Sunday, August 30, 2015

My Storytelling Odyssey

Jana Segal performing at Odyssey Storytelling 
When I first started storytelling, I would try to memorize the whole story – since I was accustomed to memorizing monologues for acting auditions.  Glenda Bonin, my storytelling mentor, kept nudging me to get rid of the script and just tell it.  And there were times when I experienced a glimpse of actual telling – by sheer chance. Like the first time I attempted to tell my pioneer story without reading it. I was still struggling with memorization when I arrived at Bookmans for the performance. The only audience, aside from other storytellers, was a mother and her two children. At some point in the story, my mind went blank. But this little audience was my saving grace. I looked into their eager eyes and told the story just for them.  

Since then I have been working on becoming less nervous and more conversational in my storytelling.  So when Glenda invited me to perform at the Teller of Tales summer gathering, I thought it was a great opportunity to practice just that. I wanted to share something cheerful, so I decided to tell about how my son Josh had made it into the Haidong Gumdo World Championships in Korean sword dance. I brainstormed all the incidents that led up to this accomplishment - like how he was famous for dancing with his French horn in the bleachers at football games or for doing his own version of hip hop in the high school halls during lunch. I outlined (on file cards) all of his creative projects that may have contributed to his Israeli-inspired sword dance – including creating claymation Canaanite characters.  I composed my opening line, “Josh has always marched to the beat of his own drum – especially when he was in the Catalina Magnet High School marching band.”

Joshua Segal at Haidong Gumdo World Championships
As an experiment I went over the list again and again, but purposely didn’t practice it out loud. I wanted to see if it would be more conversational if I just spoke off the top of my head.  I should have at least practiced the opening line because when I got on stage I groped around for it. I eventually warmed up. (I always enjoy performing in front of an audience.) Somewhere along the way, I got side-tracked from my outline, and just started blabbing. I admitted how frustrated I was that my smart, creative son - who was so full of promise - was given mind-numbing drugs right before his trip to Korea.  Caught up in this train of thought, I forgot the big payoff – describing how he honored his Jewish heritage by dancing to Hava Nagila and two other Jewish folk songs. It was so anticlimactic. I wanted to hop back on stage and fix it.  And I would have too, if the MC (Glenda) had let me.

Knowing how frustrated I was, Glenda called the next morning to offer sympathy and advice. She said that it was really brave when I shared my true feelings and that the audience had really connected to it. She suggested that next time I concentrate more on my own feelings and how I was proud of Joshua. She said the audience will really relate to it and that it will make Joshua proud, too.
A few days later Odyssey Storytelling sent out a call for stories about “Detours.” It was an opportunity to put Glenda’s advice into action! Odyssey would give me a chance to practice it twice – at the rehearsal and at the performance. At the rehearsal, the other tellers and facilitators would also give valuable feedback for shaping my story.  This time I was going to make sure to include how proud I was of Josh and fully describe his experience at the sword dance competition.

Characters from Josh (Killetz) Segal's film, "Bronze"  
And I did manage to include it. But I was sort of… off, sort of stiff. One of the storytellers described my performance as episodic – like reciting a list of episodes. He said that I was more engaging when I told the group about Josh afterwards. I had described how Josh focused on himself when he danced, looking down at the floor. That guy said that he could tell so much more about Josh by how I acted out that little bit. The other tellers wanted to see more of me in it - more of how I felt about what happened.  On the bus ride home, I jotted down their great advice.

After that rehearsal, I realized that I needed some way into the story that would propel me to the end. I had planned on practicing some more on the day of the performance – holding a hair brush like a microphone (as they recommended at Odyssey).  But that morning Josh messaged me about his actors backing out on him. He had been rushing to finish his claymation for a screening the next day at The Loft Cinema’s First Friday Shorts. I spent the entire day contacting actors for him.

That became the angle I was looking for. I would start with how I had spent the day helping Josh with his claymation project. I would just share it with the audience like I would a friend. Instead of a last minute (panicked) rehearsal while I dressed, I relaxed with a leisurely shower.  While we waited for the bus, I asked my boyfriend if I could tell him about Josh’s experience. When I got stuck on a word, I stopped to figure it out, then went back to telling the story. A woman at the bus stop was eavesdropping. She looked shocked when I messed up and said, “Shoot! Can I start again?”

Odyssey Storytelling at the Screening Room
My performance wasn’t perfect. I groped for a few words. I have no idea what my free hand was doing. But I really enjoyed sharing Josh’s story with the audience and they seemed to be with me. The thing I am most proud of is that I didn’t beat myself up for my mistakes. I realized it was all a part of the process. In the lobby before the show, I told a friend that I had no idea how this was going to turn out. “It is what it is.” I achieved what I was working on - being less nervous and more conversational. I think it was because I believed in the process.

The next day, I waited nervously as Josh watched a recording of the performance.  He looked thoughtful for a moment, then asked if he could post it on his Facebook page.

Josh was proud.