Thursday, August 18, 2016

Everyone Has Special Needs: Laying the Groundwork for a Successful Encounter

When I do public shows, I tell the audience what my plan is before I perform. 

I do this for several reasons. 

1) Many of the people in the room may have never encountered a storyteller, and this gives them some idea of what is about to happen.

2) There are always children who are hungry, antsy, upset (for whatever reason) or just plain bored before it begins. This gives everyone a chance to know how long they have to sit, and what will be required of them.

3) Sometimes I ask what kind of stories they want. Do they want me to sneak in a kind of scary story? Should we do something really silly? I adjust on the fly as I get feedback.

4) This creates a very important bond with the audience. I'm asking their permission to let me conduct a tour through the imagination, engage in conversation with talking animals, suspend their belief as I turn into various objects, emit wild noises, and generally remake the space they are in with nothing more than my voice, face and body. There is a certain amount of trust I need!  

5) Last, and most important, it gets the very diverse group of people in front of me used to seeing a woman with dreadlocks, dressed in what is often a voluminous non-mainstreamed looking outfit, moving and speaking in a stylized way, all while using grammar, inflection, diction, and language that may or may not be familiar to them.

I never do reveals. I like people to get a chance to encounter me before they have to engage in telling with me. I discovered early in my career that if I do reveals, the audience might need time to get used to me before they can listen to me, and I can lose up to fifteen minutes while they try to decide who or what I am.

I've found over the years, that every single audience has special needs. I have to meet them wherever they are.

Figuring out how to do that is the trick.

The needs are varied. They include people who need sign language interpreters, participants who cannot see, adults and older teens who present as children, or children with a wide variety of  behaviors, abilities, and responses that might be distracting...and toddlers...yes, for me toddlers and children younger than two years are the most special audience members.

Sometimes I am successful at reaching these audience members, and sometimes I am not.

Before I ever begin, I've learned that it is important for me to ask organizers if they know if there are going to be members in the audience who have needs that will be unique to them.

You might ask, 'Why are you singling them out? Why does it matter?'

It matters because the adjustments I can make will not diminish the experience for anyone else, but they might very well help these participants enjoy the stories.

Some of the adaptations I make are as follows.

1 - Be aware of jump moments and loud sounds. (I love loud sounds in stories, but not everyone does. Jumps are fun, but only if you have good recovery.)

2 - Pacing is very important. Make sure that you are allowing the participants to experience the tale at its fullest based on their needs for processing time. Tell the interpreter what you are planning to do. 

3 - Depending on your audience, adjust the amount of detail, movement, sound, or asides you offer. 

You never know who is going to be in your audience, or how they are going to react to you.

In March of 2014 I was in Fredericton, Canada. I had a show at a playhouse. Afterwards, I sold books and CDs, answered questions, and took pictures with kids...and grown ups!

There was one adorable little girl wearing something my daughter would have left the house in when she was little. She took a picture with me, and she and her mom left. Afterwards, I got a link to a blog post her mom wrote about what had gone on the morning of the show.

At the Fredericton Play House

I was humbled. It made me think of all the reasons why I do this work. It makes me consider how much work there is left to do. It made me consider my abject failures and those small triumphs someone shares with me.

I go into this new performance starts in September...promising to do my best to be there for anybody who needs stories. I promise to be as patient as I can. I promise to challenge myself, and the audiences I encounter, to go as deep as we will, and share as openly as we must.

I promise to do my best to learn whatever it is people are trying to teach me.

I believe that sharing stories is the first step on the path to understanding each other...even when those stories are hard.

To all of my fellow artists - Good Luck in the 2016 - 2017 touring season!

To all of my fellow travelers on the raising children roller coaster - Good Luck and don't kill and eat them. That's illegal.

Son is in his 2nd year at RIT my daughter is at NCSSM

To all of my fellow educators, let's get with the knowledge enabling!

To all of my fellow humans who are going to be making the circuit around the sun for the next 365 days, let's see to it that as many of us arrive safely on the other side of this year as possible!

Let The New Performance Year Begin!

(Bangs the Gong)

Happy Learning!


  1. This is a wonderful article and so useful. I really appreciate the wisdom and generosity behind your practice and hope I will remember to incorporate a few well placed questions BEFORE I start telling.

    1. Thanks for sharing this with me. Good luck in 16 - 17!

  2. This was such an inspirational, funny, and true post Donna. I really laughed and smiled reading it, and managed to learn a new thing or two, and reinforce my observations that I share with you. I hope to hear you In person one day. Do you ever come to Philly? Please let me know if you do. Thanks again for sharing, Donna. a wishing you the best in all things this coming year. peace, Annie Lynn.

    1. The closest I am going to be to you in the near future is at the Beaver Tales Storytelling Festival in Pittsburgh! Thanks for stopping by the blog!