The “Human-ish Podcast” talks about storytelling

Posted: November 11th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Blog | Tags: , , | No Comments »

The “Human-ish” Podcast, creation of Dinaay Sharma, is an exploration of the fundamentals of the human experience, whether that be an interview about the nature of the mind or the importance of movement or the role of storytelling.

You can guess which episode I was part of, right?

This is a long, involved discussion, about 90 minutes in total, and it was nice to have the opportunity to dig deep into the my thoughts on the role storytelling in our lives as well as share some of my experiences.

I do wish I’d had something slightly more graceful to say about colonialism and cultural appropriation though. Ahh well! If the Human-ish Podcast has taught me anything, it’s that there’s always room to learn and grow. That and the value of sitting on the floor.

There is Something in the Woods

Posted: October 13th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Blog | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on There is Something in the Woods

You’re stranded. It’s a four day journey to the nearest town, and there is something in the woods.

There is Something in the Woods is a a table-top story game of supernatural survival horror for four to six players plus a Director. It’ll probably take around three hours to play and it will be as scary as you make it. If you want to download the .pdf just click on the image of the woods below. WARNING contains swearing.

Click to download the game!

Creative Commons License
There is Something in the Woods by Erin Snyder and Tim Ralphs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

“A dream to run.”
Helen Apocalypse

And now there’s more! You can now make the game a little less cruel using the Folly of Hope expansion/hack.

This game is produced by Index Cards and Hate Games with layout, typecraft and cover art by Zabet Groznaya. If you’ve enjoyed the game then we’d love to hear about it. We’d also love for you to tell your friends about it and give them copies of the game.

Having said that, if you want to support ICH Games in our future creative endeavors then that would be awesome. I’m a storyteller. Erin Snyder is a poet and novelist. It would be great to dedicate more of our time to cool artistic projects. You can enter whatever paypal donation (in British Pound Sterling) you’d like using the “buy now” button below. Not only will we be very grateful, your name will go up on our donor page. Plus, as a patron of ICH Games we’ll keep you informed of which projects your donations are going to fund and if we ever get cool stuff like optional Valentine’s Day rules we’ll make sure you get them first.

Interview on Getting Better Acquainted

Posted: August 15th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Blog | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

I took a morning out from flyering to record a podcast with Dave Pickering from Stand Up Tragedy and Getting Better Acquainted. I talk about storytelling, Edinburgh, ministry and narrative in other mediums.

Review: Dandy Darkly’s Pussy Panic

Posted: August 4th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Blog | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

Continuing the theme of shows with expletives in the title, Tim and The Devil go to see Dandy Darkly’s Pussy Panic.

THE DEVIL: Ahh my beloved Dandy. Self-professed to be New York’s satiric and satanic storyteller.

TIM: Yeah, this really felt like it held promise for both of us. I must say I’ve been delighted by the variety of storytelling here at the festival. Dandy is a glittery, gruesome, extravaganza of a spoken-word performer. His show is listed as a cabaret act and that’s the best label going. Pussy Panic is four short stories loosely held together by the idea that Dandy is trying to get over his deep-seated fear of vaginas. It’s hysterical. (Pun intended.) Dandy is just shockingly charming, even as his laugh grates, even as his feathers fly. The wordplay is tight. The soundtrack and folio effects are a wonderful surprise.

THE DEVIL: A lot of people did look round to see the cat that was meowing out of the speaker. The eponymous pussy.

TIM: It was so rude, so irreverently rude. And yet so playful for a show with moments of darkness.

THE DEVIL: Moments of darkness? Two stories ended with suicides. One with bereavement. The other with murder, abhorrent resurrection and a cult of deformed children chanting. And that wasn’t the real darkness.

TIM: No?

THE DEVIL: No. The real darkness wasn’t wrapped up in cabaret. It was in the honest moments of reflection.

TIM: Yes. Dandy affected a caricature of apology when he said he didn’t want his pussy-phobia to offend anyone with or without a vagina. I was a little wary, but the whole topic was handled so cleverly that you could see the deeper sincerity of what he had to say about the presence of misogyny within the gay sub-culture. In that respect it was powerful, nuanced storytelling.

THE DEVIL: I would have liked more satanism though. I didn’t even get a mention.

TIM: You know what I would have liked? More Dandy. He’s such a good performer I feel like he would have excellent rapport and banter with the audience but, because of the tight timeframe and the pre-recorded soundtrack, I didn’t feel like he had space to properly play with us.

THE DEVIL: Oh yes. There’s the take home. “I wanted Dandy to play with me more.” Heh.

TIM: Oh grow up. The take home is that you should fasten your fascinator tightly to your head before going in and re-apply your eyeliner on the way out because Dandy is such a whirlwind of flamboyance that he is going to blow it all the way to Hell. Right. Tomorrow let’s not review something with swear words in the title.

Tim Ralphs is a storyteller and his show of urban devilry Rebranding Beelzebub is on every night from 2 August 2014 to 24 August 2014 at 9:50pm in The Banshee Labyrinth. A PBH free fringe performance—you only have to pay what you think the Devil is due.

Review: The Splitting of the Mermaid

Posted: July 31st, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Blog | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

Here we are at the Edinburgh Fringe and the first show the Devil and I went to see was a preview of Lucy Ayrton’s The Splitting of the Mermaid.

TIM : This was a performance so much my cup of tea that it could have been served in a mug with my name on it. Ayrton updates Andersen’s The Little Mermaid to industrial Hull and takes us from a startlingly totalitarian undersea world to a mechanic’s shop by the promenade. The central character is May, a mermaid longing to bear and raise her own child. She sells her voice to a Sea Witch in exchange for her chance at happiness. But (just like the original) there are prices, conditions and looming tragedy.

Ayrton’s background is as a performance poet and the ease and confidence with which she works her wordplay is amazing. Her rhymes are fresh and vital. As someone approaching this from a performance storyteller’s perspective, I was deeply impressed by her craft. I was also delighted by her staging: simple tricks of light to denote being above or below water or the rising of the sun, and the constant bubbling, musical soundtrack from Superbard.

THE DEVIL: Her Sea Witch had a lurid purple spotlight to denote her undersea hovel. Why don’t I have a special effect in our show?

TIM: Because you are literally a talking snake. You don’t need a special effect.

THE DEVIL: And because you’re cheap.

TIM: Was that your favourite moment, the scene where May makes a deal with the Sea Witch?

THE DEVIL: Hmm. I really liked the bit where they went to Whitby for fish and chips. It felt so laughably mortal. But now I’m hungry. Can we get on with it?

TIM: Of course. There were a few moments where Ayrton’s staging was off, characters switching from right to left as they spoke to one another, but as this was her first preview show in the venue I suspect she’ll have that nailed by the main run. The narrative was gorgeous, and while this is going to be rightly hailed as a feminist piece I was particularly moved by Ayrton’s gentle take on masculine sexuality, devotion and friendship.

THE DEVIL: Actually, I’ve changed my mind about my favourite bit. Andersen’s original has a horrible piece of tagged-on moralising at the end where the Little Mermaid can regain her shape if she does good deeds for 300 years. Or some such vomit-inducing twaddle. My favourite bit was that Lucy got rid of that entirely and left us with some far more artistically credible mer-human drama.

TIM: Good point! Overall, I’d say if spoken word narrative is remotely your thing then this is one to catch at the Fringe in 2014.

Tim Ralphs is a storyteller and his show of urban devilry Rebranding Beelzebub is on every night from 2 August 2014 to 24 August 2014 at 9:50pm in The Banshee Labyrinth. A PBH free fringe performance – you only have to pay what you think the Devil is due.

Did you hear something?

Posted: April 11th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Blog | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

Erin Snyder and I are writing a roleplay game.

“Haunted House” by Walt Stoneburner is licensed under CC-BY 2.0

“Haunted House” by Walt Stoneburner is licensed under CC-BY 2.0

You’re stranded. It’s a four day journey to the nearest town, and there is something in the woods.

Mimesis and Diegesis

Posted: March 10th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Blog | Tags: , , | 3 Comments »

‘Mimesis’ and ‘Diegesis’ are two terms from drama and narrative theory that I tend to use a lot, so I thought I’d take a moment to explain them here.

To put it simply, both mimesis and diegesis describe ways of presenting a story. In mimesis, the story is acted out. In diegesis, the story is narrated. Mimesis is show. Diegesis is tell.

Most film and television stories are mimesis. The audience and the actors are engaged in an elaborate game of pretend—a contract that expects the actors to behave as if they really are the character. The audience, for their part, is invited to suspend their disbelief, to forget the many layers of artifice and experience the story as if was in some way real. The film or program may help this with powerful, believable acting, a spectacle of special effects and convincing costume. These great efforts are expended because, for the audience to have an emotional experience arising from the mimesis, they need a sense of authenticity. They need to trust and believe that what they are seeing is, after a fashion, a reality.

The phenomenon is even more interesting in theatre. The lights drop, the curtains rise, and once again audience and performers are united in an artistic pact. On the one side, the performers portray a playwright’s script as if the memorised lines were spontaneous and their own. On the other side of the fourth wall, the audience act as if they were not sitting in a crowd of acquaintances. Instead, they almost behave as if they themselves do not exist. They become part of the play of theatre, the game whereby backdrops and props indicate and create an imaginary world. If the game is well done the audience’s experience of that world can be as profound, ecstatic or cathartic as anything the real world can offer. If you’re willing to wave that fake knife around as if you really mean it, the audience member unconsciously agrees, I’ll feel a real sense of dread that you’ll stab King Duncan.

But Mimesis asks more of its audience than simply to believe in an imaginary world. Indeed, all narrative invites the listener into an imaginary world. The distinctive feature of mimesis is that the audience experiences the story as playing out in front of them. The imaginary world does not exist at a distance—it is neither long ago nor in a galaxy far away, it is on this screen, this stage, immediate and immanent, for as long as the story takes.

Photo by Theefer

Diegesis, in contrast, is pure narration. It is a story told, rather than acted. Novels provide an obvious example. A book may contain the tale of carnivorous horses on an alien planet, but at no point does C J Cherryh’s “Rider at the Gate” actually pretend to be any of those things. At no point will the pages bite at my fingers. (I should say that I am only up to page 217, so maybe there are surprises to come.)

Obviously as a storyteller I work almost entirely with diegesis. Between the “Once upon a time” and the “happily ever after.” I invite my listeners to join me on an imaginary journey, but I do not expect them to experience it as actually happening in front of them.

Diegesis, so the school children in Rainham explained to me when I introduced them to the term, requires you to use your imagination more than mimesis, and is more powerful as a result. There’s some truth in that:- the cinema of the mind has the most compelling of special effects, with artistry and budget constraints handed over to the listener. I remember talking to audience members about a particular monster from a Dovie Thomason story. One woman described how the monster was a childhood terror she knew from growing up, a thing that had lived in her garden pond, a creature of scales and teeth with murderous intentions. She marvelled at how Dovie had managed to bring to life this creature that had been buried under decades of memory. In truth, the detailed description of the monster that the listener was able to give hardly matched Dovie’s broad brush strokes at all. The teller had offered a canvas and the listener had painted their own deep fears. The diegesis is what is told and that means making critical decisions about what to leave untold.

Because it allows us to simply state outright the point we’re trying to convey in the story, Diegesis allows us to be more economical than mimesis. This character, I can say, was up all night worrying. The director has to show the character removing their glasses, rubbing their eyes, lines on their face. The script writer may even engineer a chance for a little exposition.

Are you okay?

Sorry, I was up all night worrying.

And yet having said this, there is an incredible power in the insight that mimesis requires of us. We end a scene with a character awake, pacing the room, night outside. We start a new scene with them slumped at a table, still dressed but now slightly unkempt, removing their glasses to rub at bleary, red eyes. On some deep level, the audience clicks. ah ha! they think, realising that time has passed They were up all night worrying. They still haven’t had any news. I bet they’re really tired. That insight into the underlying story is part of what makes mimesis enchanting. In many ways the greatest hook mimesis has is the way the audience creates the narrative from what they are shown. It is for this reason that so much creative advice boils down to “show and don’t tell.” It’s not just that the opposite leads to clumsy, exposition-heavy dialogue. It’s because of the enchantment of insight that draws the audience into a story well shown. Of course, it’s perfectly possible to leave space for insight in diegesis, in telling a tale, and there may well be another blog post about that in the future.

On the other end of the spectrum of economy, diegesis also allows us to take our time. A novel can linger over a character’s emotions, thoughts, memories, histories, perceptions and expectations in ways that mimetic artforms struggle to replicate. Indeed, it is one of the features of mimesis that it tends to take place in real time. There may be cuts between scenes, but when an actor recites a scripted line it takes them exactly as long as it takes their character. When they walk down a corridor and we watch them go, time in the world of the story and time in the world of the portrayal are in synch. Each second of screen time is a second of the audience’s time as well. How long does a novel linger over the space of a few seconds? As long as the author deems necessary. She is free from the tyranny of a constantly shifting now.

Photo by Lin Kristensen

And there are further subtleties to both. Shakespeare loved a play within a play; mimesis within mimesis. A character in a play may tell a story; diegesis within mimesis. Likewise a storyteller may step into character stance, may speak in the character’s voice, and suddenly a little moment of mimesis occurs.

Beyond diegesis, the storyteller also has the option of talking to the audience directly. Ben Haggerty calls this “The language of commentary”, but then clarifies that everything, including for example the clothes the storyteller wears to tell their tale, is commentary on the story. I’m being a little more specific. I describe the act of a teller pausing in their narration to address the audience directly as stepping into “commentator stance.” It may be as brief as a knowing look toward the audience that says “we all know what’s going on here!” But it is outside the diegesis, in the world that the teller and the audience share, not the world of the story.

The truth, as is probably becoming clear, is that diegesis and mimesis are not distinct labels that can be exclusively applied to each narrative expression. They are a spectrum on which different artforms and performances exist at intervals. A graphic novel encompasses both in every panel. A film director who uses a voice over embeds a little diegesis in their work. A writer who summarises a whole conversations in a few lines rather than directly reporting the speech makes medium already strongly diegetic even more so by telling about the character’s words rather than showing them writ long.

Diegesis. Mimesis. That’s how I’ll be using the words here.

Rebranding Beelzebub: What Superman and The Devil have in common

Posted: June 18th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Blog | Tags: , , | 1 Comment »

I was tweeting about my latest show, Rebranding Beelzebub, and poet Sarah Thomasin replied to say:

So I thought I’d take a quick moment to unpack exactly how I approach Old Nick in my stories, and why I think the result can be so effective. Via Superman. Because what the hey, it’s my blog, and I’m not really sure anyone reads it.

I was watching one of Movie Bob’s videos lately in which he talked about Superman in the run up to the release of the latest remake. One of the things that Bob says is very revealing.

“In a way flawed, broken anti-heroes like Batman, Dirty Harry, Wolverine, whoever are easier to get right because they give you more layers to work with. But Superman is supposed to be a genuine icon of our potential for ultimate good realised and that kind of character, one who has already obtained complete, uncomplicated goodness to the extent that the development is all about the other characters reacting to him being the real thing, is hard to get right.”

I find Superman pretty hard to engage with as a character. He’s a bundle of super-powers and simple morality. There are very few external challenges he can’t resolve with some combination of his strength, levitation, laser-eyes or time-travelling. There are very few internal conflicts, because Superman is a generic force for good with straightforward priorities. In order to make films interesting, writers tend to introduce villains of equivalent power and opposite morality, be they nuclear-powered Superman clones or trios of Kryptonian war-villains or whatever. (It’s probably clear already that I’m not particularly well versed in comic books, so feel free to educate me if you think I’ve missed something that comes out in that medium.)

In this, Superman and The Devil are very similar. Milton managed to write a story that got to terms with Satan as a character, but only by setting up a central conflict with God. The result is one of the first pieces of art that allows the reader to understand, possibly even empathise, with Satan. Milton’s Satan has a personality, complete with motivations and emotions, that make sense to us as human beings. And that’s one way to approach the Devil, but it isn’t my way. When we “humanise” the Devil I think we lose something of the incomprehensible threat that Lucifer represents. We are distracted from the Devil as the ultimate force of darkness, as a metaphysical mystery. By treating Satan in the same way as the other characters in the story we lose a sense of the separation between mortal and fallen angel.

Which brings us back to Movie Bob and Superman. Instead of being a paragon of goodness, Him Downstairs is the exact opposite morally. But it is possible for the stories to remain grounded in the idea that all the development must come from the characters reacting to such an pure presence.

This, then, is my interpretation of Satan. It isn’t a character in the normal sense. The Devil exists as a force of temptation and corruption. (And the occasionally injection of comedy.) Whether the story is light-hearted, incompetent, petty, sinister or majestic doesn’t matter. The Devil is there to hold the mirror up the other characters, to let us see deep inside them, to find out how they respond to the threat of damnation and the promise of power. The Devil is an opportunity for heroism and calamity.

This approach works particularly well within oral storytelling, where motifs can be the driving force in the story. Does the Devil need exploration and development? No. We already know everything we need to know the moment we catch a glimpse of a cloven hoof.

Rebranding Beelzebub, my latest show, is a collection of traditional Devil stories set within a modern frame. It’s been brewing for a long time: the story of man playing scrabble for his soul has its roots in a conversation I had with Rachel Rose Reid in Belgium in 2008. The idea that the fruit of eternal life was on sale at a supermarket is lifted from work I devised for the Crick Crack Club in 2010. There’s also a lot of new material, some of which will be performed for the first time on Thursday at The Miller, near London Bridge, for June’s Night of the Storyteller.

Come and see it. It’ll be hilarious and darkly diabolical and now you’ll be able to appreciate the unlikely similarities between The Devil and the Man of Steel.

The Drama Instructor

Posted: May 13th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Blog | Tags: , , | 1 Comment »

There’s a story I’ve heard about a drama instructor. He was berating his students one day for failing to grasp the most basic points of theatre.

“You!” He said to one of his students. “Walk onto that stage, say ‘Look at that moon!’ and point upwards.”

And the student did. And when she had finished, the instructor asked the class what they had seen. They mumbled, and eventually offered up that they had seen their peer walk onto the stage, point and look upwards, and recite her line.

“Exactly!” barked the teacher, before rounding on another student. “Now you, same exercise.”

Again the walk, the point. Again the class had to describe what they’d seen. Again they described the walk, the point. What more was there to say? One after another the instructor had them all carry out the task. For a while, the answers became wonderfully detailed, addressing every step the actors had taken, the height of the point, the tone and inflection of the words spoken. But every time, the teacher seemed disappointed at the performance, and the students were puzzled as to what they were missing.

“Very well.” The teacher said, getting up off his chair and approaching the stage. “I’ll do it. Then you tell me what you see.”

He got up onto the stage. He walked until he was a little off centre. Then he pointed upwards. “Look at that moon!” he said.

But when he asked them afterwards what they saw, the students didn’t mention any of that. They had had one singular experience, one that made sense of the whole exercise.

“We saw the moon.” They said.

~ ~ ~

Storytelling and theatre are different animals, though related both by virtue of being narrative arts, of being spoken performance arts, because they can sometimes take place in the same spaces, and because they draw on similar theoretical models. I’ll probably be writing a blog post about the difference between digesis and mimesis at some point soon, because I think they’re really useful concepts and that we should be using them in our discussions.

But I love the story of the drama instructor, and I think it has some really interesting parallels within storytelling performance. Storytelling consists of at least four things. There must be a listener, there must be a teller, there must be a story, and there must be a telling. I separate out the telling and the story, the ‘telling’ is the particular performance that takes place between listener and teller, whereas the ‘story’ is the underlying narrative of which the telling is one specific rendition. All these four elements relate to one another in ways that we will be exploring more on this blog in the future, but for now I want to get to the crux of the drama instructor’s lesson, and in so doing echo the wise words of Sally Pomme Clayton. As tellers we normally want to “become invisible.” That’s not to say that the audience can’t see us, the students watching their drama instructor could certainly see him. That’s to say that what we do during the telling should support our purpose of conveying the story to the listeners.

The story doesn’t take place on the stage, that’s where the performance happens. The story doesn’t even take place in the space between teller and listener, as is so often argued. The story takes place between the listener’s ears, in their heads, and telling the story well means making artistic decisions that are mindful of the listener’s experience. That should be our first concern.

Or at least, that’s the model I’ll be working on here.

In which Tim mostly talks about robots…

Posted: June 1st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments »

Slowly but surely I’m building the Booking Information page. There should now be details up for my performance of The Court of the Queen of Claywood Flats. It is one of my favourite shows and I’m hoping that I’ll still be able to tour it for years to come.

On an unrelated note, I’ve been thinking about robots a lot lately. They have a seminal place in my love of stories dating back to the letters my step-father wrote to me as a child. I was young when my mother remarried. As an adult I wonder what it must have been like for my step-father to fall for a woman who came with a small, ticklish, sickly, know-it-all son attached. He moved away for a few months at the start of a new job, living in a bedsit while we sorted out the process of moving to join him. These were tentative times, early in our relationship, and there are few roadmaps written on how you’re meant to fashion a father-son bond.

I had given him a lego spaceman and robot to keep him company at work. He wrote me stories, the adventures that he’d overheard the spaceman dictating to his companion. I was too young to read his handwriting, which being “joined-up” seemed to hardly resemble the letters I was learning. My mother read them aloud to me instead. Now, as an adult, I haul them out from under my bed and what strikes me most is the gentleness in them.

I don’t normally tell stories from my own life or experiences, but this little exchange between myself and my step-dad forms a nice introduction to a tale I tell about the museum he worked in. The story will feature in my upcoming show Re-branding Beelzebub TM, which I’m hoping to tour in 2013. The show brings together of a pack of urban devil stories that have slithered their way into my repertoire without any sort of intent on my part, and I’ll try and keep you up to date here on the show’s progress.

But back to robots. Has anyone seen Richard Sargent’s Where’s Wall-E? picture that’s doing the rounds on facebook? It’s a great medley of popular robots. Enjoy it. See how many of them you remember. I’d like to put a shout out, though, to two of my favourite synthetic creations that didn’t make it onto Sargent’s image.

One is the incredible The One Electonic, or Mr T.O.E., from Evan Dahm’s Riceboy webcomic. This humanoid machine is a trench-coat wearing, hard smoking, film noir bad-ass. The One Electronic is on a quest to find the fulfiller of an ancient prophecy. He’s made a deal (possibly with God,) that as long as he keeps on the quest he is effectively immortal, but that as soon as he abandons the quest he’ll die. Riceboy is gorgeous and I particularly like the art for The One Electronic, whose face shows occasional images like a TV set hunting for an analogue signal. Furthermore, Riceboy is finished, a feature I usually approve of in a webcomic. The ending seemed a bit abrupt to me, but that hasn’t put me off T.O.E. and I hope you’ll be just as impressed by him as well. First page is right here.

The second robot I want to present to you all is Navvy Jim. He could never have made Sargent’s poster because he only ever appeared in text, as a part of the bizarre but wondrous world of Jenna Moran’s Hitherby Dragons. Hitherby Dragons is likely to be the subject of a whole blog post from me at some point, when I can fathom sufficient hyperbole to begin to describe it. It is, in its way and as far as I’m aware, the single greatest work ever composed in the English language. It is also flawed, inaccessable, geeky, monstrously vast, unfinished and very hard to recommend to people. However, a great taste of the epic is a short series of three linked stories written in May 2006 called The Dynamite Trilogy. Navvy Jim is the eponymous star of the first part, he is a Rock-Paper-Scissors playing robot so good at the game that he always wins. Always. In this short series, Moran captures the beautiful, alien and compassionate quality of the impossible mechanical being. He turns up in the third part as well, where he is awesome.

Anyway, that’s enough about robots and that’s all from me for now. Him downstairs and I need to have a long chat about this show we seem to be crafting together. Until next time!