Storytelling Arts' mission is to preserve, promote and impart the art of storytelling to develop literacy, strengthen communities and nurture the human spirit.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Power of Silence

Heather Forest was the first professional storyteller I ever heard. It was in the late 1980s, close to 30 years ago now. At the time I was the Cultural Arts Rep for our PTA and was attending a showcase of various performing/teaching artists. My mission was to find some programs to bring to the school. I had a very small budget to work with and could not afford to hire Heather.

I don't remember whom I did hire, but I will never forget Heather's storytelling.

She told "The Stonecutter."  She was alone on a big stage. No costumes. No masks. No musicians. No puppets. No props. She told the simple and elegant teaching tale from Japan using three basic tools.


Her language was sparse and exact. Her movements were strong and precise. But it was her use of silence that revealed the power of the story and the storyteller.

What is it about silence that makes it so compelling? Silence is not nothingness. Quite the contrary. It is a welcome mat and a gauntlet. It welcomes the listener to enter the story. To inhabit its landscapes and become its characters. It also challenges the listener to imagine what might happen, what should happen, what will happen. It gives our audiences time and space to be in the story.

Silence can be harnessed even before you utter "Once upon a time.." or  "Back in the days when animals could talk.." or "Once and maybe still.." Give it a try! Stand in front of your listeners. Don't speak. Don't move. Be silent. Be Silence. Listen to how the others quiet down and turn their attention on you. Don't panic. Don't rush in to fill up the air. No one is in a hurry. No one thinks you forgot the story. Everyone is relishing the joy of anticipation. They are taking their seats on the roller coaster before the bars lock into place. Before you say anything, enter the story. See the tracks before you. Then begin. Your audience will gladly follow.

Another great place to exploit/employ silence is right before a "jump" (the moment when everyone is caught off guard in some stories). As you are about to deliver the surprise, speak more quietly more slowly, allow some silence into the space like the roller coaster clicking up those laassttt feeeeww innnnchhhhesss before.. AAHHHHH!! It's great fun. Everyone knows danger is lurking. Even so the audience will jump if the storyteller has not rushed and filled the moment for them. It is their moment to fill.

Examine the story you are working on now. Is there a moment or two or three where you can rein in the words and let silence do the work?

What are your thoughts on The Power of Silence? Let us know in comments.

1 comment:

  1. Love this. You are so right, "Silence is not nothingness." It is pregnant with meaning. Karen reminded me of a 9th grader at Rosa Parks. We were working with the students teaching them to tell stories. They had just come from a Poetry Out Loud session and she commented on the winner. Everyone was at first uncomfortable with the winner's silence. They thought she had forgotten the words. Then they realized that the silence was on purpose. Our student said, "I want to use silence like that."
    Another plus of silence is that it slows us down and gives us time to breathe. Great post. JDT