The Drama Instructor

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.


One response to “The Drama Instructor”

  1. Tim Ralphs Avatar
    Tim Ralphs

    More from Sally Pomme Clayton, giving sound practical advice, can be found here:

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