"Once upon a time" is a phrase that starts many stories. The tale is told in the past tense and ranges from the past to the present and the future. It is told in the here and now, involving the storyteller and the listener.
When a storyteller begins a tale, they are inviting the listener to go on a shared and personal journey. Every person in the audience will hear the same story, but all will experience it in a different way, depending on their personal history. It is the skill of the storyteller to ensure that the audience feels safe enough to surrender willingly to that journey. They use a range of techniques to this end.
Many storytellers chat to the audience before starting the story. They start to develop a relationship with the audience, their voice is heard and people relax and become open to receiving the story. The audience feels they know the storyteller a little.
This is where storytelling and acting differ. Storytelling is about the relationship between the storyteller, the story and the listener. There is no pretence on the storyteller's part in being a "character". They are themselves, telling you a story. It is very intimate, a shared world; their mouths, your ears.
The strongest tool the storyteller has is the ability to be emotionally authentic.
Storytellers often create the story "over" the listeners: the way they point their hands, or gaze into the distance, as if they are seeing the story behind or above the audience. The audience starts to experience themselves as being within the tale, not just witnessing it in front of them on the stage. Often the audience will look behind them, expecting to see a person or image there, so powerful is that sense of immersion.
The strongest tool the storyteller has is the ability to be emotionally authentic, as though they are reporting back from somewhere. It is the true sharing of emotion that enables full communication and connection. It leaves people feeling that their story has been told. Many people can surrender better within a traditional tale that contains the emotional truth of their own real experiences. A real-life tale may contain too much incidental truth, which might make the story uncomfortable to hear, too near the bone.
The main instrument of the storyteller is their voice - an amazing tool. Storytellers will use cadences and rhythms, whines and arches, depth and lightness, richness and sharpness to dexterously evoke images and feelings. The words "entranced" and "enchanted" are often used by audiences, put into a trance by the chant and beat of the words.
The voice is then supported by the physicality of the storyteller. Some are deft, making small, graceful, captivating movements. Others are large and dynamic, their bodies attached to their words, or vice versa. Either way, the audience is "conducted" into the story through the movements of the storyteller.
Some storytellers are very restrained and see little or no movement as a way of making their words more potent and powerful. Their stillness is their tool. In the same way that the pauses in music are important to the melody, so is stillness in the telling. Even the most dynamic storytellers will use it, to enable the audience to reflect, digest and prepare themselves for the next stage of the shared journey.
And then the end, the letting-go, the wakening from the dream. The storyteller saying goodbye and the audience walking away, changed. Such is the power of words, such is the power of the storyteller.