Performer’s Spotlight - John Tong
There are many different perspectives on the art of storytelling. We’ve told you a lot about our storytellers, but what about our teachers? Check out John Tong - one of our storytelling teachers - and learn a little about what our teachers really think
What first got you interested in storytelling?
A co-worker was performing in a 2nd Tuesday show and invited the office during a staff meeting. In my head, I pictured people in flowing blouses dramatically talking about magical chipmunks. I definitely thought it would be cat lady central and there would be weird, old dudes with beards filled with Walker shortbread cookie crumbs. I just showed up out of obligation, really.
When I actually saw the show, I was blown away. It was like a live-action episode of "This American Life." It was funny and sad and triumphant and hopeful. I think after the third story that night I was saying to myself, "oh, I can do this." Growing up I was really into public speaking and I did lots of theater. I was in a stage production every year until my senior year in college. But even at a young age, I never took theater as a serious pursuit - there didn't seem to be a lot of parts for Asian guys that didn't look like math nerds or knew martial arts. But I always missed performing and the creativity that went into figuring out how to delivery a line. So for a bunch of years I was a frustrated performer and I think that's why I would sing karaoke every week even though I am a terrible, awful singer.
So storytelling, or whatever you want to call it, seemed like an opportunity to get in front of people again and get validation for my crippling insecurities.
My co-worker turned out to be one of Story District's first faculty members (Meredith Maslich) and at work I'm her supervisor. So I spent the next few months forcing her to teach me about storytelling and in exchange she didn't have to do any work
What were you hoping to learn/gain when you first started storytelling?
Oh, I thought I knew everything when I started. I thought I was the cats pajamas. My first story was this non-linear, sprawling epic that covered an entire year I spent as a professional black-jack player. I figured the content was so awesome that nothing else really mattered. I didn't think you could teach storytelling. Whatever rules someone said I should follow, I would roll my eyes and think, "there are no rules." It actually turns out you have to learn the rules so you know how to break them.
So, I pitched to a 2nd Tuesday show and got in. I spent a month working on the story and a full week just memorizing it. And when I got on stage I was doing fine for like the first three minutes but my story was non-linear and it kept jumping back and forth in time. There weren't a lot of natural transitions and it was hard to remember what I was supposed to say happened next. Then, on stage, I didn't reckon how the lights would be in my eye or how I could see the faces in the crowd. Then people would laugh at something I said, and that was great, but I hadn't accounted for how the pauses for the laughter would throw my timing off. Then I started thinking. And thinking is fatal on stage.
When a musician plays an instrument on stage, they aren't thinking about the notes. They have practiced the piece so many times they play the music from muscle memory. It just happens. Their analytical, left-brain has done it's job imprinting the memory and, on stage, the creative, right-brain takes over and just performs it. Some people call that achieving flow. When you don't expect something, and you're nervous, you get knocked out of that flow and you start thinking. You start thinking and you become aware of yourself, then you start thinking about how you haven't talked in a couple of seconds and the audience has noticed, then you start thinking about how you're choking, then you start thinking about "what am I supposed to say next?" Most people recover from that and keep going. My first time out, I got to that point and my brain went into full meltdown.
I just stopped talking and refused to continue. They had to pull me down off of the stage without finishing. They let me go back on stage after the intermission and finish, which was nice. They even edited the video later on so it doesn't look awful, too. Even though there have been thousands of stories told on the Story District stage over the years, I hold the record for the worst bombing of all time. Some of the Story District faculty even used my story as a "teachable moment"to their classes. It would be an understatement to call that humbling.
But I needed that. I needed to fail so I could see what I was doing wrong. And the it gave me courage because I bombed in the worst way possible and it wasn't that bad. The world didn't end. The Story District audience is so fantastic and they want you to succeed. They were so forgiving and understanding that night and I believe, if that had been a stand-up comedy crowd or something, I never would have taken the stage ever again. And that would have been a pity because storytelling has become such an important part of my life.
Do you enjoy performing in general? Or only specifically storytelling? How does storytelling compare to other kinds of performances?
Storytelling is such a weird word for what we do. I'm kind of ambivalent about it but I guess "personal narrative" doesn't roll off the tongue. Some people could argue storytelling is some kind of off-shoot of a more established form like dramatic monologue or some people would consider it more like stand-up comedy. My mom calls them my "comedy talks." Or I guess to could just reduce it down further. Afterall, narrative goes back as far at least as far as the evolution of homo sapiens. We are hard-wired for narrative; it's one of the ways we solve problems. We get a serotonin fix when we listen to other people's stories. Our sub-conscious loves solving the puzzle of the story that someone is telling. Maybe a Story District show isn't much different from Homer and the oral tradition.
But I think what Story District and other similar groups around the world are doing is distinct. It certainly is an inter-disciplinary form that borrows from lots of other performance art. There are theatrical elements and sensibilities that get borrowed from stand-up comics, folk tellers, improv artists and slam poets. There are also crafting techniques from writers like David Sedaris and monologuists like Spaulding Grey, Eve Ensler and many others. It kind of melts performance art with creative non-fiction and memoir and there is variation in terms of which end of that spectrum a performer prefers.
Honestly, I'm sometimes not sure if "first-person, original storytelling" is something that is completely novel or if our society just is gravitating more to this stuff. It's probably a little from Column A and a little from Column B. Nobody knows their neighbor, everyone has stressful jobs and telecommutes from their hermetically-sealed, well-appointed residences and I have people in my life via social media that I consider part of my day-to-day that I have not spoken to face-to-face in decades. I think people are craving actual human contact. They want to hear that other people are having problems just like them. They want to know they aren't alone with their quirks, insecurities and personal failings. They want to hear how other people are dealing with their very contemporary problems. They also want to be entertained.
People want meaning.
So take my last Top Shelf story about the death of my brother. Obviously, a really hard thing for me to talk about and I waited 18 months before I took a shot at it. I looked over the Story District's themes last year and saw one called "Deals with the Devil." I hadn't thought about it for a long time, but I remembered that I was playing this game in my head to pass the time on my long car rides to see my brother when he was really sick. I tried to average 65 mph when I would drive down to see him and if I could do it then I told myself he wouldn't be dead by to the time I got there. It was sort of like that game "Step on crack / Break your mother's back." Just a dumb thing I was doing to keep myself sane. But when I saw that theme, I remembered that the last time I talked to my brother I left him in a hospital room because I thought it would be unlucky if I didn't drive home because that's what I always did on Sunday nights. I had to average 65 mph. He asked me to spend the night but I didn't because I had this deal with myself. I was the Devil! And like any Faustian bargain, I did get to be with him before he died but certainly not on the terms I had ever expected.
None of that would have come to me without that theme. And that amazes me because it has been very healing for me and helped me come to terms with a lot of guilt I felt after his death. Putting together that story helped me figure out what that time in my life meant to me. And because I had been telling stories for years at that point, I was able to structure that story in a way to get that meaning across to other people. And the night after the Top Shelf show, this guy came up to me and he told me my story made him cry because it made him think about his brother who was very much still alive and how he felt that he really should call him on the phone. So this complete stranger who brought all his own experiences and meanings to that show was able to achieve a level of personal catharsis just by watching me do the same on stage. That is a level of intimate, personal connection that you don't find in most other performance art. That is what makes storytelling special and once you experience that it's a feeling you keep chasing.
What does it feel like to teach others how to tell their stories?
I'm one of the newer faculty members, so teaching is still exciting and a little intimidating to me. This is a very big responsibility when you think about it. I would be heart-broken if I ever made someone feel discouraged or, worse, regret sharing a story. Sometimes people are willing to be quite vulnerable with you and their other peers and they may share something that's very hard for them to talk about. However, that doesn't mean they are ready to tell that particular story yet and, furthermore, it may not be appropriate for the stage.
I view myself as a facilitator more than a teacher - I just want everyone to get whatever it is they want out of the class. If they want to get more comfortable with public speaking and that's it, so be it. If they want to be a Top Shelf storyteller, that's fine too. I just try to meet people where they are. What is so great about Story District is that over years they have developed a process to help people tell better stories. So at some level I try to execute that process and then I try to give people my opinions based on my own experiences. And I'm learning so much from the students and their approaches. We do a lot of workshopping in the class and the other students, who tend to be very, very smart people, have brilliant observations.
I'm a performer first at heart, so when I see someone really struggle with a story, I empathize with them because I know what that feels like. And when they are nervous before they go on stage, I know what that's like too. I just feel like one of their peers, really. I guess you can say I've taken more "Story Appreciation" classes then they have.
More than anything, I just want them all to join our little cult. Just get them to take a sip of the Kool-Aid to see if they like it.
What are some of the qualities of a good story?
For me, meaning is everything. If a story doesn't matter to you, then why is it going to matter to an audience that just paid $15 to see a show? I think empathy for an audience is really, really important. I think if someone wants to tell better story they should always ask themselves, "who cares?" What will anyone else get from listening to this story? If you can't figure that out, then maybe you're being too self-indulgent. Maybe this is cynical, but I don't think people really care about a storyteller except for what they compel people to feel by the words that come out of their mouth. You have to make them care and for them to care they have to understand why the story means something.
Meaning is what is going to elevate an anecdote into a story. Meaning is going to create a connection with the audience. It goes hand in hand with story structure - it is the unseen, but felt component of the story that hides beneath the structure. A poorly structured story with lots of meaning is going to either be a hot mess or ham-fisted. A well-structured story with no meaning, even if it's hilarious, will leave the audience feeling empty when you get off stage. When you combine good structure with clear, poignant meaning, you are onto something.
For me, that's where the art lays. Can you manipulate a room full of people to feel how you want them to feel just by how you structure your narrative information? Just like the poet structures stanzas or the visual artist layers brushstrokes, how are you going to build something that impacts others?
How do you help people find the most compelling part of a story?
I find most people have a sense of what they think is compelling about a story. I always assume that even if they aren't getting across to me why a story is important, it most be important to them (or it was important to them when the event occurred). If I were to generalize, I find that most first-time storytellers make the beginning, or the set-up, to the story the more compelling part. That is to say, they will add lots of jokes, observations and crafted performance to this section. They will also let that section run way too long.
The most compelling part of a story should be all the stuff that happens in the middle of the story. That's where all the action is. I push people to get us into the middle of their story as fast as possible so we can focus on the action - make it more dramatic, figure out ways to make it more tense, get across visual imagery. Even in a very simple story that doesn't involve lots of other people or lots of action there is an entire universe inside someone's own head to explore.
The stories have to be true to the teller. So if they really can't remember things that happened or how they felt or thought during the time of the story, maybe we need to find another story. Or maybe we can use some tools to get them to brainstorm and free associate a little bit to dig a little deeper. We try to make sure very early on in the class that whatever story a student is going to tell has some compelling features.
How does it feel to see people you’ve helped performing?
I guess it's a little nerve-wracking but I try just to be a proud parent. I'm happy for them no matter how much they like or dislike their performance. I find that people are really hard on themselves. I know I am. Most people lose perspective of how far they come in a five-week class. I try to remind everyone that in five weeks they have gone from nothing to a 7 minute story that they have crafted, workshopped, edited, practiced and performed. That's quite an accomplishment for a first-timer. But I mostly experience this version of PTSD. I see them nervous before they go up and I can feel the nerves just like them. I get nervous every time I go on stage. That's your body getting ready for the Fight or Flight response. I see them asking themselves, "what did I get myself into?" But when they get off of the stage, and all their friends and family are cheering for them, they get that adrenaline rush and they it's like they are looking for the back of the line because they want to get on that ride again.
Are you surprised that your stories have been nominated for Top Shelf so many times?
What is surprising is that anyone gets into that show multiple times because there are so many talented people stepping up each and every year. And the competition has definitely gone way up recently. There are so many awesome storytellers in this community and then you have to factor in this is such an international city filled with lawyers, journalists, organizers, wonks and other people who are professional talkers. I guess it makes sense that storytelling is so popular in DC. I think I was just an anomaly. I just slid in during this period where an older guard was stepping away and a newer generation of folks was stepping up. But I see lots of new faces on the scene and they are awesome. Frankly, I hate that they are doing so well because now I can't be so lazy.
Can you see yourself still doing this in a few years?
I certainly hope so. I hope I can still find things to talk about and that there will be a community interested in what storytellers have to say. I look around at what's happening in New York and other cities around the country and it seems these communities and their shows just get bigger and bigger. I hope this form gains enough popularity that it can enjoy the success of stand-up comedy or something like that. I'd like to see a world where storytellers can cross over into something like mainstream success. That would help it grow and thrive. I really just hope to see Story District continue their tremendous work to bring storytelling to diverse communities throughout our region. Like how they hold shows to give voice to the LGBT community, survivors of mental illness and children in under-served areas. I hope they can bring their transformational message about how storytelling can change lives to even more places. I know it has changed mine.