My sculpture doesn’t tell a story

A year ago, I joined CAN New Artists Collegium founded and led by David Zundelovitch. The members of the group I’m in are all sculptors. I arrive from music and storytelling. It wasn’t clear if I’ll manage to blend in. My music education involved art history and I’m no stranger to the arts. Yet my knowledge and experience with sculpting is zero. I never had to work with physical form.

The group members hear each other through the entire process. Together we try to ask questions, come up with ideas, solutions, and new questions to look at. It’s a joined thinking process around the work each of us is doing.

I found an idea to work with, and I’m walking through all the necessary phases, learning all the time. I arrived with a solid sketch, a clear standing form made of clay to look at. Then something happened, that left me speechless. That doesn’t happen often. Someone asked:

What story are you trying to tell through this work?

[My thoughts: WHAT?! I’VE BEEN TRYING TO FIGURE OUT HOW SCULPTING WORKS, WHAT IT ALLOWS, WHY IT EXISTS, WHAT MAIN TOOLS OF EXPRESSION IT USES AND OPERATES, AND YOU’RE ASKING ME ABOUT TELLING A STORY?! Which believe me, I can tell you a couple of things about, but that’s not the reason I’m here.]

‘Stunned’ expresses my feelings at that moment. It wasn’t the first time I heard ‘storytelling’ and ‘tells a story’ out of their real context. This was a moment of truth. It helped me format my thoughts better than ever before:

I don’t want my sculpture to tell a story. I want it to be a sculpture and do its thing the way sculptures do.

There is an idea behind the sculpture. I don’t want to tell you what it is, it’s my business. If you get to visit it, all you need to do is stand there and sense what it is that the sculpture is for you.

So why do artists write the “artist’s page” next to their work? Because once the work is set up in a gallery, it’s what you need to do. Whether you like it or not. You’ll never see that page next to sculptures standing outside, will you? This obnoxious custom arrives from curators. They know how to make up complicated stories. Usually disconnected but oh so importantly fine.

If every other thing in the world ‘tells a story’, we can wipe out half the things and tell stories instead. That can be fun – to wipe out knowledge and traditions – can’t it?

Pulling everything into the ‘storytelling’ den cancels out the work of other professions. Mashup is good only when the frames and tools of each component are clear. Most mashups are a mess, we know it, we don’t often admit it.

Once the game rolls over to story, everything goes – so it seems. People and companies have ‘their version’, influenced by their interests. They use a story coverup, instead of doing what they say they can do.

Are you a visual artist? be great at it, the world needs you.

Are you a marketer? be great at it, the world needs you.

Are you a sales person? be great at it, the world needs you.

If you insist on going ‘storytelling me too’, you might make a quick profit. Especially if you’re in business. Real storytellers don’t see much of those marketing, advertising and consulting budgets, interesting enough. I don’t think we would be too interested, once we’d figure out the motives and the environment.

Fancy carriages turn pumpkins in due time. When the trend changes, you won’t have enough credibility in youe real profession. You’ll have to trend again. I’m betting on design thinking, if you feel you want to prepare.

2015-11-18 (1)

Listening to David, you realize sculpting isn’t something mysterious. It sounds like a profession and a hell of a lot of work. It might turn art, it might not, the main thing is to work and learn. There are clear rules, tools, and work processes. They become clearer to those who invest in inquiry, not in mystery and marketing hype.

The same is true for storytelling. It is a profession; there are clear rules, tools and work processes. From what I know by now, I don’t need a sculpture to tell a story. The fact I’m making one doesn’t state I’m trying to tell anything.

Each profession has its place in the world. It’s the fake professions that don’t have a place. That’s why they are trying to grab some. Because they have nothing real to offer, they become brutal – in a designed way.

Storytellers, what do you think about story slams?

By Limor Shiponi

I’m seeking sincere replies: after several years of story slams gaining traction, do you see it is supporting the art of storytelling and storytellers, creating more awareness to what we do and why we do it, or isn’t it? Maybe it’s changing the nature of what we can offer and will be accepted, maybe it is bringing in non-artistic considerations for better, for worse, and maybe it’s the best thing that ever happened to the art of storytelling. Maybe it’s not. I’m curious to read your thoughts.

I’m asking because I’m checking out an idea and I need some information. Call in market research.

If you are willing to share your thoughts and would rather do it in private – please write to limor@interpersonalarts.com – I’m the only person reading that mailbox.

Regards,

Practice out loud

By Limor Shiponi

storytelling fish

The guy opened his mouth to tell me a story he’s been working on for over a month; it was a disaster. The words stumbled out of his mouth; he looked totally confused and frightened. “But I’ve been practicing daily,” he hissed with visible frustration.

I asked him to tell me about his daily practice. Turns out he’s been practicing during his daily swim – in his head, silently.

Storytellers need to practice out loud

You don’t need to use your full vocal projection every time you practice – although that couldn’t be a bad idea – but you do need to talk, speak, breath, use your lungs, diaphragm and vocal cords. Here are some good reasons to take this advice seriously (besides flunking a specific telling):

>Practicing only the text, you’re not developing 2/3 of your expression channels. Voice and gesture are as important for storytelling as text, and they need practice.

>If you practice in your head while doing something else, that something’s pace will take over and stick to the text as its foundation pace. The foundation pace influences various facets of storytelling performance. Issues like punctuation, pausing and prosody. The guy’s story sure sounded like front crawl (not a compliment).

>Storytelling can be physically demanding. If you don’t use your speaking organs, you have no idea about the physical challenges hidden in a particular story. You don’t even know if you’re fit to tell what sounds so nice in your mind.

Do yourself a big favor and skip practicing in your head. Even more, find people to tell to as you practice. Their feedback – whether explicit or implicit – will help you improve your telling, tweak the story and build your expressive skills.

What is a good story?

By Limor Shiponi

story

Originally posted on LinkedIn

I guess this is another million dollar question. The way to go about it starts with observing specific moments where people say, “that way such a good story”.

Last week I had the opportunity to be reminded of this question once again. We had a concert involving eight storytellers and seven musicians. The line-up was an hour and a half long. We sat around a large table. An audience of 120 surrounded us in rows.

We moved from song to tale to tale to song. Some of the songs are known and the audience sang along with us. During the storytelling parts everyone listened closely. It was a magical evening and at the end quite a few people came up to say thanks and how they felt all the stories were so good.

What is a good story?

I grabbed the opportunity. The trans-like atmosphere made it easier to answer with ease, people were happy to share. Most respondents placed the palm of their hand over their heart or held my hand with both their hands. “It does something good to you. That’s what a good story is.” Many of them sighed in a good way, like clearing the dust off their heart.

They were not the only ones to experience the goodness. Two days later I still felt like walking on a cloud or mantled in a big hug. I wrote the storytellers how I felt and got back an avalanche of goodness. Lovely words, little stories, elaborate emotional expressions and blessings to all. One of them wrote, “I think it’s called happiness”.

Was it only the stories?

It was also the choice of stories, tailored to the specific event and audience. It was also the way the stories were told, influenced by signals coming from the audience. It was also the line-up and the music, the singing and the evolving sense of communion.

Yet people say – good story. Interesting, isn’t it? They complement the performers, the performance and atmosphere, but above all they say – good story.

Meaning – good story isn’t only about good text. It’s about much more which can be learned from this little example. It’s in the moment and all the moving parts that come together and it’s most probably something bigger than the sum of its parts.

Where do we go from here?

Some might be inclined to dissect each element they can figure out and theorize. I’ll make a softer suggestion: do it. Try and tell a good story. It takes experimentation but if you keep your eyes on the signals coming from your listeners, you’ll find the way. Practice makes better, just keep your senses open to those signals and what they are asking for. When you figure what they need – give it to them. Storytelling is an intimate act of give and take, it’s delicate, careful and respecting. And it makes for good stories.

 

A lesson about reciprocity in performance arts

By Limor Shiponi

We arrived to the venue an hour and a half early. My partner had two lutes to tune, together with a Hurdy-gurdy and a Vihuela. I had about a dozen wind-instruments to tend to and then tune to her. Costumes to wear, headpieces to fix – we were busy for over an hour, as usual. Sitting in a room on the second floor of a fabulous house, the only connection to the outside world was a window – just above the catering people. They were working like busy ants.

Time went by; we could hear the lady of the house greeting the first guests. Being a descendant of THE Russian Tsar – a detail she mentioned occasionally during our preparatory visit – she most probably felt obliged to use a ‘cultured’ voice.

Our opening act was to be a surprise for the guests – walking down the stairs in full Renaissance attire (made especially for us in ‘Teatro alla Scala de Milano’ – mind you) playing a medieval dance tune on Hurdy-gurdy and drum, walking through the crowd and then sitting down for a full concert of music and stories. The guests were surprised alright, letting out ‘wow’s and ‘ho’s, trying to ask questions about the garments and the Hurdy-gurdy as we moved through.

While walking, playing and making sure my partner can walk through with her instrument, my eyes were searching for the stage – the piece of floor we requested to keep clear for the concert. It was gone; the space was occupied with an electrical piano and a young guy, dressed like one would dress for a ‘piano bar’ occasion.

After our round was over I approached the lady of the house, “I understand you’ve decided to move the stage somewhere else?” “Oh,” she replied with a smile, “your part is over; it was fabulous, thank you. Your pay is in the room on the second floor, thank you again, it was exactly what I wanted for my guests to experience.” She walked away chatting and smiling with yet another guest that came to tell her how lovely an opening she has prepared for the occasion.

I saw my partner going up the stairs, ready to bring down her other instruments for the full concert. I followed and walked into the room. “Our part is over,” I said to her. “What?” she couldn’t understand. “We were a surprise and now our part is over. That was her plan. She doesn’t want the full concert.” We stood in silence for several seconds. I phoned our driver and asked him to come and collect us. We folded our instruments, our costumes, packed our bags. We both saw the envelope with the money; none of us picked it up. Finally, we took it and left the house.

Climbing into the car, the driver said, “Isn’t it too early to leave?” we told him what happened. “Great! You got the same pay for 10 minutes!” but we didn’t feel great at all. We felt manipulated, offended, down.

The positive flip-side

I perform since I was ten. As an adult and a professional, I get paid. Performing artists know – we don’t perform only for the ‘market exchange’ – pay is only one reason, definitely not a deep motivation. One deeper motivation is the need to give to others, to share. Through this incident, I found out how deep this need goes.

Why does a storyteller need all the fortune in the world?

By Limor Shiponi

One of the groups I work with is a storytelling peers group, looking into Jewish texts as a source of inspiration. After doing some Limmud (learning) each of us goes off exploring, composing, reading, thinking, trying to come up with tales, new stories, interpretations, and create something new.

Limmud in the Jewish tradition is performed in Hevruta – a circle of friend or people who have interest. We all have the text at hand; we read it together, but it’s mission impossible to read through directly. At every curve a question pops up, a thought, a memory, a story. Learning is done through conversation, especially debate, with no real intention of winning it, just going sharper and deeper into reasoning. The more controversial it gets, the more interesting, the more profound and rich.

This season, we are going to look into the role of the Darshan – the seeker, the interpreter – especially the kind of Darshan that looks into stories, not Jewish law. In ancient times, seeking was performed orally. In a way, it resembles the role of a storyteller seeking into a story told, questioning it, asking for clarifications and references, charging the narrative behind the plot to come up with sharper details, character motivations, grounding.

Here is the text we looked at during our last meeting:

After Rabbeinu (our Rabbi) of blessed memory said this speech he said plainly, “Today I have said three things contrary to what the world says:

1) The world says that telling stories induces sleep; but I said that by story tales we awaken people from their sleep.
2) The world says that from talking words no one conceives [a child]; but I said that by the Tzadik’s (righteous one) telling of words, through which he arouses people from their sleep, conception comes to barren women.
3) The world says that the true Tzadik of towering stature does not need much money, because why should he need money? But I said that there is such a contemplative understanding [of the Torah] for which one needs all the fortune of the world.”

[Copyist’s note:] I heard from one prominent follower of Rabbeinu, of blessed memory, that he heard from his holy mouth regarding his will being that they print the Story Tales also in the Yiddish language that we speak; and he said at that time that it can easily happen that a woman who is barren would read some story from them them and thereby conceive for goodly offspring and be privileged to have children; this is the extent of what I heard. [And there is support for this from what is explained in that aforementioned essay, that via these story tales a barren woman becomes impregnated.]

Source: Chayey Moharan Part 1: Conversations, Stories and Circumstances Surrounding All the Torahs and Stories, Pertaining to the Torahs 25, by Nathan of Breslov, the chief disciple and scribe of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.

The third thing the Rabbi said attracted my attention the most; especially because I was wondering why it appears in the same context with the first two. Changing the Tzadik to storyteller, the Rabbi’s idea reads:

The world says that the true storyteller of towering stature does not need much money, because why should he need money? But I said that there is such a contemplative understanding [of the Torah] for which one (a storyteller) needs all the fortune of the world.

You’re invited to stick your teeth into this. Just a friendly reminder – sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. This isn’t the case. Here, every word, description, title, idea, might be hiding or echoing something else. And… Rebbe Nachman of Breslov was an amazing storyteller. He knew something about our art.

Your turn.

We won’t have to talk. Jolly good?

By Limor Shiponi

“My father says that in ten years from now, we won’t have to talk anymore. Using special technologies, we’ll just have to think and things will happen.” Coming from a 14 years old gifted teenager, who said it during a storytelling session for young writers. All the other participants, aged 14 and gifted – nodded in approval. The idea seemed perfectly reasonable to them.

None of them stirred up the question, “but who will be operating and controlling that technology?” None of them came up with any second thoughts about what will happen to freedom of speech.

“The boy’s father told him grandma has died. That was of course sad,” said one of the boys while telling us a story. “Then the boy remembered the book she gave him when he was much younger, and found great significance in realizing he remembered the book, of all things, when his father told him the sad news. He understood the book was pretty important to him and that remembering it pointed at a significant connection between him and his grandmother.”

Huh?!

The group was ‘respectable’ and disengaged.

“You mean there is a ten years old boy sitting at the breakfast table – can you see him? Can you see his father? Can you see the kitchen, the food on the table?” I asked. “Yep, now I can,” he answered. “Now his father looks at him and says ‘grandma died last night’. What happened next?” “The boy felt something rising in his body, making its way fast into his throat. He pushed back the chair and ran up to his room, crying all the way. When he reached his room, he threw himself on the bed, still crying. Then he saw the book she gave him when he was five. He got up, grabbed it, and returned to the bed hugging the book, still crying over it. His mind was empty.”

The group was a little less ‘respectable’ and very engaged.

Bad news – kids’ brains have been messed up. Good news – it’s pretty easy to fix.

An exercise in giving feedback

By Limor Shiponi
exercise
Sourse: Dreamstime

Just back from a storytelling training session with something I want to share:

When training, participants expect me to give them feedback, which I do. Often I can sense they are flabbergasted, “how does she know how to hit the nail on its head?” while on other occasions they’ll be wondering, “that’s what she chose to say when there are other, much greater evident issues?”

What I choose to say answers one specific thought: what do I need to tell this person, that will help him or her move with their storytelling one small step ahead?

One thing at a time, because that’s all a person can intake and really do something about. If I say more, I’ll confuse them.

I tend to push my students to give feedback – about their own work, about others’. Often, when I ask them to do so, they set off on an elaborate voyage, lacking real language to express what they see, where the gaps are. Out of fear to heart a fellow student or fear of retaliation, they eventually reside to “niceness”. It is often useless and grows elephants of various sizes that dwell in rooms. If they do say something useful they often get caught in preaching about the way they would do it – which is obviously better – in their eyes. This leaves the objective of their feedback feeling rather empty and patronized, if not hurt.

So this time I decided to tell them about the way I do it, paraphrasing it a little:

“What is the single thing I can see, that if would be done different, would make the storytelling of this particular story by this particular storyteller, a little more compelling – to me?”

The nice outcome of this exercise was – no more feedback with subtexts that sounded like, “look, to tell you the truth, I think you better go have plastic surgery.”

The good outcome of this exercise was – they were specific and to the point. What they said had a high level of usability. You understand where it needs to get to, but no one is forcing your choice of action about how to get there.

The great outcome of this exercise was – one of the students taking her words back to reconsider the feedback she just gave. She suddenly realized the feedback was something she would like to hear if she was making the same mistakes, not truthful to the request, “would make the storytelling of this particular story by this particular storyteller, a little more compelling – to me”.  “Me” being  – an audience member, not the storyteller herself.

One recommendation: for each participant, let up to three people give feedback. After the storyteller receives their input, collect the three ideas into one main issue that needs to be addressed, practiced and solved. As I’ve mentioned earlier – we can’t do very well with more than one issue to look into at a time.

To the storyteller yesterday is still here

By Limor Shiponi
Source: Wikimedia under fair use. Click the picture for details.

“When a day passes, it is no longer there. What remains of it? Nothing more than a story. If stories weren’t told or books weren’t written, humans would live like the beasts, only for the day.

Reb Zebulun said, “Today we live, but by tomorrow today will be a story. The whole world, all human life, is one long story.” Children are as puzzled by passing time as grownups. What happens to a day once it is gone? Where are all our yesterdays with their joys and sorrows? Literature helps us remember the past, with its many moods. To the storyteller yesterday is still here as are the years and the decades gone by.

In stories time does not vanish. Neither do people and animals. For the writer and his readers, all creatures go on living forever. What happened long ago is still present.”

–Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nobel laureate, from Zlateh the Goat