Comedy clubs in the UK are said to be on the decline. But storytelling is teetering on the brink of the possibility of becoming the new comedy.
Nowadays, by and large – especially at the Edinburgh Fringe – comedians do not perform traditional gag routines. They tell stories with laughs. Some – often the more interesting – do not even tell funny stories. They tell serious stories in a way that makes people laugh. I often say that my very talented chum Scottish comedienne Janey Godley does not tell funny stories: she tells stories funny.
A couple of weekends ago, at The Lost Theatre in London, I saw a Natural Born Storytellers show – their first in a theatre. It was packed. Their normal monthly shows are at the Camden Head pub. The next is tomorrow night. It is like sitting in some Icelandic hut thousands of years ago, listening to short sagas. Fascinating and entirely successful.
“Storytelling clubs could take off big,” I told them. “But it’s a marketing problem. The word ‘storytelling’ is not as sexy as the phrase ‘stand-up comedy’.”
Michael said: “If I tell people it’s a true storytelling night, they want to know more. I think the themes help to get people in.”
“We have a different theme every month,” explained Matt. “And it’s the ‘true’ element that attracts people. It’s true, alternative, raw storytelling. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Michael said: “I did Natural Born Storytellers at the Burning Nest Festival in May and I told one story. The rest of the 1 hour and 45 minutes was made up by everyone sitting round in a circle taking turns to tell their own stories. I thought This works! This really works! – in a festival environment, in a theatre environment. It works. People are really interested.”
“And in a corporate environment,” suggested Matt. “I am not lowering ourselves quite to the level of karaoke but, if you’ve ever seen a karaoke night, once one person has a go at singing, everybody else wants to have a go. We find our audiences stay behind after the show and people are telling stories. It’s a different vibe to a comedy night. Everyone has a story. It’s no different, really, to sitting round the dinner table. The difference is we are in a club and you have to walk into a building with strangers but, by the end, people become inspired and want to hear more stories and tell more stories.”
“It’s massive in America,” said Michael. “There’s a thing called The Moth.”
“The Myth?” I asked.
“The Moth,” said Michael. “It is like a fly-on-the-wall, but it’s a Moth. I’d never heard of them until we had been going a few months, but they do very similar things to us.”
“And there’s also RISK!” said Matt, “and CRINGE. I think raw and honest is the direction we want to go in although we have room for everybody – so long as their story has a beginning, middle and end. That’s what drives me mad sometimes. It’s such a simple concept and I can’t understand why some people don’t get it.”
“Even comedians?” I asked.
“Especially comedians,” said Matt.
“Surely in comedy,” I said, “comics are used to heading towards a strong end – a punchline?”
“But,” said Michael, “they are looking for laughs. They are not so comfortable with telling an eight-minute story – we have an eight-minute time limit – with no-one laughing. People can be sitting on the edge of their seats absolutely enthralled and then the comedian slips in a joke just to hear a laugh and the audience loses interest because it feels too contrived. People will laugh if it’s a funny story, but it’s a more natural laugh coming from empathy with the person telling the story. Not because there is a punch line. You don’t need that.”
“I guess,” I said, “that most of your current storytellers are comedians or showbiz people because of your contacts?”
“We’re looking to find a wider variety of storytellers,” said Michael.
“I don’t know if we want comedians, really,” said Matt.
“Some do get it,” said Michael. “They get on stage, use their normal voice and tell a story. That’s what we’re looking for. People to be themselves on stage. If you can’t be yourself, it’s going to be hard to tell a true story.”
“And you’ll hate it,” said Matt. “And the audience will hate it.”
“Eight minutes is not some arbitrary number,” explained Michael. “It’s pretty much the exact point where people will start losing interest in a short night. If you keep it to eight minutes, you’ve got them gripped the whole way through.”
“And the storytellers are restricted to the monthly theme…” I said.
“The themes are designed to be flexible,” said Matt. “So, for example, with My Hands Were Tied there was the moral decision element, the sado-masochism element and we even had a guy who was a former escapologist who talked about the politics of being an escapologist.”
“In a future show,” said Michael, “we have a story about a man who boiled a parrot.”
“Perfect,” said Matt.
“I’m going to make up a special theme,” said Michael, “just so he can tell that story. It is one of the funniest stories I have ever heard in my life.”
“But,” I said, “the stories do not necessarily have to be funny.”
“Oh no,” said Matt.
“We have had people crying,” said Michael.
“It’s lovely to hear a gasp followed by a laugh,” said Matt, “and then people even crying.”
“Sounds like a synopsis of my sex life,” I said.
“There have been one or two occasions,” said Michael, “where events have happened almost too close to the person getting on stage and telling the story. To them, it’s more like venting and that’s not really what we’re about. We want a coherent story rather that a psychiatrist’s couch.”
Matt said: “We like to think of ourselves as alternative storytellers. We’re so modern, we don’t even know where we are going.”
“How can you develop it?” I asked.
“At the Camden Head,” said Michael, “we’re going to do a live podcast.”
“And,” I suggested, “although people don’t want to listen to the same jokes again and again, they will listen to the same song lots of times and still enjoy it. It can be the same with good stories.”
“At the Edinburgh Fringe this year,” said Matt, “I went four times to see Chris Dangerfield’s show. The reason was because it felt like going back to listen to a really good music album. It was not radically different every night, but it took on a different tone each night. With stories, they evolve as you tell them. Some of the best stories are ones you can hear again and again and you actually gather more each time you hear them.”
“Well,” said Michael, “with any story, the more you tell it, the better you are going to get at telling it. I’m going to run a three-hour storytelling workshop starting in November – about techniques and figuring out how to elicit stories from your past and how to construct them. But every person tells stories completely differently. It’s mostly about constructing an atmosphere for sharing and constructive feedback between a group.”
“But if you can do workshops,” I said, “it implies there is no such thing as a natural born storyteller: the technique can be taught.”
“There are natural born storytellers,” said Matt, “but you may have to bring that natural talent out.”
“Some people,” said Michael, “need a little bit of coaxing out of their shell. It’s also about structure. Finding what is relevant. What is the story REALLY about?”
Can storytelling clubs ever become as widespread or as populist as comedy clubs?
At the end of each edition of BBC TV’s highly popular Graham Norton Show featuring ‘A’ List stars, he has ordinary members of the public tell stories in ‘the red chair’. If the story is not interesting enough, they get tilted out of the chair – a bit like a storytelling Gong Show.
Storytelling clubs could catch on now that the appetite for pure gag-based comedy appears to be waning.
The story told by Matt Price at Natural Born Storytellers in the Lost Theatre show is on YouTube.