Liz Warren’s List of Differences Between Storytelling and Theatre

Story Teller - photo by Nick Piggott

I’ve been updating my syllabus for the graduate-level class on storytelling that I will teach for the Indiana University School of Library and Information Science (SLIS) on the Indianapolis (IUPUI) campus next semester. 

I am excited because five students have already signed up.  I’m sure the university would like there to be more than five students in order to pay the bills, but from a teaching point of view, five is not bad.  Students get to hear four other telling styles besides mine, yet they still get a lot of chances to tell themselves. 

The smallest group I ever taught had three students in it.  I liked all three of those students just as people, so the challenge that year was making sure that we continued to explore storytelling in a scholarly way rather than spend each class just gabbing. 

The largest group I ever taught had twenty-four students in it. I thought I was going to die on the last day of class, trying to evaluate twenty-four tellers sharing twenty-four different stories.  It was too many “worlds” to take in at once.  I went home after that story listening marathon and just lay on my bed and quivered for a day or two.  If I ever have that many students again, I will structure the course differently.  

Five-ten students is ideal for me, but in any case I will tweak my syllabus according to the number of students I have when the semester begins.

I have decided to use Liz Warren’s new book, The Oral Tradition Today: An Introduction to the Art of Storytelling, as our textbook.  Even though she wrote it to use with the more general, undergraduate class on “The Art of Storytelling” that she teaches at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix, Arizona, I think it will work well for my graduate-level workshop on storytelling in libraries, especially when supplemented with library-related articles.  I like the way each chapter in Warren’s book includes a few teaching stories as well as instruction and theory.

Early on in the book (page 6), Warren addresses the question, “What is the difference between storytelling and theatre?”  I love her answer:

Although many modern storytellers have a background in theatre, there are some fundamental differences between being a storyteller and an actor, and between a storytelling event and a play.

  • First, most storytellers do not memorize a script as actors do. They prefer to learn (but not memorize) a story – thoroughly and deeply – so that when they are telling it, they can respond freely to the particular audience in attendance. This provides dynamism, unpredictability, and freshness to storytelling that is very satisfying for both the teller and the listener.
  • A storyteller does not maintain the persona of a single character. The teller portrays all the characters in the story while remaining herself.
  • Actors generally relate to other actors on the stage rather than directly to the audience. In the theatre, there is the concept of the fourth wall, an invisible wall through which the audience witnesses the events on stage. In storytelling there is no fourth wall, or if there is, it is behind the audience. Storytellers seek to establish a relationship with the audience, at least for the duration of the story, and believe that the stronger the connection between them and the audience, the stronger the impact of the story. In some storytelling events, a high degree of participation from the audience is expected and encouraged.
  • Storytellers do not use directors. In theatre, the director is responsible for interpreting the text and directing the actors in fulfilling the vision. In a storytelling event, the teller is responsible for the interpretation of the story, its development and delivery. Storytellers do, however, often use coaches who help them interpret and actualize their vision of the story.
  • Storytellers do not use sets, props, or costumes. A storyteller seeks to create a world inside the listener’s mind. It is her job to communicate this with words and her body rather than with objects. In this sense, the story is co-created by the teller and the listener in the moment of the telling. Many storytellers believe that props, sets, and costumes can interfere with this process.

Of course, there are exceptions to every single one of the above points.  Some storytellers use directors, some use props and costumes, some portray a character while telling, and some memorize.  Nonetheless, the distinctions above would apply to most tellers.

Thank you, thank you, Liz, for articulating this!  And thanks for taking a sabbatical to write the whole book.  I am looking forward to teaching with it.

Hope Baugh –

7 thoughts on “Liz Warren’s List of Differences Between Storytelling and Theatre”

  1. Hi, Hope. Sounds like fun! If you need another storyteller for a “neutral” kind of experience (neither teacher nor student), let me and/or Karen know. We’re about as different as you can get. 🙂

    Take care,
    Michael Perry

  2. Reading Ms. Warren’s comparison (and contrasting–constrastion?) of storytelling and theater was very interesting. I might add (as an actor myself) that the nice thing about being in a theatrical performance is, you have the luxury of being someone else, whereas a storyteller, at some point, has to eventually surface as him- or herself, even if he or she is voicing multiple characters.

    I dunno. I prefer being mysterious. The thing is, I’ve seen storytellers who spend so much time setting up their story that their storytelling session ends up becoming a chalk talk. BORRRRRRRING! But…if a storyteller has a good story to tell and is him- or herself a compelling speaker, it can be a riveting performance. It’s hard to go wrong when you’ve got good material. Nevertheless, it does happen.

    Good luck with the storytelling class, Ms. Amaryllis!

  3. By the way, sometimes I copy my blog posts to the front page of On SI, Erik Deckers commented on this post:

    “The difference between story telling and theatre is the same as the difference between radio theatre and TV. Once forces you to use your imagination, the other shows you what it is.”

  4. Hope – I’m so delighted that you are going to be using The Oral Tradition Today! And thank you for letting people know about the book through your blog. Priscilla pushed me the posting. I’m going to put you into google reader so I can keep up with your postings.

  5. Thanks very much, Liz! I just turned in my syllabus last night. I’m looking forward to teaching the class again but with your book.

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