Ancient Greece to Jersey Shore: storytellers witness,
report, entertain, and incite us to action

By Joanna Horowitz, with content by Ian Chant

The New York Times called Mike Daisey "the master storyteller." Photo by Kevin Berne.

This shouldn’t be written down.

At least according to storytellers like Mike Daisey, stories live in the spoken word, changed and shaped in front of an audience. The myths of our world are created by telling and re-telling.

Daisey works extemporaneously, weaving tales from an outline and some notes. The energy of the audience steers his monologues. It’s a manner of public speaking that’s not foreign: professors, preachers, conference presenters, lawyers, and stand-up comics—they all perform extemporaneously.

In the arts, the question of what—and how much—should be scripted is changing. Documentary filmmaking is having a boom time. Reality TV is the reality of television now, and characters are real people...or is it the other way around?

Yet, extemporaneous delivery hasn’t permeated our modern world of theatre, a place where the script is sacred. Daisey is in a small club of performers that includes Spaulding Gray, a founding father of extemporaneous monologuing, and Kevin Kling, who has performed a number of his autobiographical tales (Breakin’ Hearts & Takin’ Names, How? How? Why? Why? Why?) at Seattle Rep.

But if you widen your lens historically, you see that Daisey is part of a much larger tradition of storytellers, in theatre and beyond. Since the invention of language, storytellers have played a crucial role in a culture, serving as witness, reporter, entertainer, and instigator.

It’s All Greek...
Ancient Greek poets related the tales of their ancestors without the benefit of a written record, making old stories seem new every time they told them. In Greek drama, the storyteller was built into the script. A chorus served as a witness, reporting on the action that had just happened off stage.

The European Bard
In the Middle Ages in Europe, minstrels, bards, and troubadours traveled the countryside, relating the tales they had gathered to all who would hear them, and picking up new stories as they learned them. Like storytellers in ancient Greece, these bards, who often set their stories to music, would modify their performance to suit their audience—thus, the stories they told were different in a lord’s court than in a seedy alehouse. These traveling storytellers also took the best parts of some stories and worked them into personal favorites, or exchanged stories with their peers, rendering many of the tales hybrids whose origins are impossible to clearly trace.

The Keeper of Tales
While traveling storytellers were the rule in some medieval societies, other civilizations placed value on keepers of tales who would stay with one community for years upon years. In many western African cultures, a musician, storyteller, and healer known as a griot was an indispensable part of community life, while Scandinavian rulers entrusted their legacies and the stories of their reign to their court poets, known as skalds.

Mythological Storytellers
Storytellers occupy vaunted places in the mythology of many cultures as well, reflecting the important role that their skills played in societies around the world. The bard god Vainamoinen presides over much of Finnish mythology, and the trickster figures common to world mythology, such as Coyote, Raven, and Anansi the Spider are also renowned for their skill as tellers of tall tales.

Folk Tale-tellers
Even today, many of our most beloved traditional tales have their roots in oral storytelling. The Brothers Grimm, for example, made it their mission to collect and codify traditional folk tales that had been passed down throughout their native Germany for centuries. Additionally, many of the stories of Hans Christian Andersen stem from Danish folk tales. Like the poets and bards before them, these authors put their own spin on these tales in their retellings, which reflected their own values and morals. But as academics as well as entertainers, they also took seriously the task of preserving these fables for future generations.

Modern Storytelling
Today, oral storytelling in its conventional form may seem to take a backseat to other forms of entertainment. But from water-cooler tales of weekend adventures, fairy tales told while tucking in the kids, or ballads from musicians in every musical genre, storytelling remains alive and well as an art form, even as it continues to transform.