Yesterday I got on the New York Subway, not expecting anything more than the subway had given me the other hundreds of times I've ridden it over the last three months. I was in a for a bit of a surprise.
In the middle of three turnstiles was a kid, listlessly flicking his metrocard against the slot you swipe the card through. He was maybe ten or a bit younger, a little heavyset, and bored. He was clearly waiting for someone, and was just young enough to block a turnstile while doing it without getting told off.
I passed by, not thinking much of it until the subway came and the kid got on behind me, accompanied by a man with a refined air, square glasses, and gelled hair. He was telling the kid something.
"...also some good tales by Oscar Wilde, but they can be kind of heartbreaking." He paused as the doors closed, and he and the kid took places standing in front of where I was sitting, facing each other and holding onto handrails. "There is also the story of the twelve dancing princesses." The man said.
"That one." The kid said.
"All right." And the man began, in classic storyteller voice and form, the kind you only hear as voiceovers on old cartoons today. "Once upon a time there was a soldier who was just coming home from a long war. He wasn't young, but he wasn't yet old either. On evening, as he passed by a farmhouse..."
I had to stop and listen. The story was a simple one. A fairy tale, really. But it was something you almost never see in public anymore, almost something from another era. He had my full attention, and when they got off at the same stop as I did, I had to follow them a subtly as I could so I could hear how it ended.
That sense isn't something I think we talk about a lot in our work, and I think it's an important one. How to spin a story that gets people to follow you out of the subway to hear the ending. This man was one of the oldest kinds of performers there was, a storyteller. And hewas good at it too.
I've read books about performing, engaging people, making them want to watch you. I've also read books about writing stories, what things you need in a story to make it compelling,, speak to people. But I think this experience kind of verifies one of the simplest accounts I've read of the craft, hidden inside the preface to a simple collection of short stories that I read last week.
It was written by one of my favorite story makers, Neil Gaiman. He said someone recently wrote to him and asked him what quote or bit of wisdom he would write on the wall of the children's section of a library. He replied that there were a lot of people who had said important things about the subject better than he ever possibly could, but that there were just four words he would put in such a place that he thought captured the most important piece of any good story: "...and then what happened?"
That's what I think we need as actors and storytellers. We want our audience asking that same question. There are thousands of ways to do it, but that's our goal. You can get caught up all you want in reading against the text, gravitas, given circumstances, etc. But what it boils down to is that we want to lead the guy on the subway out of his way to find out and ask: "And then what happened?" I think that's where the power of the story lies.