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.