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.


Kevin Cordi said...

Simon, There is a place for these stories. What I would say perhaps you need to explain more to set the tone for the world they will enter. It sounds like you did whatever you could to condition it, but maybe you needed to give them more spaces to consider where they are and what they were going with your story. However all this said, you can't be responsible for what they see and where it takes them. I don't believe your story was out of place but perhaps they need to know the full journey, tell them later that you would tell light-hearted stories but now they...tell on Simon

Carolyn Stearns said...

A true dilemna! I for one avoid dark, as in Poe dark.I do tell war stories, but I think I find an approach to them to keep them something my audience and I can live with in our heads. Poe gave me the creeps as a kid and I have avoided him ever since, I will continue to avoid him. May be some of those who left went to 8th grade with me and feel the same way.

Laura said...

I've had this happen to me, too. I think Kevin nailed it - we *need* these stories, we need to face the dark and survive, that's what dark stories allow us to do. Setting the context allows the audience to decide if this is a dark they want to face. It also tells them ahead of time that this is a rough ride, be prepared.

Good for you for tackling it and I hope you try it again.

WorldofStories said...

Hi Laura,
The general consensus, which I totally agree with (hind-sight is wonderful), is that I needed to earn the trust of the audience BEFORE telling that story. Most of the folks there did not know me. And starting off by saying it was 'me' and using my name was a bad choice. I should have built trust and then gone in with the story. But it was a great learning experience. And I love to learn!

JJM said...

The problem, as I see it, in a nutshell: Poe wrote a creepy tale of a cat betraying a murderer to the police. You [seem to have] told a tale of abuse and murder as a The Moth-like confession. This particular story needs the distance of time to be successful, I think -- not unlike fairy tales. It doesn't have enough of the supernatural to differentiate itself from modern reality.

"Tell-Tale Heart" would work better. Or, if you want a really, really creepy story for the strong of heart and stomach: "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar".

Alternatively ... have you considered H.P. Lovecraft?--Mario R.

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Storytelling is art, you have to push the boundaries, stretch yourself. You will never know how far you can go until you've gone too far.
A few years ago I had people stop the show and chastise me for telling a story that was too scary, after they walked out the rest of the crowd clammered for me to finish the story, I was shaken, but finished. A couple of years later I received hate mail for a story I told that was too scary - it was at a concert of scary stories for adults.
Both of these experiences left me gun-shy for a long time, until it got to the point that kids complained my stories weren't scary.
Stories about Golden Arms and Taily Pos are no where near as scary as stories about child abuse and alcoholism because these horrors are too easy to conjure into our minds. It's a tough tight-rope to walk.
Learn from the experience, but don't let it set you back the way it did me. Eventually I took all my really scary stories and compiled them into a show called "Too Scary" that is generating lot of interest.

WorldofStories said...

I was thinking about the Tell-Tale Heart but everyone and their mother does that! I was looking for something a little different. I do not think that the format with which I told it was wrong, I think it worked really well, but I think I should have gained trust first and not used my own name, so it was not so real-life confessional.
Thanks for very much your ideas and suggestions. I need to look into Lovecraft...

Kids ALWAYS tell me the stories are not scarey enough, but I never take it over the edge. The last thing I want to do is give kids nightmares or put them off spooky tales for life. Let them have their innocence and desire for more for as long as possible. There are some times when I get excited I think: well, maybe I could tell... but then KNOW in my heart of hearts it might be too much!

But with adults, it is different. Most folks at my performance stayed and thanked my afterwards, and said they enjoyed being freaked or creeped out! And I agree about pushing yourself into new places. That was definitely the case with this story.

I like your idea of putting all the really scary stuff in one show.

Thanks for both of your comments.

JJM said...

Sorry, should have written "a story like 'Tell-Tale Heart'" -- something with more of an edge of the fantastic. Didn't mean to suggest you had to tell that one specifically. And, yes, putting the story into a better context (or, as you put it, gaining the trust of the audience first) would make a lot of difference.

As for Lovecraft ... one could argue he couldn't write his way out of a paper bag, but he could set a mood and send shivers up your spine like nobody's business, and some of those stories, told in a more modern idiom, would be dynamite in your hands.

Thanks for your patience. --Mario R.

Priscilla said...

Simon, I think you've had some good response here. I'd agree that you might need to warm the audience up before you chill them. I recently told a really creepy story in a concert for adults. It was a house concert (in my own house) and one response was "Don't tell that one again." I've had kids request that specific story again, though, so who knows.