Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Storytelling declining in Shanghai, too

via XINHUA online ):
The Shanghai Daily is noting a massive drop-off in storytelling theatres in the area, blaming modern media in part, for exposing audiences to fashion trends and pop stars at the expense of the folk arts, like pingtan.

Pingtan, by the way, is a regional form of storytelling (popular in East China's Jiangsu, Zhejiang provinces and Shanghai) that typically involves two storytellers, accompanied by music --or prefaced by sung ballads, telling long serial tales. This art thrived in the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) with many of its stories dating to that time. Here's a summary by Eric Miller, of the University of Pennsylvania:

pingtan is a collective term, denoting two forms of storytelling: pinghua (narration without music); and tanci (narration with music, also known as, prosimetric performance, or chantefable). The prose of pinghua, and sections of tanci, is delivered in a styled form of speaking that is different from everyday speech; it has a recognizable cadence. Both pinghua and tanci allow insertion of commentary, anecdotes, poems, and descriptive set pieces; and both involve long, often serialized, tales. In tanci, the story is told in alternating passages of prose and rhymed metrical verse, plus comic-relief passages, singing, and instrumental accompaniment. In olden days, a story could take three months to tell, with an hour session each day: today, two weeks is usually the limit....

In the course of a performance, storytellers go into and out of multiple registers, voices, and dialects. The plot line is delivered in a formal dialect, while asides to the audience are given in the local dialect. Ancient dialects are no longer second nature to young performers or listeners: many elders say that today the singing is good, but the speech is poor. Thus today the frames, or registers, of language styles that performers shift into and out of are in some ways simpler. Instead of switching dialects, a young performer may just switch tone or accent.

The older performers also speak of the diminished attention span of young people: after all, commercial TV -- which is accessible in cities -- has advertisements every 10 minutes (I wonder if the rate of alternation between singing and speaking in tanci has been affected by such developments). Some older pingtan performers say that today, fewer people come to listen to the art, more just to hear a story. Older, well-known stories are regarded as boring by many younger listeners, forcing the development of new stories. Some young people complain that the pace of the storytelling is too slow, that more action and less of the detail that has traditionally been so characteristic of tanci is desired. These changes are perhaps due to the quickening pace of life in modern China and the difference sense of performance introduced by editing and other aspects of TV, videos, and movies.

Eric Miller, Continuity and Change in Chinese Storytelling

The news from Shanghai documents the decline in the number of theatres, and also in the quality of the performers... but I suspect that like many folk arts, it may disappear from public view but not go extinct.

Friday, October 03, 2003

Telling Tiny Stories

(from's Top 50 list, I discovered LooneyLabs, a "that hippie game company," and it turns out they've got a storytelling game, Nanofictionary.

I haven't bought the game --yet,-- but I can see how storytellers would have a competitive advantage playing in a group of non-storytellers. It seems to be a game that writers could enjoy, and improv folks would certainly find it easy (not sure what the intersection of gamers and improv folks is).

I'd love to see this played among a group of storytellers.

Three potential problems, and I'll confess this right off: I haven't read all the game's rules. This is just based on what I've found at a Nanofictionary fan site.

  1. The "Resolution" card. Given that this is a card game, and you're randomly or strategically collecting story elements (Action, Character, Setting, etc)... a randomly drawn Resolution is going to come across as just that: random. And what defines a story is that its narrative elements belong together (i.e., it's not a random list). A resolution comes out of everything that has gone before. So, yes, a storyteller or improviser could invent a satisfying resolution, given a random list of characters and settings and a problem.... but to leave it up to the cards is like asking a football team to hustle the ball down to the end zone but wait on the 1 -yard line for new instructions.
  2. The "It was all just a dream" card would cause any self-respecting writer or storyteller to have a hissy fit and set the game pieces on fire.
  3. I'll let the story speak for itself (this submitted as a favorite):
    A long time ago, in a submarine below the surface, there was an inner-city school girl, the guy in the apartment upstairs, and the mentally and physically retarded black cat. The girl had a rifle, the guy had grenades, and the cat had a sniper gun. The smart scientists were going to give the girl homework, the guy a life, and put the cat in a mental home, but they got caught red handed. They were never seen again and a statue was built in the girl, guy, and cat's honor.
$17 from Looney Labs.