Storytelling and Theatre

by Joy Kelly Smith   ©2016

I came to New York to perform on the stage.  Film was and is fun but it doesn’t have the lure of unpredictability that live theatre presents – the energy coming from the audience – sensing and measuring the mood and jumping into their imagination.  I dreamed of stepping onstage to face and enjoy these challenges.


Joy Smith 2Joy as The Girl in East/West by Andrei Amalrik, Hartman Theatre Conservatory in Stamford, Ct.

And you know what?  Storytelling has the same lure.  When I direct young actors preparing to perform for children, I tell them, “If the audience is watching you like television, you have them!”  How many of us have felt that?  Having the audience right in the palm of your hand!  You can feel them listening and going along with you as you create and share a story.  That’s what I call “The Magic”!

As in a play, telling a folktale or relating a memoir a certain element of theatricality is almost inevitably thrown in to engage the audience – a vocal quality, a gesture or movement to express a specific character or event.  These are acting techniques for the theatre as well.

When I decided to look into storytelling as an alternative to traditional actor jobs like waiting tables and working temp (hated both!), I went to a storytelling concert at Aaron Davis Hall in Upper Manhattan. I had never gone to a storytelling event before and the only storyteller I was really aware of was my father, a Baptist preacher, who told wonderful stories within his sermons.  The event was called “Men Speaking in Tongues”  – All African American Men telling stories.  I wanted to know the kinds of techniques and choices different storytellers made.  How does it compare with creating a character onstage that has needs and objectives and an obstacle to overcome in order to fulfill those needs and objectives?

I learned the choices were infinite just as in theatre.  Some storytellers sang their stories and others shared poetry that told stories.  One storyteller – a dancer – literally created a storytelling space that he “climbed” into, told his story and then “climbed” out.  I realized it was a matter of finding what works for the storyteller for that particular story.  I could use what I knew from Acting School and performing.  I could add music.  I could create my own sound effects or have the audience do them.  I decided to take out my old guitar I’d had since I was teenager, dust it off, put new strings on it and use it to tell stories.  Some stories adapted well to being told as an observer and others as one of the characters.  It was about choices.  What worked best for me.

Joy Smith 2

Joy in “Tintypes” at the Dorset Theatre, Dorset, Vermont


When I choose a story to tell, I seek to discover what I call “the hook” – what is the best way to relate it?  Should I add a song?  Should I tell it as an observer or a character or a combination?  How can I best engage my audience?  As a child, I used to try to scare my younger siblings and their friends with various versions of “The Golden Arm” – even getting them to act out the story.  To my young self this was just another game until my sister later pointed out I was indeed a storyteller back then. Even now I find myself

trying different approaches with stories until something seems to work and then I keep exploring taking into account who my audience is and what I want to say with the story.

Joy Smith 3Storytelling at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York City

In theatre, I always encourage the actors I direct to explore different ways to present their characters.  This opens the door to discovering something even more effective than what was done in rehearsal.  I only stress that they maintain the integrity of the story being told.  This is also true of storytelling – keep exploring – and keep enjoying the story.





Joy Smith 4Joy is a storyteller, actor, director, teaching artist and a musician of sorts. She has taught Directing as an adjunct at City College in New York City.  Born in Mississippi, raised in Tennessee she is also the daughter of a Baptist Minister.  This summer –Joy will be telling stories at the Han Christian Anderson Statue in Central Park; performing in the play “Striving For Freedom” at the Jay Heritage Center in Rye, NY; And directing a new play, “Crockett’s Last Stand” for the Strawberry One Act Festival in New York City. Joy currently lives in New York City.


This blog series is a part of the LANES Connections Project. This task seeks to celebrate connections to other organizations, professions, and milieus to which we are joined through story. If you are joined through story with another organization, profession, setting, style or milieu, we would love for you to share your experiences with us in a blog.




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