Thursday, September 13, 2012

When Story and Audience Don't Mix

Original art by Pump The Beat, released into public domain via Wikipedia
As a storyteller who tells predominantly stories that are filled with noises and movement and are generally for "kids of all ages", I was a little taken aback when I first experienced people walking out of "my adult show".  Did I do a bad job?  Was it the wrong story?

I have been working on telling Edgar Allen Poe's The Black Cat for a little while.  It is not a light tale. But how many of his tales are? It is by far the darkest story I have ever taken hold of.  I was struggling with how to tell the story when I had the idea of telling from a modern point of view. For those who do not know the story, it begins with the narrator telling us he was a meek and loving child who liked pets. He was picked on at school. He got married to a woman who also loved animals. He becomes a drunk who verbally then physically abuses his pets and wife, in particular his black cat, Pluto.  He eventually kills the black cat. Depending on how you read it, the 'monster' comes back to haunt him or is reincarnated to taunt him. He trips down the cellar stairs by the cat, goes to kill the animal, but ends up killing his wife instead.  In typical Poe spirit, the body is walled up in the basement.  The police come to investigate and on tapping the wall which hides his wife's body comes a howl "as if from the throats of the damned and the demons of damnation".  The police pull the wall down, and the very much alive cat was mistakenly walled in with the body, the former howled when the wall was struck. Narrator is in line for the gallows. Obviously this is a very brief run down of the story which would normally run at six pages of letterhead - short for Poe.

My modernization of the story, and retaining the Poe first person narrative gives it, to me, a gravity which might be lost if told in third person. Trying to tell Poe in his own words would loose most modern audiences looking for mere entertainment, due to his verbiage, which is verbose!  The story is not for the light-hearted either. Subjects like alcoholism and abuse are never far from any of us in the real world.  I was very recently  informed that 32% of women have suffered some sort of physical abuse.  I have not checked this fact but sadly can believe it to be true. It is also about animal abuse which some people can tolerate less than abuse to fellow humans.  I knew all this (although not the 32%  bit) when I started to learn The Black Cat.  And I wanted to tell the story because of those things.  As well as the fact that it is a damn creepy tale.

I have read books on addiction and stories of abuse (such as Roddy Doyle's amazing, brutal The Woman Who Walked into Walls).  I cannot sit and watch a movie when a woman or child is being violated without a violent reaction coming from within me.  Several times I nearly walked out of The Cook, the Lover, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover because I did not like the abuse in it and after the movie ended I wished I had and asked for my money back (I am not, on the whole, a big Greenaway fan anyway).

There was something inside me that was able to connect to the 'sad child who went bad' of Poe's Black Cat and put on the clothes of that character.  It made me shaky, it got me amped-up in a way that made me pace backwards and forwards between practicing the tale.  This has never happened to me before with such strength. And that, in part, was why I felt I had to tell the story. I was being possessed by the story.

And then I told it.  Maybe it was because I used it as an opener (so I could then fill people's mind with fun and silly and slightly rude afterwards). Maybe because it was done in the first person and even though the story was introduced by the host as a retelling of a Poe story, people were taken aback when I limped onto the stage and began: "Hi.  My name is Simon and I’m an alcoholic.  This is my first meeting on the inside."
Maybe I should have used a different name - Ed, for example. Maybe the pauses were too long allowing people to think too much.  Maybe, someone later suggested, some of the audience did not want to re-live something they had already gone through.

Talking with this person the next day (this person had walked out), I was given a glimpse at what dark stories can do.  When my wife and I talked about it, she asked why I hadn't told uplifting stories instead?  Why did I have to tell such a dark story?  I have to search within myself to find out why and see if I want to keep telling the story, knowing that there might be some who leave. Should I tell a story that brings up experiences folks do not want to re-live?  The person I spoke to said that people always have the chance to leave.  It doesn't have to be physical or animal abuse that makes people leave, it could be political view points, it could be bad memories triggered by an uplifting story. You don't know how a story will touch a listener.

Did I do a bad job?  Was it the wrong story?  I don't think I did a bad job.  I think I did a good job. Did I tell the wrong story?  For some, yes.  And I am left with the thought: do I want to tell a spooky, creepy story most folks enjoy, but which might bring up horrific memories for a few others?  I am left with a lesson to learn and a question in need of an answer.