A Writer’s Debut As a Storyteller

About two years ago, I went to a storytelling event at The Marsh in Berkeley and watched six people tell six very different stories. Some personal, some historical, all about 10-15 minutes long.

My first reaction: I can do that.

Little did I know.

The tellers were all from Stagebridge, a Senior Theatre Company housed in an old church in Oakland, so I started taking storytelling classes there. Stagebridge also offers courses in acting, directing, singing, dancing, and many other kinds of performance. It’s the only “senior” thing I’ve ever done. But close friends, both recently retired psychologists, have found new passions in performance at Stagebridge, and, so I dove in.

I’m a big fan of “The Moth,”the NPR show, and the storytelling of travel writer Jeff Greenwald. I’ve always liked reading my written stories in public. I saw storytelling as a way to extend that fun with different audiences. But it’s not as easy as I thought it would be, because it’s all done without notes or text.

At first I tried reading some traditional/folk tales to myself and then trying to deliver them in class, adhering as closely as possible to the words I had read. Then I tried to convert some of my own written stories for oral delivery. The tendency for newbies like me, especially writers, is to want to memorize and reproduce the pearly prose I put on paper. That’s not how they teach it at Stagebridge.

It’s more about learning/knowing the story, absorbing it, and telling it in your own words. My new approach, either with a folk/historical tale or something I’ve written myself, is to read it through out loud a few times, then make a bullet-point outline, then stop looking at the text and start “telling” it out loud, in a room by myself or out on a walk, referring occasionally to the outline, but not to the text.

It’s verbal jazz, never the same twice. With each telling, I find that some details take on new importance, and some get left out. I’ve learned to ignore my flubbed words without beating myself up. Sometimes I realize I’ve forgotten to say something, and I deftly try to drop it in without missing a beat.

It’s always vital to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Characterization is important, dialogue adds depth and color. Eschewed: She told me she wanted to kill me. Preferred: She said, “I want to kill you.”

My wonderful teachers Kirk Waller and MaryGay Ducey also stress vocal variation in pitch, volume, and speed of delivery. Just like acting!

Along with fellow student Eleanor Clement Glass (see the video of her performance below), I told two of my stories last week at the Lunchtime Storytelling event at Stagebridge, my first time telling outside of class. What an experience!

The first story I told (“Evelyn’s Story”— see video above) is cherished by my family and was based on an experience my aunt and uncle had some years ago. She wrote it up in great detail (12 single-spaced pages). When I decided a couple of months ago that I wanted to tell this story, I wrote a bullet-point outline based on how I remembered it. I haven’t gone back to read or cross-check anything with her text. I recalled the broad strokes. Since I needed to tell this story in about 12 or 13 minutes today, I wanted a simple structure that was easy to accomplish, and I didn’t want to fill my head with a ton of extra detail.

That’s definitely part of the discipline of oral storytelling. In a limited amount of time, try to tell a tale, entertain the audience, pluck their heartstrings, get them to laugh, add pauses for drama and emphasis, and play with the tempo and rhythm. It really is a performance, much more than I ever thought before I started down this road.

Last week I also extended my comfort zone in an unanticipated direction: I sang in public for the first time.

In the second story I told, based on a written work/travel story (“Sweet Home Shenyang” from my book Showdown at Shinagawa: Tales of Filming from Bombay to Brazil), I quote lyrics from five different songs near the end of the story. I’ve read this story a number of times in public, reciting but not singing the song lyrics in a rousing, energetic ending. But when I first told this story in a storytelling class last semester, my teacher, in her feedback, suggested that I sing the lines from the songs.

Never in a million years did I ever think I would sing in public, but something happened at our synagogue a few weeks ago that changed my mind.

My wife Susan, who has a lovely voice and sings in three choruses and a barbershop quartet, was scheduled to chant from the Torah at a Bat Mitzvah one Saturday morning around the time of my 70th birthday. At Sabbath Torah readings, it’s standard practice to divide the reading into seven parts and to honor members of the congregation, in seven groups or aliyahs, by inviting them up onto the bima to chant a brief Hebrew prayer before and after the Torah reading.

The rabbi, knowing I was celebrating a milestone birthday in a few days, kindly offered me the first aliyah, and I agreed. Then I started to wonder if that was a good idea. I wasn’t concerned about knowing the Hebrew words, because they’re pretty simple, they’re chanted seven times at every Shabbat service, and the rabbis have a large-print cheat-sheet transliteration right there.

But I did wonder if I would feel comfortable singing anything, all by myself, in front of the 200 people in the sanctuary. I could not escape the haunting words of Victor Wong, the leader of my fraternity chorus in college, who told me, “Don’t sing so loudly, you sound like a braying mule.”

Well, that buzzkill lasted for decades. I never wanted to sing again. But the curse of Victor Wong, which has plagued me for nearly 50 years, was expunged that day in temple. I was fine.

Empowered by a good night’s sleep and inspired by the fact that my dear wife was standing next to me and about to chant something much more melodic, much more extensive, and much more complicated, I sang the simple melody, “Baruch et adonai hamvorach!” (Praised be the One to whom our praise is due!) This was followed by a 15-second call-and-response thing with the congregation, then Susan read from the Torah for several minutes, then I had to chant a final blessing. I performed my very small part with gusto, and, I believe, with decent pitch and tone.

Listen, I don’t think I’m gonna give Bono a run for his money in the solo singing department. If I weren’t already retired, I definitely wouldn’t give up my day job. But that experience at synagogue gave me enough confidence to try to sing the few scattered lyrics in my story, and I did so today. I think it worked out.

Susan recorded last week’s Lunchtime Storytelling on video and has posted my stories on YouTube.

I’ll let you judge my singing in the context of my storytelling. I hope you’dll enjoy the experience. I did.

And I finally overcame the curse of Victor Wong.

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