Storytelling - a growing community cultural development tool
(based on an article first published in 1994 in Network News - the journal of Qld. Community Arts Network)
I've been working as a storyteller for over 20 years now - learning more and more about the artform and more and more about storytelling's place in community and culture.
Now, with some thought and, perhaps, time, I can usually choose a story and tell it in a way that a group of listeners find satisfying or challenging or reassuring. To do that I not only have to know something about the particular group and be able to pick an appropriate story but I also have to have the confidence to speak out with either the degree of expression and feeling that is the cultural norm for that particular group or with a level that is inspiring, that speaks out with more universal human values. I call this 'bringing a story alive'.
The Culture of Storytelling
It's part of the culture of storytelling. Basically when two or more people enter into the spirit of telling and listening to a story they agree to be part of that culture. For the process to work the storyteller has to 'bring the story alive' with expression and feeling but with the co-operation of the listener/s. The listeners have to agree that they will value the 'bringing to life'.
It's this pact that makes it safe enough for individuals to keep on offering to tell a story.
Path to CCD
My path to community cultural development work has been one that it is probably quite common to a lot of artists. When I first started performing as a storyteller, I did have ideas of being able to use it for the good of the community but my first priority was performance. How to do it well? What works? What doesn't work? What do the different audiences like? What will people pay for so that I can keep on performing and learning?
It wasn't long before I was able to add workshops on storytelling skills to my repertoire. The same sort of quality control questions had to be applied to the workshops of course. At first it was how to pass on the skills to the different age groups and what facets of storytelling to concentrate on. Probably because of my training in community theatre and previous performance experience I have always concentrated on performance aspects such as expression and improvisation.
The next step occurred when I was able to relax enough about my own performance and workshop facilitating skills to start thinking more about the type of stories I could present and why particular ones were popular.
The Power of Participation in Stories
One example is that old kindergarten age favourite of 'The Three Billy Goats Gruff'. Why do three, four and five year olds keep on enjoying that story?
I've decided that, one of the main reasons is that it is a story which speaks about one of the major issues of their lives - the control, by force if necessary, of small beings by large beings. It's also got the theme of working together to help each other outsmart the dumb troll. So here is a story that gives the age group a way of processing what is a major social issue of their lives. If I can tell it in a way that encourages lots of audience participation and that encourages the participants to tell it in their own words then I can encourage even more processing. I've managed to develop a way of telling this story that encourages everyone to participate, that is funny, energetic and even often manages a little affirmative action on sexism.
Encouraging Debate & Dialogue
Another example is a story I've been telling for a while to upper primary and lower secondary students. It's a traditional folkstory from The Sudan called 'Kassa the Brave'. At first it seems like it is just another story about a male hero but the tables are turned half way through and a woman appears and rescues the man trapped by the result of his own bravado. After most tellings of this story a vigorous debate about sex roles occurs amongst the boys and girls of the audience.
I encourage this in a number of ways including making sure that I introduce the story in such a way as to encourage the audience to think about what the story is about and why this story has survived and has been passed down from generation to generation. In terms of cultural development this is a fairly small contribution but it has a number of important features. Just one of these is that it encourages students to look for the value and relevance of messages to be found in stories and in other cultures.
Of course there's probably not a great deal of cultural development to be done by always looking at other cultures. One of the developments I've been able to make in my performances is the presentation of three different genre of stories in the one show. This is popular with teachers, if only because it gives them some more material to work on with genres. One show I regularly present includes one traditional folk story, one family or personal story and one tall story.
The traditional folk story not only allows me to introduce stories like 'Kassa the Brave' but it allows me to say something about valuing the stories and cultures that have been brought into Australia. In some small way it's a contribution to the development of our multicultural Australia.
The Tall Story
I like telling a tall story because I think they're one way in which we can keep alive a sense of having fun within an oral tradition and within a culture. There is a such a strong and active interaction between teller, audience and story that it presents a wonderful antidote to the oppression and conformity of so much of modern society. We have a tendency to think that tall stories are uniquely Australian or to ignore or decry them because they are mistakenly identified with white, male 'ocker' cultures. Tall stories are told all around the world as traditional stories of particular cultures because they celebrate and boast about the strong and glorious and the extraordinary parts of a culture or subculture. I love the Innuit women's 'tall stories' in the Virago Book of Fairy Tales edited by Angela Carter. They're strong and gutsy and strange.
One 'tall story' that I regularly tell to year 3,4 & 5 students is called 'The Hottest Day on Record'. It is the result of a joint improvisation session between me as teller and an audience in a gal. iron hall in Warren in N.S.W. on a really hot summers day. I think it worked then, and continues to work as a story, because they incorporated and celebrated features and values of the rural environment, the school environment and student culture of that age group. Importantly as well, it manages to do the above without abusing or oppressing any other culture.
Personal and Family Stories
I tell a personal or family story because in so doing I value my own and my family's stories but also I encourage others to go out and collect and tell their own families' stories and to see them as having value. This is something I'm doing a lot of in workshops, community arts and community cultural development projects as well.
For the telling of a personal, family or community story to have most value, it has to be 'brought alive' by the teller. This is often very hard for a lot of people because of the the hurt and oppression they've experienced. An example is that of a teenager participant in a storytelling workshop series held in Woodridge. After seeing myself and my colleague Bettina Nissen perform he was astonished. He wanted to know how we lived and what we believed in because we had been so expressive in performance.
He said, 'We all walk around here with our faces dead because we don't want anyone to see what we are thinking but you could see every thought on your face."
In so many situations people have to keep their expression down to a minimum because it doesn't feel safe not to. There is a 'culture of minimalisation' widespread in our society.
It's tempting to think that that only applies to street kids or similar groups but it happens everywhere. Professionals can be just as critical of each other, teachers of students, neighbours to neighbours etc. When ever people feel that they have to be careful then they keep their expression to a minimum. One of the first things that suffers is creativity and cultural development. People want to tell their stories however and the job of the workshop facilitator is to present ways in which people can ease into it.
Over the years I've developed a number of techniques and of course learnt from fellow storytellers and other artists. One of my favourites, especially with adults, is to ask participants to 'Turn to your partner and ask she or him to tell you about one of the items of clothing or jewellery she is wearing. Take about two minutes to tell about it.' This is the start of an 'object story'. It's based on our everyday ability to give information in a casual way and it can be developed in all sorts of ways - from a different viewpoint, with more expression etc.
'Oh! What a Life!'
A project that gave me great satisfaction in 1993 was the development and running of the 'Oh! What a Life' Storytelling Game with Sue Allan from the Community Living Project at Wooloowin. Sue approached me to work with her on a storytelling cultural development project with mildly intellectually handicapped young adults.
Over a series of sessions we developed the idea of a life-size, 'snakes and ladders' board game that we hoped would provide the structure, safety and energy to encourage participants to tell their own stories of growing up and moving to independent living arrangements. It worked! It was heaps of fun and worked by creating both a culture and the structure that those particular participants needed to tell their own stories. Participants found it very satisfying and continued to ask for the 'Oh. What a Life!' game to be played at other venues they were involved in. It has subsequently proven to be a useful tool for a range of different participants.
Working as one of the artists in the Mudflat Arts community arts storytelling project one year, I was excited by the interaction between year seven students at Wynnum Central School and a similar group of students from Darling Point Special School. Both groups had had a series of workshops building on their storytelling skills and increasing their confidence to tell in front of the group and then we brought them together in the one class room. At first there was quite some discrimination operating, "I'm not sitting next to one of them", but we insisted and soon they were telling stories to each other and discovering their similarities and differences and becoming one group of young people who wanted to keep using the storytelling artform to be expressive and creative.
The structure that was most useful here was the 'emotions game'. I ask the participants to make a list of emotions or feelings on the white board and then ask one to choose an emotion. I then model telling a story about a time in my life when I felt that emotion and invite participants to do the same. With sufficient preparation it soon takes off and the group moves from emotion to emotion telling the stories that are important to tell. One person tells. Many people listen. It's quite a cultural development from that of 'minimalisation', competition and criticism. As a facilitator you have to be ready to tell your own stories.
School Cultural Development Projects
A three week storytelling 'residency' at the Camira State Primary was a big step in my development as a storyteller. After a week of storytelling performance to the whole school (what Bettina Nissen so neatly terms 'immersing in story') we moved into two weeks of workshops for those classes in years 3,4,5,6 and 7 whose teachers wanted to incorporate storytelling into their class work. After this period of workshops, the Librarian, Di Lester, opened the Library every lunch time to those students who wanted to tell their stories on the stage in the 'Storytelling Cafe' that had been set up. There was such demand from the students that it kept going for the two weeks up to the Easter break.
Apart from all the other workshop techniques, two things contributed a lot to developing this culture of storytelling. One was my emphasis on getting students to give positive feedback to each teller after each story. 'What worked well? What did you like?' The other was insisting that each teller was introduced by a friend. Some thing like - 'Boys and girls I'd like you to listen well as Tegan tells you a story about her Grandmother. Give her a big hand please.'
There were a lot of successes with this project but probably the most satisfying one was the Principal showing me a letter from a parent thanking the Librarian for giving her so much pleasure. Her son had come home and asked her for some stories about when she was young. She said that she was a bit rusty at first but soon the memories came flooding back and they all spent an wonderful afternoon telling family stories.
Stories of Place
A school community cultural development project I enjoyed was funded by the Priority Country Area Program (PCAP). I travelled out to North West Queensland to the remote, largely Aboriginal, towns of Djarra and Urandangie. I spent a week in the class rooms introducing students to the possibilities of creating stories about their own lives in their own country. During the second week I worked with author/illustrator, Narelle Oliver, and the students creating linocut illustrations for their stories. With the use of the school photocopier we published students stories with great success. Two of the stories seemed good enough for commercial publication so we began sending them around the publishers.
Finally Magabala Books, an Aboriginal publishing house in Broome, agreed to publish the Urandangie story. When it came out Goanna Jumps High looked fantastic. It is a story about the Urandangie kids winning the school zone sports in Mt Isa with the help of a goanna. The school benefited from royalties and of course students and local community from seeing their creativity and stories acknowledged. The book is still available from Magabala Books at - http://www.magabala.com/books/gjh2.htm for $6.95.
Another form of storytelling which has such potential in the community context is Reminiscence Storytelling. People really do like to reminisce. A project I was involved with was run by Access Arts in a number of Uniting Church retirement villages and a respite centre. Using props borrowed from the State Museum lending service I ran reminiscence sessions to enable participants to access stories from their lives. These stories were then used by a photographer and silk banner artist and the participants to create a series of silk banner for display around the centres. Even without the visual art outcomes however participants got a lot out of sharing stories of their lives. Isolation was broken down. New friendships were made and old ones strengthened. People took pride in their own stories.
Storytelling is such an accessible art form. It offers wonderful opportunities for cultural development, and for personal and community healing.
(first published in Network News by Qld Community Arts Network i n 1994)
One copy of the above article is available for your personal use for developing your storytelling skills. If you would like to copy, distribute or publish them whole or in part please seek my permission.