Keith Ecker

Keith flying without a net.

When I first started performing, I had to educate myself on theatre terminology, including the fact that theatre (the art form) is spelled using the anglophile style with the “re.” (It is the building where the theatre is housed that is spelled “theater.”) Another set of terms I had to learn was “off-book” and “on-book.”

Although it would seem obvious as to what this jargon means–because it is obvious–the definitions evaded me, largely because I’m stupid. For those afflicted with my same stupidity, allow me to explain: Off-book refers to a piece that is memorized, i.e., performed without the aid of notes. On-book refers to a performance that uses written notes or a script as a crutch. In the world of storytelling, you have shows that are strictly off-book, shows that are strictly on-book and shows that blend both.

For me, I’ve always clung to on-book storytelling. I find it to be much less nerve racking because, after all, I have my notes right in front of me. Memorizing work just adds a whole other layer of complexity for me. Not only do I have to write a piece and perform it, but now I have to memorize my prose and direct myself? That’s a lot of work. I also find that I have difficulty remembering my specific word choices, which as a writer frustrates the hell out of me. I like being literary with my storytelling, relying on unique turns of phrases and descriptive sentences that are not the kind of things you’d normally just spout off. So it’s not natural for me to memorize my work, granted I want to retain every single word I had included on the page and say it in the exact order it had been written.

That said, off-book storytelling is incredibly thrilling. It truly adds an entirely new layer to the art of storytelling. It’s hard to explain, but by removing the paper, it helps break that fourth wall that separates the performer from the audience, often lending the performance even more vibrancy. You, as the performer, also really get to use your acting chops now that you don’t have the constraints of the written page, which can sometimes limit mobility.

I describe on-book storytelling as literature brought to life through theatre. Off-book storytelling is more like stand-up comedy, where the performer also happens to be a writer. It’s like a two-sides-of-the-same-coin kind of thing. One is theatrical literature. The other is literary theatre. They are both insanely entertaining from the audience’s perspective, and as a performer, they are both really, really fun to do. Neither is better nor worse. They are just different. Cousin art forms if you will.

I’m looking forward to doing more off-book storytelling this year. It’s something I haven’t done much since my stand-up days, but whenever I push myself to do it, I really enjoy it. I’m also hoping to refine my literary chops even more and get more of my work published. Lots of resolutions in the air.

Oh, and if you want to know what shows are off-book and what shows are on-book here in Chicago, here’s a very non-comprehensive list:

  • Guts & Glory – Largely on-book
  • Essay Fiesta – Largely on-book
  • Story Club – Blend of both, though leans more toward on-book
  • Write Club – On-book
  • This Much Is True – Often a good blend
  • The Moth – Solely off-book
  • The Funny Story Show – Largely to solely off-book
  • Grown Folks Stories – Solely off-book
  • Here’s The Story – Solely off-book
  • That’s All She Wrote – Largely on-book but accepts off-book

3 Responses to Flying Without A Net: Off-Book vs. On-Book Storytelling

  1. Jeremy Owens says:

    You’re Being Ridiculous is mostly on-book but you can do whatever makes you feel good.

  2. Diane Kastile says:

    YES…and: One thing that I’ve found is improv study helps a TON with off-book performance. Like you, I’m a writer first and cling to my precious words – but improv has given me the confidence to trust that “precious words” can come spontaneously as well. So my writing is a starting point, then I riff off that as I rehearse and typically the piece actually gets better (!).

  3. Pingback: Bitten by the Storytelling Bug « justaMusing

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