photo by Sanja Gjenero
Giving live performances of your stories is a great way of developing a platform for your work and getting direct responses from an audience. Opportunities for the spoken word can also be found on radio and online. Best known of these is the Radio 4 Afternoon Reading but there’s nothing to stop you recording your own stories and posting them on your website or blog for others to hear.
Stand-up comedy and performance poetry gigs abound but opportunities to perform short stories are rarer. If you live in the South West, as I do, consider subscribing to the Spoken/Written Bulletin S.W. and checking out the Cyprus Well calendar. You’ll find some short story events listed in the Events section of the Resources here at Thresholds. It would be good to see a few more events included in this list, particularly those outside of the South of England, so please contact the administrator to have your own suggestions added.
There are also numerous other ‘open mic’ slots available in mixed music/comedy /poetry events but do think carefully about what will fit in this format. You will probably find that a funny five-minute flash fiction will be more welcome than a twenty-minute literary masterpiece. If at all possible, go along and listen to get a feel for the venue and style of the event first. I’ve performed my own stories on a boat, at a mill, in bookshops, tents, theatres, in a crypt, in the open air and even in a disused toilet block. I’ve told my stories to a few people sitting on hay bales and to whole halls at a literature festival. The world is full of venues.
Be aware that many storytelling events are based around the oral tradition. This is a very different approach to storytelling and improvising, compared with writing stories on the screen or page and then reading them aloud. There may or may not be a place for those who produce written stories but find out what the ethos is and be respectful of this. For example, the Bath Storytelling Circle, where I have told a few of my tiny stories in the past, explicitly ask that you perform from memory. If you are asked to tell your story without reading it then be sure that you either have it comitted to memory or are happy to improvise an original telling.
There are a few, fairly obvious, golden rules to follow when performing your own stories. Firstly, think very carefully about the story you are going to read and, if you have any choice in the matter, whether it is the most suitable piece for performance. In general, things that are funny, dramatic or colloquial will go down better than more subtle, nuanced, descriptive stories. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t read your Bridport short-listed masterpiece to an audience, but do think very hard about how you are going to keep them engaged.
Print your story out in a large font and avoid page breaks in the middle of a sentence. Honestly, I’m not joking, it’s amazing how many times people forget to do this. Depending on your venue you may find that the lighting conditions aren’t ideal. If you need reading glasses….use them! This isn’t a fashion parade. Practise turning the pages smoothly. Be sure that you know the length of the time slot that you have to perform in and stick to it. Never over-run your alloted time. There’s no excuse for not checking how long your story will take to read aloud. After all, you’re going to practise it first in front of a mirror, arent’ you? And if you’re a real masochist there’s no substitute for recording it too so you can listen back to it and judge for youself how it sounds.
When reading, try not to fidget in a way that will distract your audience. Make yourself heard and try to do a quick sound check beforehand to ensure that you will be. If you’re not clearly introduced by name then do so yourself. This makes sure that the audience at least knows who you are, and gives you a few seconds to just settle in to speaking to them. Wasting your whole slot telling them your entire autobiography makes less sense.
Take your time reading, don’t rush, and don’t be afraid to take a break if you need it; pauses are much much better than gabbling. If the story contains dialogue then consider how you are going to characterise the different voices and be consistent about this. Try to avoid reading in a monotone and give your story some life. Make eye contact with your audience as often as possible. Keeping a finger on the page will help to give you confidence that you won’t lose your place.
If all of this seems a bit daunting as a starting point, then why not have a storytelling evening with writing friends to give everyone a chance to practise in a friendly environment. The last week of November 2010 was dubbed National Short Story Week which provided the excuse for several short story events in Bristol, my nearest city. Maybe you could organise your own event to celebrate the short story in 2011. There’s no need to wait until November.
Obviously, performing live isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but if you write fiction for publication then sooner or later you are likely to be invited to give a reading and you want to make sure that you can do your stories justice. There are also opportunities emerging for audio stories in a range of other media. It’s definitely worth considering as a way of disseminating your stories as an alternative or addition to traditional publication routes. And if I still haven’t convinced you, then try reading your own stories aloud to yourself, simply as an editing and reviewing tool to hear which edges and corners don’t work when you give them voice.