Story within a Story

| June 26, 2017

ShortstoryIt is a gloomy wet night, and a crash of thunder propels me into the Starrett-Lehigh Building, a full-block, landmark freight terminal, warehouse, and office building which houses on its third floor the Centre for Social Innovation. Plastered to my shins are my khakis, which feel like onionskin in a dank New York City subway. A stranger sees me struggling and compassionately de-codes the elevator buttons, allowing me to ride up, solo. I find myself in a dimly lit corridor, met by a BuddhaBooth designed to “claim your calm”. Not sure if I am ready just yet — owing to a tad or two less calm– I opt for the wooden bench and wonder what’s in store.

Bypassing the booth and vacated “Welcome Desk“, I am summoned to a check-in table at the far end of the room, and then quickly to another near a mysteriously empty coffee bar. Brightly colored plastic chairs are arranged in a circle, a white board beyond the edge of the carpet. Floor to ceiling windows, with lines of rain streaking down like exclamation marks. There are eight of us altogether —  tourist, actor, counselor, banker, public relations’ assistant, college student, non-formal teacher, librarian – and, yes, I am the last to be somewhat randomly introduced. Taking my cue from a pointed finger, and with a deep breath, I blurt out a few sentences of humble intent. We’re all in a workshop Storytelling for Professionals, offered by The Engaging Educator, and we are about to learn that it is a night of improvisation — creating stories, whether work-related or personal, on the spur of the moment.

First, we “get out of our heads” by doing a series of energizing, ice-breaking exercises that are sparing of speech, save for the “wooosh”, “ahhhhh”, and “duel”. We hurl and catch imaginary balls, throw our hands in the air and run like crazy, and challenge each other, becoming the impromptu swordsman, cat, and even flushing toilet (the teacher offers a fascinating class on the history of the latter). In the hoopla of movement, our instructor accidentally swoops a large bottle, shattering glass in a million pieces to a deafening silence that prompts the hunt for a broom and start of spoken story.

Then, we realize that even improv takes prep; we practice telling our two-minute vignettes, beginning to middle to end. In groups of four, we form an audience, shed our skins, critique each other, and lavish more details about our unique and vivid experiences and happenings — colorful train trouble in India; becoming anxiously engaged over a long summer’s weekend;  Los Angeles star-studded reality house visit; native American premonition and determination of a Midwestern tornado – wacky, fun to tell and hear stories that mean something and connect us in curious ways. For isn’t oral tradition one of the most ancient human traditions found all over the world and who to this day doesn’t love a good story? Drama plays out in our daily lives, from a big thunderstorm, to the spontaneous telling of experience, from the newness of a learning moment to the collective sharing.

Upon arriving back to work the next day, I am excited to reveal my most recent discovery: The Engaging Educator is coming to Teachers College to do a weekly, Wednesday night series in August entitled Improv Intensive for Educators! As a lead-in from our condensed workshop, here are some key points we can share from “Engager” Olive Persimmon:

Wikimedia Commons

The Story of the Three Bears. Illus. by Leonard Leslie Brooke

  • Design your story (structure it with a clear beginning-middle-end; cover the why, have a main message)
  • Elevate your presence (good eye contact, take space using your body, use your full voice)
  • Provide details that matter (form an emotional connection, make the story personal, zoom in with important details)

The moral(s) of the story? Follow your haunches, have fun, listen and learn, tell and retell, don’t be afraid to be creative, try something new. We’re all in it together.