Written By Claire McGuinnes
I recently read a post on the internet (somewhere) that asked if the future of stand-up comedy was going to be a comedian standing on stage, typing into his phone, text blurbs appearing on a screen behind him in silence and instead of laughter, the audience would just exhale out of their noses at the really funny parts. Saturday night I got to see a rough approximation of this situation when Bob Sander’s performance of The Three Perfect Peaches was interrupted by the cat-character Peanut’s incessant text messaging. But the audience didn’t just exhale out of their noses at the “texts”, they laughed, a lot. They also meowed. In fact, the audience participated in call and response, and even slapped their own faces in unison. Amazing what people will do when a convincing storyteller tells them to. Sanders is definitely convincing. Between sound effects, and the way his characters inhabit his whole body, Sanders’ stage presence would have made an enjoyable performance all by himself. However, for this event, a whole cast was put together to illustrate how complicated a story can be, and how many sides any story might have.
Sander’s performance was billed as a “modern take on the traditional French folktale”, but to me the storytelling technique seemed postmodern. Sander (and company) wove together a mixed media performance with video interviews, text messages from cats, and, of course, the traditional mode of storytelling in which the performer stands on stage and speaks to the audience. Instead of asking the audience to take what he was saying at face value, or accept that his version of the fable was the correct one, this performance challenged the audience to have a more complicated understanding of the story and the characters, of fact and of fiction. The video clips, purported to be interviews, were spliced into Sanders rendition of the folktale, enriching and complicating the character of “Jack” and the story he starred in.
The performance openly challenged tropes and tradition. Sander referred to one character as an archetype, and had other character recognizing their own alliterations. Of course, archetypes and alliterations are used in storytelling all the time, they’re just not often recognized and labeled as such. The appearance of a blues harp, anachronistic for a folk tale, was acknowledged by every character that encountered it, until the acknowledgement of genre-bending itself became a pattern in the story. Much of the performance dealt with establishing and subverting patterns, both those within and surrounding the folktale. From Albert Einstein, to gossipy neighbors who can only talk about what they see through the window, this performance made a strong case for truth being relative. But it was a playful exploration, not a lecture. It asked the audience to open their minds a bit to back stories and bigger pictures, but didn’t take this project too seriously. It stayed amusing, stayed entertaining, and still reminded you to think.
I had never before attended a Storytelling Arts performance, and it has been years since I attended a storytelling event at all. I’m told this particular performance was not a typical one, and it was definitely not what I expected. However, I really enjoyed this non-traditional mode. I’m a child of clicking links and hypertext. I grew up on the internet, where articles on a subject can contain embedded links, pictures, videos and everything is mixed media of sorts. And, like the internet, I love cats. So this performance spoke my language and told a story in a way that I like to listen and learn. The production asked me to think about what is real, and what is true, and what observations can be considered objective. All of these questions seem relevant to me as a writer, but also as a citizen trying to navigate a world where nothing is as simple as it seems.