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.

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.