the living art of storytelling in Massachusetts

I went to my first every Massmouth Story Slam last night at the Haley House and I saw that the judging of a story slam is a highly subjective procedure.  I don't know if there is a rubric from which the judges work, or if they simply use a gut response to choose a ranking from one to ten, but it was clear from the way the judges were chosen right before the show that it wasn't a requirement that they come into the experience with any particular skills or training.


I overheard one judge explain to a contestant that he judged on the ability to make eye contact with the audience.  This obviously wasn't a strictly observed rule, because one of the three finalists had her eyes fixed on a place near the ceiling nearly her entire story.


From what I observed the judges favored stories with a clear moral or social message, a lack of ambiguity, and an inspirational tone.  I don't know if those things were criteria for judging or just aspects the judges favored.


So many things in storytelling and in life are so subjective, down to truth itself.  Truth in storytelling is based on so much that is unquantifiable, like memory and perception.  Truth in last night's slam seem particularly vulnerable since the theme was Point of View.


But there is one criteria for scoring that has no subjective leeway.  Time.  Clearly expressed in the rules stated before the event, contestants would be given 5 minutes to tell their story with one minute of grace time.  If a contestant went over the grace period they would be docked one full point.


The winning contestant went over this grace period.  The chimes on the timer's iPhone clearly indicated this.  Yet she went away with an overall score of 9.2.  9.2 is an impossible score if a contestant is judged on a scale from one to ten and looses a point due to going over time, especially since her high score, said to be throw out, was 9.5.


The troubling thing about this is hers was clearly the best story, hands down.  It was suspenseful, provocative, inspirational and humorous, with a great turning-point and climax, and a tidy moral at the end.  I like the judges wanted her to win; and so, it turns out, life does not have the same lack of ambiguity and moral fortitude that the judges favored in their stories.


In basketball, we can't skillfully and beautifully throw the ball off the sidelines, instead of in the hoop, and expect to get points for it.  And when we take something subjective like storytelling and make it into a sport or contest we must hold true to the one quantifiable rule that we have set down.  Not to do so undermines the integrity of the whole organization.

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Hi Kerry, if I remember correctly, the winning contestant went over the 5 minute chime, but the grace period given is one minute. So as long as you end your story within that 5:59 range, no points are deducted. :)


Hope you enjoyed your time last night, and also hope to you see you at more story slams in the future!!

That makes me feel a lot better.  I though about telling a story, but I'm absolutely terrified of being evaluated.  This is magnified by the fact that I don't understand the criteria for the evaluation.  I think that they should tell people that they are required to tell uplifting stories, since no one wanted to hear the depressing stories anyway.  The judges certainly didn't.


I'm also uncomfortable with having to look the audience in the eyes.  One storyteller kept speaking in a dialogue with a character in his story.  If he had looked me in the eye during these moments, I would have been EXTREMELY uncomfortable.  His story already made me uncomfortable, it was not uplifting, but the judge told him to look people in the eye.


All of that aside, I did enjoy myself and I look forward attending more.

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Grand Prize for South Shore Grand Slam Story Slam generously donated by Nicolette Heavey and Stories In The Streets (A Maine Get Away)

Stories in the Streets in an outreach literacy program that focuses on families in at-risk areas and fosters community engagement in storytelling by: 1) Creating opportunities for public storytelling wherever families gather — a farmer’s market, laundromat, or food line; and, 2) Offering storytelling workshops that raise family engagement in literacy, cultural awareness and community understanding.  The program is currently active in Lawrence, Brockton and Randolph.


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