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.