Archive for June, 2012

Over the coming months I have some unusual commissions which indicate to me just how far storytelling has come to recognition – as an artform, yes, but also as an essential skill for being human.  This month I will be joining some PhD science students, helping them get to grips with the structure of narrative, the importance of telling their findings as a story.  Part of science’s sometime reputation for dryness may be due to its simply not being told right!

Then at the other end of the educational spectrum, the British Association for Early Years Educators is having its regional conference in York in February, and they’ve invited me to lead a workshop in storytelling to very young children.  This is probably the oldest art for early years educators, but perhaps the competing pressures of the early years curriculum and the dominance of reading and books have combined to erode teachers’ skills as storytellers.  I hope to give them back some of their confidence.


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Thank you very much indeed to the ‘Humanities at Work’ project students at the University of York, who invited me to run a little workshop with them to help them prepare for the storytelling festival they are putting on the 23-24th June in York’s Museum Gardens.  All articulate individuals with presence and style, not shy of performing in front of an unknown group of strangers, they were nonetheless anxious to ensure their performance was indeed storytelling and not theatre.

This is something I’ve thought about quite a bit.  Because there is a difference, although it’s not easy to pin down.  Clearly, if one is telling as a group, in an outdoor venue, with lots of other distracting stuff going on around about, an amount of theatricality will be required.  There will be multiple protagonists.  There must be a degree of scripting, or at least planning.  The students planned to employ placards, costumes, audience participation, and use their venues (St Mary’s Abbey, the Gardens’ storytelling circle, etc) as ‘sets’ for their stories – theatrical devices.  Yet they wanted to capture the essential nature of storytelling, at the same time.

I told them a story – The Tiddy Mun, a similarly historical, detailed tale to the genre they will be in.  After listening, we discussed what made it a story, rather than a theatrical performance.  They pointed out that I told it with limited movement, just sitting in my chair.  That there was a steady, chronological, narrative flow, to which they had to attend the whole time.  That the images played out in their own imaginations rather than being laid in front of them – in fact, they used very visual language, in general, to describe the experience.  That they had not participated as audience members, per se, but they felt that they were participating by the act of listening, visualising and making eye contact with me while I told.  That the focus was not on me, but on the story I was telling – ie. I was ‘standing behind the story’.  And that I was not reciting, but seeking the right words as I went along.

We discussed the ‘devices’ I did use, nonetheless – much in the way of rhythm and repetition.  Seven adjectives strung along at once, pointed out one English student, violating the ‘power of three’ law.  Certain phrases that returned and returned, and ‘anchors’ which I had premeditated – certain rhymes and returning phrases, to keep me on track.  We also talked about beginnings and endings that bring the audience in and out of ‘the zone’ – one student was delighted to learn that, when her grandmother used to begin “Once upon a time, but it wasn’t in your time, and it wasn’t in my time, but it was in someone’s time…” she was actually part of a grand tradition.  I use my tin whistle, a candle sometimes, a little song.

The students worked on fragments of their own stories in groups.  They brought in some repetitive ‘runs’ and discussed how audience participation could come in using these, while allowing listeners to remain absorbed in the story.  They decided to limit the use of placards and acting, but to rely more on simple telling.  They also discussed what structure or framework for the whole performance would keep the sense of storytelling, and guide the audience through the different perspectives of the multiple tellers.

Thank you very much, HaW students, and good luck with your performance!


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