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The Accidental Storyteller

Stage Presence Part 1: What Should I Wear? What Should I Look Like?

The first part of your stage presence is how you look to the audience; it is the proverbial “first impression.” But first, let’s define “stage.”

A stage is wherever you find yourself facing an audience. It can be a raised platform, the bottom of an arena, the front of a classroom or meeting room, or sitting on the front porch of an historic building. In today’s post-pandemic world, it could even be looking through that dime-sized hole in your computer with an audience you can neither see nor hear. It can be under sunlight, moonlight, room lights, or a spotlight. No matter where you find yourself, the important thing to remember is that you want to look acceptable to your audience, no matter how well they can see you, or from what angle. How do you do that? Be appropriately dressed.

Years ago, as a new performing member of my local storytellers’ guild, I wanted to “look like a storyteller,” although I wasn’t quite sure what that was. At a National Storytelling Network Conference in Nashville Tennessee, I had a chance to find out. While walking down a hallway in the conference hotel in between sessions, I passed a room full of clothes. Of course it drew me in. There were racks of clothing specifically designed for storytellers from a company out west. I don’t remember the name of the company, but I do remember the clothes. They were gorgeous! There were drape-like panels of beautifully-colored patterns that hung down over your front and back with an opening in the middle for your head. Color-coordinated tops and bottoms to go underneath completed the ensembles. I spent a small fortune in that room and couldn’t wait to show off my new attire on stage. It didn’t take long for me to realize, however, that those beautiful clothes were not me. I wore one outfit one time and gave the rest of them away. They added nothing to my type of stories; they were actually a distraction. My only consolation was that they looked good and much more appropriate on other tellers. It was an expensive lesson: just because something is pretty, it might not be right for you if it doesn’t add to who you are on stage. One size does not fit all when it comes to stage appearance, unless there is a particular theme for the event. The picture here is from an evening of telling scary stories. We were all dressed in black with red scarves.

Through the years, I have come to appreciate what dressing in conjunction with characterization means. When a storyteller steps out on stage dressed as a character in one of their stories, it is impressive and delightful to the audience. When a teller from another country comes out on stage dressed in the clothing from his or her country, it helps the audience identify with the performer through an example of their clothing. Our local storytellers guild has been blessed through the years with many tellers who have enhanced their stories with costume: Mother Goose, Mrs. Santa Clause, a mountain man, clowns, and a real cowgirl with her own cowgirl hat and boots. Another teller who always dressed in black clothes and black hat and had a beard was a favorite. He was often referred to as the man in black or “the man who looks like Abraham Lincoln.” So while someone may not remember your name, they will often remember your attire.

Another thing to consider when you are assembling clothing for a performance is the lighting of the venue itself. If your outfit includes a wide-brimmed hat, will there be a light above you that may cause your face to be in its shadow? Try to not stand in front of a window or back lighting. I have seen this happen and it draws attention away from the teller as well as the story as people strain to see what you look like. Pay attention to the lights.

Skirt length is important unless you are in the bottom of an arena and your audience is above you. Short skirts on a raised stage in front of a sitting audience will definitely be a distraction, as will a slip showing at the bottom of a hemline…or even worse, not wearing a slip under a skirt that is a little thinner than you thought it was. This caution also pertains to Celtic tellers in kilts – men and women. I have seen all of these things and that is not how you want your performance to be remembered.

While all of this is being said about appropriate clothing, I think is important to mention the condition of your clothes. It means not walking out on stage with wrinkles, shoes that are scuffed, a loose button or string hanging from your sleeve, a coffee splotch, or ostentatious jewelry unless it is part of your personae. It does not mean that you have to look like you just stepped out of a fashion magazine, but neatness is important. Anything less can be a distraction with the audience.

Whether or not to wear jeans as a performer is a subject that has been discussed often in guild meetings. Is dressing down acceptable for a performer? Of course it is if it is in keeping with your character or your venue. The consensus is that if your persona is that of a mountain man, a lumberjack, or someone in a rural setting, jeans would be appropriate. If you are telling at an outdoor festival, under a tent, on a front porch, or in any relaxed atmosphere, there is nothing wrong with wearing jeans as long as they are presentable. Take time with your wardrobe to make sure it is neat looking and reflects who you are or who your character is.

So what about dressing up as opposed to dressing down? Is it possible to be overdressed? Yes. Remember that the audience is there to hear your stories, not to be impressed by an extravagant wardrobe or heavy jewelry. One of the stories I have personally told many times is about a man named George Bennard. You’ve probably never heard of him, and that’s the way he wanted it. He was a preacher and songwriter who lived from 1873 to 1958 and wrote The Old Rugged Cross. His name was often confused with that of George Bernard Shaw, the English philosopher, and he was fine with that. He even humorously remarked one time after being incorrectly introduced: “I’ve been called the author of The Old Gray Mare, The Old Oaken Bucket, and even Rock of Ages.” But he didn’t care; it wasn’t about him. What he did care about was his song, especially the words. He wanted people to remember the words of The Old Rugged Cross and what they were really about. No one will ever remember what he wore the night he and his singers performed it for the first time at a revival, but he must have looked alright—the song he wrote over a hundred years ago lives on.

Charleton Heston is another person I enjoy talking about when it comes to “costumes.” It is interesting to note that he referred to himself as a storyteller rather than an actor. In 1958, the year that George Bennard died, Charleton Heston was immersed in the filming of Ben Hur, a Story of the Christ. It was released in 1959, after five years in the making. Why did it take so long? Well first, they had to build an arena. Secondly, they had to make 7,000 costumes for the extras in the arena where the chariot race took place. During those pre-release years, Charleton spent a lot of his personal time learning about the people who were being portrayed in the movie and their traditions. What he learned and brought to the set, plus those 7,000 costumes of course, helped MGM pull the movie-going audience into the story. They felt like they were there. Charleton became the real-life fictional person of Ben Hur in action and dress. The movie won 11 Oscars, the most awards presented ever for any movie until Titanic tied the record in 1997 Even today when I think of Charleton Heston, I picture him as the costumed Ben-Hur.

So is what you wear as a teller of stories important? Are costumes important? As long as you are well presented, the choice is yours. If a costume complements your character or a particular time or place, it can add to the story’s staying power. If your story is not about a specific time or place that needs to be remembered, it is perfectly acceptable to be comfortable in your everyday clothes or “the look” that you choose for your stage presence. First impressions are important. After you make your initial appearance on stage and the audience decides subconsciously that you look okay, they will be ready to hear your story.

But first, let’s take the spotlight off you and focus on ambiance—what the stage says about your story. I hope you will join me next time for Stage Presence 2—Ambiance.

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