TALK STORY TELEVISION
By Jeff Gere, Published October 2002 in
The Museletter (New England Storyteller Newsletter)
Like it or not, television is the most pervasive form of storytelling on the planet. Commercial television uses humanity’s love for stories to hook our attention so that we’ll watch commercials and buy products. The explosion in cable channels with various entertainment themes offers opportunities to more independent producers. Public Television serves a different educational vision. How can you, we, I and the storytelling community put our fine programs before the television viewer? Why do we want to?
“The first impediment is self-imposed.” Helen Keller
RATIONALE: Is storytelling content to be a small folk phenomena, a “nice” librarian’s craft performed for children because it’s “good for them”, only mildly attractive to the masses? I think most storytellers see this artform in this way. They do not feel it compatable with mass media attention. Result: our public audiences are comparatively puny because storytelling isn’t perceived as an entertainment option by most people. It has not penetrated the mass-mind. It’s below the main-stream radar.
I do not hold this view of storytelling. I believe storytelling is the root of literature, theatre, and culture. I believe it provokes synaptic activity leading to higher cognitive functions in one’s ability to imagine and conceptualize. I believe the world needs storytelling and that the storytelling community offers content rich mana to a starving public. I believe storytelling helps people understand one another. Storytelling expands the heart. I believe television is a means to bring storytelling and its benefits to a world that doesn’t know how much they’ll love it (though it’s at the root of their nightly “entertainment”). How can this be done?
MY JOURNEY: In Hawaii, my answer has come through Olelo (a Hawaiian word meaning “to speak”) Television. Public Access TV exists to extend the first amendment right of freedom of speech to everyman. Access Television here is well funded by agreement between the State and local cable station. Olel.o provides equipment, a studio, editing bays, and training of every kind. It airs programming on four channels constantly. To share and extend the quality performances featured at my annual Talk Story Festival, Hawaii’s largest and oldest storytelling and oral history celebration, I created Story TV in 1990. Below I share my reflections on this programming over these 12 years with the hopes of assisting your own efforts.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY
The Good News: If you put it on TV, people see it. It is NEVER wasted effort. Years of feedback from strangers have convinced me of these principles and the value of the effort. Also, live performance has an energy and vitality absent from studio performances. It’s fun for viewers to join the audience. And stories well told grip human attention. And several cameras give a better view of a show than any seat.
The Bad News is that it is difficult to create an exceptional video of live storytelling due to several issues:
- The TV viewer is accustomed to storylines that unfold at a faster pace than occurs in most oral storytelling narratives. TV occurs in the midst of home life. If it doesn’t grab the viewer, they switch the channel. Watching a solo storyteller often requires a viewer’s committed attention.
- TV shows are choreographed for an active cut-and paste of angles and views. Most live storytelling performances are not devoted to the camera, but to the live audience. At the Talk Story Festival, I don’t allow the camera to intrude too much too often onto the stage. This means the cameras record, but don’t often have the powerful view of the teller looking right into the camera.
The Ugly: 1) Television is a “cold” medium. People loose life. Performances can easily become flat.
2) How do you retain the vitality of a live, intimate tell which exercises the listener’s imagination when you use a medium that eliminates much of what makes the live telling successful and special? How can storytelling “hold the viewer”?
It is imperative that one attend to the needs of a television production. I have found that giving that attention has raised my production values overall. Don’t worry- just start. You get better at it. It’s an adventure! You have crews for publicity, staging, sales, etc. Video becomes just another group to integrate.
TECHNICAL: The simplest form of documentation is to aim and shoot a video camera at a subject. Pretty quickly, you become aware of the composition of the background, the lighting, and quality of the sound (audio). Each of these is a specialty. For the Talk Story Festival, we have a theatre and use their tools to give the stage a great “look”. Add a second and third camera, and you’ve tripled your views.
Each can now offer a different angle and focus (wide general shot from the center, close-ups from the sides).
PROBLEM: each camera needs tape for the entire show and you have to edit those three views together into one show. This is time-consuming. SOLUTION: use a portable studio (or van). Here each camera’s view comes to a central panel, and the director picks and chooses from the various angles. (S)he can tell the camerapeople (via headphones) to zoom in and out to really compose with these three eyes for a variety of looks, even bleeding one view over another live. The editing is done live, so one tape holds the show. This is what we have done for years with the Talk Story Festival. The brains of this operation is the Director, and I pay them well. For the best sound, we use lavalier mics and run it directly into the video board (with an audio monitor) and then it runs out into the house.
PROBLEM: How do you learn to do all that? Well, at Olelo, they have volunteer lists, the community college has video training classes eager to get experience, and there are people at the studio who live for TV…. I go make friends and invite their help. The junior college is another valuable resource.
WEB TV: One of my past sponsors (LavaNet) used the Talk Story as a means to develop their abilities to webstream. In 2002, AOL picked us as one of the weekend’s sites to tune into. LavaNet has gone on to use this technology to stream the opening of the movie Pearl Harbor (at Pearl Harbor Naval Yards on the USS Missouri) onto the WEB. I don’t know too much about it, but the 3 camera live feed was important.
GRAPHICS: I do not create them for the live show, since nothing shot is simultaneously aired. I create an introductory sequence for the entire series of shows for that year, followed by the title of the particular show (a teller, or a theme with a collection of tellers). Credit rolls at the end also serve the entire series.
EDITING: Mac’s iMovie can serve many needs, but I am completely spellbound by the digital editing possiblilities presented by Final Cut Pro. It’s special effects (Chroma-key, tinting, bending and warping, and coloring the image) have added new dimensions of creative visual augmenting to the performances that enrich the narrative further, stimulating the imagination rather than illustrate everything (as is often done in commercial, big-budget TV).
For example, the Devil appears in the mirror as a beautiful girl combs her hair. A gold frame serves as the mirror, and I move from one side to the other becoming both characters. Editing this story, when I was the Devil, I added a reddish tint. I also added a slight rolling distortion, which was intriguing to watch. Same tell, but the effects subtly extended the illusion.
VISION: I sense a major storytelling series is coming with a national distribution, introducing solo storytelling, the world’s treasure chest of narratives, and their cultures to the masses. I intuit there is not only an audience, but that part of it’s audience doesn’t find much to watch on television now.
Jeff Gere is a professional storyteller in Honolulu, Hawaii. He created and directs the Talk Story Festival (Hawaii’s largest and oldest storytelling celebration) (14 annual coming October 18,19, and 20th, 2002), has a public radio series, several CDs, and television programs. He tells to 10,000 children on Oahu each summer.
Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org