BY: HAYLEY KELLETT
I wanted to know how some of my favourite storytellers hone their craft, so I asked them. Folks recommended Toast Masters, formal storytelling workshops, and stand-up comedy, but the one thing that came up most frequently, was the practice of improvisation.
"For me, the magic of storytelling is being genuine, vulnerable and in the moment. My improv training taught me how to tap into real moments and explore and expand them. It's the reason why the first "draft" of my stories is always improvised. It allows me to be playful and find surprises that I don't discover sitting down with a pad and paper" - Erin Rodgers, Storytelling Coach and Host of Storystar
Let’s take a minute to think of the fundamentals of improv:
Support each other
Say “Yes And”
Commit to the moment
Embrace your mistakes
When asked who my favourite storyteller is, my answer without hesitation is Sage Tyrtle. When Sage tells a story, these five core values of improv make an appearance. In a story-telling intensive led by Sage, we used improv games to help us access the “salt of the story” - a term Sage uses to describe the true emotional context. We practiced improv exercises to learn story structure, timing, discover and explore other facets of our stories we hadn’t noticed before. Improv helps us pinpoint the detail and build connections with our audience - a skill Sage has in spades.
For those of you how have yet to have the immense pleasure that is working with or watching Sage share her stories, she is a power house. She runs incredible events in Toronto (High Stakes Storytelling), her stories have been featured on NPR’s Snap Judgement and CBC’s Definitely Not The Opera. Sage has performed at storytelling festivals such as the SOULO Festival, the FOOL Festival and the Toronto Storytelling Festival. Astoundingly, she still had time to raise an awesome kid too. This. Human. Rules.
She is also a talented artist. Check out this awesome piece she did of yours truly.
How rad is that?!
There is still so much I can learn from her. Sage has been sharing stories and facilitating workshops professionally for years, leaning heavily on her background as an improviser to enhance the experience. I asked Sage five questions about the correlation between our two loves - improv and stories.
HK: Do you remember a moment where the link between your improv training and storytelling clicked?
Sage Tyrtle: Improv taught me that confidence resides almost entirely in the body. Simply looking straight ahead instead of at the floor, shoulders back, maintaining eye contact, makes a radical difference not only in how the person is perceived, but in how they THEMSELVES feel on stage. Because of that, the stories I tell on stage use two tools: voice AND body.
HK: How do the lessons of improv improve your stories?
ST: It's very common for storytellers to screw up and then waste the audience's time with self-flagellation. "I'm so stupid, sorry, I should have said 1999, not 1998."
In improv, incorporating mistakes is vital.
If I say Ms. Carlson was my math teacher, and her name was actually Ms. Chamberlain, it doesn't matter to the story at all. Just like in improv, I incorporate the mistake. For the duration of that story, she's Ms. Carlson. The audience never knows I've screwed up, and I keep their confidence.
HK: Is there a specific improv tool or lesson you are now applying to your storytelling?
ST: As a shy person, it took me a long time to realize that what seemed like a HUGE character when I was doing it was actually tiny from the audience's point of view. Once I was able to watch others in my improv classes pretending to be, for example, cowboys, it was obvious that my own characters had to be ten times as big to even register with the audience.
HK: When was a time where you had to improvise in a storytelling setting?
ST: I was struggling to tell folk tales on stage. I was bored by them, and the kids could tell. So I thought, “hey, what if I could structure a folktale the same way improv troupes structure an improv show that follows a hero's journey?”
I picked a folktale I really liked, and I found places I could ask for audience input that wouldn't break the story. I rehearsed at home, asking my family for the suggestions and then making sure I could seamlessly incorporate them.
Not only did it work, I now love telling folktales to children AND adults.
HK: As a storytelling instructor, do you include improv exercises in your training?
ST: All the time. For example, people are terrified of detail in improv scenes (and stories) which results in scenes like:
"I like the thing."
"Wow, me too."
"The thing is great, isn't it?"
"THINGS, huh? They're the best."
Meanwhile, the audience snores.
To demonstrate to my classes what detail can do, I have them scene paint a room. But not just any room - it's a teenager's room, and we all must add a real element from our real teen rooms that encapsulates us. The exercise makes it crystal clear how important detail is - a teen's room with a Jar Jar Binks poster is radically different from the teen who has a bookshelf full of French philosophers.
BONUS QUESTION: Would you recommend improv training to storytellers?
ST: Yes, absolutely. Telling a story on stage that's been rehearsed is a walk in the park after you've experienced the joy of telling a story with seven other people from scratch as the audience watches.
Check out one of my favourite stories by Sage online here.
Sage is offering subscribers to her website FREE tips on storytelling, so don’t hesitate to subscribe.
Would you be interested in taking a Storytelling Intensive with Sage at The Making-Box? Leave a message in the comments!