When someone says they are going to tell a story, a handful of mental images prepare your horizon of expectations — maybe a parent struggling to get an antsy child to sleep or a peer who never seems to apply a discriminatory eye to the relevance of particular details about their most recent crazy weekend. Typically you do not get ready for complex art, something you will be shaken by and struggling to digest the full meaning of for days after.
That’s okay, sort of. Storytelling has not reached mainstream audiences as successfully as other media of spoken art and performance. Hopefully it will, if Ivan Coyote’s recent performance on campus is any indication of the power and poignancy of the form.
The storytelling showcase took place on Saturday October 25 in LPAC Cinema. As part of the Sager Series and Pride Month, Coyote told stories about their lifelong struggle as someone outside of the gender binary, extrapolating their personal life to the general difficulty of the population.
Coyote, who started primarily as a folk musician but ended up “liking the banter more than the music,” said on the subject of their medium that “nobody knows exactly what I do.”
And it is not immediately or obviously clear what exactly they do. When the performance began it was difficult to tell exactly what was going on, exactly what was the point. There was paper on a podium, but the monologue seemed too natural to have been prepared or rehearsed. Eventually, very normal sentences became spaced out by blocks of more abstract language. A straightforward recounting of events would be followed by a flowing metaphor about a chair being dragged along the floor.
It became obvious that Coyote’s performance was of a unique and varied genre. Their stories lacked the rhythm of other popular spoken forms, and the sentences making up each tale followed a clear logical progression. In this way, storytelling seems more plain than its counterparts. What seems like line-by-line simplicity is actually storytelling’s special elegance. The primary challenge, which Coyote tackles masterfully, is making what is basic beautiful.
One of the apparent difficulties of storytelling is the fact that the audience is in the same room. Some lines of story were met with laughter, yet Coyote’s stern — here I considered the peculiarity of using the expression “straight-faced” — expression never faltered. Storytelling seems almost like an interactive experience in this sense, but what Coyote actually said came across like written prose (probably because it was). The story transitioned seamlessly from a one-sided conversation to a detached narrative, which kept the audience attentive as if they could prepare responses to Coyote’s sentences.
Subtly addressing generic questions like “when did you know?” and “what is it like?” they told several life stories, adding a special vibrancy to even the most basic details as their characterization of each of their family members had them walking the line between supportive and unaware.
The first story Coyote told followed them as they contacted family members and went through old photographs, putting together their own life through the eyes of processing it. It opened with what might have been banter or might have been prepared, then turned into what almost seemed like a stand-up routine. It was funny and friendly, with slightly biting jokes given enough time to be recognized as such.
Then the comedy started to be swallowed by somber details. The contrast between the humor and the solemn reality of the storyteller’s situation grew more pronounced as the space between the remarks shrank.
Take, for instance, a remark from Coyote’s aunt on choosing writing as a career path. A quip about the woman saying, “It’s only a job if you hate it,” was followed in the early stages of audience laughter by a gruesome description of the aunt’s hand, curled and ruined by arthritis as a product of the job she validated through hating it. This approach of fast-acting highs and lows gave the stories more impact and made them even more engaging.
The second story performance of the evening covered the life of a transgender friend/love interest of Coyote’s named Rosie. Equally touching and haunting, Rosie’s story had a completely different dynamic than the prior story. By opening the story with the detail of Rosie’s death, Coyote establishes an intimate anticipation of grief between the performer and the audience. Rosie’s tale was more raw, likely to reflect subject matter, which allowed Coyote to employ different storytelling techniques. The issues of identity and morality important to the story are not overpowering or bluntly stated but subtly powerful, creeping in through the narrative and allowing the audience to come to their presence and importance in the story gradually.
Coyote’s final story was a letter sent in response to a fan having trouble coming into their own identity. The letter covered Coyote’s navigation through complicated and varied family relationships, from a cousin who attempted to relate to Coyote via their shared interest in “eating pussy” to a grandmother whose only comment on the development of Coyote’s sexual identity was that she hated their haircut.
After three stories, it is still difficult to give a clear, academic explanation of the art of storytelling. It is clear, however, that Coyote’s brand will reach anyone who cares about the value of individual human experience.