I want to sign up to tell a story and just wing it. Is that cool?
Now and then I will prepare a story for months, developing the characters and themes, practicing the performance and reaching deep in my heart for what it all really means. Then I’ll drive three hours to my favorite open mic, The Moth in Houston. The show has ten open spots and, on average, fifteen storytellers show up. I’ll be filling out the form to put my name in the hat, praying to get one of the ten spots.
Then the guy next to me will say, “Hey!!! Woaaaahhhhh!! My girlfriend says I should do this, but I haven’t thought of a story yet, so Sign Me Up!!!” His story is inevitably a college drinking story that ends with him getting a tattoo on his butt that we all get to see.
The crazy part is that we sometimes get about the same score. My biggest competition at scored storytelling events is other experienced storytellers and the fun boyfriend with the impromptu drinking story.
So, is this cool?
A) Of Course
So much of life is scripted, planned and categorized with labels and boundaries. Storytelling is a populist art that doesn’t require a master’s degree or years of practice. We all tell stories everyday and part of the art is to work outside of specific expectations and establishment approvals. Let the story come straight from the heart, fueled by your passion and not by nit-picky editing and a stilted, over-practiced delivery. Go for it!
B) Absolutely Not
My friend and I saw someone perform a twenty-minute impromptu monologue at Frontera Fest and my friend wanted to follow the performer to her car, get in her face and yell, “Are you fucking kidding me?!?!?!?!?” My friend and I had bought tickets ahead of time, found expensive babysitters and spent our precious free time (after job, house, husband and kids) on this show and the person on stage didn’t spend a freaking five minutes creating something worth a damn. We felt like we had been mugged and a little part of our life was stolen.
If a storytelling show producer agrees to give you a spot on the bill for her show, this should be a prepared and practiced story. If you want to do something more unplanned, work with the producer to see if this is a fit for her show.
For an open mic, you are still asking for the stage. You are asking for each audience member’s time. Your performance might be one couple’s rare date night or a lonely person’s chance to connect. What you do with your time on stage deserves thoughtful attention.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t wing it.
The best stories are a balance of craft, practice and magic. For me, the magic is the energy in the room, when the audience and I have connected and we are creating the experience together. It’s where I have forgotten the individual words of my story, I’m fully in the present moment and my delivery is natural and fluid.
To practice the magic, I tell improv stories at open mics. I ask the audience for a topic and I tell a true, personal story on the fly. I don’t have the comfort or cushion of the crafted and practiced words. I have to think quickly and be spontaneous. I have to be confident and own the stage.
What’s the difference between an impov story and an impromptu story? The difference is in the intention. The person on stage should have the intention to give the audience something to think, feel or laugh about. It shouldn’t feel like the person on stage just likes being on stage or just likes hearing himself talk. It’s a feeling, in the end, a feeling that you are giving the audience a gift and not the other way around.
Dear Storie is a storytelling advice column written by Carol M. Ramsey, a writer and performer in Austin, Texas. If you have a question or if you are a storyteller who would like to write a guest post for this series, email firstname.lastname@example.org.