J. Michael Shew
jshewkc at pei.edu
Tue Jul 29 10:41:52 PDT 1997
Sorry, this is Mikal here, with too much time on my hands and a
pint of stout. If you wanna delete this, go ahead.
You know, this sounds surprisingly like the conversation I had
with a few drummers this Lilies war. One of them told me "I can't stand
stories that run over five minutes." Yet regaled me with a tale of
drumming for an hour non-stop.
The point here is that we all have limits to our attention spans.
I like dancing and drumming, but I find it monotonous after about fifteen
minutes. I like songs, but if the thing lasts twenty minutes, (or even
seven if the performer is less than on key,) I may look interested, but I
am really doing a mental inventory of the beer cooler or composing a new
poem in my head. Each of us has a limited span of attention, particularly
for art forms that we do not understand.
In this modern age, the oral tradition of story telling is almost
a dead art outside of a few special interest areas. I learned to tell
stories from the older members of my family. Some of their tales could
last an hour or two, while others seemed to be of the three minute variety
and almost fit into the "It's a joke, son" category. Being a duitiful
child I learned all of them. And I learned the secret my Great Uncle Tom
told me from the very beginning: No one wants to hear everything you can
I do stories from the "Thousand and One Nights". But I do them
in versions that my audience will appreciate. (For those of you who
know me, the Tale of Two Perfect Geese, the Shoes of the Miser, and
The Wise Mulah are all from this source.) Granted, the materal as it was
written was perfect for it's time in both length and style. But my
audiences are not from that time. My versions are shorter and lean more
toward the modern sense of humor.
(for example, the original ending of the Tale of the Geese has a
witty poetic verse that although I felt it was funny, I also knew it
would fall flat on the modern ear. I substituted a one-line zinger that
encapsulated the idea and caught the listener off guard.)
True, I know and can do a lot of period material, (particularly
Norse) in the original form. (But in English of course!) However, I
have to admit that the audiences for such material is limited. The
average SCA member might be as fascinated as I am by the subtle turn of
phrase that Snorri had, given a year or two to absorb enough of the
stories to realize that the form is far more than just a simple relaying
of facts. But that does not mean they will understand and love it the
first fifty times I tell them.
Don't get me wrong, I am not calling anyone under educated or
lazy. I myself have a very low tollerance to late period Spanish tales,
and to Moorish songs. This does not mean that I would never learn to
appreciate them. I just have not taken the time to expose myself to a
source for any length of time.
Also, although I will sit and listen to a longish, (and some of
them are several hours long,) Norse, Japanese, or Scots tale, I will not
abide a television show for more than half an hour, or a commercial at any
I have also walked out of movie theatres on many occasions after only
ten min. of a film.
I must agree with Thomas on one point though; Storytelling
needs to be kept alive. The worst thing we do in this organization is
that we teach most of the other bardic arts, (poetry, song,
instrumental,etc.) but neglect to teach the basics of telling a tale. The
most we do is point someone in the direction of good material and say, "if
you tell that one, you'll be great!"
The truth of the matter is the old adage, "it is not the teller,
but the tale" is propaganda created by a writer. A fantastic story cannot
make up for a pitiful attempt to tell it. A truly
gifted/practiced/creative storyteller can tell the driest piece and make
it come alive! The reason many of our audiences cannot abide ten to
twenty minute tales is that we have few really good teachers of
Thomas: Do you teach? You and I are both storytellers. But if
we do not get out and raise a few new ones, we will soon be all alone in
this Society, (that is you, I, and the few others that remain!)
I am sorry, I do not mean to rant. My artform will die out
sometime soon if I don't teach it. Therefore I have sworn to keep
students. True, I teach them poetry and song. (I cannot play an
instrument, I send them to others for that!) But secretly I try to make
them tell tales. I listen to their delivery, then tell them what does and
doesn't work, and why. I show them how to research. I show them what
constitutes humor, and why it is funny that Baron Whatzit was missing his
coronet,and that he is bald, and therefore the "naked head" line only
works if someone knows that baron. I sit for hours listening, and then
patienly tell them what they don't want to hear, but should. I teach them
how to judge an audience, and what to do if you were wrong/bored them
to tears. I tell them time and again that failure in this artform is not
a death sentence. But it could mean you have to start over to build your
I do this because it is possible to tell thirty minute tales if
you are good, (scratch that, D*&%ned good!) and your audience is willing.
If youare good enough, length is not a hurdle.
As to the rhino-bards mentioned once again when Thomas told
how long his tales can be; It's true, if you are good at telling tales
you can dominate a fire, (I don't, unless it was by the command of the
host, as in I was invited as the sole entertainment for the evening.)
Most of us know that. I have been the new kid in the camp while an
established, well-known bard was present, and found out that unless that
bard was newby-friendly or the fire was willing to give a new kid a chance,
I had little hope of performing. I am sure that Thomas was not trying to
tell us all that he shoots down bards or keeps a notch on his staff for
every "kill" he does at a fire.
Nowadays I am the big bard. I make a point of letting others
perform as much as I do, (or as much as I can. You can only suggest to a
host, you cannot argue.) And many of the bards who fire-walk around the
camps with me do not have as deep a well of memorized pieces as I
have. I will always try to cover for a comrades lack of material. As a
teacher it is my duty not to let my students get frustrated. At least not
enough so that they quit altogether.
In big circles, it is rarely a problem. The turn is so long away
that you do only three or so pieces a night. Since I run the circle at
our camps' fire, it is strictly a "when the turn comes around" thing. And
twenty min. stories are out for that type of venue.
Well, I have rambled on way too much. Thank you for your
Mikal the Ram; an annoying Bard of no redeeming qualities
__________________________(jshewkc at pei.edu)________________________________
The Swan-Road is our for the season
And Sword-wine is all that we spend
The Gold and the Grain that we gather
To wander the way of the wind
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