camera.
And her eyes widened when I mentioned that I threw out the majority of the score and wrote over a dozen new songs once I found the correct structure.
This seemed like a solid basis to continue telling the story from.
In just the above points, we’ve got: 1) An initial hook on the topic, 2) Multiple challenges to overcome, 3) Some light comedy, 4) Failures, 5) Successes, and 6) The arc of a relatively epic journey.
This seemed workable!
Well, that is until the first Library Talk…
At the Wayland Library I sat down with the Associate Artistic Director (Katelyn Cantu) and a small group of women in an intimate interview setting, and most of what I thought would be interesting turned out…not to be.
Isn’t that just typical of a writer?
Katelyn did a fantastic job asking questions and getting information about the show and its developmental process flowing, but I made the mistake of thinking that what people would want to hear more about was the actual writing and process. Aka, what had changed? When did that happen? How did X or Y opportunity help shape the show? What were the old songs and characters like?
Not that these women weren’t interested, but it’s not what they ended up asking their questions about or what they were focused on.
I had already learned from the initial interview that the origin of the topic, idea, and show were of interest, but it was during this talk that I learned the other 3 big things that were apparently engaging:
Why these women? Why these stories? (With ”Particularly as a man” as the subtext.)
The journey in finding the balance between Anne and Henry as protagonist and love/antagonist - What caused this struggle and how did I resolve it?
The current narrative shape of this piece that these women were going to actually see onstage later this summer - The flow between scenes, the movement of time, and the function of the narrative Elizabethan Players.
Well, of course! This makes so much sense! *Insert second facepalm*
Now, not only would my story include more interesting elements, but it could focus on them. Elements like: 1) A touch of the unexpected, 2) The main cause and resolution of the biggest writing struggle, 3) How the resolution of that struggle shaped the entire musical, and 4) A sneak peek of what was to come when eventually seeing the show.
Inciting Incident. A Large Goal. Surprise. Humor. Obstacles. Struggles. Successes. Resolution. Cliff-Hangers. …These are all standards and necessities in storytelling, and this is what people wanted to hear and experience when they came to talk with me about the show.
Silly me. It really just makes so much sense, right?
Well, anyone who was with me at more than one of the events this summer can tell you that I found the rhythm of how to tell this story - finally.
In fact, it meant that each of the following talks I gave and each of the ways I answered peoples’ questions were quiiiiiiite similar. I would bet that a few of the people at Bristol Valley Theater could now successfully answer some of these questions about the show without any help or input from me!
But that’s great!
It means that the story works. Once I got it correct, it was memorable, engaging, and worth telling again.
And I knew it worked when I had people coming up to me after the talks saying things like:
“Well, I was excited to see the show before tonight, but now I’m really excited!”
And that’s what good storytelling should do, right? Elicit an emotional response, whether that be a positive one or a negative one.
*Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I also learned a great deal about storytelling through the production of The King’s Legacy this summer. Seeing what worked and what didn’t was a phenomenal experience that I would not trade, but that’s not what this particular post was about.
So, all in all, I’ve gotten better at oral storytelling, but it’s clear that this is a skill I will need to continue honing. And ultimately, I think it will make me a better and more efficient writer as well.
And so, if anyone has any tips, the Comments section is certainly all ears!
Otherwise, until next time, friends!