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Making Stories Participatory

by Doug Lipman

Table of Contents:

Join in with the voice
Join in with the body
Make suggestions
A balance of participation
Any story can be made into a participation story. In general, the audience may participate by joining in with their voices or with their bodies, or by making suggestions.

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Join in with the voice

In the riddle story, "In Summer I Die,"(1) the audience joins in verbally by repeating rhythmic, chant-like speech: e.g., "Mama, mama, wake up, we're bored." This is the easiest way to join in with the voice, because rhythmic speech has simpler, more predictable rhythms than normal speech.

One step beyond rhythmic speech is singing; the only difference between rhythmic speech and song is the presence of melody. If teller and audience can be induced to sing, it adds to the fun and the mood. If one or the other is too shy, though, or the words are too minor to warrant melody, we may be better to chant than to give up on all rhythm.

Once the audience has heard a story or a phrase several times, they can join in by filling in missing words. To cue an audience for this, we can start a sentence they have heard before, but stop before the end. Our gestures and face indicate that they are to continue. For example, the storyteller begins:

In summer I ...
and stops, mouth open, gesture stopped mid-air, with an expression of expectancy; and the audience chimes in:

...die.
A special case of filling in words is filling in sound effects. For example, "we rang the doorbell, and it went...."

All these forms of verbal participation can be varied or intensified by saying them in different tones of voice, repeating them, or repeating them with additions, as in a cumulative story.

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Join in with the body

Younger children often find it less threatening to join in with movements than with words; older children and adults often find movements more threatening. Depending on the age of our audience, therefore, movements may become a tool for winning our audience, or a sign that we have already succeeded in gaining their attention and trust.

Rhythmic movements, such as those to accompany the refrain "Mama, mama, wake up, I'm bored," or the rhyme "In summer I die...," are a natural accompaniment to rhythmic speech. Simple miming of a motion, such as knocking on a door or shaking a sleeping person, can be added almost anywhere to snag the wandering attention of preschoolers. These actions become central to the story if they are repeated at different points with different feeling or with a sense of growing urgency or silliness.

Body participation can also include postures. For example, we could ask our audience to "show me how you'd sit if you were bored." Or: "how would you stand if you had just figured out the answer to Grandmother's riddle?" When we say things in a particular posture, by the way, it often affects our tone of voice.

The furthest extreme of body participation is to enact a part of the story. Enactment can be done by a whole group at once, all acting out one part after another - or by small groups or individuals taking on separate roles.

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Make suggestions

Up until now, we, as tellers, have made all the choices, and the audience has been invited only to follow along. We can also, however, invite the audience to participate by adding their own point of view, and giving suggestions.

From the teller's perspective, the easiest form of suggestions to manage are "advisory only": suggestions that are not incorporated into the story. For example, we could ask, "what would you do, if you were bored and no one else was awake?" After listening to a few answers, we continue our story without modifying it. This allows audience members to express their thoughts, and involves them internally in the situation the character faces. It encourages spontaneity from the audience. And yet it allows the teller to preserve the carefully learned and rehearsed sequence of the story.

At the opposite extreme, we can throw open the gate of the story for the audience to find its own way through. A round-robin story is the result. The teller, of course, can still retain the role of shepherd:

"And what do you suppose we did, since we were so bored?"
Audience: watched TV.
"So we turned on the TV. What was on?"
Audience: Batman!
"Seeing Batman made us think of something in our back yard. What was it?"
Audience: our toy Batmobile.
"So we went outside to play in our toy Batmobile. But suddenly we saw something very unusual. What do you think it was?...."
Between the extreme of no audience control and complete audience control, of course, there are still more middle positions. To give the audience some influence over the story, we can incorporate their suggestions into minor details of the story. For example, we can ask what kind of a house we lived in. Were there steps leading up to the front door? What did we have to walk across to get to our friends house? These details can then be incorporated into the story immediately: "So we climbed down the steps, across the playground, waited for a green light, looked both ways, then crossed the street." But we have to remember these details if they are relevant later: "Then we ran back with the icicles, waited for the green light, looked both ways, crossed the street, ran across the playground, and climbed back up the steps of our house."

The audience suggestions in "In Summer I Die" influence more of the plot than simple details would, but are still contained in a predictable framework. The choice of whom to wake up next stimulates a whole new cycle of waking, chanting, and reacting, but it loops us right back to the same point in the plot: "So we went to find someone else...." The teller decides when to break out of that loop and go on to Grandmother.

A similar loop is repeated later, when the audience suggests what we saw next, and the teller helps compare it to the riddle: "A carrot! What a great idea. So we opened the refrigerator, pulled open the bottom drawer, and took out a carrot. Maybe this is it! Does it die in the summer?...." Again, the teller decides when to break out of that loop by taking us outdoors to play with the snow - and when to enter it again to guess outdoor things or the icicle itself.

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A balance of participation

Any story can be made participatory by including some of the techniques described above. The teller's most difficult task, though, is to find the right balance: too little participation, and a younger audience loses attention, or we lose an opportunity for fun and feedback; too much, or the wrong kind of participation, and the story itself suffers. A story with too much participation feels "gimmicky," and its most important moments become obscured. As adapters or creators of stories, we strive to choose the techniques of participation - and the places to use them - that will clarify a story's structure and events, and heighten its emotional impact.

To choose well, we need to be aware of all of our options. Voice, body, suggestions: these three words can remind us of the many choices we have. Balance: this word can remind us of our obligation to make participation serve our goals in telling the story.

1 A full text of this story is in Teresa Miller, compiler, Joining In: Audience Participation Stories and How to Tell Them. Cambridge, MA: Yellow Moon Press, 1988.

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This page was last updated on Friday, November 28, 2003
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