Tuesday 18 February 2014

The context for storytelling: paper

Since starting this PhD, a key theme to emerge very quickly has been that of 'context'.  I have suspected since the beginning that what is different about storytelling for/with adolescents is much more to do with the context - or what Michael Wilson (in his 1997 book on adolescents' oral culture) calls 'paraperformance' - than on the actual telling. The influence of context on an audience's engagement with an artform is a basic idea in art research, which I have kept coming across in different forms. 

For example, Augusto Boal in 'Theatre of the Oppressed' describes how Shakespeare originally wrote his plays for an audience who would be chatting, flirting, buying gifts of fruit during the performance - and would need seizing by the scruff of the neck.  The much more reverential atmosphere in which we now enjoy Shakespeare plays makes them a fundamentally different experience now.

Back in November I gave a paper here at York St John University to a 'Research Snapshots' conference in the Arts Faculty.  This was very much an effort to capture my position at the outset of this PhD - the beliefs I have started to crystallise through my years as a freelance storyteller about the contextual factors influencing a storytelling performance (of any kind) to a contemporary audience of young people.  Until I work out how to attach documents into this blog, here it is in full!:

‘It’s not about the story’: articulating a practice-as-research inquiry into storytelling with adolescents through a focus on context

Cath Heinemeyer, 1st year PhD candidate

Key words: storytelling, reflective practice, context


Here I am standing before you as a storyteller of the 21st century, about to embark on three years of practice-led doctoral research into storytelling with, for and by adolescents – in many cases challenging, troubled adolescents with thoroughly modern problems in their lives.  In this paper I will draw on my own practice to date and that of others, in order to lay out my starting assumptions, values and questions about teenagers and the contexts in which they might benefit from engaging with story.

Yet, to set the scene for you, and to start to articulate my own research inquiry, I need to start with a brief sojourn in the past, in times and places where oral storytelling was a simple fact of life.  So let me take you back to the 1860s in the Scottish Highlands.  The folklorist Alexander Carmichael described a ‘ceilidh’, an evening session in the house of a local storyteller (Briggs 1977, p.3):

“The house of the storyteller is already full, and it is difficult to get inside, and away from the cold wind and sleet without.  But with that politeness native to the people, the stranger is pressed to come forward and occupy the seat vacated for him beside the houseman.  The house is roomy and clean, if homely, with its bright peat fire in the middle of the floor.  There are many present – men and women, boys and girls.  All the women are seated, and most of the men. Girls are crouched between the knees of fathers or brothers or friends, while boys are perched wherever – boy-like – they can climb...The houseman is twisting twigs of heather into ropes to hold down thatch, a neighbour crofter is twining quicken roots into cords to tie cows, while another is plaiting bent grass into baskets to hold meal.  The housewife is spinning, a daughter is carding, another daughter is teasing, while a third daughter, supposed to be working, is away in the background conversing in low whispers with the son of a neighbouring crofter…The tale is full of incident, action and pathos…  Truth overcomes craft, skill conquers strength, and bravery is rewarded.  Occasionally a momentary excitement occurs when heat and sleep overpower a boy, and he tumbles down among the people below, to be trounced out and sent home.  When the story is ended it is discussed and commented upon, and the different characters praised or blamed according to their merits and the views of the critics.”


Here we have laid out for us a very vivid picture of one particular, intergenerational social context for storytelling.  I would like you to note that teenagers are very much a part of it, and I would add that most likely the tale told had a teenager as its protagonist – perhaps a young hero going to find and defeat his family’s foe, or a folktale of a young girl cast out of her home and forced to seek her fortune. 

Apart from that, the key point here is that this context for storytelling worked.  It was deeply, intimately embedded in the lives of the participants – it made sense of those lives, and enriched them.

This context is also, however, dead and gone in the UK.  Lawrence Millman (1977) documented meetings with some of the ‘last seanachies’ (traditional bards) in remote parts of the West of Ireland – old storytellers who had lost their audiences and purpose.  Sean Murphy, reduced to telling stories to his sheep so as to keep them in mind; Tomas Walsh, from whom no tale could be dragged because the television drowned them out; the Traveller Mickey Ward who as a young man had travelled from town to town exchanging stories for bed and board, but who in advanced age struggled even to tempt his youngest grandchild to listen to one of his half-forgotten ‘histories’.  They are poignant figures, cultural relics, whose experience makes it explicit that there can be no storytelling without listeners, and without a context in which storytelling is felt to be essential. 

And yet Mickey provides a positive signpost to the future too.  For decades he stopped telling stories and forgot them all, until one day he was forced to go into hospital for an extended stay, and something about the environment ‘switched on’ his stories again.  ‘I don’t know how it happened.  The stories started comin’ back t’me aisy an’ free, like well-trained ponies.  An’ then I started tellin’ them t’other patients.  If there was a fellow in bed, middlin’ bad, I’d get in a place where he could see me an’ hear me talkin’ and hear me tellin’ me stories.  I’d sit beside the fellow that was worrit an’ sick, an’ I’d tell him, we’ll say, ‘The Little Hairy Man of the Forest’, what I hadn’t told in twenty years.”  (Millman 1977, p.120-121) The hospital chaplain praised Mickey for ‘doing more for the patients than the doctors could’, and called him a saint. 

What was it about the hospital that brought the stories back?  The captive audience, the lack of distractions, the shared experience?  The fact that Mickey’s own life had recently been hanging in the balance?  The validation by an authority figure of Mickey’s unique status?  My own brief period as writer in residence in a hospital corroborates the fact that there is something in the hospital context that does turn people into storytellers, in a way they can never be in the outside world with all its options for entertainment and occupation. 

Mickey’s experience starts to hint at the nature of a vibrant ‘context’ for storytelling.  It shows that its survival is not dependent on peat fires and spindles, but rather on being embedded and necessary in everyday life.  So why have I come to focus on this idea of ‘context’ in my research inquiry, and what do I mean by it? 



Reading theorists of theatre and storytelling indicates that there are two ‘rings’ of context around a performance.  The outer ring is located in the surrounding society or culture. Gersie (1997, p.2-3) emphasises that “economic, educational and cultural differences, with their resultant privilege and power inequities, are realities which permeate any telling situation.”  Thus a performance by a professional storyteller to psychiatric patients is a very different matter to a storytelling circle of amateur enthusiasts who perceive themselves as equals. 

The inner ring consists of the rules and institutions, codes and expectations surrounding an artform, which influence the way the audience engage with it, and indeed how it must be presented (Boal 1971; Rowe 2007).  Bennett (1997, p.112) suggests that audiences can only really engage with a performance “through the codes (they) are accustomed to utilizing”.  Boal (1971, p.177) goes further, by suggesting that any performance art need to conform to a consistent structure, in order to be accessible to all. Within the structure, creativity can be limitless, but, he says, “Previous knowledge is indispensable to full enjoyment.”

Thus, the patients in the psychiatric hospital need to know to what extent they are expected to interact with the storyteller as opposed to simply listening; the storytelling circle in the back room of the pub will only flow satisfyingly if everyone understands the rules of telling by turns, and giving supportive feedback to other tellers.   

What are the implications of this for storytelling with teenagers, a group who very rarely come into contact with it as an artform?  The last four decades have seen a resurgence of storytelling for both adults and children, giving rise to new contexts, codes and expectations.  I want to turn next to five ‘dimensions’ of context within this movement, and explore how adolescents may interact with them, giving examples from my practice and that of others.



Virtuosity and professionalism

Performance storytelling for adults has developed to a virtuosic standard in many countries.  In the US, tellers such as Sobol (2008), Harvey (2008) and Radner (2008) have seen the professionalization and diversification of the artform as an essential move away from its naive dependence on traditional tropes such as folktales, reminiscences, and old-fashioned costumes.  In the UK, a debate continues in which some professional tellers see themselves in the tradition of the elite bards of previous eras or other cultures.  They argue that while everyone might be a storyteller, not everyone can deliver an innovative, ambitious, perhaps genre-blurring performance (often of myth) for a demanding contemporary theatre audience.

Yet aspiring to ‘be like theatre’ may not be the best way to engage a teenage audience.  Reason (2006) describes the sense of exclusion and inhibition experienced by teenagers at a theatre performance of Othello, something that prevented them from becoming absorbed in the drama itself.  The very performative style of some storytellers may also alienate self-conscious adolescents at times, particularly in the intimate settings of typical performances and workshops.  In a pilot storytelling project of the ICAN centre, a group of Year 9 (age 14-15) participants felt discomfort with the teller’s ‘full-on’ style – it was just ‘too much’ - even though they admired her and her stories (Reason 2012).


Away from the theatrical performance storytelling context, one staple of many ‘jobbing’ storytellers (including myself) has been school-, museum-, or festival-based interactive storytelling aimed at a family audience.  UK tellers typically give informal, intimate renditions of lively folktales, and seek to bring an audience of children and their carers briefly into another world. 

Secondary schools rarely engage storytellers, and teenagers are usually notable by their absence from storytelling in other informal settings.  When they are there, the limitations of this mode of telling sometimes become evident.  Performing at a small festival this summer, I found myself in a yurt, unexpectedly telling to a group including not only young children and parents, but also four teenage boys.  I started to spin my tale of Maori adventurers, inviting the audience to row with me across the ocean, chanting in time with the oars.  The boys rowed – and how they rowed.  They generated enormous waves that sent them and other audience members crashing to the ground.  They parodied the fairies’ wicked baby-stealing and wailed like abandoned infants; they answered every rhetorical question with a smart riposte.  The little children were transfixed by them, my ‘web’ of entrancement was broken, and my cheeks started turning red.  And yet the boys stayed until the end of the performance.  Later in the weekend, they asked me to come and see an intricate ‘fairy theme park’ they had built in the woods, with lookout points for spotting babies to steal. 

Another visual image I often have while telling is of suspending a ball in the air between me and the audience.  The boys would not let me keep it up there where I wanted it.  They wanted to bounce it and play with it – interaction, yes, but not as I knew it. 

Wendy Luttrell (2003), in her ethnography of a pregnant teenagers’ unit in a US high school, marvels at the creativity of her research participants within the ‘transitional space’ of the workshops she ran.  She wonders that educators don’t make more use of this delight in performance and play that many adolescents possess.  At 14, she discovered, most of her research participants found it very difficult to narrate their experiences fluently, but they could enact them eloquently – something which may act as a stepping stone towards articulate storytelling. 

Social embeddedness

Related to the above two ‘dimensions’ is the degree of emphasis, within any given storytelling context, on what Jo Salas (in Fox and Dauber 1999), referring to playback theatre, calls the ‘interactive social’ domain.   She writes that any social or artistic event, from a town meeting to a play rehearsal, shares certain “common criteria for success” (p.21), which must be balanced against artistic criteria:

“These include planning and organisation according to the purpose of the gathering; a congenial and appropriate physical environment; an opportunity early in the proceedings for each person to be seen and heard; an atmosphere of respect; some form of participation or engagement from all present; the acknowledgement and inclusion of diverse concerns, point of view, and feelings; time management; a sense of achievement in relation to the meeting’s intent; and an adequate closure at the end.”

You can refer back to Carmichael’s description of a Highland ceilidh and see that it answers all of these criteria – even time management, in a sense!  These are things that are of concern to people whose stake in a performance event goes beyond that of the ticket-purchasing connoisseur, to the long-term social bonding and wellbeing of their community.  Two examples:

·         Lawrence Millman interviewed many elderly people who recalled storytelling ceilidhs in their youth: ‘It was not the story that was in it,’ one old man told me.  ‘Not the story really at all, but the idea you were passing your time with the others.  ‘Twas like mass, you see, because we went to the chapel for the same reason.” (Millman 1977, pp.78-79)

·         Alida Gersie (1997, p.44) recounts how an international government adviser in one of her storytelling groups told her, with surprise in his voice: “‘I actually tell a lot of stories whilst I play golf.  That’s mostly what we do when we play… I guess you could say that we’re a group of wandering storytellers.’…When asked what made this so clearly important, he replied without much hesitation: ‘To have the space to share experiences.  That’s what you do when you tell stories.  Don’t you agree?’”

It wasn’t about the story; it wasn’t about the golf; they were, in a sense, a means to an end.  Lots of other equally important things were going on at the same time.  The evolution of performance storytelling in the revival can perhaps be seen as an over-emphasis of artistry over the ‘interactive social’ domain; it is very much about the story.  It is also, however, an attempt to reinvent and disseminate a context for storytelling.  Bauman (1986) closely analyses the changing style of a well-known US storyteller, Ed Bell, as he moved from his starting context of his fishing ponds business, where he used to spin yarns for back country fishermen like himself, to the festival stages of the storytelling revival.  The further he got from the intimate, socially embedded setting of the fishponds, the more his style grew larger-than-life, luxuriant, explanatory.  He had to teach the audience things they did not know about how to listen to stories; his telling had to be ‘performative’ in the sense of subtly transforming the audience, showing them a different way of being together as a group. 

How does a teenage audience react when storytellers attempt to transplant them into the social reality of another time and place?  Might the ‘interactive social’ domain need to be rethought for their own needs, so that it isn’t about the story, but the story becomes an essential route to whatever it really is about for them?  I like Jack Zipes’ (1995) formulation that a storyteller can “point a way toward creating a network within a community that brings people together around the concerns they may have…” (p.6).


To Salas’ dichotomy of ‘artistic’ and ‘interactive social’ dimensions of playback theatre (and I would argue this applies equally to storytelling), Fox (in Fox and Dauber 1999) adds ‘ritual’ to form a triangle.  The ritual, or rite of passage element of story has, in most cultures, had a special importance for teenagers – you could almost say that most myths are about and for them.  In a more practical sense, storytelling also depends on socially recognised ‘rituals’ of starting a story, gaining the audience’s permission to keep telling, signalling it is over.

Caribbean storytellers are famous for their ‘Crick – CRACK!’; ‘Once upon a time’ does the same in English folk tales.   The equivalents in informal settings, within the youth group or gathered around the dinner table, are more subtle.  My mother-in-law, when moving from ‘normal conversation’ to ‘storytelling’ mode, always says, ‘Jetzt kommt es!’ (Now it’s coming!) – then we know to shut up and listen up.  Yet where there are multiple entertainment options right there in the living room, it feels quite counter-cultural, quite a brave thing to do, to seek to command the generality’s attention in this way.  I have many friends who will pay for tickets to my storytelling performances, but very few brave enough to invite me to tell a story at their Christmas party. 

What elements of ritual need to be reinvented, in order to give teenagers access to storytelling as a social practice?  Nick Rowe (2007) objects to the idea of ritual in playback theatre as embodying canonical content, thus limiting the possibilities open to individual participants in an artform.  However, I am talking here of ritual as encoding process and values, for example, that it is safe to tell and important to lend an empathetic ear.  I am interested to discover whether groups of young people might invent their own codes and rituals of telling.


Debates over the instrumental relationship between arts and social issues are fraught within all applied arts (e.g. Belfiore and Bennett 2007).  Jack Zipes (1995, pp.2-3) has described a widespread “instrumentalization of the imagination of children” in education.  Within mental health, the use of arts as therapy (as opposed to simply arts in mental health or with mental health service users) can create a more instrumental context and perhaps less equal power relations (Stannage 2013).  

Practice-led research may put a new frame around the question of instrumentality (Nelson 2013) by welcoming forms of knowing beyond the ‘objective’, and within my research I will need to seek sensitive means of evaluating the impacts of storytelling on participants’ wellbeing, empathy and learning, through both ethnographic and artistic approaches.  But the question that concerns me here is rather the participants’ own perceptions of the ‘purpose’ of what they are doing when engaging with storytelling.

Teenagers’ daily experience of education, health and social care systems focused on goals, targets and outcomes can lead them to expect a direct relationship between activities organised for them and some eventual outcome.  They may resist this; for example, when a local drama practitioner was asked to work with a group of secondary pupils to tackle bullying, the young people saw her agenda, refused to play along with it, and she had to change tack and work in a more open-ended way with them.  Alternatively, they may internalise it: in the ICAN pilot project, one group of 14-15-year-old participants took part in storytelling workshops during their scheduled history lessons (Reason 2012).  In a focus group, one comment indicated their perplexity: ‘we’re not going to use it for anything’.  Their expectation of instrumental, external goals (e.g. that the stories would teach them historical facts) was unfulfilled. 

However, I think both cases above also give a sense of the young people’s own conditions for committing their energies and creativities: they perceived the workshops as having come out of the blue – being decontextualized and lacking transparency – and the storyteller as an “alien, who comes from some unknown place” (Zipes 1995, p.7). The middle teens is a period in which young people start to analyse and question the world around them, rather than simply accepting it (Alrutz 2013).  This suggests that for groups of adolescents, much more than for children, a precondition for successful engagement with storytelling will be to spend time co-constructing the context for the work, how it fits into their wider lives, and why we are doing it. 



If one of ICAN’s aspirations is to help return storytelling to educators and young people as a normal pastime (Mello 2001; Ryan 2008), part of the texture of everyday life, where can we look for roots of an adolescent ‘context’ for storytelling?  None of these dimensions I have explored provide any answers, but I think they give me some starting points in my long-term practice with groups of teenagers. 

They free me from any obligation to conform to established genres or ‘codes’ around storytelling, and oblige me to ask participants to help me create ones that work for them.  I will look to their love of performance and interactivity, but on their own terms (Luttrell 2003).  I will seek to create safe ‘transitional space’ in which they can play with options for their own identities (Perry and Rogers 2011).  Rather than aim for specific behavioural outcomes, I will need to prize transparency and involve them as both co-researchers and co-creators of the rationale for our work together.  I hope the work will enshrine and disseminate their own unique knowledge, rather than follow the agendas of others. 

In conclusion, I would like to restate that there is nothing antiquated about the art, or craft, of storytelling.  While the casually and necessarily intergenerational  social context in which it was embedded in Carmichael’s time has gone, the basic human needs have not changed.  I am looking forward to finding new ‘rituals of process’ for storytelling with teenagers, and trying to embed these in their everyday environments of school, extracurricular activities and home.  Teenagers will always respond differently to adults or to younger children; they will always want to ‘bounce the ball’; so how can we re-invent the process to celebrate their unique relationship with story?



Alrutz, Megan (2013) ‘Sites of possibility: applied theatre and digital storytelling with youth’.  Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance 18:1, pp.44-57.


Bauman, R. (1986) Context, Performance and Event: contextual studies of oral narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Belfiore, Eleanora and Bennett, Oliver (2007) ‘Determinants of Impact: Towards a Better Understanding of Encounters with the Arts’, Cultural Trends 16:3, pp.225-275


Boal, Augusto (2000) Theatre of the Oppressed, 2nd edition. London: Pluto Press


Briggs, Katherine M. (1977) British Folk-tales and Legends: A Sampler.  Paladin Books.


Fox, Jonathan and Dauber, Heinrich (1999) Gathering Voices: Essays on playback theatre.  New Paltz, NY: Tusitala Publishing.


Gersie, Alida (1997) Reflections on Therapeutic Storymaking: the use of stories in groups.  London and Bristol, Pennsylvania: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Harvey, Hannah B. (2008) ‘On the Edge of the Storytelling World: The Festival Circuit and the Fringe’. Storytelling, Self, Society 4, pp.134-151

Luttrell, Wendy (2003) Pregnant Bodies, Fertile Minds: Gender, Race, and the Schooling of Pregnant Teens. New York: Routledge

Mello, Robin (2001) ‘Building Bridges: How storytelling influences teacher/student relationships’.  Paper presented at the Storytelling in the Americas conference, St Catherine’s (Ontario), August-Sept 2001


Millman, Lawrence (1977) Our Like Will Not Be Here Again: Notes from the West of Ireland. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Ruminator Books.


Perry, Mia and Rogers, Theresa (2011) ‘Meddling with ‘drama class’, muddling ‘urban’: imagining aspects of the urban feminine self through an experimental theatre process with youth. RiDE: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance 16:2, pp.197-213.

Radner, Jo (2008) ‘On the Threshold of Power: The Storytelling Movement Today’. Storytelling, Self, Society 4, pp.36-49.

Reason, Matthew (2006) ‘Young audiences and live theatre: Young audiences and live theatre, Part 2: Perceptions of liveness in performance’. Studies in Theatre and Performance 26:3, pp.221-241


Rowe, Nick (2007) Playing the Other: Dramatizing personal narratives in playback theatre. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.


Ryan, Patrick (2008) ‘Narrative Learning / Learning Narratives: Storytelling, experiential learning and education’, Lecture for George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling, University of Glamorgan, Thursday, 29 May 2008


Sobol, Joseph Daniel (2008) ‘Contemporary Storytelling: Revived Traditional Art and Protean Social Agent’.  Storytelling, Self, Society 4, pp.122-133


Stannage, El (2013) ‘Tread softly: ethical considerations in participatory arts research’. Paper to Research Methods Conference, York St John University, 11.11.2013


Zipes, Jack (1995) Creative Storytelling: Building community, changing lives. London: Routledge.