The question I've chosen to tackle in this short paper is one of the things that has surprised me most about storytelling to teenagers: their frequent response to a fantastical story being 'Was that a true one?' Younger children rarely ask this (being less concerned about the difference between reality and fantasy, perhaps), so it takes me aback that their older counterparts often do. Can a 15-year-old really think that a woman was transformed into a whale? Or does she actually mean something else by her question? And what implications does this have for the storytelling exchange between a teller and their teenage listeners?
This is the abstract I've drafted - any thoughts welcome in advance of the symposium!:
‘Was that a true one?’ – teenagers and traditional stories
Cath Heinemeyer, PhD student, York St John University / York Theatre Royal
I use traditional stories and myths as the basis of much of my practice-based research into storytelling with teenagers. It could be argued that I am importing material, and genres, that are fairly alien to most young people, rather than drawing on their own ‘grounded aesthetic’ (Walcon 2012). Indeed, the reaction after a story finishes is often a disoriented ‘Was that a true story?’, or variants thereof. Implicit in this question is some or all of the following:
• A querying of my authority to tell that particular story;
• Unfamiliarity with story conventions;
• Musing whether this story is a useful source of knowledge and/or worth passing on;
• The need for a conversational and psychological bridge back into ‘normal’ communication and ‘reality’.
Traditional motifs can, however, act as a ‘rhetorical convention’ (Kershaw 2007), allowing young people to explore possibilities beyond the constraints of their own assumptions. Tolkien described this story reality as a ‘secondary world’ or ‘sub-creation’ (1968). In this paper I draw on my work with groups of teenagers in both mainstream and alternative education settings to exemplify how traditional material can provide a surprisingly powerful springboard for young people to tell their own stories.
My experience supports Zipes’ (1995) view that young people benefit from gaining a sense of mastery over story motifs and archetypes by comparing or layering stories over each other. This contextualises their intellectual concerns about ‘truthfulness’; it also gives them distance from the magical world of the story, as well as from their own daily lives. In contexts where young people feel safe to draw on aspects of their own personal experience, I describe how certain individuals and groups have moved from this position of ownership of traditional story structures to generate powerful contemporary stories.