Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Judging and Story Slams...

Habeas Circus Watercolor 10" x 10" by Alan Gerson
Three years ago, when we started massmouth story slams, Andrea Lovett and I debated up and down about judging stories. I nosed around online and read up on poetry slam formats and we created a rubric and forms based on what I found at those websites. Except the very few times when we were roped into judging when a team of judges was short a member to achieve a quorum, in three seasons of story slams, Andrea and I have not had any say in the decisions of any group of judges. We hope  to keep it that way. Somehow, though I loathe competition, especially in the arts we found ourselves creating a whole series of storytelling competitions (slams) with higher stake prizes than ever heard of in Boston. While I honor and value critique, I am also a huge fan of Alfie Kohn and his compelling arguments in his book NO CONTEST, The Case Against Competition were my bywords back-in-the-day, when I was a visual art teacher. Kohn substantiates how counterproductive competition can be; in all areas of human life - work, school, play, and family. He shows how competition often undermines achievement and all too commonly is damaging to self-esteem. How highly ironic, or less kindly but more accurately, hypocritical of me to be organizing storytelling competitions, right ? Right. But I cannot argue with the clear evidence that our competitions have help revive the art of storytelling...

In our first year, our judges were sometimes criticized for scoring some "new tellers" too harshly. One time a young woman had never had told a story before, and certainly not in performance, was "put up to it"  by a friend in a gentle way. She had no story she said and yet was standing up there.  She was hurt and dismayed by the judges response to her story. Indeed, her story was a train wreck; not on theme, had no clear beginning or end, and was painful to listen to. We were told that our slams and judges were quashing rather than encouraging storytellers by grading her as the lowest in that slam.  Some said our slams were deforming or destroying storytelling. We had a very different take. Here's an analogy:
Australian champ, Joanne Carter hits the i
Let's say I had never ice-skated in performance or in a competition and had no planned routine and someone put my name into an ice-skating competition and I got to the end of my improvised routine without falling? I can imagine many reactions.  I would be pleased that I did it!  I might want to get some lessons. Or I might decide never to skate again. I certainly would not expect to get good scores. And I'd never expect winning scores.  Nor would I judge my ultimate future in skating on one such a crazy outing.

For the record - rarely has anyone ever gotten lower than a posted 7 point score and then only if they have gone over the time-limit. We post the highest score so each teller knows one judge at least liked their story very much. We post scores at all just to add to the fun of the game. And we do insist that no performer hassles the judges - they are volunteers, after all.   Andrea and I are happy to engage and will read comments and give critique, in private, to any tellers who request it. We do not want to trash inept tellers but we also do not want to "skew up our scores" if you catch my drift. The comments by champions of  discouraged first timers and the dismay of low scoring newbie tellers are silly at best, misguided or immature at worst. We did not start massmouth nor do we volunteer long hours to accommodate or encourage whiners.  If a story is not ready then it is not ready. If it stinks, it will not be received as "good". There is a place and time for the kind of nurturing that honors the intention over the execution of a performance. And we at massmouth definitely appreciate and encourage any honest try.  Still, practice is best done before you are on the serious stage of live performance in front of a paying audience.  Way too many old school "professional" storytellers expected this kind of workshop support at our professional venue.  Any storyteller, who has not prepared with something for the audience, and is not ready to tell, should sit down or, if you are willing to take all the consequences, good and bad?  Go ahead and stand up, tell your story and see what happens. But no whining! Conversely, and paradoxically - we have heard time and again from ordinary people who come to a slam because they or a friend of theirs believe they have a story to tell on the theme - i.e. something for the audience.  They have a story they care about and often their real life story will carry and even win a slam.  This is part of what makes our slams of personal narratives attractive and worth the price of admission.  Slams work because people want to hear each other's story.   Some real life narratives have the power to move us even in the hands of rank beginners and, no matter how unskilled the telling,  the audience will be glad to listen. Occasionally, a slight story will 'wow' the judges and audiences because the teller is very engaging. We have seen every permutation.  In my humble opinion, many of us "professional" tellers need to tighten up their work, connect to the theme, be less polished, less precious and way more genuine. All of us storytellers can learn from the people who have lived interesting narratives about what there is in a story, not technique, that makes or breaks the deep connection between teller, story and audience, in performance.

Bambi Good, left and Michael Anderson at Kennedy's 2009
Besides all this, story slam judging is an imperfect exercise at best. We are not judging who is the best storyteller but rather, we are rewarding the teller who has brought the best story with the best connection to the night's theme. Only one third of a slammer's final score is on how they tell their story. Finally, a story slam is really just a pub game. A sophisticated pub game, for sure but serious in the way games are serious (especially about rules being applied fairly) and silly in the way that any game is silly, because games always include an element of chance. Our judges bring their baggage along with a serious desire to do what is right. They work hard while we eat, drink and play. Judging teams are different every night and at regular venues we have one volunteer Chief Justice who has been trained and trains the volunteers. We have been very fortunate indeed to have Bambi Good as Chief Justice for three years. This year, Gina Mital has performed stellar service as Chief Justice at Doyles slams. Still, judges will always have their likes and dislikes - isn't that what makes a horse race? Besides all that, judging is a rather harsh methodology when used as teaching tool and if you care about such things? Slamming your story is definitely not recommended for tender souls. 

Despite all my misgivings about competition and art, we have seen how judging and strict time limits have already had good effects on storytellers.  Without audience our performance art will die. And our massmouth,inc. storytelling audiences, who we have worked so hard to get, deserve the very best.  We aim to deliver, because, in the end, our competitions are good for storytelling and are bringing the audience back for more.
Judges at the Precinct, Nov 2010


Kate Chadbourne said...

Thoughtful, helpful, and so well-written. Thank you, Norah!

Anonymous said...

Sometimes as a process proceeds the focus that it started with and what has evolved from the experience needs to be restated or redefined, clearly. You looked at as many elements as you could see of the slam concept and brought them all to people's attention, and tied them together really well. It's a shared community, with aspirations and goals, attempting to offer the best for all! I'll bet it feels really good to have done that and then put it into public print. A concept needs that kind of leadership to keep it on track with the principles that will make it work best for the greatest amount of people, and as you said in your blog and told me over the phone, to get people to do their best and reach for something higher (paraphrased there, of course.) And when you see the concept unfold as a process and you see what makes it work best, it's good to let other people know where they could/ should be heading if they're not already.

I learn something from this too, about vision and process, leadership and continuity.
-Marcia P