If a story echoes in the woods and no one hears it, is it still a story? Well, if it’s a written story, perhaps yes, but a spoken story needs an audience, not just to affirm its existence but to become what it is. Until the moment when the storyteller steps out on stage, the story is but an idea.
And what a terrifying moment that is—to step out with no script or podium to hide behind and share something often deeply personal. The single biggest factor in the success of the story resides in the storyteller’s ability to meet that challenge, to take in the audience, be in their presence, commune with them. If the storyteller succumbs to fear and shuts out the audience, the story dies. She may have a beautiful piece and recite it perfectly, yet fail to connect, precisely because she is reciting. She’s performing at the audience rather than talking to them.
So how do you prepare a storyteller for that? How do you rehearse a story without turning it into a mere performance?
You start by mining for the emotional core. Before you can figure out how to tell a story, you must figure out what the story is. And because we all have blind spots when it comes to our innermost feelings and motivations, that “what” is often different from what the storyteller thinks it is. Many times, the point a storyteller wants to make doesn’t match her emotional reality.
She thinks she’s forgiven the man who left her in the lurch, but she is, in fact, still angry. Or she leaves out information that seems obviously relevant. (You’re telling a story about saving orphans and only after hours of conversation do you reveal that you, too, were abandoned as a child. Do you think there’s a connection?) Among directors we sometimes talk about the need to “break the storytellers,” to strip them of their preconceived notions and of everything that’s neat and pretty and clean in order to make them get real.
That’s how it starts—with a conversation and a box of Kleenex. You ask all sorts of questions, looking for a live nerve, searching for what is at stake for the storyteller, what does she stand to lose or gain. For there must be stakes and they must be high, not objectively speaking, but in the context of her subjective reality. Stealing a cookie is not as high-stakes as stealing the crown jewels, but inside the mind of the kid who might get caught, it very well could be. The storyteller must make those stakes palpable for the audience. She must provide the context that will make us sweat for her and know her. She must ask herself what we, the audience, need to know in order to understand not just what happened but what it meant. While the first step in the process is highly introspective—“How did I truly feel?”—the next, equally important, step is to ask why anyone should give a damn or, more pointedly, “How can I make them give a damn?”
We shouldn’t tell the story until we can say in one sentence what it is about—in the deepest sense. If you’re telling a skydiving story, the answer is not “skydiving,” because as awesome as that was for you, it is utterly un-moving for someone who wasn’t there. Something deeper must be found to make it a story. In the process, you might discover that it was really about your relationship with your macho paratrooper father whom you’d always failed to impress, or about the midlife crisis you had after your wife left. By framing it in the context of a bigger theme, you take the audience where the true suspense lies, which is never in the skydive. We know you survived that.
Sometimes, we uncover multiple themes and stakes, and then we must choose. A story can touch on multiple topics, but one must rule as its organizing principle. Listeners will take different things from the story, but the storyteller must know what the story is most about for him. Then he owns the story, and then he can face an audience. More work needs to be done before he goes on stage—building, editing, finessing the story, work that resembles the traditional relationship between writer and editor—but the first all-important step toward being fluid yet in control, prepared yet loose, and scared yet present once you take the stage is to have walked the emotional minefield and uncovered every falsity, fantasy and dead end that the story is not until you know exactly what it is.
The first moments on stage are often ones of sheer terror. But if the storyteller stays open with the audience, it will reward him with a flow of attention and love that lifts him and makes him infinitely better than any director could have made him. The job of the director is merely to create the conditions where this is possible.
Lea Thau is a Peabody award-winning producer and the host of the public radio show “Strangers.” She previously spent 10 years as the executive and creative director of The Moth and created “The Moth Radio Hour”