Michael Burns, 36, loves telling and listening to stories. It has a lot to do with a trip to a grocery store in the US (we’ll soon share the story), which culminated in a tattoo of a frozen radio wave on his arm (which he doesn’t offer to show, and we cannot possibly insist).
Burns is at a Dadar-based café and waiting to audition a storyteller who is part of Tall Tales, Burns’ storytelling club, and will tell his story at its first event on June 7. “I fell in love with stories and storytelling in 1997. I lived in Connecticut back then, and was on my way to a grocery store when I heard a speech on radio. It struck me as powerful and the medium was just right.
Around the same time, I also tuned in to This American Life, a weekly radio show where three stories are selected for a 90-minute slot. Sometimes, one story is so good that only one storyteller speaks for that long.” Candidness and humour, remembers Burns, was key to all great stories he heard then. “One of the best stories I ever heard was about the greatest phone message a guy ever got,” he smiles.
Burns moved to India in February 2011 and now teaches English at YMCA. He is also adjunct professor at Post University at Connecticut, where he teaches film theory. Tall Tales, he says, is his way of paying to tribute to stories that we all carry within ourselves but seldom have a chance to share. “We think we don’t have a story to share, or wonder who really wants to hear it anyway, but that’s not true,” says Burns.
The first storytelling event will focus on non-fiction, life stories. Burns and the co-director of Tall Tales, Kaneez Surka, say that they receive at least two stories everyday, and they pick the ones they think are true-life stories. “Well, at least 99 per cent true to life,” smiles Surka, who, like Burns, is an improv artist. “This experience, of course, will be different from telling a story at a cocktail party — we hold rehearsals and auditions to smoothen any creases in the writing and the storytelling,” adds Surka. Most people who have been selected for the first event have barely spoken on stage, and Burns and Surka say that rehearsals really seem to be helping them with the nerves.
At this point, Mukul Chadda, 39, the auditioneer walks in with at least seven sheets of typewritten paper. The theatre actor and improv artist is the only one among the six people selected who is familiar with public speaking. Chadda’s story is titled, ‘There are no trash cans in Tokyo.’
“A few years ago, I was in Japan for an official trip and still remember how flummoxed and lost I was. Japanese culture and customs can be disorienting at first, and I thought this would be a good time to laugh at myself,” he smiles.
Chadda begins reading and his story elicits smiles at first, which soon become wide grins and laughter. In the story, Chadda somehow always gets stuck with a piece of trash which he cannot dispose off in a city which does not expect its citizens to have trash to begin with. Throughout the 18-minute-long reading, Burns, who also has a copy of the story, writes his remarks on the margins.
After Chadda finishes his reading, Burns and Surka give their verdict. “The story has a great character, and a strong voice,” observes Burns. What also works for the duo is the detail, like a description of a silver-haired Japanese man combing his hair in the men’s room which is Chadda’s last resort to dump his ice cream cup.
“We also gain a good amount of insight about how indirect Japanese culture could seem to an Indian, without really being condescending or goofy about it,” Surka points out. Burns and Surka suggest that Chadda shorten the length of the story to 11 minutes, and cut down on some irrelevant bits. “Also,” says Burns, “take out the word ‘boring’ from that one line there. I don’t know why, but I think uttering that word brings that emotion to life,” he smiles. “Let’s not leave it lying around at the event.”
From the second Tall Tales event onwards, says Surka, they would love to have people speak on set themes. “We’d love to ask people to only speak of life lessons, travel, love, it could be anything really. And we plan to hold an event every month, if all goes well.”
How to tell a great, tall tale
>> According to Michael Burns, every great story speaks about a state of change. “It could be something you started out with — an attitude, an idea, a habit, a belief - and how an event made you reconsider. I think change makes for the best of stories.
>> A good story has a wave of emotions. “Sometimes, one emotion put down well can sustain a poignant story, and at other times, you need multiple emotions and elements to really communicate what makes the story so great,” says Burns.
>> “Vulnerability,” says Burns, “makes for a great story. “The fact that you can relate to the character, imagine yourself in a place only he has experienced, is wonderful. And for that, you need to open yourself up, project vulnerability and admit that you cannot always be in charge. That's a great story.”
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