Thursday, May 2, 2013

Step-by-Step Storytelling

For me, storytelling can be a lot like yawning. It’s really easy to start—but woe to the one who tries to stop! Sure, I can capture just about anyone’s attention with a thrilling start (who could forget those epic stories about a dragon started bouncing like a jackrabbit across the hills with a sack on his back or a British ghost who was a pyromaniac or the mysterious water monster living beneath my college’s island…), but ending them? Well, that’s something else.

Sometimes when we talk about Oral Bible Storytelling, I think the image in our heads is similar to my haphazard version, but in fact, the storytelling process taught in the Oral Bible Storytelling course held this past April in Wewak, Papua New Guinea (PNG) was as different from the above scenario as an Easi-Bake oven is from a Master Chef’s kitchen. (See more stories about the OBS course here and here)

For the first half of the course, each morning the 30 participants from 7 languages gathered in the haus win (open shelter), clutching their recorders and leaning forward with eager grins, excited to begin. Several of the participants had been chosen to begin training as future instructors of the course, and so, paired with an experienced staff member, they would lead the day’s activities, beginning by dramatically telling one of the stories of Moses and the Exodus. Because there were seven languages present, all the instruction and initial storytelling was done in Tok Pisin, PNG’s main trade language.

At the conclusion of the story, the participants would toss up their hands, chattering animatedly about what surprised them, pleased them, or even made them angry. Slowly they would tease out the themes of the text and potential application for their audience. Throughout the morning, the facilitator would retell the story multiple times, guiding the class in analyzing characters and setting, determining the story’s outline and climax, and (in contrast to my method), figuring out appropriate ways to start and end the story (including what background might be necessary for their audience). Occasionally, when perplexed by a historical or theological issue, the whole class would rotate in their seats to stare at us, the expat mentors sitting in the back, and pepper us with questions—what size was the burning bush? Was the Red Sea really red? Is there any deeper significance in removing shoes on holy ground? How many Pharoah’s were there? How far away was Mt. Sinai from Midian?

After the morning break of tea, coffee, and banana cake, the participants dove into the next challenge—committing the story to memory, first in Tok Pisin and later in tokples (local language). They used a variety of aids and games, from acting out the story to trading sentences with each table, to drawing out a picture/symbolic outline, to working in teams and echoing each other back and forth.

After lunch, each language group split off to begin crafting the story in their own tokples. Earlier, they had recorded the story in Tok Pisin, so now, they would play the recording and while listening to it, one person would simultaneously translate the phrases into tokples, which was captured on a second recorder. Once this first draft was completed, the rest of the team would listen and relisten to the story’s recording, discussing changes and slowly modifying it until all were satisfied. Then they practiced telling this story until it was firmly committed to memory.

Hear the bell—it’s afternoon tea, now! After the break, the whole group would once again gather together to discuss both challenging concepts that they encountered in their translation, such as rhetorical questions or sarcasm, and difficult words that don’t have easy equivalents in their languages and cultures—such as tar, basket, Israel, Hebrew, Levi, calendar, yeast, sheep, trough, holy, offering, chariot, sea or even expressing 14 days (when they only have a numbering system that counts up to 10). Often the teams would be working on their drafts late into the night, polishing and refining the language until it was just right.

The last stage of storytelling course was the check and recording—after one team member recorded their final version of the story in tokples, another team member would listen to the recording and translate (either orally or written) it back into Tok Pisin. Then, our linguistic consultant, Elois, would examine the Tok Pisin version and ask many probing questions to make sure that concepts were being communicated correctly and none of the important elements of Scripture were being left out or altered. After the team made the necessary changes, they made a final recording for archiving purposes… and then started the process over again for the next story!

And that, my friends, is nothing to yawn at!