When I tell people I am researching storytelling with teenagers, the most common question is then, 'What sort of stories do teenagers like, then?' There is a scepticism in the question: surely it's a matter of competing with films and horror or fantasy fiction?
Well, yes and no. And I don't know. In a way it's a 'shadow' question to my main research questions. The stories which do something for teenagers do themselves act as a key to the 'bigger' questions of what storytelling can do for teenagers, how teenagers engage with storytelling.
My instinct has told me two things from the start, and experience so far has confirmed these.
Firstly, that I should choose stories which contain all of life. That is, adult themes such as betrayal, disappointment, violence, abuse, sex, love, exclusion, conflict, should be in there. These things are present in most of the world's fairytales and mythologies, and the stories help to make sense of them.
The other night I watched a brilliant documentary on the BBC iPlayer, 'Tyger Takes On Porn' - about young people's ever-increasing access to pornography and how it's affecting their relationships. Watching it, I was thrown back into all my own adolescent anxieties about fitting in, keeping up, being normal. It reminded me how readily teenagers take on the dominant cultural narratives and how ill-equipped they are to challenge them. This reinforced for me the fact that sex, for example, should be woven into the plots of stories so that all its myriad sides can be seen as part of a whole story, whole lives, whole relationships. This might just act as a counterweight to the story of sex which tells young people they must conform to certain trends or stereotypes.
Secondly, that stories for teenagers should not be neatly wrapped up, or have a simple moral. Rather, if time permits, they should be involved and open and multi-faceted, like myths. There should be multiple points of entry and potential identification. I am guided here by my own reaction to storytellers I listen to. Hearing the wonderful Jan Blake tell the West African epic of Sogolon over two hours, my friend and I spent another two hours in intense argument and debate over the characters' decisions. I was struck by the dilemmas of the parents in the story; she was intensely concerned whether the hero had abused or rescued the heroine... Nothing was tied up, everything was up for interpretation. This is what teenagers need too, I think. Not parables, but new landscapes in which they can explore what happens to X when Y does Z and whether it was Y's fault or indeed F's, or maybe it was fate or society....
These two 'principles' are not research, however - they are beliefs, or even preconceived notions. To test them, I'd need to try other kinds of stories as well, where there is perhaps a simple message. There might well be a place for the simple metaphorical tale - for example, therapists who use story often choose these kinds of tale (see for example G.W. Burns' (2005) 101 Healing Stories for Kids and Teens: using metaphors in therapy) - but I am not drawn to them when faced with a teenage audience. And it's very hard for a storyteller to tell a story she doesn't feel like telling.
And yet I have to confess that teenagers often seem to like telling them. At the Young Storyteller of the Year competition I heard the story of the giant Fear who gets smaller the nearer you go to him, told and received with great enthusiasm. Teenagers, like anyone, like what they recognise. Sometimes, if I tell a story that seems too 'different' or morally ambiguous, the reaction will be simply 'that story was weird'.
So what marks out my practice as 'research', then? How will I use my practice as a vehicle to answer this 'shadow' question? I try to pay attention to what surprises me. I have been struck by the response of two different groups of teenagers with additional needs to the hero myths of various cultures. I have been just as struck by the uproar with which another group responded to a story ending which did not please them - which violated their sense of what was a 'proper' story. These 'janglings', where a group makes its collective feelings known, are one thing. And on a finer-grained scale, it's the old thing: in the eye contact between me and the listeners, the moment-to-moment shifts in mood and attention, that you always attend to anyway as a storyteller. It's a matter of attending to it more critically, storing it away for reflection afterwards.
Next on my reading list is Gail de Vos' annotated bibliography 'Storytelling with Young Adults: a guide to tales for teens'. I am interested to see whether her choices of material chime with my instincts and findings so far.