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.