Clowning for Storytellers – A Masterclass with Fred Versonnen

Posted: June 14th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Blog | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

Coming up on the 14th July, Beeston Tales is bringing you the next in its program of masterclasses for storytellers. Internationally acclaimed performer Fred Versonnen is stopping off with us as he travels from Belgium to The Festival at the Edge.

Clowning is a beautiful way of making connections. Connections with your audience, connections with parts of yourself you don’t always talk to. Fred has a lively and colourful background as a street performer, jester, stilt walker, fire crasher, clown, juggler and storyteller. He currently teaches at Circus School and spent many years working in Children’s Hospitals. In this workshop he’ll introduce storytellers to some useful clowning techniques and games. Learn to be fully present. Learn to embrace judgement and vulnerability. And who knows, maybe you’ll learn how to make someone laugh!


This workshop is taking place upstairs at The White Lion Bar and Kitchen. Turn up at 10:30 for an 11.00 start. Wear loose clothing. Expected end time is 16:30. This workshop will cost £35 and includes lunch provided by The White Lion. Please let us know of any dietary requirements when you book. Book by sending a cheque to Mike, by emailing us to confirm details or via the paypal link below that says Book Now.

Perhaps you’re not convinced of the link between clowning and storytelling? Read this personal account by Simon Sylvester who attended one of Fred’s workshops several years ago in Brigsteer.

“Last month, at Dreamfired, I saw storyteller Fred Versonnen perform the amazing Elephant Story. The next morning, I attended his clowning workshop in Arnside. This had almost nothing to do with the stereotypical idea of clowning—no silly noses, no silly shoes—and was essentially a 101 on delivery, performance and body language.

Fred warned us at the start of the session that it might take us to some uncomfortable places. I didn’t believe him, but he was right. It’s taken me this entire month to process some of the things that happened in that class. I’m not sure I’ll ever totally get to grips with it, but at the same time, I no longer think I need to. I just wanted to record a few thoughts on what clowning means to me.

I’m not going to talk about the specific activities Fred led us through. They were plentiful, varied, invigorating, intense and brilliantly useful, but they will mean different things to each person who attended, and I don’t feel the need to dissect the actual workshop. I want to talk about what I learned.

I learned that I’m frightened of embarrassment. Most of us are, probably. During the workshop, we performed tasks specifically designed to undermine dignity and strip away the topmost layers of self-respect. I found myself trying to rationalise the embarrassment by imposing a narrative upon it, but every time, Fred forced me to confront it.

‘For a clown, embarrassment is a gift,’ he said.

In this way, I learned that clowns are truly fearless.

I also learned to wait.

In a world consumed with noise and signals, the clown is silent. She waits, absorbing everything, and then she waits some more, until the wait itself becomes excruciating—until the pause itself becomes the embarrassment—and then she responds. In that pause, the clown is naked. Every part of her is laid open for the world to see. The clown waits long enough for the audience to connect, to project their own feelings onto the situation, to drown in empathy, to cringe in anticipation. Every part of them is laid wide open. This is the tragedy of the clown, and the triumph. It has nothing to do with face paint or comedy trousers. Laurel and Hardy are clowns, and Pennywise is not.

I couldn’t live that way, but I’m trying to bring some of it into in my own readings. At the Flashtag story slam, I made myself pause, and wait, then wait some more. I took a stupid hat onstage for my final story, and I forced myself to wear it. I tried to share anticipation of what was coming next with the audience. It was, without a doubt, the happiest I’ve ever been with my performance—the best I’ve ever read my stories. For everything I learned, I’m not sure I’ll ever know how to apply it properly. But I think I understand, now, that not knowing is itself part of clowning. It is Zen—pure action, without thought. I think too much.

At the start of this post, I said that the workshop had nothing to do with silly noses. That isn’t entirely true. At the very start of the session, as people were still arriving, we gathered in the kitchen to wait. Fred began to ransack the drawers, looking for props to use in the workshop. He found an orange ping pong ball. In a single, fluid motion, he spun to face me, bringing the ball to his nose, and he grinned. Just as quickly, he replaced the ball and closed the drawer. But in that second, or half a second, he’d become a clown. His face changed, his body changed—with the sheer, magnificent, wondrous joy of finding a ping pong ball in a kitchen drawer.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to articulate what happened in that workshop. I don’t need to articulate it, of course, but I want to; and that is why I will never be a true clown. A clown wouldn’t need to analyse it, because they wouldn’t be scared of it. A clown would simply shrug, smile, and turn to embrace the vastness of this mad, sad, glorious thing that we call life.”

£35. The White Lion Bar, Beeston. 10:30 until 16:30. 14 July 2016. What more do you need to know? Confirm your place below:


Posted: April 29th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Blog | Tags: , | No Comments »

Hi! This is the page I sometimes use to sell tickets to workshops or shows that I’m running. Right now I have nothing on sale. If you’re looking for Beeston Tales tickets, you can pick those up here.

The Room Behind the Bookcase – Making it your own

Posted: February 27th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Podcast | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments »

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Want to make a traditional story your own when you tell it? We ask Nell Phoenix how. Show notes in the comments.

Mimesis and Diegesis

Posted: March 10th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Blog | Tags: , , | 3 Comments »

‘Mimesis’ and ‘Diegesis’ are two terms from drama and narrative theory that I tend to use a lot, so I thought I’d take a moment to explain them here.

To put it simply, both mimesis and diegesis describe ways of presenting a story. In mimesis, the story is acted out. In diegesis, the story is narrated. Mimesis is show. Diegesis is tell.

Most film and television stories are mimesis. The audience and the actors are engaged in an elaborate game of pretend—a contract that expects the actors to behave as if they really are the character. The audience, for their part, is invited to suspend their disbelief, to forget the many layers of artifice and experience the story as if was in some way real. The film or program may help this with powerful, believable acting, a spectacle of special effects and convincing costume. These great efforts are expended because, for the audience to have an emotional experience arising from the mimesis, they need a sense of authenticity. They need to trust and believe that what they are seeing is, after a fashion, a reality.

The phenomenon is even more interesting in theatre. The lights drop, the curtains rise, and once again audience and performers are united in an artistic pact. On the one side, the performers portray a playwright’s script as if the memorised lines were spontaneous and their own. On the other side of the fourth wall, the audience act as if they were not sitting in a crowd of acquaintances. Instead, they almost behave as if they themselves do not exist. They become part of the play of theatre, the game whereby backdrops and props indicate and create an imaginary world. If the game is well done the audience’s experience of that world can be as profound, ecstatic or cathartic as anything the real world can offer. If you’re willing to wave that fake knife around as if you really mean it, the audience member unconsciously agrees, I’ll feel a real sense of dread that you’ll stab King Duncan.

But Mimesis asks more of its audience than simply to believe in an imaginary world. Indeed, all narrative invites the listener into an imaginary world. The distinctive feature of mimesis is that the audience experiences the story as playing out in front of them. The imaginary world does not exist at a distance—it is neither long ago nor in a galaxy far away, it is on this screen, this stage, immediate and immanent, for as long as the story takes.

Photo by Theefer

Diegesis, in contrast, is pure narration. It is a story told, rather than acted. Novels provide an obvious example. A book may contain the tale of carnivorous horses on an alien planet, but at no point does C J Cherryh’s “Rider at the Gate” actually pretend to be any of those things. At no point will the pages bite at my fingers. (I should say that I am only up to page 217, so maybe there are surprises to come.)

Obviously as a storyteller I work almost entirely with diegesis. Between the “Once upon a time” and the “happily ever after.” I invite my listeners to join me on an imaginary journey, but I do not expect them to experience it as actually happening in front of them.

Diegesis, so the school children in Rainham explained to me when I introduced them to the term, requires you to use your imagination more than mimesis, and is more powerful as a result. There’s some truth in that:- the cinema of the mind has the most compelling of special effects, with artistry and budget constraints handed over to the listener. I remember talking to audience members about a particular monster from a Dovie Thomason story. One woman described how the monster was a childhood terror she knew from growing up, a thing that had lived in her garden pond, a creature of scales and teeth with murderous intentions. She marvelled at how Dovie had managed to bring to life this creature that had been buried under decades of memory. In truth, the detailed description of the monster that the listener was able to give hardly matched Dovie’s broad brush strokes at all. The teller had offered a canvas and the listener had painted their own deep fears. The diegesis is what is told and that means making critical decisions about what to leave untold.

Because it allows us to simply state outright the point we’re trying to convey in the story, Diegesis allows us to be more economical than mimesis. This character, I can say, was up all night worrying. The director has to show the character removing their glasses, rubbing their eyes, lines on their face. The script writer may even engineer a chance for a little exposition.

Are you okay?

Sorry, I was up all night worrying.

And yet having said this, there is an incredible power in the insight that mimesis requires of us. We end a scene with a character awake, pacing the room, night outside. We start a new scene with them slumped at a table, still dressed but now slightly unkempt, removing their glasses to rub at bleary, red eyes. On some deep level, the audience clicks. ah ha! they think, realising that time has passed They were up all night worrying. They still haven’t had any news. I bet they’re really tired. That insight into the underlying story is part of what makes mimesis enchanting. In many ways the greatest hook mimesis has is the way the audience creates the narrative from what they are shown. It is for this reason that so much creative advice boils down to “show and don’t tell.” It’s not just that the opposite leads to clumsy, exposition-heavy dialogue. It’s because of the enchantment of insight that draws the audience into a story well shown. Of course, it’s perfectly possible to leave space for insight in diegesis, in telling a tale, and there may well be another blog post about that in the future.

On the other end of the spectrum of economy, diegesis also allows us to take our time. A novel can linger over a character’s emotions, thoughts, memories, histories, perceptions and expectations in ways that mimetic artforms struggle to replicate. Indeed, it is one of the features of mimesis that it tends to take place in real time. There may be cuts between scenes, but when an actor recites a scripted line it takes them exactly as long as it takes their character. When they walk down a corridor and we watch them go, time in the world of the story and time in the world of the portrayal are in synch. Each second of screen time is a second of the audience’s time as well. How long does a novel linger over the space of a few seconds? As long as the author deems necessary. She is free from the tyranny of a constantly shifting now.

Photo by Lin Kristensen

And there are further subtleties to both. Shakespeare loved a play within a play; mimesis within mimesis. A character in a play may tell a story; diegesis within mimesis. Likewise a storyteller may step into character stance, may speak in the character’s voice, and suddenly a little moment of mimesis occurs.

Beyond diegesis, the storyteller also has the option of talking to the audience directly. Ben Haggerty calls this “The language of commentary”, but then clarifies that everything, including for example the clothes the storyteller wears to tell their tale, is commentary on the story. I’m being a little more specific. I describe the act of a teller pausing in their narration to address the audience directly as stepping into “commentator stance.” It may be as brief as a knowing look toward the audience that says “we all know what’s going on here!” But it is outside the diegesis, in the world that the teller and the audience share, not the world of the story.

The truth, as is probably becoming clear, is that diegesis and mimesis are not distinct labels that can be exclusively applied to each narrative expression. They are a spectrum on which different artforms and performances exist at intervals. A graphic novel encompasses both in every panel. A film director who uses a voice over embeds a little diegesis in their work. A writer who summarises a whole conversations in a few lines rather than directly reporting the speech makes medium already strongly diegetic even more so by telling about the character’s words rather than showing them writ long.

Diegesis. Mimesis. That’s how I’ll be using the words here.

The Pentamerone: Part 1

Posted: May 24th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Blog | Tags: , | No Comments »

The Pentamerone is a collection of fifty folk tales written by Giambattista Basile in the Neopolitan dialect. It’s based on oral stories he collected while he was traveling around Venice, Crete and wherever he’d find people who would tell him a tale. It’s a phenomenal collection, containing just about every major motif of the European folktale genre, told with an abundance of metaphor and hysterical turns of phrase. Richard Burton did a great translation of the material, and that’s what I’ve been working with.

I’m not going to give you much information Basile and the history of the Pentamerone. If you want that, go to wikipedia. If you want to read the stories themselves, (and why wouldn’t you?) Burton’s translation is available free and online. I love the internet!

Instead, this will about my adventure – the story of my love affair with The Pentamerone and the journey I’m still on with these amazing tales. It will take the form of two blog posts in which I’ll outline my Pentamerone project, why it failed and the show that blossomed as a result.

The Pentamerone as a project

The Pentamerone has a fairly complicated frame story, in which a heroine has her handsome prince tricked away from her by a slave. (The false black slave is a clear example of the unfortunate stereotypes in The Pentamerone. I’ll talk about dealing with them later.) With some magical assistance, the girl manages to make the slave crave stories, and her royal husband enlists the help of ten grotesque women to keep her satisfied with tales. For five nights they take turns to tell stories, the prince’s servants perform short plays, and we slowly build to the Prince rejecting his cheating wife and settling down with his intended love.

As well as potent motifs, the stories are rich in ranting monologues, superfluous metaphor and moral aphorisms. Here’s an example of a rant, an extract from the frame story. A mischievous stable-boy breaks a washerwoman’s jar of oil and she lets fly with a torrent of abuse:

“Ah, kindchen, scatter-brains, piss-a-bed, goat-dancer, petticoat-catcher, hangman’s rope, mongrel mule, spindle-shanks, wherat if ever the flea’s cough, go where a palsy catch thee; and may thy mammy hear the ill news! Never mayest though see the first of May! May a Catalan lance thrust thee through! May though be touched with the rope and never lose a drop of blood! A thousand miseries reach thee, with the rest to boot; and, in short, may the wind blow away thy sail so that thy seed may be lost, thou knave, pimp, son of a whore!”

Most of the stories contain at least one moment where a character launches into an impassioned speech on one topic or another, and it has been fun to try and preserve some of the manic character of these monologues in live performance without loosing the audience in self-indulgent ranting or robbing the story of its internal integrity.

I’d read one or two of the more famous stories from The Pentamerone by the end December of 2011, and I decided to make an unusual resolution for 2012. I would learn one story a week until I had them all in my repertoire. I was fascinated by memory techniques at the time, and the aim was that I would construct a “peg system” that would let me recall each story for performance along with where it fit in the cycle of 50 and which of the ten storytellers told it. One story a week seemed realistic, and if nothing else it would help me build up my repertoire.

It was a crazy task and ultimately one I failed to complete, but I learned some really valuable lessons and some quality stories along the way.

One story a week and what really came of that

When I set myself a goal of learning one story a week, I found myself confronted with the question of what it means to have learned a story. Repertoire is a big topic, one that I’ll tackle at length in a future blog post, but suffice to say that I didn’t expect to have each story finely honed, rehearsed, with polished patterns of phrase. Neither did I expect to have them tempered by repeat public performance. I settled on being able to remember them well enough that I could rattle them off in conversation, and that I’d feel happy pulling them out in a ceilidh style club format.

My wife often found herself on the receiving end of the learning process while I was letting these tales sink in. We were in a long distance relationship and every night we had an hour of skype time to fill with the news of our respective days, our complaints about how unfair it was that we were apart, and our respective artistic practices. She read me poems she’d written, a collections inspired by the grisly jumble that is the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. I’d tell her stories from The Pentamerone.

I didn’t get many other opportunities to tell these tales. Most months I would bring one to The Story Forge, the club I host in Sheffield, but picking out a good story was tricky. Many of the motifs were familiar, on several occasions I was faced with the fact that a version had been told recently in that club, (David Hague, I blame you!) or that the story was too long or would need substantial reworking to make it both a good club opener and something that I was confident telling. There were other open mic spoken word nights in Sheffield, but if I’m going to an event that’s predominantly a poetry night I feel like I really have to champion storytelling as an artform, and so new, clunky and lengthy material isn’t suitable.

Which left me a bit stuck. I found that I didn’t really have the discipline to learn the stories if there wasn’t a chance to really tell them. Furthermore, there were other stories that I wanted to learn, either stories I’d find in written sources or stories I heard from other tellers. I’ll even admit that after several months I found I myself feeling less enamored with the flavour of Basille’s stories. They were good, but I needed variety.

I also found that the artificial structure I’d given myself of learning all 50 stories wasn’t helping me. One week The Pentamerone would offer up a story about some twins who were so alike as to be mistaken for one another with hilarious results. A month later I might find a story about a King and Queen who, through magic, were blessed with a pair of boys who happened to look exactly alike. Now my inclination as an artist was to put those stories together. One had a great beginning, the other a good end, they would clearly work better combined, but I had set myself a target of learning all 50 as discrete and separate tales and that would undermine the stated goals of the project..

In the end, I abandoned the endeavor. In fact, there are some parts of the second half of The Pentamerone that I still haven’t read. It had been fun, but it wasn’t really helping me as a storyteller and it wasn’t as if the stories were going to run away if I left them for a few months.

Some great things did come from the project though. I confirmed that learning a new story every week was certainly possible, but that I needed to create opportunities and spaces to practice. I learned a whole set of wonderful stories, some of which weren’t that common on the telling scene. I had a great experience at Beyond the Border where strangers started talking to me about my Pentamerone project because they’d been following my progress on twitter, and that made me think a bit about how to use social media. Then I got an email from Kat Quartermass about her Dreamfired Storynights, and ultimately, by the tale end of 2012, I was touring a show of stories from The Pentamerone. Quite how that show came about and the creative decisions I made putting it together will be another blog post for another week.

Thanks for reading!

The Drama Instructor

Posted: May 13th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Blog | Tags: , , | 1 Comment »

There’s a story I’ve heard about a drama instructor. He was berating his students one day for failing to grasp the most basic points of theatre.

“You!” He said to one of his students. “Walk onto that stage, say ‘Look at that moon!’ and point upwards.”

And the student did. And when she had finished, the instructor asked the class what they had seen. They mumbled, and eventually offered up that they had seen their peer walk onto the stage, point and look upwards, and recite her line.

“Exactly!” barked the teacher, before rounding on another student. “Now you, same exercise.”

Again the walk, the point. Again the class had to describe what they’d seen. Again they described the walk, the point. What more was there to say? One after another the instructor had them all carry out the task. For a while, the answers became wonderfully detailed, addressing every step the actors had taken, the height of the point, the tone and inflection of the words spoken. But every time, the teacher seemed disappointed at the performance, and the students were puzzled as to what they were missing.

“Very well.” The teacher said, getting up off his chair and approaching the stage. “I’ll do it. Then you tell me what you see.”

He got up onto the stage. He walked until he was a little off centre. Then he pointed upwards. “Look at that moon!” he said.

But when he asked them afterwards what they saw, the students didn’t mention any of that. They had had one singular experience, one that made sense of the whole exercise.

“We saw the moon.” They said.

~ ~ ~

Storytelling and theatre are different animals, though related both by virtue of being narrative arts, of being spoken performance arts, because they can sometimes take place in the same spaces, and because they draw on similar theoretical models. I’ll probably be writing a blog post about the difference between digesis and mimesis at some point soon, because I think they’re really useful concepts and that we should be using them in our discussions.

But I love the story of the drama instructor, and I think it has some really interesting parallels within storytelling performance. Storytelling consists of at least four things. There must be a listener, there must be a teller, there must be a story, and there must be a telling. I separate out the telling and the story, the ‘telling’ is the particular performance that takes place between listener and teller, whereas the ‘story’ is the underlying narrative of which the telling is one specific rendition. All these four elements relate to one another in ways that we will be exploring more on this blog in the future, but for now I want to get to the crux of the drama instructor’s lesson, and in so doing echo the wise words of Sally Pomme Clayton. As tellers we normally want to “become invisible.” That’s not to say that the audience can’t see us, the students watching their drama instructor could certainly see him. That’s to say that what we do during the telling should support our purpose of conveying the story to the listeners.

The story doesn’t take place on the stage, that’s where the performance happens. The story doesn’t even take place in the space between teller and listener, as is so often argued. The story takes place between the listener’s ears, in their heads, and telling the story well means making artistic decisions that are mindful of the listener’s experience. That should be our first concern.

Or at least, that’s the model I’ll be working on here.

Review: The Nothing Show

Posted: August 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

I was at Larmer Tree Festival telling stories. It was magical, but I’m not here to tell you about that.

I’m here to tell you about Stewart Wright’s “The Nothing Show”, a half-hour performance piece that was so good I saw it twice.

It’s hard to describe the piece without spoilers. It’s a mime, the solo performer simply enacts getting up in the morning and getting ready to go out. Wright doesn’t speak, though he does make sound effects. That’s all. The physicality, the facial expressions, the creation and exploration of an imaginary geography, the skills Wright demonstrates are amazing. I was enthralled at how he was able to portray so much and get his audience so emotionally invested in a character whilst apprently doing so little. But to understand the appeal of The Nothing Show, you have to step back from the moment by moment joy of Wright’s corporeal mime and see the piece as a whole.

For the last hundred years the public whiteface of mime has been one of elaborate, formal gesture. It’s been one of talented street performance. It’s been impressive and technical but it hasn’t always been moving. It wasn’t always like that. The Mummers plays, for example, were about telling a story through an interesting medium, and Wright is re-exploring exactly that effect in his performance. The Nothing Show portrays a character who is a charming, sympathetic and believable individual. It shares the narrative of the compounded difficulties of getting ready to go out in the morning, underpinned with the mime’s craving for self-expression and freedom from the tyranny of the mundane. It features all the hallmarks of great storytelling composition: Reincorporation, escalation, premise and so on.

The result is a triumph. The Nothing Show connects to its audience in a way that formal mime can not, and it does it by embracing narrative.

Go and see it.

The Skeletal Village, (2/3)

Posted: May 30th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

One of the things I want to do here, on this site, is talk openly about the practice and craft of storytelling. I am at that stage in my development where I’m shedding the mantle of being a young storyteller, of being an emergent artist, and looking to stand amongst my peers in my own right. From where I am it’s painfully obvious to me that there’s a lack of resources available for people looking to grow as tellers. So I’ll be taking this opportunity to talk a little about the lessons I’ve learned, as much to get them straight in my head as anything else. If it leads to dialogue, or if anyone else learns anything, then that’s brilliant!

I won’t start with performance or language, these things aren’t my forte. To begin with I intend to put together a series of brief essays on the subject of crafting, of structuring, of putting stories together. These are lessons that are important, especially to someone looking to work as a teller professionally, because they ensure that our repertoires are really our own, that we know our material, that we are bringing stories back to the village to share and that we are serving them up in new, engaging, relevant ways.

I can’t remember from whom I first heard the metaphor, Ben Lehman probably. When you find a story in a collection or summarised on Wikipedia or the like, you find its bones. Written down, raggedly, scratched in the dirt. Brief and pointless and dead. But these stories are incredibly important to us. If we find them preserved in this ragged, skeletal fashion, rather than hearing them whole and vital from other tellers, then that means they may be missing from the collected canon of tales in circulation round the village. We have an obligation to perform a little necromancy.

So the craft of storytelling is the art of putting those bones together, of wrapping them in flesh, of making them come alive, dance and entrance the listeners. It may be as light as giving proper emphasis to some parts of the story in order to put a pulse into the tale. It may be adding or embellishing description or deciding whose point of view the narrative should follow. However, sometimes the process will be much more rigorous, and we will need to think about how the emotional arc is pulling the story, graft more than one tale together, or build up character motivations from little more than dust. What’s important is that all the decisions we make about the structure of a story, as Loren Neimi repeatedly makes clear in his The Book of Plots, should be deliberate and considered, and we should be aware of the importance and impact of the choices we make on the telling.

So before we continue, let’s ask how much can we change and work our material. What permissions do we have to adapt our tales, and what obligations do we have to the story? I’ll expand on this further when I talk about life in the Cannibal Village, but for now I want to share some of the insight I gleamed while reading Mariah Tartar’s The Classic Fairy Tales.

In this collection Tartar very deliberately takes four or five common versions of well known fairy tales and offers them up alongside one another. So, for example, under the section for Beauty and the Beast we find de Beaumont’s Beauty and The Beast, Straparola’s The Pig King, the Brothers Grimm’s The Frog King, Angela Carter’s The Tiger’s Bride and several others, along with commentary about what makes these different versions distinct and references to similar tales like East of the Sun, West of the Moon.

These different versions are just that: different and radically so. It’s hard in some cases to even say what fundamental quality of the story is preserved when narrative premise, beastial imagery and every single aspect of the tale seem mutable from one version to the next. And yet what we can learn here is that the boundaries which a single story can explore without losing its fundamental identity are very wide indeed. We have permission to adapt, to change, to twist and to reconsider our stories to an alarming degree, as long as we do so to the betterment and relevance of the performances we give.

Our work is very different from that of the great anatomist Cuvier, who allegedly could see exactly how a whole animal must have appeared from a single bone. There is no definite creature we are making when we reconstruct our bones, we may have too many bones or bones from more than one original creature. Thus the choices that need making are ours to make, the artistic decisions ours to own, and we must not shy away from them.

And the resulting stories are ours to tell.

Daniel Morden discusses the art of storytelling

Posted: April 17th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , | No Comments »

Good clip of Daniel Morden and Sarah Moody!

“It’s a sort of cinema of the mind.” Gorgeous stuff! And he’s a very fine gentleman as well.

The Allegorical Village, (1/3)

Posted: March 21st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

I feel very strongly that storytellers need to be ambassadors, pioneers. It is such a niche practice that most people in this country do not know what storytelling is. They imagine it’s reading or that it’s something for children. I’ve seen people, exposed to storytelling for the first time as adults, who find the experience magical, cathartic, transportive. Likewise, I’ve seen people who find the experience quaint, silly or even boring. It’s part of our job to ensure that potential new listeners get the former experience rather than the latter!

In order to understand our obligations to storytelling as an artform, we need to understand the context in which we tell stories. We need to look frankly at the British storytelling scene, the community of tellers and listeners, and come to understand where we are and where we’re going.

Firstly, I and my generation sit in the lucky position of having grown up in a culture with a storytelling scene, a community. It exists online, in the network of clubs, in the Young Storyteller of the Year competition, in the festivals and so on. It’s limited, it’s a medley, most people living in this country won’t even be aware of it. But it is no longer entirely true to say, as Marion Bloch did at the inaugural Gathering of the Society for Storytelling that we are a people “orphaned to tradition.” Now you can argue that this scene is evidence of an uninterrupted folk tradition that has been preserved, perhaps through rural or travelling communities, for generations, supported by the written word of those who went out to collect and preserve our native heritage. Or you can view it as a new creation, either born off the back of the folk revival or cobbled together in the 80s as a parallel of foreign storytelling cultures. But either way, it makes very little difference to what we have today; you can call it a resurgence, a resurrection, whatever, the fact it that a tradition exists. There are Storytellers performing in theatres, on railway station platforms, at music and spoken word festivals. There is an established common repertoire that is being passed back and forth. There are networks of people involved in the scene, in how the money moves, in organising and promoting gigs. There are crowds of people gathering to listen with up turned faces and high expectations.

The allegorical village, as a model of the British storytelling scene, is one that came up in conversation on Cybermouth in response to a question asked by Umi Sinha. I replied like this:

“Storytellers are like a village. We just haven’t noticed the social and physical geography that actually separates us. It can seem like everyone knows everyone. It can seem like everyone has an opinion on everyone else’s business. We compete for limited funding and gig opportunities in an environment where there aren’t enough resources for everyone to grow fat and content. We hunger for new stories, we scavenge other material that we hear along the way. Many of us are lean, hungry, and two steps away from professional cannibalism. (Okay, the metaphor breaks down a bit there! Maybe we’re a village with a dark wendigo curse?)

But the support that storytellers give each other is phenomenal. I’ve never been short of a place to stay on my travels. I’ve had some wonderful conversations until the early hours of the morning with people who, up to hours before, were little more than strangers to me. There’s a genuine love of storytelling as an artform, and people will do what they feel is right to support the art and share that love. And that seems to be on a very deep level, almost unconscious, I find it very moving.”

Which brings me to the point in this post, the purpose of The Room Behind the Bookcase. I want to share what I’m learning as a person who is growing as a storyteller. I want to put up here, on this site, a series of simple free lessons, maybe some recordings of stories, maybe some interviews, maybe some critical reviews, anything that I feel serves to nourish the village. I don’t pretend to be a master yet, but hopefully some of what I say will be of interest or use to someone, and if all it does is serve to start a bit of a dialogue then that’s enough for me.