Toward a Methodology of Storytelling Performance Criticism

By Neile, Caren Schnur; Novak, David | Storytelling, Self, Society, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Toward a Methodology of Storytelling Performance Criticism


Neile, Caren Schnur, Novak, David, Storytelling, Self, Society


There is perhaps no other artistic endeavor for which the project of criticism is as fraught, and thus as necessary, as storytelling. In our field, issues of community commingle with those of class against the twin backdrops of Western critical theory and American anti-intellectualism. In order for the art form to receive its due, however-meaning that its most talented practitioners and scholars are provided with grants, tenure, reasonable compensation, and all the other privi- leges that accompany a seat at the grown-ups' table, including, most importantly, audiences and students-some formalization of an authoritative gaze, if not actual gatekeeping, is beneficial.

Yet it is this same authority and gatekeeping-stricture and structure-that is most effectively countered by storytelling. The archetype of the hero traditionally functions as a critique to existing relations of power and knowledge, a counter to the master narrative, a nagging question nipping at the heels of definitive answers.

This essay attempts to describe the challenges facing the critical turn in storytelling studies. In doing so, we hope to jump-start a conversation that has, at various times, been initiated and then left to languish, within the storytelling community, as well as to help initiate a new paradigm for the field of storytell- ing studies. This essay, therefore, is intended to serve as a prolegomenon for future research and discussion within the multidisciplinary storytelling studies community.

The Challenges

Perhaps the most personal criticism of the critical turn in storytelling studies can be found in the (mostly oral, partly anecdotal) reaction to the field of storytelling studies by some members of the storytelling art world. Characterized as the "age-old rivalry of heart and head" (Sobol, Gentile, and SunWolf 2), the concern among some of our community is that by systematizing or, as some would have it, overintellectualizing storytelling, we would somehow destroy the very spon- taneity and authenticity that is its most attractive feature.

Writing in 1942, Sawyer was already concerned by the divide between folk art and scholarship:

Storytelling is a folk-art. To approach it with the feelings and ideas of an intel- lectual or sophisticate is at once to drive it under the domination of mind and critical sense. All folk-arts have grown out of the primal urge to give tongue to what has been seen, heard, experienced. They have been motivated by simple, direct folk-emotions, by imagination; they have been shaped by folk-wisdom. To bring a sophisticated attitude to a folk-art is to jeopardize it. Or rather, it is to make it into something that it is not. (Sawyer 27)

If, as the editors of this journal observed in their introduction to the inaugural issue, "the push and pull . . . between storytellers and the Academy can. . . be seen in Jungian terms as the opposition of Logos and Eros" (Sobol, Gentile, and SunWolf 2), then perhaps we can take a cue from a related myth. Cassandra, having refused the advances of Apollo, was cursed with a gift of prophecy that no one would accept. If storytelling likewise rejects rational (Apollonian) consideration, it may also find that its messages fail to gain acceptance. Eros, allowing for Logos, can develop a beneficial literacy for the form.

It is an unfortunate feature of the English language that the word criticism is burdened with the connotation of censure. In popular media, the critic often functions as a consumer advocate, assessing the relative value-for-money of a commercial venture-be it film, stage play, concert, or exhibition-helping the reader decide whether attendance is "worth the money." Criticism is inherently bounded by the subjective experience of the critic. Yet the role of the critic varies with intent. Unlike the thumbs-up/thumbs-down mentality of popular media reviewing, the criticism may take the form of a gift to be unwrapped at the birth of a new work, the discursive equivalent of a set of silver spoons. …

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