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“Audiences teach you a lot,” says the actor John Lithgow, “and the toughest audiences arguably teach you the most.”

His insight is road tested. Lithgow spent ten years delivering his one-man show, “Stories From the Heart,” in cities and towns all across America.

Whenever his schedule permitted, his agent would book him to into venues large and small. Over time, his performance got better and better. “Every time I presented the show, I found ways to refine it,” the actor says. “I would cut, reorder, rewrite and discover new physical business and tricks of comic timing.”

What can public speakers learn from Lithgow’s decade-long stage experience? That each time you present your material, you have the opportunity to improve and hone your craft.

Lithgow considers the audience his “essential collaborators,” critical to the learning experience. He doesn’t present his material to the audience – he delivers it with the audience. As with any speech, presentation, or other form of public speaking, the speaker and the audience engage in a two-way interaction. They create the performance together.

The relationship between actor and audience is “a transaction,” Lithgow once told Bill Moyers. “It’s not just what the actor does. It’s the audience agreeing.”

Members of the audience react to the speaker, who in turn responds to them. Every time they laugh, or shifts in their seats, or grow silent – with their eyes, body language, attention – they influence, encourage, magnify.

Lithgow grew up immersed in drama and storytelling. His father, Arthur Washington Lithgow III, was a director and a producer of Shakespeare festivals. “I have fond memories of my father reading chapters aloud from great thick books like The Jungle Book and A Teller of Tales,” Lithgow says.

His paternal grandmother, Ina B. Lithgow, was a nurse who loved reciting poems to the family – long epic poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes. She knew them by heart and could recite them – some for more than a half-hour straight – without “stumbling over a single syllable.”

Because of his father’s job, the family moved from place to place. He credits an undergraduate performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Utopia, Limited at Harvard with helping him decide to become an actor. He eventually became not only an actor but a musician, poet, author, comedian and singer.

“Stories By Heart” is “a meditation on storytelling,” Mr. Lithgow told The New York Times. The performance intertwines short stories by Ring Lardner and P. G. Wodehouse with tales about Lithgow’s family, his father’s life in the theater, and his own early acting days. His only prop is family-owned book of stories.

“Why do all of us want to hear stories?” he asks the audience. “Why do some of us want to tell them?”

The answer lies at the heart of all drama, stories, and the imaginative world of the stage. “I am reminding people of the simple power of great writing spoken out loud,” Lithgow says, “and of the indispensable role that storytelling plays in our lives.”

 

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