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. 

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