4 Lessons for Getting Real: Storyteller Ritija Gupta reflects
What's next after Storyteling 101, Boot Camp, or the Story District stage? Storyteller Ritija Gupta carried her Story District honed experience writing and sharing personal stories into Cultural DC’s Mead Theatre Lab Program, an incubator program for rising performers in Washington, DC. Here Ritja reflects on 4 key lesson she learned in the process of writing and producing her one-woman show "Charming the Destroyer.
1. Let yourself get really vulnerable. Pick a director who can get you there.
There’s a temptation many storytellers have, including myself, to be funny, to be heroic, or to assume that we’re self-aware enough to truly understand how an event played out and why. However, I found that, as I went back through certain stories, when I really examined my motivations, or the motivations of other people in the story, I had a lot more agency than I thought I did, or I was a lot more flawed than I wanted to admit (and occasionally, I was a bit more innocent or compassionate than I gave myself credit for). The untangling of “what really happened” was a tough process for me at times, but I knew I needed to go through it so that the story made sense to the audience, so that it was an actual story instead of a defense of my life choices. Granted, the story is still yours no matter what, and you have the right to tell it through your lens. But, having been in many storytelling audiences, I personally feel more connected to storytellers who appear to be reflective, and who allow the other people in their stories to be three-dimensional.
What really helped is that my director, the exceptionally gifted and committed Stephanie Garibaldi, asked me tough questions through the process. Why did I choose to act in one way but not another? Am I being truly honest about how I felt about a certain person or event and if so, why did things play out a certain way? She was like an amazing therapist in some ways, not letting me get away with brushing things under the rug, and my work has become a lot more honest and authentic as a result. I cannot emphasize enough that this show would not be possible without her.
2. You can change things any time you want to.
This is the beauty of solo storytelling, that you are the final judge of what you want to say. Did you want to riff on a particular point? Do you want to slow things down and really walk the audience through something thoughtful, painful, or exuberant? Is this time for an act-out where they can visualize for themselves an important moment? You may have a sense of how you want things to flow, it can be all mapped out, and then it still may not play out the way you expected. You are not legally bound to keep your show the same night after night, and you are allowed to change things up even while you are performing.
For folks who are especially type-A and want to feel 100% prepared before they set foot onstage and don’t want to change a note, maybe that’s not great advice and it’s out of your comfort zone (and some storytellers are pitch perfect night after night, and I sure wish that was true of me). However, I’m very much in growth mode as an artist and what helps me is giving myself a margin with which to change, even onstage. In the moment, that flexibility is wonderful because you can nimbly respond to the vibe of your audience and iterate from what you’re learning as the show goes along. Do they like a particular story you’re in? Does it sound like they want more? Maybe add a little there, edit a bit somewhere else.
My opening night, there were a few lines from one of my stories that ordinarily got huge laughs at other events so I was a bit surprised that they didn’t seem to land that evening (whereas some other, weaker jokes by my estimation, actually got some huge laughs which was great but a bit surprising). But my overall show is much more thoughtful and emotionally raw than that one story on its own, so in the context of where that story appeared and the build-up, I hadn’t primed the audience well enough to let them know, it’s okay to laugh and let go right now, despite the journey we went on to get to this point. So, in my second performance, I paced the story differently, worked to shift the tone much more significantly than I had before, and the audience came along with me for the ride this time and laughed when I expected them to.
We’re not doing this (just) for laughs, however. I’ve also been working on iterating how I convey certain points. My opening night, I attempted to tell a story by inhabiting the voice of a particular person because I thought that that was the best way to pay him homage and credit for a very meaningful experience I’d had, that I largely owed to him. However, I realized that I’m not at the point where I could pull that off effectively. That person is much larger than life and spoke with a conviction in his own voice that I struggle to emulate. But I have a lot of conviction in my own voice, and it may be a better homage to articulate what this person’s words mean to me and how I heard them instead of offering the audience a poor imitation. That’s what I tried the second night—it not only “felt” better to me, it also flowed much better into other parts of the story. These are lessons you sometimes can’t learn when you’re practicing on your own or with a small group—it’s important to let yourself learn and grow in the moment itself.
3. Let yourself tell people what you’re doing—you are doing this for a reason.
I grew up pretty shy, and probably still have remnants of that shyness, when it comes to self-promotion. It feels gaudy and it feels a bit like I’m guilting people into coming to see a vanity project, which is the last thing I want to do. The thing is, if you see point 1, this very vulnerable and sometimes uncomfortable experience feels like the exact opposite of vanity. I wanted to do a show because I’ve lived a life where, despite my flaws, I’ve made extraordinary connections to people and places that have made me feel more human, more compassionate, and even awestruck about life in general. Some of it has been pretty hilarious. I suspect that there’s value in sharing that with some people.
Not everyone is going to want to take a chance on my show, and that’s really okay. However, for people who do want to see a show like mine, I am not doing them any favors if they don’t know it exists. You are not being arrogant if you are simply informing people of your show and making it easy for them to learn more and come to you. Arrogance is when someone doesn’t come to your show and you take them by the shoulders and tell them you won’t be their kid’s godparent anymore. So don’t do that.
4. Solo Storytelling is not really all that solo
Please, please, let people help you. Storytelling can be such a quiet, internal experience where words percolate in your head and you vacillate between wanting to have a tight, perfect show where you know every beat, intonation, and word choice or allowing yourself room to riff and leverage what the audience is giving you. It’s tough. But if you have a great director, if you let yourself falter a few times out loud at home or in front of friends, you’ll be more confident in your voice, your message, and your delivery.
I will say, I only really started to market my show in earnest when I visited some old, dear friends in New York City a few weeks back who admonished me for being so self-deprecating about my work and not “selling” it. These are friends from business school, so they’re really big on making things happen. Suddenly, people were making plans to come down from NYC to the show, recommending I talk to this person or that, and I couldn’t really hide anymore. Sometimes, I think we don’t want to market not just because we’re embarrassed about asking people for what we think is a “favor” in coming out to see you, but because we secretly think we’re going to fail and want as small an audience as possible to watch it happen.
But please, own this experience. You have a world of people out there who want to hear what you have to say, and in your heart of hearts, you know you want to say it or you wouldn’t be thinking about doing this in the first place. So work hard, be honest, give this your absolute best shot, and keep allowing yourself to evolve without judgment. I am in the middle of one of the most amazing, scary, beautiful moments in my life as a storyteller and it has taught me about my limitations and strengths. I needed to know these things. If you’re ready to learn and can create some good self-care rituals for yourself if and when you freak out, do it. Get that show up there, and let me know so I can come see it.
All my thanks and best wishes to Story District and Cultural DC’s Mead Theatre Lab Program for providing me multiple outlets to speak and create art.