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Do Storytellers Use Props When Performing?
by Chris King

As I’ve mentioned in other articles, there are as many different styles of telling stories as there are storytellers. There are many who never use any kind of a prop, whereas, there are just as many more who do use one, two, or a variety of props when telling. It is really up to the teller whether or not and when or how he or she will make use of props. This article will discuss the ins and outs of using props.

Only use a prop or props that enhance the telling. When choosing whether or not to make use of a prop, consider whether or not this prop will really add to the enjoyment and telling of the story, or will it detract. For example, if you decide to use a puppet — and there are many wonderful hand puppets available — will the audience remember the story or just the puppet? Oftentimes, I will make use of a puppet to introduce a story or to ask a question, but then, putting the puppet down, take over as the storyteller. I have observed tellers, however, who tell in tandem with a puppet, and mesmerize the audience into listening to both.

What kinds of props do tellers use? Again, there are as many different kinds of props as the creative imaginations that storytellers possess. Many tellers make use of percussion instruments to set a beat — either in the background or for special emphasis. I use a variety of drums for the stories I tell with repetitive phrases. Both children and adults enjoy chiming in on the phrase when you ask them up front for help and the beat of a drum just intensifies the mood. If you are particularly brave and in control, you might provide drums or percussion instruments for everyone in the audience to use. In lieu of this, you can ask them to either clap or click fingers in unison. Just make sure that you set the ground rules first. Many tellers do the same with “call and response” using an instrument or having everyone sing along with an instrument (we will address combining storytelling and music in an upcoming article).

You can make use of props to introduce yourself as the storyteller. You may adopt a storytelling symbol that identifies with you in particular or carry a special banner or sign announcing who you are. I have storytelling friends who have a board with a caricature of the two of them that they stand on an easel while performing (of course, it has their names in easy-to-read letters). When telling to young children, some storytellers wear aprons with many pockets and let the children take turns picking an object from a pocket. The object picked dictates what story will be told next. Another teller has taught herself magic and weaves the tricks into her tales. She never has a problem finding a volunteer from the audience to help her with the trick. Other tellers may bring along objects from the different cultures that they plan to highlight in their stories. Nature tellers often bring examples and specimens to educate the listeners. One teller makes use of paper folding — Origami — and then has the audience fold during a second telling of the story. Others tell stories using strings while the audience follows along with string figures. You are only limited by your imagination when picking your props.

Prepare, practice, and perform. As with all storytelling, preparation and practice are essential to giving an excellent performance. First, if you feel you would like to make use of props, choose those that have a relationship to the story. Ask yourself: If I use this prop, will it make the telling of this story better and stronger? If not, don’t use it. Once you have picked a prop or props, practice, practice, practice telling the story along with using the prop. You may think you know exactly how it will fit in, but if you are the least bit uncomfortable, it will distract the audience from listening to the story. And practice even harder if you are going to tackle something more complex like a magic trick, Origami, or string figures. You should almost be able to do these in your sleep.

Always be on the lookout for possible props. If you enjoy using props, look for new ones in unlikely places. You may find them in antiques stores, at yard sales, at flea markets, in toy stores, music stores, your attic or relatives’ attics, and vintage clothing stores (I mentioned in a previous article how many storytellers wear unusual hats).

Have fun with props and let your listeners have fun too! When I use a new drum, an unusual object, or a puppet, I find that the children in the audience love to run up after the performance and touch everything. So I suggest having props that are indestructible. I do make sure that they don’t run off with them, however, unless I have planned ahead and brought a small token prop for everyone to take home — which delights them even more! It is even better if the take-along-home will remind them of a story they heard you tell. They may even share with their family.

 

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