Volume XII, Number I, Spring 2016

"Who Listens? Audience in Native Narrative Oral Performance" by Adam Mackiewicz

Adam Mackiewicz is an independent researcher and a Ph.D. candidate. His research interests include American and Canadian ethnic literature, Canadian magical realism and African Native American literature. Email:

In an address given in Geneva in 1923 Jacques Copeau, an influential French theatre director, producer and actor, said:

An audience is not just a group of people assembled by chance who go here or there in search of more or less heady amusements. There are nights when the house is full, yet there is no audience before us. What I describe as an audience is a gathering in the same place of those brought together by the same need, the same desire, the same aspirations to satisfy a taste for living together, for experiencing together human emotions—the ravishment of laughter and that of poetry—by means of a spectacle more fully realized than that of life itself. They gather, wait together in a common urgency, and their tears or laughter incorporate them almost physically into the drama or comedy that we perform to give you a stronger sense, and a more genuine love, of your own humanity. (qtd. in Auslander 16)

While Terry Gunnell claims that “there is no storytelling performance without the audience marking out the space” (11), Ruth Finnegan in Oral Traditions and The Verbal Arts claims that a solitary performance without marked audience is possible. Such instances include rhythmic work songs, singing or reciting while walking or herding cattle. Finnegan also discusses the degree and form of audience participation as well as distinctions between ‘audience’ and ‘performer.’ Firstly, there are instances where there is a clear division into audience and performers; it may be represented by a physical separation or by its symbolic counterpart or parallel. Secondly, audience and performers are, to some extent, separate, but without the clear physical barrier. Thirdly, there is a separation between audience and performers, but some active contributions by those who perform an audience role are allowed. Fourthly, different members of the audience may come forward at different times to tell stories. Fifthly, there is little or no separation between ‘audience’ and ‘performers,’ as in choral singing or joint recitation during rituals (91-92).

Ruth Finnegan also points out a number of possible means of classifying audiences which include: “1) primary and secondary audiences; 2) integral and accidental audience; 3) homogeneous and heterogeneous audiences, and 4) mass or impersonal and personal audiences” (93-94). For the sake of the discussion it would be worthwhile to have a closer look at integral and accidental audience for this distinction may show the range of roles an audience may play. Richard Schechner explicates the difference through the example of theatrical performances:

An accidental audience is a group of people who individually or in small clusters, go to the theatre – the performances are publically advertised and open to all. On opening nights of commercial shows the attendance of the critics and friends constitutes an integral rather than an accidental audience. An integral audience is one where people come because they have to or because the event is of special significance to them. Integral audiences include the relatives of the bride and groom at a wedding, the tribe assembled for initiation rites, dignitaries on the podium for an inauguration. (220)

To put it shortly, an accidental audience is present “to see the show” while the integral audience is “necessary to accomplish the work of the show.” As a matter of fact an integral audience is indicative of a ritual (220). Another interesting enough point connected with this distinction is how the behaviour of people as spectators is depending on whether these individuals are members of an integral or accidental audience. Generally “the accidental audience pays closer attention than does an integral audience” (221). According to Schechner it happens for the following reasons: 1) the accidental audience chooses to be present at the event; 2) its members come as individuals or in small groups so that large crowd action is remotely possible; 3) an integral audience is often aware of what is happening – and not being attentive to it all is a way of demonstrating that knowledge; 4) at times the duration of a performance is so long that it is virtually impossible to give attention throughout. Performances for accidental audiences are meant to fit convenient time frames; ritual performances enable their audience to manifest their devotion (221-222).

It is widely acknowledged that audiences not only influence performances through their reactions but also the performance itself may be structured in such a way so as to involve audience members in answering the questions, becoming a character as well as engaging them as co-creators. Such techniques are used to engage spectators in message-making so that the audience can speak the message as well as hear it (Kattwinkel ix-x). Audiences and performers use unconscious scanning, as Schechner tells us, to “co-create together in exactly the same time/space” (230). As Kunio Komparu observes, the viewer takes part in the making of the play by individual free association and revives internally a drama based on personal experience reshaped by the emotions of the protagonist. To put it more simply, the shared dramatic experience results in the viewer’s creation of a separate personal drama by sharing the play with the performer rather than his conforming to the protagonist on stage. Thus, one may be tempted to assume that the viewer becomes that protagonist (Schechner 231). Psychologically speaking, the desire for an audience represents one of humanity’s fundamental needs. It is also worth remembering that one of the most important things about an individual is the type of audience which, to a certain degree, implicitly or explicitly inspires his thoughts and behavior (Hollingworth 1).

Both the importance and the role of audience are strongly emphasized in Richard Bauman’s definition of performance:

Fundamentally, performance as a mode of spoken verbal communication consists in the assumption of responsibility to an audience for a display of communicative competence. This competence rests on the knowledge and ability to speak in socially appropriate ways. Performance involves on the part of the performer an assumption of accountability to an audience for the ways in which a communication is carried out, above and beyond its referential content. From the point of view of the audience, the act of expression on the part of the performer is thus marked as subject to evaluation for the way in which it is done, for the relative skill and effectiveness of the performer’s display of competence. (293)

Bauman further explains that performance is likely to enhance the experience, through the present enjoyment of the inherent traits of the act of expression itself. Performance thus evokes special attention to and elevated awareness of the act of expression, and authorizes the audience to view the act of expression and the performer with unique intensity (293). Therefore, Bauman is right in claiming that “performance is a mode of language use, a way of speaking.” What it implies is that “it is no longer required to start with artful texts, established on independent formal grounds and then reintroduced into situations of use, in order to present verbal art in communicative terms. Performance then develops into a fundamental element of the domain of verbal art as spoken communication (293).

Walter J Ong in his book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word writes that oral societies consider words not only to have great power but also to have magical potency, which is evidently linked to the fact that the word, by definition, is spoken, sounded and therefore power-driven. Deeply typographic folk, on the other hand, are not inclined to consider words as originally oral, as events, and hence as necessarily powered: for them, words tend rather to be equated to things. Such ‘things’ are not so freely associated with magic, for they do not designate actions, but are basically dead, though they may be considered to be subject to dynamic resurrection (32).

In Native American tradition, words are regarded as living, breathing and dynamic beings. Lois J. Einhorn in The Native American Oral Tradition: Voices of the Spirit and Soul tells us that when people breathe, their breath becomes instrumental in transforming sounds into words. Articulated sound vibrations have physical and spiritual energies that find their manifestations in the voices and visions of all living beings. Words resonate in every capillary thereby express one’s physical totality or state of being and evolve into part of one’s being (3). Einhorn draws our attention to the fact that the oral tradition occupies more than an important position in Native American culture, in fact it is the culture itself (3). Simon Ortiz, Acoma Pueblo poet, aptly explains this point:

The oral tradition is not just speaking and listening, because what it means to me and to other people who have grown up in that tradition is that whole process, that whole process which involves a lifestyle. That whole process of that society in terms of its history, its culture, its language, its values, and subsequently, its literature. So it’s not merely a simple matter of speaking and listening, but living that process. (qtd. in Coltelli 104)

Ortiz also elaborates on the idea that the “act of language” forms this “process.” Language is regarded as the means of creating the world. It is not only the sole reason man exists but also consciousness emerges through language. Therefore, according to Ortiz, one may be prone to believe that language is life (Coltelli 107). In primarily oral societies, as David Henige tells us, the most distinctive element of oral art is the complementary relationship between the artist and his listeners and there is hardly ever any need to allow a text to limit this relationship (76). This relationship is essential for narrative originality which is achieved by managing a special interaction with the audience. Every telling of the story requires a special introduction into a special situation for in oral cultures an audience must be compelled to respond and interact in order to co-create the story (Ong 41-42).

To appreciate the mutual interaction between a storyteller and an audience in Native narrative oral performance, one needs to understand the narrative process. To that end, let us look at Cree narrative memory. Creeness, as Neal McLeod calls it, incorporates the spiritual world and dimensions of reality beyond the immediate world of physical experience. It is a living tradition which develops through time as an organic process. It arises from the individual lives and the stories lived that remain in the collective memory thus becoming the vehicles of collective memory. Storytelling, then, is an ongoing process that links the past to the present and the present to the past. These stories are internalized and rethought and incorporated into existing experience. McLeod also tells us that the past is alive through stories, and through the connection to the people telling the stories. It transpires that the collective memory can be seen as both an ongoing narrative and a source of truth. Truth, in a similar fashion, can be considered as an ongoing process of revealing and concealment; while manifesting certain possibilities of reality, it hides other possibilities. One has to understand that the process of Cree narrative memory is associated with individual interpretations and understandings of a tradition. As the individual exists in the background of a rich and deep collective memory, thus it can be assumed that it is a dialectical process (37-39).

Life histories, according to McLeod, “are dialogues between the person talking and the person prompting them. A person thinks about their life over a period of time and different things are revealed. Understanding is a process of emergence and revealing over time, and is embedded within an interpretative framework” (40-41). Such understanding is facilitated by the stories which provide a place in the world and a location to comprehend reality and experience. The stories can be considered as traces of experience, a kind of map, through which a listener makes sense of his or her life and experience. The listener, then, has the freedom to decide meaning for himself or herself. The listener is given a chance to internalize the story (42). It is possible due to certain open-endedness which is an essential aspect of narrative memory.

Regna Darnell, in her paper, “Correlates of Cree Narrative Performance” discusses in detail a single example of creative performance by an old Cree man recognized by his community as a carrier and performer of traditional Cree cultural material. She demonstrates how the old man organized the storytelling event in a traditional manner; was responded to as an authentic performer in his narration and accompanying conversation; and he freely adapted his traditional material for the audience of outsiders. The audience consisted of Regna Darnell and her husband, Marie-Louise and her father, the old man’s son with his wife and two Cree teenage boys.

Before the man could sing a traditional song or tell a story, a number of preparatory steps had to be taken. These preliminaries were supposed to facilitate a gradual transition from the everyday world of Wabasca in 1971 to the mythological time framework in which traditional stories are located. Therefore, he had to guide the audience through a sequence of reference points. Firstly, he started by stressing the importance of his stories and the necessity to treat them seriously. Secondly, he provided personal biographical confirmation of his status as an old-time Indian. Thirdly, he initiated a discussion of how Indian life was like in the old days. Having introduced the old ways in the old days, the man moved to mythological time. The transition was completed by a traditional song about the human powers in a traditional Indian world. And finally, with the story, the man was able to pass from the normal world to the supernatural one (Darnell 324).

To engage particular members of the audience in his narrative, the old man changed the ending of his story as if he wanted to make some comment:

Now there’s something else I was going to tell them. The man [who made the mountains] predicted that in the future people would start growing their beards again. Their beards would grow as they had done originally. In that time all men had whiskers and all women didn’t. All the first people used to wear long gowns. If a couple were walking with their backs covered, with their backs to you, you would think they were the same. But if you were to call to them, they would turn around and one would have a beard. Then you could tell the difference. (Darnell 334)

In his version of an ending, he was referring to the fact that Darnell’s husband had a beard. It was the old man’s way to incorporate these outsiders in his delivery of traditional Cree material. Such an inclusion facilitated a steady transition back to the familiar conversational world as well as interrupted the dignity and solemnity of the sacred story, thus making it possible for all the participants to discuss the story. As Regna Darnell tells us, for the old man “the formal narrative device paralleled the one he had used in beginning his story. He completed his narrative in mythological time with a formal ending. He then used a character from the sacred story to bridge the gap between the supernatural and everyday worlds. As at the start of his story, the progression was gradual” (335). Firstly, he talked about old Indians with beards, who had almost been part of the mythological times. Then, he made mention of present-day Indians who did not wear beards but foresaw that Indians would wear beards again. Finally, he linked “his narrative to the present and future activities of the individuals present in the particular interaction” (335). Darnell explains that “he used the theme of the beard from his prediction of the future by a mythological character to comment about the visitors to whom he had been speaking. He gave his approval to the individuals (perhaps in the manner of a priest blessing his congregation) and referred to the (Christian) future in which he would see these people again” (335). It is difficult to resist the conclusion that the old man’s cultural tradition was sufficiently deep-rooted, yet he was able to adjust his narrative to the particular audience.

Another telling example of how the audience interacts with the storyteller comes from Bruce T. Grindal, who, in his essay “The Sisala Trickster Tale,” discusses the trickster tales of the Sisala of northern Ghana. The Sisala, as Grindal tells us, divide their oral narratives into two categories. The first one, called namaka, may be described as any declaration of absolute or sacred moral truth. It incorporates not only sacred narratives, such as myth and legend, but also proverbs and statements regarding ancestral custom. The second one, sinsoling, comprises imaginary stories including animal and human characters (173). In these trickster stories, according to Grindal, “the protagonist is characteristically small, somewhat ludicrous, foolish in deportment, but extremely clever. His adversaries include both the large animals, such as elephant and lion, and human figures of authority, such as headmen and chiefs. Although these adversaries are seen as possessing power either by virtue of their size and strength or by virtue of their status in society, they are also viewed as capable of being fooled” (173). A typical story involves human authority figures. The chief states a difficult problem to his people, lays a wager, or holds a contest. The trickster responds to the challenge and undertakes to resolve the problem or win the contest through smartly deceitful means. The trickster usually discredits the chief or makes him look foolish. The cleverness of the trickster, as Grindal clarifies, “consists of his ability to manipulate people in authority and to evade punishment. In no case does he ever commit an act of disrespect or directly confront or challenge the figure of power and authority” (173). The accepted relationship “toward adult authority is one of fear, respect, and total obedience. Respect for the father means respect for both his nurturant and protective qualities as head of the household and his superior “wisdom” or knowledge of tradition” (173). The child is seen as a “little boy” who is unable to demonstrate sensible perception, judgment, and self-control.

Bruce Grindal’s studies prove that Sisala children show keen perception of the nature of adult authority and of how to assess the consequences of their actions in terms of the specific configuration of authority with which they must interact (174). Grindal theorizes that the parallel between the child’s acquisitive thoughts and the behaviour of the trickster is given further credibility in the contrasting interpretations of trickster’s stories provided by parents and by children. Parents, the usual storytellers, believe that such stories are entertaining and are likely to teach their children moral lessons. Children, on the other hand, tend to overlook the moral lessons and focus more on the plot and social interaction of the characters. It is the cleverness of the trickster that children concentrate on. The point Grindal makes is that the identification with the trickster has particular significance in children’s recollections of past experiences because of the child’s desire to see himself in the image of the trickster, thus creating an alter-identity as the small, physically weak, but clever individual. As Grindal puts it, using Geertz’s terms, the trickster story is “not only a projection or ‘model of’ experience but also a ‘model for’ experience” since the trickster “gives form and substance to the child’s thoughts, sentiments, motives, and behaviour” (174-175).

Susan Berry Brill de Ramirez posits that probably the most important element of the oral storytelling tradition is the role of the listener, as in the case of present-day literary stories, the most important role is that of the reader. She claims that “the writing of American Indian writers invite a more directly interactive participation from their readers, who can be more accurately termed listener-readers. This role moves a reader beyond the inherently oppositional domain of discursive literariness into the intersubjectively relational world of conversive textuality that combines both senses of conversation and conversion” (Storytellers 333). Leslie Marmon Silko seems to confirm this way of thinking when she states that “the storytelling always includes the audience and the listener, and, in fact, a great deal of the story is believed to be inside the listener, and the storyteller’s role is to draw the story out of the listeners” (qtd. in Brill de Ramirez 337).

Brill de Ramirez agrees that contemporary reader-response critics stress the vital role of the reader, but in doing so they promote the role of the reader to the detriment of the writer-teller. It is so because the reader-response approaches tend to “refocus criticism on the reader” and transfer “the focus of attention away from the text and toward the reader” (Tompkins ix, xi). Even though the focus of critical attention is shifted, still the readers function outside the text either as passive or as active creators. According to Stanley Fish, “it is the reader who ‘makes’ literature” it is also the reader who is “in the business of making texts,” and the “interpreters do not decode poems; they make them” (qtd. in Brill de Ramirez 337). A storyteller-writer drawing the story out of her or his listener-readers provides an experience definitely different from that of a reader-critic making texts. Susan Berry de Ramirez explains that “the essential intersubjective relationality between teller(s) and listener(s) is absent to the degree that the reader-response approach privileges the reader’s subjective response to an objectified text. The interrelational experience is between the reader and a text, and intersubjective relationships are between various readers within interpretative communities” (Brill de Ramirez 337). She supports her argument with David Bleich’s explanation: “an intersubjective reading … could include several readings of the same text by the same people – that is, several rereadings, each in slightly new circumstances. It includes reactions of other readers as well as the actual reading of these others; such readings are aimed at enhancing the life of the reading community, perhaps at expanding or enriching this community, but they are decidedly not aimed at ‘the world’” (qtd. in Brill de Ramirez 337-338). Nonetheless, the intersubjective relationship between the storyteller-writer and listener-reader is nonexistent here for “the telling becomes the text and the participant listener becomes the outside reader” (338). The reader, who is an essential constituent of the process, co-creates the story with the teller.

To substantiate her argument, Susan Berry Brill de Ramirez uses Leslie Marmon Silko’s two stories “Storyteller” (1981) and “Storytelling” (1981) to “demonstrate the reality of the storyteller and concomitantly the necessary role of the story listener” (339). Both of these stories concentrate on the significance of stories and the storytelling tradition. “Storyteller” gives an account of the storyteller whose efforts to tell her story, “to live interconnectedly with others, and to interrelate mythopoeic stories within her own life, are continually impeded by those around her whose lives also have been compromised by a world horrifically out of balance” (340). Brill de Ramirez claims that the Western privileging of the individual subject, namely the storyteller, breaks down the storytelling process through a dichotomization that divides storyteller, reader-listener, and story into three separate categories. Silko’s “Storyteller,” as Brill de Ramirez tells us, “represents the lived and told reality of such definitional fissures that erode the essential significance of the intersubjective relationality at the heart of the telling of stories” (340). “Storytelling,” on the other hand, presents worlds and peoples (mythical or historical) as interrelated by means of a conversive intersubjectivity that blends apparently distinct elements into a telling that includes rather than excludes (340).

Brill de Ramirez, following the same line of argumentation as Regna Darnell, draws our attention to the fact that Silko addresses directly her listener-reader, explaining that the events of the story are significant regardless of when they happened, for the dichotomy of past and present is alien to the storytelling tradition. Events that took place in various times and places are connected as seamlessly as if they happened together. The separation of various times and places, according to Brill de Ramirez, is the product of artificially created conceptual boundaries whose outlines interrupt the process of storytelling; such disruptions are described in their raw realities in “Storyteller.” As far as “Storytelling” is concerned, the related events of 1967 and the events of “long ago” are presented as significant today for they are the same events. What it means is that Silko blends mythical and historical events with the storyteller’s contemporary life (341).

Brill de Ramirez agrees with Luci Tapahonso, Navajo writer, that stories are told to communicate meaning that is vital for people to learn, and to teach people that they are not isolated in the world, particularly when difficulties and hard times occur. One needs to realize that within oral storytelling, as Brill de Ramirez explains, “characters are given a life that shows itself in a fusion of virtues and fallibilities. In contrast to literarily informed stories in which characters are represented in a more static and simplistic way, told stories present persons and events with greater degrees of complexity and sophisticated symbolism” (344). It is what Bernard Hirsch describes as “the dynamic relationship between the oral tradition and the life it expresses” (qtd. in Brill de Ramirez 344). As life is much more complex than textual worlds, one may be tempted to assume that those textual worlds that are more true-to-life demonstrate greater degrees of orality within their textual tellings (344).

Stories are open-ended tellings, open to a variety of understandings and interpretations discovered by each listener-reader or any member of the audience. Susan Berry Brill de Ramirez emphasizes the fact that the relationship between the storyteller and story listener is an essential relationship in the successful rendition of a story. One should also bear in mind that both teller and listener have responsibilities in the telling of a story. It is of crucial importance on the part of the listener/listener-reader to be able to approach and enter the world of stories with adequate familiarity of the subject (345). As Trinh T. Minh-ha puts it, “the story circulates like a gift; an empty gift which anybody can lay claim to by filling it to taste, yet can never truly possess. A gift built on multiplicity. One that stays inexhaustible within its own limits. Its departures and arrivals. Its quietness” (2). Susan Pierce Lamb points out that

the interaction between teller and listener is simultaneous. While ‘unpacking’ an image in his own mind, the narrator provides stimuli to generate one in the listener’s mind. Simultaneously, the listener is responding to the perceived message which affects the way the teller communicates the image. All of the above goes on simultaneously and constitutes the process. The teller’s and listener’s interactions or synthesis generate the synergic event. (qtd. in Brill de Ramirez 352-353)

In other words, the presence of interactive listeners is vital for any successful rendition of a story.


Works Cited

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  • Bauman, Richard. 1975. “Verbal Art as Performance.” American Anthropologist 77.2: 290-311.
  • Brill de Ramirez, Susan Berry. 1997. “Storytellers and Their Listener-Readers in Silko’s ‘Storytelling’ and ‘Storyteller.’” American Indian Quarterly 21.3: 333-57.
  • Coltelli, Laura. 1992. Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak. Lincoln: U of Nebraska Press.
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  • Kattwinkel, Susan. 2003. Audience Participation: Essays on Inclusion in Performance. Westport: Praeger.
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  • Minh-ha T., Trinth. 1989. Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP.
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  • Schechner, Richard. 2003. Performance Theory. London: Routledge.
  • Tompkins, Jane P. 1980. “An Introduction to Reader-Response Criticism.” Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Ed. Jane P. Tompkins. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP. IX-XXIV.