Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Fine and Fragile Art of Storytelling

People often make the mistake of thinking that storytelling is something that comes naturally to everyone. Why? Because, as children, we listened to our parents read to us or tell us stories as a means of lulling us to sleep.

My father told my sister and I stories about a little boy named Pinky (who was only as big as one's little finger). In many primitive societies, oral histories help to preserve a cultural heritage which has been passed down from one generation to another (check out Hawaiian mythology for some grand stories explaining how the Hawaiian gods interacted with nature).

As one matures, the stories one heard as a child may seem too simplistic to satisfy an increasingly sophisticated palate. Great performers like Leonie Rysanek have been praised with the words "I'd pay money to hear that woman recite the phone book!" If one is lucky, one basks in the glow of such practiced professional storytellers as Charlie Varon, Dan Hoyle, and Martin Dockery.

Monologists never have to worry about giving up control or sharing the spotlight with others. But when a small theatrical troupe sets out to tell a story, it's possible that too many cooks will spoil the broth.

When good storytelling takes place, the results can be magical. When the craft of telling a story is weighed down with bad production values, bad acting, poor editing, and incompetent stage direction, the venture is doomed to implode under its own weight. Needless to say, Mike Daisey has a few theories about how this can happen.

Two small theatre troupes  recently attempted to enchant audiences at the San Francisco Fringe Festival. I found it fascinating to observe the contrast between a well-disciplined group of actors creating an ethereal experience that left the audience floating on air and a horribly misconceived, sadly overproduced mess.

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Live theatre could not exist without people who suffer from delusions of grandeur. While necessity has often been called the mother of invention, few people like to talk about her evil twin, the woman who never knows when enough is enough.

If anyone were to ask me for a prime example of how not to tell a story onstage I would immediately point them to Philia The Musical. Written by Evangeline Crittenden (with music and lyrics by Nick Rattray), this sad excuse for a musical made 60 minutes feel like a lifetime spent in storyland hell with a prince, a princess, a frog, a witch, a beast and some of their very bestest friends! Here's the Kickstarter video for the show:

The basic story is the stuff of which fairy tales are made. While the power of transformation lies in the magic kisses of Helena (Derricka Smith), her willingness to share them freely has a curious effect on others.
  • A shy high school bassoonist becomes an obnoxious jock.
  • A beast turns into a man.
  • A frog turns into a prince.
Most men kissed by Helena instantly ask her to marry them and are a bit confused when she turns them down. However, in the eyes of her peers, Helena's free kisses have turned her into a slut. Crittenden (who appears in her play as a manipulative witch) writes in her program note:
"When Traci Chee approached me about creating a performance based on her short story, Philematophilia, I imagined a small-scale performance, a staged reading of sorts, and maybe a discussion afterwards. Then I read the story. It just begged to become a musical.  The themes of love, transformation, ostracism, and soul searching leapt off the page and into the realm of song. One of the things I find most delightful about her writing is the ornate intricacies of her words, the long winding sentences that twist and double back on themselves and end somewhere you never could have predicted.  But these long sentences, when spoken out loud, sometimes get lost and tangled in one's ear.

Translating Traci's work into a completely different media was a lot more difficult than I imagined. I was loathe to cut or change any of Traci's words. 'I don't want to kill your darlings!' I told her at one point. 'Kill 'em,' she said. 'This is yours now.'"
Evangeline Crittenden as The Witch in Philia The Musical

Did you notice what happened there? The work's original creator was willing to let someone else be ruthless with her art while the adapter was already suffering an acute attack of preciousness.

But, as Barack Obama famously said to Mitt Romney during a fateful debate, "Please proceed." As the play's Associate Director and Co-Producer, Wesley Newfarmer, notes:
"As the process progressed and we discussed themes of high school adolescence, slut-shaming, and the nature of personal decision-making, we realized the show was bigger than Alice in Wonderland or Calvin and Hobbes. With the wonderful cast and inspiring music, we've created a true piece of art. I've pompously likened it to Salvador Dali -- it may not resonate with everyone. Some folks may not find humor in the exact same moments we do, but it will encourage thought and hopefully move you."
Philia The Musical moved me in the wrong direction thanks to its inept script, incompetent direction, and unnecessarily fussy production values (imagine how this show  might have improved if all the time and money spent on creating and positioning props had, instead, been focused on eliminating bad ideas). Among the supporting players were Marlena Zahm, Cole Medeiros, Tim Silva, and Caitlin T. Austin. Let it be noted that the cast's abundance of enthusiasm was every bit as remarkable as their lack of craft. Here's the trailer:

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Whereas Philia suffered from a severe case of juvenile overreaching, Nightingale proved to be that rare and thrilling surprise: an exciting piece of musical theatre that is willing and able to let the work speak for itself. Written by Gia Battista (who co-directed the work with Rob Salas and also narrated the performance), Nightingale was presented by the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble. Ironically, this show deals with some of the same themes as Philia.  As Battista explains:
"This piece is heavily inspired by the main story line of Philomela in Ovid's Metamorphoses and Laustic, a poem by Marie de France. This is the third iteration of Nightingale. The show is introduced as an adventure (as it has been produced twice prior to its presentation here at the Fringe; it has gone on quite an adventure itself).  Theme: female empowerment. Find humor in the horrors of life. Invest in moments of solace. Self love is key. Maintain sovereignty."
Poster art for Nightingale

Although Nightingale is described as "a piece that draws on classical texts that feature the nightingale (from Ovid to Keats) in order to tell a story that addresses modern-day oppression of the female voice," it is a remarkably straightforward tale of a woman who had always been a kind and generous person. Although Marie was quick to come to the aid of others without ever asking anything in return for herself, she married a man who hated noise (especially the sounds made by the nightingale who lived near his home).

After her husband killed the nightingale that had cheered Marie, she returned home to beg for help from her sister (who hatches quite a magnificent payback scheme to avenge the man who had cut out Marie's tongue). With Richard Chowenhill on guitar and Adam Smith on percussion, the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble provided a surprisingly sophisticated soundscape for Nightingale, with sopranos Gabby Battista, April Fritz, and Tracy Hazas providing vocals while portraying various roles.

Although the performances of Nightingale at the San Francisco Fringe Festival lacked the lighting and scenic elements seen in the above photos from previous productions, the show was a delight from start to finish -- demonstrating solid musical theatre work that had been masterfully conceived and executed with great skill. Kudos to all involved!

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