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Story Telling in the Planetarium

Presented by John T. Meader as a workshop at MAPS 1998 in Wheeling, WV


Story telling in the planetarium is a low cost and effective way to add some spice to a star point-out. It can even be used as the basis for an entire show presentation. To do story telling under the dome, simply begin by adding a myth or legend to your star point-outs. Start with just one story, perhaps a story about Ursa Major the Bear (big dipper) or Orion the Hunter. Don't take on more than one story until you're really comfortable with your first. Once you've told your tale a dozen times or so, try a different one. Keep repeating the process, in six months you will have a nice repertoire to choose from.

When I started, I began inadvertently with a quick synopsis of some skylore that pertained to the constellation at hand. I didn't tell entire stories because I did not want to bore my audience (or so I thought), and I didn't want to devote that much emphasis to just one constellation during my point-out. However, I soon found that I was getting more and more questions about the stories. Often kids wanted to share versions that they had heard. It soon dawned on me that there was some real interest in the subject. The stories I was talking about were mostly of two origins, classical Greek myths and Native American legends. The interest was strong in both areas. I soon found I had to learn more stories and study my classical mythology because students were beginning to ask questions that I really didn't know how to answer. After all, I hadn't read much mythology since high school.

Slowly I went from talking about the stories to actually telling stories. This was a big step. It also spawned even more questions and comments. The response was very positive. At that time, the mid-1980's, I decided that I should try a program devoted exclusively to such stories. I didn't know if I could effectively learn and perform enough stories to fill a fifty minute show, so I purchased the Hansen Planetarium production of "The People" which featured American Indian legends with some minor analysis of the stories and their context. It went over well, but it was not the huge success that I had anticipated. Clearly this was a good show, but it was still very different from the live interpretations I had been performing during star point-outs.

As the run of the show came to a close, I decided to try something slightly different. I decided to do the story portions of the show "live". So I carefully edited the taped narration, taking out the stories, so that I could tell them myself. I had run the prerecorded show enough times so that I knew the stories well enough to tell them. I still used the taped analysis as a bridge between the stories, the only difference was that I became the story teller. I was pretty nervous that first night, but it went well. Soon the attendance was climbing. I got more and more comfortable with the stories with each telling. The stories seemed to get better, too. This version of "The People" soon was completely outselling the original version. So we extended it's run for an extra month. It sold out right until the end.

That was back in the days of a hard dome planetarium when I gave public shows every weekend. Now I'm in a portable and doing almost exclusively school presentations. Story telling shows encompass a large portion of my offerings. Of our more than twenty-five shows, four are story telling presentations, and they are among the most popular of our programs. We no longer offer an adapted version of "The People", but we do have "Native American Sky Legends" as well as two presentations on Greek mythology as it relates to the stars. We call them both "Heroes, Gods, and Monsters" and the format changes depending on the season. Teachers can choose either presentation "Summer & Fall" or "Winter & Spring" . Our fourth presentation is especially adapted for younger audiences (grades K-2). We call it "Star Stories". It features both American Indian stories and classical Greek myths.

The secret to having successful presentations is to actively take on the role of a story-teller. Learn the stories you want to tell. Practice them. Let them become your own stories. The stories will change slightly from their original text. That's okay. You will find that your audience will react to certain parts well and other parts indifferently. The story-teller will naturally develop the positive aspects of the story and de-emphasize and simplify the less important aspects of the tale. That is the role of the story-teller. You are a vital part of the experience, as important in many ways as the story itself. At first this may seem wrong. It seems to go against the objectivity that we strive so hard for in the planetarium, and in many ways it does. Yet, I think that in this case it's all right. Story telling is not an objective science, it is a performance art instead.

To put it in another perspective, consider going to a concert. Do you go to a concert to hear a song sung in an exact duplicating style to a studio recording? Do you even go to hear a particular song? Or do you go to hear a particular performer and experience the wonder of her live performance? I think the answer is the latter. When I go to a concert the main objective is to see a certain artist and to hear a great performance, the particular songs performed is certainly secondary. If the songs were the most important, we could listen to anybody sing them or simply stay home and listen to them on the stereo. It's the performance that is important. When we advertise these programs we emphasize that this will be a "Live Story Telling Performance". Many people who come to the shows have said that the fact that it was going to feature a live story telling performer was a major drawing factor that brought them to the planetarium.

That's the point with live story-telling. To be truly successful, you have to be willing to make a commitment to learn how to tell a good story. You must be able to take a story that many in your audience may already know, and make it new and exciting without destroying its integrity. This is certainly a challenge, and I think that is part of the appeal to the audience, every show is a brand new performance. It's the type of show that can make you really nervous as a presenter, but it can also end up being one of the most fulfilling and fun types of presentations you will ever give. I urge you to try it!

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Northern Stars Planetarium and Educational Services
Fairfield, ME 04937
(207) 453-7668
info@northern-stars.com

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