March 23, 2014 by Paula Reed Nancarrow
I had asked the three winners of Word Sprout’s StorySlamMN! in February (when the theme was “frisky”) if they might consider being interviewed about their creative process. Ani Lovoll was the only one who responded in March and her interview is here. Turns out phillip andrew bennett low, who prizes precision in the written word, was just getting it right. phillip has a style very different from Ani’s, as well as mine, which is kind of the point of interviewing other people. Here ishis response to my questions.
For those who were not at StorySlamMN!, please give a quick summary of what your story was about. What connected it to the theme “frisky”?
I essentially did a set about “bad date stories,” and the sexual inclinations behind them. The twist, insomuch as there was one, was that they were mostly about what a terrible, oafish date I was, as opposed to ridiculing the women who deigned to share their time and bodies with me. This is actually a pretty important point for me philosophically, storytelling-wise: I find that a lot of what I respond to is a performer’s willingness to share their ugliness with us, as opposed to casting themselves as hapless victims of forces beyond their control. My life has been very fucked-up, and it’s been so because I’ve made it so, and I don’t have any illusions about that. That is (at least to me) a more interesting story than one of uncomfortably therapeutic self-victimization.
How did the idea for your story come to you? Did you create this story specifically for the slam, or did you use a story you have told in another context because it fit the theme?
I did an exercise as part of a mime/movement class many years ago, that involved us walking each other through an imaginary version of our homes and explaining what we were seeing. One observation that leapt out at me was that I narrate almost entirely through jokes (here’s a table, and a funny association I have with it; here’s a sofa, and a funny association I have with it, etc.). Which may be frustratingly, hopelessly defensive, but it strikes me that that’s largely how I structured that particular story: it was a narrative on which jokes were hung. Which I don’t think devalues it as a narrative, any more than, say, a poem is devalued because it leaps between striking images; my motive may have been those individual moments, but none of those moments work without context.
I have, indeed, told this story in other contexts, and most of the sets I do for the story slams involve me rewriting and re-appropriating other material (I’ll often do a content search of my hard drive for that evening’s keyword and see what pops up). Rewriting and recasting those moments does take a significant investment of time/energy, however, and I’d still characterize that as a worthwhile creative endeavor.
Is there a particular practice or process you find helpful in shaping your story to fit within the theme and time limitations of a slam?
It’s really just a hardcore editing job. It’s pointing a pistol at every sentence and asking you to pick which ones are ultimately necessary. After that, it’s not just a question of plucking out extraneous material: it has to be rewritten and re-contextualized so that it flows and makes sense. You can’t ever lose the sense that you’re writing for the ear, not the eye: my “writing process” usually consists of me pacing back and forth and speaking aloud, trying to figure out what makes sense and feels natural to a listening audience. It’s just such a weird fucking level of artifice: you want to sound spontaneous while speaking so unnaturally. It’s this bizarre lie that we all consent to, and you have to lie just enough but not too much to make it work.
What do you think is the most difficult thing about telling a story on stage? What is the most rewarding?
I have chronic, terrible stage fright — always have and probably always will have, so that’s my biggest hurdle (I remember spending several minutes before one of the Minnesota Fringe’s Five-Fifths fundraisers vomiting uncontrollably). I suspect that there are two types of people: those who get stage fright (and therefore will always have it), and those who don’t (and therefore never will). I’m deeply envious of the latter.(It’s totally about the combination of writing/performing, too: I’d been an actor for years before I began studying as a mime, but I remember doing my first comedy sketch and watching my hands shaking uncontrollably throughout the whole thing. There’s something about standing in front of an audience when you’re responsible for the material that just wrecks — well, at least me.)
As for the most rewarding, man, what we do is the absolute definition of addiction: we’re chasing a few rare but extraordinary highs, and we’re prepared to burn just about everything else of value in our lives to achieve them. I don’t think that mentally healthy people become storytellers. I mean, why would you?
More about phillip
phillip andrew bennett low is a Chinese-American playwright, poet, mime, theatre critic, and libertarian activist. His main claims to fame are as the founder of the touring theatre troupe Maximum Verbosity, and as co-founder and Chair of the Rockstar Storytellers, a group of bestselling local spoken-word artists (which also includes Allison Broeren). He co-hosts Word Ninjas Open Mic with Allison Broeren for WordSprout.
Both @maxverbosity and @RockstarStory are on Twitter, and Rockstar Storytellers has a very active Facebook page. pabl, as he often signs emails, reviews and profiles performers for the Twin Cities Daily Planet, primarily during the Minnesota Fringe Festival, on his blog Womb with a View. In fact he asked a few pre-performance questions of me for the Fringe show I produced in 2013, The Gravity of Ghosts. And I didn’t even have to win anything first.
I’m continuing to work on my story for next month’s slam on the theme “courageous” But at the request of fellow blogger Nillu Nasser Stelter, however, next time I’ll be doing a special post as a nominee for the Liebster Award, given to up and coming bloggers with fewer than 200 followers. I’m just being introduced to the wild and wacky world of blog awards, and this one seems like a fun way to get to know new bloggers and recommend those you enjoy. You can (and should) read more about the award, and about the lovely and talented Nillu, here.