A Driver’s Manual for Storytellers

A Driver’s Manual for Storytellers

by Arthur Strimling


Stories exist to be told. Just as a meal is not a meal until it is tasted, a story isn’t a story until it is told and heard.  Laid out before you is a fabulous feast of Mitzvah stories.  So, please, read, enjoy, learn, and then…tell! 

This Driver’s Manual is a short practical introduction to the telling part of storytelling: non-prescriptive suggestions and hints from someone who has been at it for a while.  In that spirit, I suggest that you try them out, as you might try on a dress or a suit, or drive a car around the block and kick the tires.  If a suggestion works for you, great!  If it doesn’t, let it go, as easily as you would put an unsuitable dress back on the rack, or return the car to the lot.  But even if a suggestion doesn’t work for you, you will have learned something in the process of trying it out.  And that is crucial. Because storytelling, like all art, is personal: you have to look and look for the stories, styles, genres and audiences that work for you.  The main thing is to keep looking.  As Samuel Beckett, one of my Rebbes, says: “Fail again.  Try again. Fail better.”[1]


But first, a sort of manifesto: 

For me, telling Jewish stories is a form of prayer.  Which suggests a lot, but this being a manual, the focus is on presentation.  In prayer, kavannah (intention) and keva (form) weave together to open our neshamah (soul).  This essay focuses on keva, form, but always, each element is shot through with the others, and they all weave together in our quest for the ideal.  Our central prayers are never improvised in form or language.  And they are spoken with deep attention to keva.  The Sh’ma and its blessings, the Amidah, the Kaddish, prayers of thanks and mourning and celebration, prayers dealing with every aspect of life, are uttered in established language, developed over centuries.  And we know when to bow, when to take three steps forward and back; we know the nusakh or prayer mode that accompany them. And most of all we care so much about getting the words right that we read them from the book every time, even though we often know them by heart already. Yes, kavannah and neshamah are important, but first we have to get it right.  And so it is with storytelling.

Of course, the difference is that in most prayer we inherit the form, whereas in storytelling we are usually creating a form for a story, and sometimes we are creating the story itself.  But still, I believe that storytelling is like prayer in that for each storyteller there is an ideal form for each story we tell. The right words, the right voice or voices, the right gestures and rhythms.  Which means that if you and I tell the same story, your finished version will be different from mine.  But we each can find our own “right” way of telling the story. And it is our sacred duty as storytellers to search passionately and ceaselessly for the right form.

The great dancer/choreographer Martha Graham wrote: “No artist is pleased…. There is a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching ...”[2]  I love this quote for its bridging of art and religion.  Our imperative as storytellers is first to connect to that prayer-like passion for the ideal.  If you tune into your own blessed unrest, you will undertake the quest for the craft and self-knowledge necessary to choose your direction, know where you are on the road, and when you get there.  In the end, you may never find your ideal form, but the quest really matters. 

So this manual is an invitation to a quest, and a set of suggestions toward finding your own process by which you can turn each story you tell into a prayer. 


The Third Voice:

For the audience, hearing a story is an entirely different experience from reading it; as an oral storyteller you need to be sensitive to that difference on many levels.  The reader of a written tale can go at her own rhythm; stop, go back and reread a paragraph; get up and grab a snack from the ‘fridge, and then return to the story. But the hearer of a story has to listen at the teller’s rhythm, your rhythm; if she leaves to get a snack, she’ll miss something. As a  live teller, you have advantages over a book. You have voice, gesture, melody, rhythm; you can create characters, use costume or music if you like. In other words, you have the power to create a unique multi-level experience that happens in the moment between you and your audience.  You can evoke what anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff called “the third voice”:  In addition to your own voice and the “voice” of the listener, there is a third voice that hovers between you and your listeners, which makes each telling unique.[3]  


How to choose a story:

Choose a story that draws you, that makes you want to tell it to someone, anyone.  Sometimes you know right away why you want to tell a particular story; sometimes you have no idea except that it draws you. Don’t worry--at this point it doesn’t matter why. Just accept that the story is calling to you and you need to share it – often the deepest meanings of a story don’t reveal themselves until you have told it many times.  All storytelling needs to emerge from an urgency to be heard, from an almost childlike place that shouts, “Listen, listen, I have a great story to tell you!”

Many stories in this collection reveal the impact of mitzvah on the one who performs it.  Over and over, the message is ‘Yes, a mitzvah helps the one on whose behalf it is done, but the impact may be even deeper on the one who performs it.’ And the same is true of stories.  We tell stories because we want to nourish the lives of others, but how much more deeply might a story affect the teller, the one who learns it ‘by heart,’ who tells it over and over?  You can’t say something over and over without being affected by it.  So choose wisely; many stories may call to you, but be careful to choose ones that you will want to live with.  Because they will change you.  



Once a story has chosen me, I start with what master storyteller Laura Simms calls “mapping the story.”  Where does it start?  Where does it go? How does it get there? My maps can get complicated because they include not only geography and time, but the emotional/spiritual trajectory as well.  A good story is always in motion.  Even if it digresses or is broken into many little stories, still, if it’s a good story, it has a trajectory.  Always keep that journey, that ’and then…and then…and then’ element, urgently in your awareness.

Tell the story to yourself over and over, until you know in your kishkes how it works.  I am lucky to live near Brooklyn’s glorious Prospect Park, which has wonderful paths through woods, where I wander with my dog, Easy, loudly telling him stories.  Easy is the perfect listener at this stage; as long as there are interesting scents to investigate and plenty of treats, he is very patient.  I have also discovered that the cell phone can be a great rehearsal device, because I can walk down Manhattan streets rehearsing animatedly, and everyone just thinks I’m talking to my mother or something. 

And when I feel ready, when I know the story well, I tell it in public, usually first to my congregation, where I am Maggid ha-Makom (storyteller in residence).  We know each other, my congregation and me, and I trust the feedback I get from telling to them.  Not so much what they say afterwards, but how it feels moment to moment as I tell it.  Then I can move on to less familiar settings.  It’s important to have individuals and audiences whose feedback you understand and trust.

Often, as I rehearse, and in early performances, I know that certain moments in the telling of my story aren’t right.  The language or the rhythm or the voice or gesture or something just is not working.  I haven’t “found” it yet, and that “blessed unrest” is still making her demands.  And  sometimes, I have a performance scheduled tonight or tomorrow, so there is no way out; I have to tell the story.  This happens a lot.  My solution, suggested by a great director/mentor, Joseph Chaikin, is to do the best I can at the moment, knowing that this version is a “stand-in,” not yet the “right” thing.  Sometimes I find a better “stand-in, so I do that, without dropping the quest for the right thing.  Eventually, in rehearsal or performance, or walking down the street or practicing yoga, the right thing does drop in. But until that magic moment, the key is to keep doing the best thing, and trying new “best things” until the right one comes along.


Persona and Voice:

A storyteller has to have a persona!  Call it attitude, presence, style, shtick, or whatever; it is not the same as how you are with your mother, your lover, your children, your boss or your friends.  It is a stage presence, an essence, and it has to be developed and refined.  Start from what you know about yourself and what you want to share.  Are you a fast or slow talker; are you serious, sacred, antic, romantic, a clown, a dancer, a shapeshifter, a diva, a teacher….?  All these and infinite other possibilities exist and work for different people.  The important thing is to discover and refine your own style. Listen to teachers; observe storytellers and other performers whom you admire; try out different styles.  Steal ruthlessly, by which I mean, if you see a gesture, a walk, or hear a voice or vocal effect that you like and think could work for you, copy it, use it, and eventually it will either become yours and unrecognizable from the source or it will disappear.  (This emphatically does not apply to the actual text or substance of stories -- see the discussion of b’shem omro below).  For example, in addition to learning from many of the masters included in this volume, as well as great actors, rabbis and other teachers, I admit to watching stand-up comics on Comedy Central. The material is often awful, but many of them have created amazing personae, and are good storytellers, and I draw inspiration from that.  In the end, though, listen more carefully to audiences than to teachers, directors or other experts.  If the audience responds, then whatever you are doing is working for you. Refine what works. 

The keystone is your voice.  The poet Ted Hughes said that when you meet someone for the first time, before you hear their words, you hear the music of their voice, which is the music of the soul.  So do not hesitate to find a good teacher of speaking voice (training the singing voice uses different techniques), one who can teach you the mechanics of the mechanism, but who does not try to impose a particular sound on you.  The goal, unlike singing training, is not to produce beautiful sound, but rather to free the voice so the unfettered soul can come through it. 


B’shem omro:

Stories yearn to be told and retold.  You may need to adapt a story to the varying needs of your congregation or audience, and to your own style. You can respectfully adapt other people’s stories in a wide variety of ways, as long as you are conscientious about naming your source.  B’shem omro, “[acknowledging a source] in the name of the one who said it,” is not merely a courtesy or even a legality: it is a Mitzvah.[4]  Even if you adapt a story extensively, it is incumbent upon you to cite the original source or sources. Judaism deeply values respect for the ancestors, and storytellers show that respect by naming them. 

Some stories in this volume you can tell exactly as written. For example, Cherie Karo Schwartz’s “A Single Seed of a Pomegranate,” Jill Hammer’s “The Wooden Axle,” and numerous others are told in the narrative voice of the classic folktale form that anyone can use.  If these stories appeal to you, then your challenge will be to make this traditional style and language your own, and to feel so comfortable with it that you can bring the story to life.

Some stories, on the other hand, demand a different approach. For instance, Ellen Frankel’s personal story, “Saved by the Evil Eye,” is told in the first person.  Although I could quote her and tell it in the first person, I would not make that choice. Rather, I would tell it in the third person as “something that happened to my friend Ellen Frankel,” making adjustments in the language and diction to suit that form, perhaps adding something from my own experience (not nearly so dramatic), and then inviting the audience to tell their own stories.  This is a great workshop story, an invitation to dialogue, and I plan to use it that way.

“The God of Curried Fish,” Goldie Milgram’s wonderful tale of ordering take-out in a sketchy neighborhood, offers another kind of challenge.  In this case, there is no way I could plausibly tell this story in the first person, because the story turns on the fact that Goldie is a small woman given to wearing fabulous hats.  I don’t know if she was wearing a fabulous hat at the diner, but nonetheless, she is about as non-threatening a presence as you could imagine.  I am nothing like that – I am a solidly built man, given to wearing New York artist black. My presence in that diner would be a whole different thing. So if I were to tell that story, I would have to begin by evoking Goldie, coming back again and again to that sense of a friendly, chutzpadik Jewish lady in a precarious situation.  I would have to find ways to help you see Goldie in that world, even though I am telling the story. Which brings us to the question of how to evoke characters in storytelling. 


Be a Character:

Storytelling is acting, but without the illusion of a ‘fourth wall’ through which the audience ‘suspends disbelief’ and sees characters behaving as they would if the audience weren’t there watching.  Storytellers talk straight to the audience. Without asking anyone to suspend anything, they freely evoke the most outrageous situations, worlds, creatures, and times.  And unlike watching a movie, which shows us everything down to the smallest detail,  so we can sit back passively and let it wash over us, listening to a storyteller requires an active kind of listening, a genuine collaboration between teller and audience.  Our job as storytellers is not to embody every character, but rather to help the audience fully imagine them. 

Laura Simms’ story, “Words and Leaves,” encompasses real and imagined times and worlds, people and creatures, kings, queens, bad princes, good princesses, a heroic commoner, a man-eating giant, and lots of other threatening creatures.  So how can the teller help the audience imagine all these and still keep up the pace of the story?  Many characters and situations pass by quickly and the language itself does enough to keep the story going. But every so often there is a character who demands to be felt more deeply, make an impact on the audience commensurate with her or his impact on the story. In Laura’s story there is just such a character that demands a dive into imagination and space.  Here is the moment:

The young man reached a house  as high as a mountain. When the giant’s wife saw it was a man, she urged him to leave, “Your life is in danger,” she warned.  “My husband will want to devour you.”  The youth convinced her that he would continue his quest without hesitation, regardless of the dangers and told his story. 

As soon as the giant returned home, his wife fed her ravenous husband.  “I smell a man,” roared the giant.  His wife told him about the courageous visitor, whom she had hid beneath her bed.  The giant was astonished at the young man’s lack of fear and his dedication.  And since he had already eaten, he gave him the necessary instructions.

Isn’t the giant’s wife amazing?  I am riveted by this unnamed woman, who pops into the story, does what has to be done, and then disappears.  Peninnah would call her an “Elijah figure.”  I want to know this woman: who she is, how she ended up being the wife of a monster, how she got so wise. I want stories about her.  But we don’t have time to linger over the giant’s wife; this story has to move on.  So the challenge is to find something in my voice and body, which, even though you only see and hear them for a moment, might pierce right through to your heart and make you see and remember this lamed vavnik,[5] this one who quietly, unobtrusively keeps the world going. 


The Essential Gesture:

Here I turn to an idea developed by the great actor/teacher Michael Chekov called the “essential gesture.”[6]  Chekov taught that every character contains an essential gesture that can reveal her entire history and personality.  The gesture can be a pose or an attitude; it can include movement, voice, and sometimes words.  But the goal is to pare the gesture down to an absolute essence.  Although in a literal sense, this is a quixotic quest, I find it invaluable as an exercise, an approach to character in storytelling, because it encourages me to go for what is essential.  For the essential gesture to characterize the giant’s wife, I will look for voice and form that efficiently and powerfully evoke her intelligence, wisdom, compassion, quick wittedness, practicality and courage.  The story needs to keep moving, but time needs to slow down enough to allow us to see the giant’s wife for all she is and does – the whole story pivots on her action.

In Peninnah Schram’s soaring “Serakh Bat Asher,” the main character, Serakh, speaks through Peninnah, the story’s author.  If you choose to tell that story, Serakh will be speaking through you.  So you have the opportunity to assume a character in much more depth and detail than the giant’s wife.  But I would still maintain that as the storyteller, you are not trying to make the audience believe you actually are Serakh Bat Asher, but rather that you are her vehicle, that she is speaking through you, and that through you, the audience can feel her, see her, believe in her.  Begin with the language itself; there is a rhythm here that will tell you a lot about how she speaks.  She exudes an energy that is at once ancient and ageless, creating a contrast between her bodily presence – perhaps she is sitting -- and the acuteness of her mind.  Next consider to whom she is speaking.  Is she still addressing those students in Rabbi Yohanan’s class, and thereby the eager student in each of us?  Or is she perhaps speaking to one special person, maybe her own granddaughter, the two of them alone in a tent in some eternal desert sharing tea and some little sweets she loves? The first choice of audience, the rabbi’s students, will make her persona more presentational; the second, more intimate. Both are valid; the choice has to do with your own sensibility and what works for you.  And why is she telling all this now?  Although the frame of the story centers on how she came to be ageless and eternal, clearly so much more is going on in this tale.  Serakh is teaching us about courage and wisdom and the need to seize the moment.  She is telling us that one individual can change history; she is passing on the legacy of memory and storytelling her grandfather gave to her.  And so much more.  As you find your way into the story, telling it over and over to your dog, the trees, your cell phone… you will discover your way of communicating all these levels and still keep the story moving.

When two characters are in conversation, the essential gesture becomes especially useful.  If each character is represented by a clear and compelling gesture, the storyteller can drop the literary ‘he said/she said’ repetition and just switch from gesture to gesture. This can be both very entertaining for the audience, and can also help enhance the rhythm and immediacy of the story.  In Benji Levene’s beautiful story “The Escort,” one man shows another the way to his destination in Jerusalem, and the following bit of conversation ensues:

         I brought him to the street – to the house – and said: “Here it is! Shalom!”

         “Just a minute,” he said. “Why did you stop and ask me if I'm looking for something? Why did you escort me? Young people don't do these things today.” (I was young then.)

         “Well, I probably wouldn't have done this,” I said, “but my grandfather used to do this.”

         “Who was your grandfather?”

          “Oh, you wouldn't know.” I said.

         “What was his name?”

         “Levin,” I said.

         “Which Levin?”

         “Areyh Levin.”

         “The famous Tzaddik, Reb Aryeh Levin?” he asked.

         “Yes,” I replied.

On the page, the “I said’s” and “he said’s” orient the reader, and in the skilled hands of this writer, lend rhythm to the reading.  But a storyteller can replace “he said” or “I said” with simple changes of voice and body shape, perhaps just a slight angle of the head.  Look to the text for clues to the physical and vocal life of these two men: one is young, American, a student; the other, elderly, Israeli, a journalist; later in the text it says that the old man “looked up” at the student, so he is shorter.  One is lost, the other knows the way and is fulfilling a mitzvah.  There is no need to be elaborate or theatrical, but all these are clues to help the storyteller find subtle shifts of voice and posture that will open the audience’s imaginations to the moment. Try reading this conversation aloud without the “he said’s” and “I said’s”; see what you find. Even better, read the whole story and then read the conversation without the speaker references and see if you can begin to let their different voices come through you.   


To end where we began: storytelling is a sacred art.  We are maggids, griots, shamans.  We are mediators between worlds: between the sacred and the profane, the seen and unseen, the mystic and the material, memory and imagination, past and present.  We are what a famous book of my youth called “Technicians of the Sacred,”[7]  which suggests that the storyteller’s magic, like all magic, is a craft.  This essay is a small introduction to the practical aspects of a profound art.  I hope these thoughts and suggestions are useful and that they inspire you to pursue the sacred through the art and craft of storytelling.  It is an endless pursuit, driven by a “blessed unrest,” which is why in the end we storytellers have always said, “To be continued….”


[1] Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho (NY: Grove Press, 1984).

[2] Agnes de Mille, Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham (NY: Random House, 1991), p. 264.

[3] I heard Professor Myerhoff say this many times in conversation.

[4] My thanks to Rabbis Goldie Milgram and Fred Dobb for the following citation:  From Pirkei Avot (6:6; cf Hullin 104b, etc): “kol ha'omer davar b'shem omro, mevi geula l'olam - whoever says something in the name of the one who said it [first], brings redemption to the world (or, gains eternal life). Why redemption, for properly attributing source material?! The Talmud (Megillah 15) cites Esther 2:22 – ‘Queen Esther told the King in the name of Mordecai’ of the plot against him. This extraneous positive mention later surfaced, leading the King to put Mordecai above Haman, leading to the redemption of Shushan's Jews.”

[5] The Hebrew letters, lamed and vav have the numerical value of 36. According to Jewish legend, there are always thirty-six righteous people in the world, lamed vanniks, whose good deeds ensure the survival of the world.

[6] To the Actor (Oxford: Routledge, 1953).

[7] Jerome Rothenberg, Technicians of the Sacred (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969) .


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