When you’re on stage as a comedian, it’s easy to gauge the audience’s reaction to your material. Laughter is the clear and undeniable barometer of success. Silence is a ringing gong.
But in storytelling, it’s so goddamned subtle. It might not be until later that you realize that nobody was talking, or looking at their phones, or doing anything other than sitting and watching. The silence in your pauses, not filled with idle chatter or conversation, was matched by theirs, as they waited for whatever you were going to say next. You didn’t hear them rustling in their seats or see them cast sideways glances at the time.
Last night was my first time doing something like this. Ninety minutes (with a fifteen-minute break for intermission or escape, depending on how the first half went) of storytelling – a one-man autobiographical show. I had some notes, and some key stories that I wanted to tell, but I avoided structure and rigidity on purpose. And it was terrifying, standing there, telling deeply personal stories (I probably should have changed the names, gotta remember to bleep those out when I post the video) about my life, to a bunch of a strangers who had no reason to care.
I exited the stage after the first forty-five minute session tentatively, so unsure what just occurred. The response, to put it mildly, was positive. The audience not only enjoyed it, they wanted to stay for the rest. They were intrigued and wanted to talk to me about the stories I’d just shared. They wanted more.
The second session was more balanced than the first because I was more balanced, with a little more grasp on what I wanted to say. For the latter forty-five minutes, I threaded humor, as well as background peeks into the genesis of some of my material, with more serious stories about depression and suicide. I spoke slowly, with deep breaths, trying not to break down, as I talked about loss and pain. Watching people cry and then laugh, paying rapt attention to every word, was inspiring. It was a singularly transformative and eye-opening night.
It’s only now that I see the real value of what we do on stage. It’s not about making people laugh. It’s about making people feel. Using our words evocatively to get emotional reactions from the audience can be an amazing experience for both the performer and those listening. I never would have tried this if I hadn’t been offered the opportunity, and now that I’ve done it, I can’t wait to do it again!
This is part of a series in which I will attempt to write something every single day of 2016. Will I be able to do it? You’ll only know if you subscribe using the form below!