Adapting stories for performance 

It is part of the oral storytelling tradition to adapt stories to tell them in slightly different ways to different audiences. A yarn told around the smoko fire to a circle of old lags might need to be changed quite a bit when it is told to the Commandant if one wants to avoid a flogging.

A story that infants find hilariously funny is likely to fall as flat as a squashed cane toad if it's not changed for teenagers. Although some stories are sacred there is still room, even in them, to adapt the story to make sure the audience understands the true meaning.

Storytelling is a two way process. A teller learns and tells a story and the audience gives the teller feedback on how successfully he or she is telling the story. If the audience is clearly enjoying a particular section the storyteller will respond with more of the same. This is particularly easy with preschool audiences because they give such direct feedback. You just can't miss the clues. All audiences do let you know in their own way however, and, failing that, you can always ask for feedback and make the necessary changes next time.

Predicting an audience's likes
Of course, if you can predict what a particular audience will like, then you can adapt the story before you tell it. Is your audience - old, young, mature, immature, male, female, mixed, adventurous, timid, multicultural, monocultural, working class, middle class or owning class, country, city, tired, fresh? All of these characteristics, and more, make a difference to your audience's reaction to your story.

Content and Jargon
One thing to really watch out for is whether or not your existing story contains, jargon, names, sayings, objects, tools etc that your expected audience won't know about. Will it matter if your audience knows what Murphy's Rule is or what a Furphy is? What's 'an old lag' for example? In one of my stories, largely for adults, although I do sometimes tell it to older teenagers, it makes a huge difference to the success of the performance when the audience knows the difference between the V.C. and V.D. Although it's just the next letter in the alphabet, there is a world of difference and experience when that C changes to a D.

A Technique
First - read or tell the story and reflect on what the story means to you. Why are you interested in the story? What feelings come up and where? Where's the fun or the drama in the story for you?

Second - Who do you want to tell the story to and why? Is the answer to this question congruent with your answers to the first set of questions? What will this audience like? What will they be looking for in the story? Fun? Validation? Stimulation? Entertainment?

Third - Tell the story as if you are telling it to audience you want to tell it to. How does it feel? Is there some fun, excitement, challenge, satisfaction in the telling for you? If not - change it. Tell it again.

Fourthly - Tell it to an audience of the type you are planning to tell it to and watch and listen to the audience's reaction with care. When did they laugh, cry, go silent, start to fidget?

Fifthly - Adapt the story according to the audience's reaction. Retell it and adapt. Retell it and adapt.

Having fun with changes
Existing characters can be built to a greater or lesser degree. For example with the wolf in 'The Three Little Pigs', what would preschool boys like it to be wearing? What if, instead of huffing and puffing, he got a 'huffing and puffing machine' out of his pocket and turned it on. What would it look like? How would he speak if he did?

Some characters are archetypal and audiences expect you to describe them in certain ways. The PIRATE is the ultimate, mean, baddy and we all know what the PIRATE wears, what weapon he or she (Aaaaahh!) prefers, what sits noisily on his shoulder and we anticipate his favourite saying with little shivers of pleasure. However, there is heaps of room for variations on the theme and even occasionally reversing it.

The setting for a story can developed or left minimal. It can be changed to another country, place or time. How many versions of Cinderella are there around the world? Emotions can be built or not in the same way. My wolf in 'Three Little Pigs' throws a wolf sized tantrum when he can't get into the house made out of bricks. Kinders and preschoolers love it.

Copyright and Intellectual and Cultural Property
Traditional folktales and fairytales are fairly worry free when it comes to changing or adapting them - especially if the story comes from ones own culture. There are times however, when permission should be sought to tell or adapt a story. Some stories are 'owned' by individuals. They may have created the story themselves, even though it sounds and feels like a traditional folktale, and may get quite upset if you start telling it without permission. They may even sue you for breach of copyright.

A particular adaption of a story by a particular storyteller may sound wonderful to you and it may be tempting to just tell it and see what happens but, to take it word for word, nuance by nuance, character development by character development etc is likely to generate some ill feeling on the part of the artist. This is intellectual property and should be respected. Getting permission and giving credit for inspiration helps maintain the traditions of storytelling. It helps generate for the audience the idea that storytelling is an artform with its traditions of respect and thoughtfulness.

Personal life stories shouldn't really be told without permission. Likewise appropriation of stories from other cultures can be oppressive and abusive. Seeking permission from a traditional owner or elder creates goodwill in a number of ways and is a learning process. To not do so can often add to the already considerable oppression of Indigenous cultures. For example, Aboriginal dreaming stories are not simply stories to be told any time, any how, by any person. Who and when and where they are told is a part of their cultural and spiritual importance. To ignore this can degrade and diminish their value. This is true of other cultures as well.

Adapating stories is part of the oral storytelling tradition.
Adapt a story with your audience in mind and then take note of their reaction.
Be aware of the suitability of the stories content for the specific audience and be careful with jargon.
What's in the story for you?
Have fun with characters and settings.
Take copy right, intellectual property and cultural property into account.

© 1998 Daryll Bellingham. One copy of the above notes are available for your personal use for developing your storytelling skills. If you would like to copy, distribute or publish them whole or in part please seek my permission.


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Daryll Bellingham, Storyteller
P.O. Box 5300, West End, Q4101, 
Brisbane, Australia
Tel. 61 (0)7 3846 3135
Mob. 0417 478408
All contents copyright © 2001, Daryll Bellingham. All rights reserved.
Last updated: 26th August, 2003.
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