Friday, December 30, 2016

Enlisting The Audience Part 3: Covert

Text of Epaminondas

Enlisting the Audience Part 1: Covert and Overt

Enlisting the Audience Part 2: Overt

Enlisting The Audience Part 3: Covert

Enlisting the Audience Part 4: 5 Tips

In the last post we discussed how overt and covert participation work together to help a storyteller read an audience.

Reading an audience gives the performer a chance to figure out what they need to do to effectively connect with an audience, but, in my opinion, the best part of the covert work is when it engages an audience so deeply that they become tandem tellers.

A good example of this happens in the second chapter of the Epaminondas tale.

The story starts with a sequence of language that is repeated throughout the story, but of course the audience doesn't know that the first time through. Some of the audience members are taken by how physical the story is, and they are already trying to mimic what they are seeing as it happens.

When Epaminondas gets to his grandmother's house they have an interaction that is also going to be repeated.

After that, we get into the particular language in the episode.

The first special sequence at his grandmother's house establishes some rules for the audience when we are not in repetition mode.

1. After Epaminondas and his grandmother clean up the kitchen, I go through some ingredients his grandmother is gathering. The sequence ends when I say, "His grandmother baked up a great big chocolate cake."

2. A number of the audience members make some kind of yummy sound. "mmmm" in various pitches and lengths.

3. After they make this sound, which I am pretty sure is coming so I wait for it to subside, I say, "with thick chocolate frosting."

4. The audience makes the exact same sound they made before, but usually louder and more enthusiastically.

None of that is prompted.

5. Next, I say, "His grandmother gave him a great big ol' slice of that cake." I mime cutting a slice of cake, and then I mimic whatever sound the audience has just made to signify yummy. Some of them will laugh at me at this point, but it is not lost on them that I have taken their sound and incorporated it into the story.

What does this mean? It means it is okay for them to add things to the story. It is okay for them to make noise. It is okay for them to play with me. That is the covert instruction. Some audiences figure out at once that they have some power over me, and they begin to search for other places to take over the story.

This happens in the first five minutes of the telling.

The next bit happens when his grandmother cuts him another piece of cake to take home to his mother. I make the same yummy sound with this second piece of cake. Inevitably, some audience members predict that he is going to eat this piece of cake as well. I hear it whispered all over the room.

He doesn't, He smashes it through his fingers because he's worried he might drop it.

(There is  a whole bunch of literacy stuff going on at that point, but this post isn't about that, so we'll leave that for some other time.)

His mother is upset when he gets home and the audience gets to say his mother's refrain. She tells him that if he gets something small he should put it under his hat.

The opening comes around again.

The entire sequence repeats from causing a ruckus to going to his grandmother's house. At the end of their second day together, grandma gives him some butter.

Now comes the moment when we go tandem...if it works.

1. He takes the butter outside and asks, "How did my momma say to bring stuff home?"

2. I get a mix of four reactions.

a. Some raise their hands - still asking permission or a conditioned response
b. Some answer while sitting perfectly still
c. Some reproduce the whole mime sequence I used when his mother told him what to do while saying the words in rhythm.
d. Some don't respond at all. Either they don't remember, don't care to participate, don't realize I actually want a response or they are still in television mode and don't realize they have to do anything to further the story.

Either way, the audience realizes around the same time the he plans to put two pounds of butter under his hat.

I say, "He took the hat off of his head. He put the butter on top of his head. He put his hat back on. He started walking home." I pause. "It was a really hot day."

All over the audience kids make predictions out loud. "It's going to melt!"

Now, the last time they made a prediction many of them were wrong. This time they are waiting to see what will happen.

I say, "He got butter in his hair." I make a surprised and disgusted face, but I say nothing.

Some members in the audience vocalize the sound that goes with that face. "ewww" or something like that.

I say, "He got butter down his face." I make the same face. More voices make the "yuck" sound.

By the third time - when butter is going down his neck - the whole audience is reveling in making the sounds I am not making, but they know belong in the story.

If I get an audience who just watches without making the sound, I have an ace in the hole. the fifth thing that happens is he gets butter in his pants.

The audience makes the "yuck" noise very loudly at that point - even the ones who haven't been involved up to that point tend to react.

Last but not least he gets butter in his shoes.

- The coolest thing about that sequence is that without any prompting, by the second reaction, the audience decides en masse just how long they are going to make the "yuck' sound, where it goes, and how intense it is going to be. It sounds like we have rehearsed it.

The first time it happened, I was pretty shocked. Now, I set it up covertly from the beginning and I expect it.

From that sequence on in the story the audience is empowered to participate to the point where I don't actually tell much more of the story. The only bits I vocalize are the things that happen at grandma's that are not part of the repetition. They do the rest, and they offer up sound effects and everything.

The key to effectively using covert audience participation is, of course, crafting. The more crafted your material, the better you can use it to create an amazing experience with an audience no matter what age.

I have one more post in this series. It will be a series of tips for using audience participation techniques to keep your audience actively participating all the way through your set.

Happy Telling!


  1. This is my favorite line, Donna. "The first time it happened, I was pretty shocked." This line says so much of what we really know about audience participation, it happens the first time, and since we are "present" in the storytelling, we learn from it and add it. My best and most consistent ways of gaining involvement from beginning to end of my programs came from something I didn't expect, yet learned from. Sometimes the best coach is the audience. Peace, my friend, and thanks for sharing such informative and well written blogs.

    1. Oh yes, we learn lots of things from audiences! Epaminondus is a perfect story for that. So much of what I learned from this story carries over into lots of my other work. What is also true is that the first time it happens, it surprises you, but if you pay attention, you can figure out how to make it happen again. That, of course, is where the crafting happens. Getting consistent reactions based on how the story is presented and introduced is important. Good luck as you journey into 2017. Thank you for being out there sharing stories.