Hard to believe that the second year of my PhD in storytelling with adolescents is drawing to a close.  And with that comes the approach of its culminating event: a symposium and festival to disseminate much of what we have learned in iCAN and in my PhD research – as well as gather perspectives from other practitioners, researchers and young people across the country (and maybe even beyond).

The chosen dates are Fri 22nd and Sat 23rd April 2016.  The event will feature talks, workshops, performances, discussions and as well as sharing research, it will be a form of practice research in itself.  After all, how often do you get teenagers, their teachers and drama practitioners, and practice-informed researchers all together in one room to talk about young people and storytelling?  It will be a unique opportunity to explore and articulate what young people do with storytelling, and why it might be important.  We will gather together many of the symposium’s threads into a film, and hopefully at a later date also a book.

I am particularly looking forward to the performance evening, which will feature storytelling performances developed specially for an audience of 12-18-year-olds, as well as performances by young people themselves.  While we will be crossing artforms, the source of each performance will be in the oral storytelling tradition – perhaps not as we know it.  For example, there will be a performance by a very talented young group of Indian dancers with whom I am working, whose artform is itself a highly developed form of physicalized storytelling.  ve written more about it here.

I am greatly looking forward to reuniting with Anneliese Emmans Dean for a performance of our show about all things bird-like, Flying High, at the Ryedale Book Festival on 11th October.

AED and CathThe show is a half-hour celebration, in story and poetry, of birds in all their diversity and splendour.  It’s for anyone aged 5+, so we’ll be performing as part of a ‘Family Fun Day’ in Malton’s Castle Gardens, which will also feature other performances across all sorts of artforms, many on a wildlife theme.

Here we are performing it at the York Literature Festival in 2013:

aed and cath and cuckoo

You can book tickets for the whole Family Fun Day here.

Saturday 7th February will once more see storytellers and storylisteners gather at the Friends Meeting House for a fantastic range of events – all thanks to the incredible organisational efforts of Helen Sant.  I have decided to contribute an event based on my research with adolescents so far, perhaps flippantly entitled ‘So you think you’re too old for stories?’  I’d like to give people a flavour of what stories teenagers respond to – and how they respond.

It is such a dominant assumption in our culture that they simply don’t want or need them, or that they prefer to get them from TV or video games.  But this hasn’t been my experience at all.  Yes, there are times when a casual observer wouldn’t recognise what I’m doing as storytelling, so informal it usually is.  There are also times I choose the wrong story – or the wrong follow-up activity – or don’t read the room correctly.  There are also times when it’s more important to listen.  But on the whole, my experience has been that adolescents are natural storytellers – that it’s an essential part of their lives in a way that it isn’t part of adults’.

So do join me for an event that will be part-performance, part-workshop – you can book tickets here.  And have a look at the whole programme at www.yorkfestivalstory.co.uk.

As you know, I am working busily away at my PhD in storytelling with adolescents (see my research blog, and also the blog of the iCAN centre where I am based).  But I am still getting up to some other interesting things on the side, which reassure me that I am still a storyteller in my community.  In fact, the ‘ad hoc’ nature of the storytelling I do now that it’s not my ‘proper job’ is almost more rewarding – more informal – more just ‘part of life’:

  • I was asked to come and tell stories at The Retreat, a psychiatric hospital in York – hopefully to be followed with more over the coming year
  • I told stories to hard-to-impress 3-year-olds at the Theatre Royal’s ‘Little Feet’ theatre festival for young children
  • I greatly enjoyed being back in my spiritual home, West Bank Park, telling stories to present and former members of the Very Young Friends of West Bank Park and their parents at the park’s summer fair
  • Turning up to a toddler group run by a friend, with my own 3-year-old and his little friend in tow, I was told I would be let off the session charge in return for a story (The Little Red Hen)!
  • At Scout (well, Beaver Scout) camp with my middle son, I ended up in the marquee in the rain each evening telling funny ones to all the assembled mucky Beavers and their damp mums and dads to settle them down for bed.
  • This weekend I will be leading a breakfast seminar on storytelling for the women of a local church, St Paul’s Holgate, and hopefully getting them all telling their own tales.
  • And of course there’s my own kids…whose need for stories seems to increase rather than diminish as they grow.

I think most people I meet know and appreciate storytelling these days.  I feel like it’s getting closer and closer to a point where people will take it back up as a normal social practice, a way of entertaining each other and being together. 

In The Beginning, And What Came After

Well, this is a bit of a departure.  A few months ago I was talking to another storyteller, Alice Courvoisier, about the upcoming Festival of Ideas, whose theme this year is ‘Order and Chaos’.  Alice is a physics and maths teacher as well, and suggested that it might be a lot more fun to explore these rather wide-ranging themes through stories, than through a lecture.  That suggestion was a little ball that rolled downhill, until now we are in the advanced stage of devising our show, which we are going to perform in York Theatre Royal‘s studio theatre on Tues 17th June at 7:45pm.    On the way we have acquired two versatile and quick-thinking musicians, Tassy and Ian Graham (it helps that Tassy is also a physicist, and Ian doesn’t mind joining in the stories!).

The image above was taken by the Hubble telescope, and we’ve chosen it to represent the show because of the ridiculous scale of the subject.  We are going to lead our audience on a journey from chaos – In The Beginning, through to mounting order, complexity and civilisation, then through a crisis back into chaos – that’s What Came After….

There are so many areas of the brain that light up when you say those words, ‘order’ and ‘chaos’.  The creation of the world, the diversity and interdependence of living things, the human drive to tame nature and impose order, what happens when nature kicks back.  We are drawing on stories from mythology (Greek, biblical, Aboriginal), folktale (the dark English boglands), literature (Robinson Crusoe) and sci-fi (Isaac Asimov).  And weaving these together with fragments of our own memories, experiences, hopes and fears about the planet.  Thank goodness we have Tassy and Ian’s responsive music to restore ourselves in between times!

To book go here.

As I have explained elsewhere on these pages, I started a PhD, of all things, back in October.  The topic: storytelling by, for and with teenagers.  It’s not just any kind of PhD – it’s a ‘practice-based’ one.  That means my ‘practice’ as a storyteller and storytelling workshop facilitator shapes my research, or even is my research.  This has been a fascinating journey so far.

I don’t want to limit my discussions on this to an academic audience.  This would be a shame in any subject, but in storytelling it would be a travesty.  I have found most storytellers and educators of young people to be thoughtful and insightful on the subject of how storytelling works, what it can do, how it might be changing in our world.

So please do make a little trip to my new research blog, ‘Storytelling with Adolescents’, some time and let me know about your experiences, or your reactions to my experiences.

Several critical friends have pointed out that this blog has been silent for a while!  So – an attempt to mend that.  The reason is that I have started a three-year PhD in – guess what? – storytelling with teenagers!  This is a different model of PhD to the usual, in that it is ‘practice-led’ – based around my own practice as a storyteller for and with teenagers.  So I won’t just be sitting at a desk reading and having deep thoughts for three years – I’ll be out there in schools and youth provision of all kinds telling stories to teenagers and, more than that, helping them find their own voice as storytellers.  All my reading and writing will be based on what theory can teach my practice, and – hopefully – what my practice might have to add to theory.

The work is based in the iCAN centre (International Centre for Arts and Narrative), a new research centre jointly run by York Theatre Royal and York St John University.

For the first year I am exploring the territory, both through theory and practice.  Mostly other people’s practice, at the moment.  I am seeking out examples of where people are already using storytelling with adolescents, and trying to learn from them.  And I’ve just started some short pilot projects with groups of young people here in York.

So I’m not off the scene by any means – but I am having to focus most of my energies on a particular age group.  And really enjoying the challenge!  If you have any examples of storytelling work with 11-18-year-olds you can tell me about, or better still show me any evaulation of, please get in touch!  catherine.heinemeyer@googlemail.com