Besides being simply a physical presence, the audience provides clues and cues for the teller. Intense listening, a questioning look, laughter, a sudden intake of breath, and even stirring in their seats all send the storyteller a message. For example:
- A questioning look in a listener's eyes may mean the teller has used unfamiliar vocabulary. In the next sentence or two, the teller can clarify by building the definition into the story narrative. If I said "he was feeling peckish" there might be some in the audience who would not know that Appalachian term. I could clarify by adding, "so he went looking for something to eat" which defines the word and keeps the story flowing.
- laughter usually means the audience is with the story and comfortable enough to laugh aloud. Most people will only smile at something funny if they aren't comfortable in the environment or with the people around them. Laughter at the wrong place signals the teller to work on that section of the tale next time. Maybe he/she hadn't taken the audience deep enough into the tale, or maybe it was choice of words, or it could be simply where the event is taking place--funny in one venue might not be funny in another. I
- An intake of breath--ah, they are really into the story and feeling what the character feels!
- Stirring in their seats can send different messages. Stirring, looking around, whispering or talking to their neighbor very likely means "get to work, storyteller! You're losing your audience!" It could be the story was not the right one for this group; in that case the teller can shorten it up, hasten the end and move on. Sometimes inserting a question to which the audience must give some sort of response can bring them back into the tale. There are many distractions that can keep an audience from focusing: a door opening, a child crying, the lateness of the hour, too long in their seats at an event, too warm or too cold, etc. The storyteller makes lightning decisions as to what might be disturbing the group and then work with the audience to overcome the problem and get everyone back to the story. I remember one event being held in a large barn that was also used for cattle auctions. Flies were everywhere and the audience kept moving and talking to each other about it while the tellers before me were performing. When it was my turn, I acknowledged the fly problem and had everyone wave their arms in the air to scare away the flies. Everyone laughed and relaxed. The flies didn't leave, of course, but we were all more comfortable with the situation and could move along.
There are many other audience cues a storyteller will pick up on during a performance, and often the teller will make subtle changes that the listeners are not aware of. This is one reason why it is important for a storyteller to see the audience's eyes during a performance. Most performances done on stage require stage lighting; for storytelling the best lighting is if the audience lights are at least partially up so that the audience is not lost in the blinding glare of the stage lights.
Storytellers also depend on their audience for feedback after a show. Comments, memories, questions, and other interactions give us food for thought. I have heard, and been given, many good stories by listeners after a performance. A question may make me realize I need to clarify a point in the story, a hug means I have touched that person and connected with them, and that is a real reward.
So storytelling is a two-way street--the teller sends the story out, and the audience's reaction to the story feeds the teller vital information both during and long after the tale is ended.