Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Storyteller's Toolkit: The Body or To Move or Not To Move

The Storyteller's Toolkit is a simple way to talk about the elements that storyteller's use to present a story.  These do not include puppets, props, costumes or anything extraneous.  You can certainly use all of those things as a storyteller, but they are not standard tools in the toolkit.  

The basics in the toolkit are as follows.

Voice:  If you missed the post, just click here.

Eyes:  If you missed the post, just click here.

Face:  If you missed the post, just click here.

Hands:  If you missed the post, just click here.


Easy enough.  In keeping with my new policy about blog entries.  We will deal with each of these one at a time.  Today's selection deals with the body in storytelling.

Let me explain my point of view about movement and storytelling, and then proceed with the rest of the post

I searched, but didn't find much in the way of using the body as a storyteller.  Many sites rolled the body in with 'body language' which covered every item in the toolkit except the voice.  There were some articles about dance, lots about mime, and there were some tips on a couple of sites, but nothing really addressed the subject in the way I was seeking.

Here is my take on the Storyteller's body….

I believe that when you move all over the stage you break the illusion built with your words.  As long as the audience can imagine you moving around, you don't need to move.  I believe you become less effective the more you move about the performance space.

The reason I believe that wandering about while telling is problematic?  Moving your body everywhere scatters the energy you are creating and throws it off in all different directions, lessening the impact of the story and distracting the audience from the narrative.

The advice I am going to offer, the observations I will make and the comments I will submit are based around the points I've just made.  You may or may not agree with my take on movement and storytelling, and that is what makes our art form so varied and interesting.

On any number of occasions, I've taken storyteller's aside and suggested they attempt to tell while standing still.  Most of them swear they can't do it.  The story causes them to move.  The ones who have gone away and tried it have all contacted me in shock at how big a difference it made in the telling.  The one thing you notice right away is how much more control and power the story has when you ground it.

Six years ago I was performing a version of the Squeaky Door.  It is a tale about a kid who is frightened of the sound his bedroom door makes.  His grandmother misunderstands the source of his fear, and runs back and forth to the barn putting all sorts of animals in his bed in order to comfort him.  My version is silly, ridiculous, and an audience participation riot.  After the tale was done, I had an inservice with the teachers.  One of them interrupted my introduction and announced that she thought it was hilarious that I was running all over the stage.  The other teachers laughed out loud and agreed.  They'd seen me! They saw me running back and forth to the barn, dragging the animals across the stage, and running back and forth to the kid's room whenever he started yelling.  They saw it all.

I let them laugh about it for a few minutes, sharing their favorite moments, and then told them I hadn't moved an inch.  I'd stood in one spot in front of the mic the entire time.  Silence.  Confusion.  They didn't believe it.  They argued the point.  They knew what they'd seen. I pointed out that the mic was on a stand and I hadn't taken the mic out of the stand the entire time.  How would they have heard me so clearly if I'd been running around the stage without the mic?  They didn't know.  They realized I couldn't have been running all over the stage.  They still didn't believe I'd been standing still.  Then, I informed them that it was perfectly possible for them to have seen me running all over the stage, but despite that, I hadn't moved.

You can take up an amazing amount of space without moving.  Let the audience see the story, and they will see every part of it.  The key is to employ the other elements of the toolkit to give the illusion of movement.  

The story does not happen in front of you, it happens all around you.  As long as you don't break into the space around you and trample it, the story can take place in that space.  The second you actually move, you stop the imagination from filling the space with images.  We need to see the story coming out of you in all directions.  If you are moving in all directions, the story can't expand to fill the space.  Instead of being someone surrounded by wild images, you are a single person moving around an empty space.  The first is powerful, the second just gets tiring for the audience.

If you get out of the way of your stories, they have a chance to take the audience to places even you can't see!

Of course, not everyone wants to stand still.  If you are going to move, do it on purpose!  Choose when you are going to move.  Don't let your feet decide where your body is going!  

So, here are some fabulous storytellers making the world shake from the space around their feet.

Peter Cook!

Geraldine Buckley!

Carmen Agra  Deedy

Len Cabral

Andy Offut Irwin

Was there anything that these stories lost because the storytellers either sat, or simply turned their bodies, or adjusted themselves?  Did they need to move further than they did?  Did they need to show us beyond what they did in the spaces around their feet?

If you've never tried standing still, give it a shot.  What you will find is that you will have to focus much more heavily on your face, voice, eyes, and hands.  Translate your nervous energy into power.

Stand still and hit your audience with everything you have!

Empower your stories!  Empower your audience!

Happy Telling!


  1. Thank you Donna. Fabulous post and videos. I am so glad you and are are on the same page. I always tell my storytelling students that less is more; too many gestures will distract from the story. If they use gestures they must be natural and not forced. I will be sharing your insights with them.

    1. Thank you, Karen!

      I know there are some storytellers who are wedded to wandering! I hope you can convince them that they have far more power if they focus their energy on their listeners!

  2. Thanks Donna,
    Good advice (a ditto to Karen's comment)
    I find that children are calmer and thus better listeners (even if you are telling an exciting story) if you keep still and let your voice and some very specific gestures do their work.

    1. Beverly,

      thanks for stopping by the site. You are right on the money with this. No matter what is happening in the story, you can keep an audience on the edge of their seats if you focus your energy like a laser. Precision telling is an art.