Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Surfing the performance spectrum

I get storytelling vertigo, sometimes, these days.  In the course of a week I tell stories to a group of three 14-year-olds who are playing with clay and interrupting me continually to tell me what ought to happen next; to a roomful of silent, wide-eyed, troubled, inscrutable adolescents whose reactions are unpredictable and momentous; to an adult audience in near darkness in a theatre with lighting and staging. 

Any storyteller would recognise this.  It’s what Mike Wilson (1997) calls the ‘performance spectrum’ – from very informal, almost conversational storytelling at one end, to ‘performance storytelling’ more akin to theatre at the other.  But the cramming of my current working life with all of these varieties on top of each other makes me keenly aware of their different ethos and demands. 

More than that, it maybe makes me uncomfortably self-aware, of my own habits and processes.  Putting together a performance with musician colleagues recently, I was almost paralysed with embarrassment when we rehearsed – perhaps because the whole idea of ‘rehearsal’ is anathema to ‘everyday storytelling’.  ‘How will you end that one?’ ‘Emmm….I’ll probably repeat the thing about the mountain and cock my head to one side…’ All my tricks and tropes became evident; I had to give them reliable cues to start playing; they helped me shape the stories to make certain points; I squirmed when they heard the same lines repeated each time.  We found ourselves incapable of any banter between stories, because this highlighted the lack of spontaneity in the rest of the show.  

It was easier to accept the fact that this was, essentially, a scripted performance, and remove any pretence of its being otherwise.  When we did so, I was able to relax, and welcome their (extremely helpful) input, which enabled me to present something more crafted, more careful than I usually might.  But I feel there is an elusive form, beyond my current abilities and instincts, where the planned and spontaneous elements of a storytelling show are more synergistic.  Where the audience still come away with a feeling that they helped create the show, and have been given the stories to keep.  I can think of a few performance storytellers who manage this, but not many. 

This was all at the forefront of my mind while I was reading Walter Benjamin’s essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’.  Benjamin suggests an interesting way of looking at this spectrum within artforms, according to how reproducible and transportable they are.  He points out that the original function of art was primarily ritualistic – it had a cult value, even if (or because) few people ever got to see it – like the engravings high up on the walls of the Minster.  I think you could understand a ‘traditional’ storytelling event like my small gatherings of teenagers to be of this kind, in a secular sense – it is unrepeatable; you have to be there to bask in its ‘aura’.  Its social or ‘cult’ value is perhaps of greater significance than its artistic quality.

As technology developed so that art became gradually more reproducible (e.g. woodcuts, lithographs), it became correspondingly less sacred and more about exhibition and artistic value.  And its form started to change to meet the different demands of exhibition.  Here I think you could place ‘performance storytelling’.  Virtuosity is important here; ‘authenticity’ in the sense of uniqueness is much less so.  There is an acceptance that the same performance will be repeated elsewhere; it is not about the particular set of people gathered here to listen today.

Benjamin suggests that as art becomes ever more reproducible (and of course he could not foresee the digital revolution), the form changes once again.  Artistic criteria diminish in importance again, and the primary purpose becomes political – it’s about communication, voice, participation.  And here I think you could locate most of digital storytelling, and a lot of what drama practitioners mean when they talk about ‘storytelling’.  No wonder that when people profess an interest in ‘storytelling’, it’s not obvious what they mean without probing a little further.  It is in fact several different artforms.  When I say I feel vertiginous from surfing this continuum within storytelling every week, it’s because I’m sliding along a scale which has big bumps along it. It demands that I reset my sense of purpose and role.

As a postscript: Benjamin’s comments on film in this essay cast some light on my discomfort in rehearsals.  The close-ups, slow-motions, the perfect detail of film allow a testing and examination of an actor’s performance, while alienating him from his own body.  The absence of an immediate audience against which to form his performance make him perform a language of gesture in a kind of vacuum, in which each of his gestures are subjected to scrutiny which is not social, but technical.  Likewise, informal storytelling allows huge latitude for idiosyncrasy and habit – the usual inconsistencies and inaccuracies of face-to-face communication can pass unnoticed, or are just taken in subconsciously as in everyday life.  Whereas performance storytelling under a spotlight, with the audience removed by poles of light and darkness, forces the performer to consider the effect of each gesture, analyse his own habits, and commit to them in advance.  Perhaps this is why it leaves me feeling exposed and inadequate – and also why it feels like a rigorous discipline I should not shy away from!

Monday, 30 June 2014

The devising process and storytelling

I had a really useful chat today with the drama practitioner who leads the acting group for teenagers with additional needs, which I have been working with for six months now.  The group has been using a devising process based on myths - some brought by us adults, others by the young people themselves.  Their responses to these myths brought out themes which the lead practitioner wove together into a script - no easy task!

We reflected together on what storytelling has brought to the group - already fluent in many theatre skills.  Working with stories including Romeo and Juliet, Dracula, Baldur and Loki, Llew Llaw Gyffes, Sho and the Demons of the Deep, individuals in the group found they were good storytellers, able to hold an audience.  The stories were 'meaty' grist to the mill of their drama work - allowing them to bring out challenging themes such as betrayal, dependent love, bullying, identity, jealousy, revenge...

The resulting play needed a setting of suitable grandeur - also devised by the whole group:

Friday, 13 June 2014

Is storytelling 'high art' or 'low art'?

I spend such a lot of time trying to work out what my research is really about. 

Here's a potted history of storytelling:

Once upon a time...it was a folk art, a 'grounded aesthetic' (as Paul Willis would call it) not respected by the art establishment.  It was sometimes conservative, sometimes subversive, sometimes brought communities together, sometimes kept them apart.  Teenage tellers never told it quite the same as their elders, sometimes they didn't even allow their elders in when they were telling.  It was whatever people needed it to be.

The times they were a-changin'...and it became a means of resistance.  One of the many cultural spin-offs of the 1960s.  A rough-edged crusader against high art, elite culture and economic power.

It 'sold out'?!?! It became too good for the arts establishment to miss out on.  It appeared everywhere and became zeitgeisty.  It was best served with a glass of wine and some appropriate world music. 

Time to give it back? It's possible that my whole PhD is about finding whether teenagers want it back, whether they want to make room for it in their 21st century 'grounded aesthetic' or whether it's already there. 

I think, more likely, it's about finding common ground between forms of storytelling flowing up from the 'ground' and down from the 'air'. Finding a 'new vernacular' which works for a given group of young people and 'feeding' or 'seeding' it with stories from the high/low tradition of storytelling while they are getting going (which is my contribution). 

Willis (in Common Culture, 1990), along with most cultural theorists after him, feels that commercial cultural commodities - film, magazines, TV, music, computer games, consumer culture - have stepped into a breach which late capitalism and 'High Art' have left empty.  Work no longer exercises most young people's creativity and skill. 'High Art' comes with its meanings already bundled into it, and repels young people, he says.  Consumer culture and media give them more to play with and transform into their own meanings - so capitalism is the cure for the disease of capitalism. 

Well, maybe so and maybe not.  Storytelling is never some ethereal thing existing independently of the economy - far from it - but I think it would be a very welcome additional presence in that same breach.  Always bearing in mind, it needs to be an 'open' kind of storytelling - a 'writerly text' (thanks Barthes) - which has no specific designs on its listeners.

On my optimistic days, I think the respect now accorded to storytelling as a 'proper' artform might mean it could act as a special language for young people to articulate their perspectives to the adult world. 

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Layering stories on stories

I have written before about Jack Zipes' suggestion that we not worry too much about what 'message' we are giving with a particular story - instead we should provide alternative versions of it and let them accuse each other.  His classic example is 'Red Riding Hood' - it could be the classic anti-feminist tale (little girls: stay at home and keep safe!) but providing both matriarchal peasant versions and modern retakes on it (e.g. Quentin Blake's - right - who 'pulls a pistol from her knickers') alongside the Grimm version allows young people to decide for themselves.  More than that - they get a distance and critical perspective on the story-making process itself, and start to be able to use it for their own purposes, and to critique society. 

I have gradually and painfully come round to this, having been reluctant to open stories up to such postmodern dissection.  Yet, Brechtian alienation and all that...I do know he is right.  My preference has been to develop workshops where, rather than presenting versions of the same story, I have told different stories within a similar structure, such as the 'hero's journey' - both mythical and contemporary true stories.  I have helped groups look for the similarities and differences between these and find a structure they can play with.  We've then created a character together, who in some way represents the group or its fantasies.  This character is then sent off on its own story, either by all the group together or each member individually.  These have been some powerful experiences for groups, and generated some tremendous stories.

But you never get to sit still for long in this research game.  On Tuesday I was privileged to attend a brilliant event at my university, York St John, organised by my supervisors Matthew Reason and Nick Rowe.  It was called 'Elusive Evidence' and focused on challenges of documentation and research in applied arts practice - that is, arts in social, health, educational settings.  Run as an 'open space' event, there was plenty of time to discuss with the many stimulating speakers.  One of these talks raised a question for me, which we later explored in discussion.

Olivia Sagan (of Bishop Grossetest University) spoke about the potential for doing harm with our work. It's always possible to see an intense response by a group, and assume this is a good and beneficial one.  Groups I have worked with have certainly produced strong, creative, moving work fed by stories - but might processes like the one I have outlined have risks as well?  Creating a marginalised character to represent a marginalised group of young people might be a horizon-limiting thing - strengthen the bonds between them but make them feel more cut-off from others.  Yesterday a group of 13-year-olds told me their character was 'quite happy living alone with his animals' and did not need to go anywhere or find new friends. 

What are the answers to that? I think Zipes would say, don't sweat it, give them another story!  Let it be a contrasting one which questions the last one.  It can be hard to escape from the 'hero's journey' myth in this age of Disney - find something else, let it be subverted.  And I think forum theatre practitioners would say: stick with it, but let the young people explore all the perspectives in the story, not just that of 'their' character.  Let them put their character in tricky situations.  Celebrate the conflicts in the story. 

Occasionally I have the instincts to do this.  I'll leave you with a great poem written by a bickering and rowdy group of Year 7s yesterday, inspired by the feelings of a cartload of plague victims travelling to their lodge beyond the city bounds.  The teachers and I managed to resist our temptation to smooth over the differences between them - their version of the story became a reflection of the many ways to see a bad situation:

We are divided into rich and poor

We are scared, terrified and shaking

Will we die, there is no cure

I heard we should cut the sores to release the pressure

People are fighting and stealing on the waggon

We should not steal or we’ll go to hell

Thomas Morton is praying for us

But who cares its our last day lets just have fun

In the moonlight we dance around  the fire to cheer ourselves up

 Why is god punishing us?

I don’t want to die

We’re missing our dear children

We did what we could for them

Left them food, look after to each other, stay hidden

I’m thankful they are still alive

But will they survive?

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Can a storyteller be as interactive as a computer game - or more so?

On Monday I was at the University of York Theatre, Film and Television department's annual postgraduate symposium.  I gave a paper myself - tackling this question of why teenagers often ask 'was that a true one?' after I'm finished a story - and what this questioning suggests about the practice of storytelling with this age group. 

Seeing that the programme was strong on screenwriting, 'transmedia' and even research into computer games, I wasn't sure how relevant the symposium would be to my own work.  It turned out to be more than relevant - I don't think I've ever scribbled more on my handouts during an event. 

To start from my concern: teenagers' questioning as to whether my (fantastical) stories are true or not might just be because they do believe some quite mad stuff, or because they need to say something to breach the silence.  But does it also suggest that I speak with a false authority, or am imposing yet another 'top-down', unchallengeable form of culture on them, disguised as folk culture? (as in the archetypal scene right!)  Would it be better to work within their own rich 'grounded aesthetic' of film, music, sci fi, dystopias, urban myths, popular culture, fantasy fiction... (see Paul Willis' 1990 book Common Culture) instead of assuming they need me and my stories of long ago, or far away?

I gave my arguments for the defence and some case studies.  Tolkien talks about the story vocabulary of 'stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine' (in his wonderful 1968 essay 'On Fairy Stories', p.10).  This can be a liberating set of images, outside the rules and limitations of our culture and in a way outside any culture.  They are what Baz Kershaw (in his 1997 article 'Performance, Community, Culture') calls a 'rhetorical convention', which create a safe space for an audience to stretch and challenge their own experience and values.  So the question 'was it true?' is perhaps a way of working out how much of the story was 'rhetorical convention' and how much was an 'authenticating convention' - a way of establishing the story's relationship to the truth and how much space it creates for play.

And of course young people do bring their own 'grounded aesthetic' into the mix.  Taking inspiration from Jack Zipes' Creative Storytelling (1995), I have found that 'layering' two stories, for example a mythical 'hero's journey' and a modern-day true equivalent, can lead groups into interesting places.  They add their own associations and invent their own characters and plots which contain elements of what they have just heard, as well as material they bring from other places - e.g. the wonderful character 'Mr Imagination', developed by a group of 13-year-olds with additional learning needs, seems to have much in common with Harry Potter.  In the story they developed about him, Mr Imagination was forced to retreat from society because he could not stop imagining terrible fates for his tormentors, and they all came true - he had to learn to master this power before he could return:

I and the teachers present felt that this powerful story was a way for the group to exercise its substantial creative muscles in a way they often couldn't (and express things about their own identities), feeding off the stories I had told them. 

A few words on some of the speakers at the symposium who gave me food for thought around these concerns:

* Romana Turina's talk on the developing art of storytelling in computer games.  More recent games have characters with depth, interesting storylines, explore aspects of culture and society.  However, there is always a tension between genuine interactivity - that is, allowing the gamer to make his/her own decisions which affect the game - and making sure the storyline of the game is enacted.  This is hard to do and the results can be disappointing.  It is often, to date, the illusion of interactivity.

* A panel of speakers from Bolton University spoke on their innovative transmedia project 'Bolton Storyworld'. This a platform for student creativity, assessment, research, and marketing Bolton University itself.  It has included 120 writers, producers, actors and others; the 'storyworld' features live events, GPS interactive maps of Bolton, social media debates, Youtube programmes, and a website, all centred around a central storyline resembling the X-Files. 

Two things really interested me about this project.  Firstly, the difficulty of balancing the need for a strong storyline with the often chaotic demands of interactivity - as with computer games.  Krishna Stott of the creative agency Bellyfeel showed a graph (right) which shows that the storyworld needs a boundary and the main plot needs to be preeminent, no matter how much 'granular content' you have spinning off from it.  This granular content is not really going to affect the central plot itself, in most cases.  So you mustn't raise false hopes.

Secondly, the inspiring academic leader of the project, Anna Zaluczkowska (who, I was delighted to hear from her accent, is Northern Irish!), talked about how most of the students were much more focused on the quality and arc of the central storyline, than on the postmodern, fragmented, multiple-interpretation potential of it. 

I often hear that young people are instinctively postmodern, living as they do in a relativistic, multimedia world.  And yet, my experience confirms that following a single, unified storyline still holds a unique power.  A group of fragile young people in one of my workshops yesterday were discussing 'Peter Pan'.  One of them said she had heard 'the real story' - that Peter Pan was a malevolent child-snatcher and the pirates were grown-up Lost Boys whom he had never allowed to escape (I think she has picked up on some of the psychoanalytical criticism of J.M. Barrie's book of the last few decades!).  The others, in one voice, protested that she had 'ruined it for them'; that they had loved that book so much.  I suggested they could still love the version they had read or seen, despite hearing another interpretation?  No! they cried unanimously.  They believed in that truth of that story - in some sense it wasn't a story at all, but a form of reality. 

I remember this black-and-white state of mind from my own adolescence.  And isn't this, in fact, what the question 'Was that a true story?' is getting at?  Is this a statement of reality which I can have faith in, and use to move around in? 

So, to wrap this up: I scribbled on my notes 'Let young people play me like a computer game!'  Maybe a storyteller can be a genuinely interactive thing.  The group who invented 'Mr Imagination' could develop a bit more of his story together, then send me away to work it up into a developed story.  I could return for their critique and they could send me off down other paths.  A sort of 'Choose Your Own Adventure'.  Because surely it is an important lesson for a storyteller to teach that we can create our own stories; they are not handed down from the sky.  You can still enjoy Peter Pan, or tell your own version which is safe from the predations of the world if you decide to make it so.  And that could really make you stronger.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

What stories do teenagers tell?

Last week I was musing about what stories teenagers enjoy listening to.  But what about the stories they tell - either in response to stories I tell, or more informally in other parts of a workshop?

Well, it's a universe, just as it would be for adults.  It's also likely to be heavily influenced by the kind of stories I have told to them - and, of course, what my ears are open to really hear.  However, I am starting to discern themes and types.  I also perceive common influences on their storytelling style, cultural material from films and books and popular culture that they sometimes weave into their stories, often very creatively.

So here are some.  I'll take younger teenagers first, 12-15s.  I'm going to put them in a (biased, subjective, approximate) hierarchy of greatest to least interest as stories:
  • hero tales of misfits and outsiders finding their role in life - or failing to do so
  • folktales of the granting of wishes, special powers
  • stories about bullying, isolation
  • true stories of family mishaps
  • urban myths, usually ghoulish
  • novelistic stories of the experience of 'being a teenager'
  • stories with subverted endings - where the baddie goes unpunished, or the heroine turns out to be corrupt
  • tales of judgment, punishment
  • action adventures high on technology and short on realism, except sometimes (and strikingly) in realistic relationships between characters
  • destructive stories where everyone is killed off and nothing ever really changes
And older teenagers, say 15+ - much of the above but also:
  • love stories
  • personal tales of how one came to be the way one is, or how a character in a story came to be the way they were
  • vampire/horror tales
  • stories of personal mishaps and troubles
A lot of this reflects the experience of other tellers who have worked with this age group - but some of the items on these lists I haven't encountered in the literature.  I'd be very interested to hear from you if you have worked with teenagers using storytelling and have any thoughts.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

"Was that a true story?"

I will shortly be presenting my first conference paper outside the university - hopefully it won't be too intimidating a venue for this debut, as it's a postgraduate symposium just down the road at the University of York's Dept of Theatre, Film and Television (TFTV), on 2nd June. 

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.

Friday, 23 May 2014

What stories do teenagers like?

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?

for example.....!

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. 

Monday, 5 May 2014

More musings on copying and retelling

On Friday I attended a seminar led by my main academic supervisor Matthew Reason on 'documentation and disappearance' which raised further thoughts around copying and retelling (see previous posts). 

One theme we discussed is the ephemerality of performance - how the telling of a story, say, can never be repeated or fully documented, so there is a little bit of loss, or death even, at the heart of it.  We fear this and make many and varied efforts to capture and retain the essence of the experience.  This struck a big jangling chord with me.  Of course I have to document my workshops for the purposes of my research, but is there another deeper and more basic reason for it?

Last week I held a workshop with a group of Key Stage 3 pupils with additional learning needs.  I hadn't seen them since November, that's six months ago now.  That time I told them the Sumerian myth of 'Lugalbanda' and the group made a poster retelling the story visually - since then, the poster has remained on the classroom wall.  So I wasn't that surprised that they all recalled the session, but I was astounded by one boy who retold us the whole thing in great detail.  He gave many visual details which I had put into my original telling, but his words were all his own, and they were fluent and moving.  There was stunned silence and then applause.  He put his head in his hands, as if overwhelmed by the effort he'd just made. 

This was, of course, like a birthday present for me, and his teacher.  We got it on audio tape.  We were delighted that it had made such an impression on him, and that he had revealed such a talent.  But what exactly was delightful about this?  He had stuck quite closely to my version of the story, rather than making significant interpretations of his own.  This happens quite often, particularly with classes less familiar with drama and creative work.  

You could say the poster, and the retelling, were as much for the gratification of myself as storyteller - to assure me that my work was not ephemeral and pointless - as for the young people.  Maybe he felt my strong desire to hear the story back from him, and this was the cause of his exhaustion afterwards. 

I suppose the other question for me is: if a young person deeply absorbs and retells the details of my version of a story, are they also unquestioningly accepting my version of its causality, morality, themes?  How can I find this out?  And what does it mean for how I ought to tell?  Ought I to leave more 'blank spaces' for the listeners to fill in their own details? 

There could be a role for this simple absorption of a story.  Over a lifetime we integrate and reexamine all these stories which influence us, and create out of them what we need.  But I must admit it is gratifying when this process (rarely) materialises in front of your eyes.  I have had workshops where young people have moved well free of my telling and its moral arc, and used it to generate new material of their own - and this is where a real sense of the rightness and value of a story come in.  But I can't make this happen if the conditions are not right. 

I continue to believe that retelling is the first step towards transformation, rewriting of the story and (in a small way) of oneself, but it has become a bit more of a problematic idea for me. 

Saturday, 19 April 2014


In his talk at the 'Storytelling and the Voice' symposium (see previous post) Prof Mike Wilson explored Walter Benjamin's distinction between 'reading' and 'copying', from his 1928 essay 'Einbahnstrasse' ('One-Way Street').  This idea generated a lot of discussion.

Reading, according to Benjamin, is like soaring over a landscape in an aeroplane - you might miss an awful lot of detail, as well as what it actually feels like to be in that landscape.  Copying - say a notable quote or a poem - is like walking along the paths of that landscape on foot - feeling its scale and texture, noticing everything.  I do a lot of copying out of texts myself for the same reason.

Mike suggested, and we discussed, the similarity between this 'copying' form of close experiential reading and the retelling of a story - which involves re-walking the whole path of the story.  You feel the story a different way in retelling than in listening to someone else tell it - you are listening to it in a more dynamic way - because you both know and don't know what's coming next.  And as most storytelling is retelling, most storytelling is therefore, also, close reading.  Of course, in this form of reading is a personal transformation of the meanings in the story - or maybe better put, the reteller adds their own layer to the story and passes it on in this new form.  This is how all stories passed from one person to another (whether orally, digitally or in writing) contain many voices, not just that of the current teller.

In workshops I lead with teenagers, I almost always follow my telling of a story with an 'assimilation' exercise which is very akin to this copying process.  This might be retelling the story in pairs, passing a ball or stone between you - or round the circle, if it's a small or confident group.  Or it might be drawing images, writing key words, in a free-association process, and then reassembling these into a group poster.  This poster might be a chronological retelling of the story, but more often it isn't.  Groups usually choose to group the images and words thematically.  This process is a sort of group negotiation of what characters, symbols, places and themes are most important in the story.  Here's one from a group of young teenagers with additional learning needs:

The story is the true one of William Kamkwamba, a 14-year-old Malawian boy who helped his village during a famine by using rubbish from the scrapheap, and his own engineering skills, to construct windmills for electric light, water pumps and mobile phone batteries.  The most important themes, for this group, appear to be William's large and hungry family, the rubbish tip and the windmill itself.  That is, William's problem, his resources, and his ultimate achievement.  Other groups might home in on something else - the bullying William experienced, his expulsion from school for not being able to pay the fees. 

On finishing it, the group immediately wanted it to be put up on the classroom wall, and the teacher cleared another display there and then to accommodate it.  I will make use of it as a starting point when I return to work with this class soon.  Returning their story to them is the next round in the retelling game, and then we can layer other stories on top.

This poster is a group retelling, which is also a reshaping, of the story.  It is absolutely a form of literacy.  I started out this PhD feeling anxious about having to be seen to develop pupils' literacy through my work in secondary schools.  This anxiety is now much diminished - as I see (by walking the path, you might say!) how much pupils' sense of agency seems to be boosted from mastering a story by retelling it.  

Friday, 18 April 2014

'Storytelling and the Voice' symposium at George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling

Since I began this PhD back in October I've been searching for the 'storyteller-academics' - those who are storytellers themselves, but are studying it with open minds from without as well as within.  That is, those who are exploring and challenging the boundaries of storytelling, yet always keeping at heart the understanding of what it is and feels like. 

It has taken me a while to find them because they are in various different disciplines in their various universities - English Literature, Media, Health, Theatre.  But their 'nest' is undeniably the George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling at the University of Glamorgan, where among many other projects they hold an annual symposium.  Hamish Fyfe, Karen Lewis, Patrick Ryan, Mike Wilson, Emily Underwood-Lee and others involved in organising the event - thanks for a wonderful and stimulating weekend. 

The incredible currency of the words 'storytelling' and 'narrative' at present make it hard to focus on the value of the storytelling exchange.  Anything from newspaper articles to Hollywood films to letters to problem pages can be defined as storytelling and often is, but the effect of this can be to deny the special status of A Story, told to A Person (or Persons) by Another Person.  Yet over-reaction against this tendency can lead to zealous policing of the boundaries of Proper Storytelling and perhaps fossilisation of certain habits and customs which have accreted in the storytelling revival.  You can see this in the confused reaction to 'digital storytelling' - either there is a wholesale, postmodern acceptance that we are in a brave new dawn where everyone is a storyteller, or a deploring of the loss of human contact and community bonding.

This symposium was, in contrast, a wonderful exploration of how the kernel of storytelling is now situated in the digital era.  Prof Mike Wilson's keynote on the multiplicity of the voice gave me a new way of looking at the storytelling act itself - and pricked me to think more about listenership and the voice of the listener.  His and Karen Lewis' work on Project Aspect (engaging the public in climate change debates through digital and conversational storytelling) was particularly interesting in this regard.  Hamish Fyfe's provocation suggested that the digital era might have the potential for new forms of storytelling to emerge, but that a cacophony of individual voices telling their own emotional and personal experiences does not necessarily add up to this.  Instead, this 'new vernacular' needs to engage with the power structures that permeate the internet as much as any other place - and perhaps seek formats which enable a 'collective howl'.

Just to mention a couple more: all filmmakers seem to describe themselves as storytellers, but Chris Morris really is - or rather, he is a story-convenor.  His work over the past few decades has genuinely given voice to deprived children, and student sex workers, among others.  His stripped-down style allows for modern storytelling that packs a punch - and it was chastening to hear that the BBC is losing the appetite for his stories, which do not always fit into their preferred narrative structures.  And Lisa Heledd Jones' work was interesting for having travelled from digital storytelling to oral narrative, and back and forward again exploring their various possibilities - storying landscapes as as to serve her community and others.  Her presentation was as much a performance as a talk, which brought to life her community initiative which sought to rewrite a narrative of decline in her native village. 

For me the common thread in all this was that Proper Storytelling can be digital, multivocal, multimedia, personal and many other storytelling-movement-custom-violating things, but it must be about a community and not just an individual.  Sending subjective impressions and emotions out into the ether may be cathartic, but the voice must contain other voices, and have the listener in mind, to count.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

A Storyteller's Agenda

One Monday 10th March the iCAN centre - which hosts my PhD - organised a discussion seminar on 'Narrative and Adolescence', part of a series of really stimulating events on 'narrative and...' exploring the status and roles of narrative in our culture. On previous occasions the gap has been filled by 'mental health', 'food', 'visual arts' and so on, but since the theme for Monday was 'adolescence' I was given the opportunity to present, as a performance, some of my practice-based research to date.

'Findings' might always be a tricky quantity in a practice-led, arts-based PhD, but I do aspire to claim relevance, some generalisability and certainly communicability for my research.  The challenge was to find a sufficiently tentative format to present my thoughts, questions and inklings so far.

I decided to assign the audience the role of a group of teenagers, and I led them through a 'typical storytelling workshop' from start to finish, explaining to them my difficulties and observations as we went along.

I don't know whether it 'worked' or not but it was an interesting experiment for me, to give a sort of scripted performance as a means of discussing academic research.  There was, for both me and them, the relief of an (unscripted) story in the middle of it.

A key point I wanted to make was the following: while the storyteller's tenet that 'listeners will take what they need from a story' is partially true, I have come to realise that the storyteller inevitably shapes their response to it - in fact, sometimes (e.g. with a shy group who are unused to storytelling or drama) I have found that it's very difficult for listeners to get any independence from the storyteller's version of the story's moral arc.  So the storyteller needs to take responsibility for choosing and then shaping the story in such a way that difficult themes/choices/moral issues are given a context that makes them meaningful.  Whether (s)he thinks consciously about it or not, (s)he will imprint his/her own agenda on it and therefore on the minds of the listeners.

One corollary of this is that I need to develop my skills in helping groups transform stories to their own ends.  The second is that this realisation has made me a) plan my stories more carefully than I used to and b) think more explicitly about why I choose certain stories and what my agenda is in structuring them. If I'm going to lay this agenda open to challenge, I should first of all look at what it is!

So, to conclude my talk at 'Narrative and Adolescence', I compiled the underlying values I am, like it or not, consciously or not, trying to transmit when I tell my favourite stories.

A Storyteller’s Agenda
Cath Heinemeyer

These things that are inside you –
Your anger, your uncontainable longings, your lostness, and your newness to yourself –
They are heavy and good and necessary.
The world would stop turning without them.
So cup them carefully in your hands;
Do not sell them,
Or spill them on the ground for the world to spin twisted fables from.

We face terrible things and awesome challenges. You may have a poor inheritance.
So resourcefulness is everything;
Feel it resonate in others here present.
Keep your eyes and ears open and your instinct tuned,
See the human in everything.
And be persistent!
Don’t aim to please but to endure;
Don’t consume but generate…
It is these things that will enable us to prevent – or transform – the deluge.

Arrogance is a hindrance,
Prejudice is a burden.
People are complex systems but every cause has an effect.
What you give will come back to you,
What you take will be taken in double measure.
No matter what surrounds you, even in the closing moments of your tragedies, you always have these choices.
But first rise above that ‘you’, that ‘choice’,
Float high above them and view the whole landscape.
See its lofty vantage points and its sullen swamps,
Its mires and its traps set by the powerful.
But others have trod this country before and left signs.

The things that are inside you are good and true –
Even the unspeakable things –
Here in this moment we will cup them in our hands together.
After that it is up to you.

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.