Posts Tagged ‘storyteller’

Chloë of the Midnight Storytellers

Ageing hippy or literary genius? Did I get this image right? D’you realise what I’m up against?!

Up comes another image of a ‘storyteller’ so wild eyed and scruffy they’d scare a tramp. Oh, give me strength…

No wonder storytelling is a minority artform shunned by venues, media and the general public. Anyone who gets up in front of an audience is judged in 5 seconds on appearance. If you’re promoting your work in the media or online, the quality of your work does not come into those first 5 seconds.

People are turned off – or drawn in – by what they see. And if you look like someone who forgot to take their meds then you’re NOT winning hearts and minds.

And no, it’s not a beauty pageant. But it is about being respectful to your audience : turn yourself out looking clean, tidy within your personal style, and competent. I daren’t even use the word ‘professional’ as I know it’s a taboo word to a lot of storytellers…

One job to do

All speakers, storytellers, poets and their ilk have one job to do: to engage their listeners so that the power, beauty, humour and humanity of the words can be transmitted. Unless you’re on radio YOU KILL YOUR WORK IF YOU LOOK APPALLING.

In the UK most storytellers are retired and/or hobbyists. This is because full time storytelling mostly doesn’t pay a living wage. But ladies and gentlemen you must make an effort! However pinched your pennies are, whatever bits of you are dropping off… There are so few of us that EVERYONE is an ambassador for our art.

Respect your audience

Just because you revel in the label of ‘amateur’ and are part of UK storytelling’s 30 year quest for obscurity – you have no excuse for looking shabby as a storyteller in front of punters. Even if you’re another one of those who devalue creativity by giving your work away free, your audience has made the effort to come to the event.

Respecting your audience includes being on time, not overrunning your allotted time on stage or on air – and knowing how to introduce your work. Please get over the giggling. Please stop saying you’ll get through your bit as quickly as possible because it’s probably not very good… I really do hear performers say this! Please take a professional attitude about delivering your work as asked, to the best of your ability. (You’ll enjoy the experience more, too.)

Now, some of you know that I take diva levels of care to present myself as well groomed. I can’t be beautiful but I can be interesting. I can avoid using those snapshots with the really contorted or silly facial expressions…

Remember that every image might be THE ONE picture that ‘represents’ storytelling to a potential new audience member.

So get a d*mn haircut! Wash and iron the shirt, I don’t care if it is from the charity shop, ditch that shapeless sack of wool you call a pullover – and clean your boots! WHY SHOULD PEOPLE LISTEN TO YOU IF YOU REFUSE TO RESPECT THEM?

Respect yourself

And being poorly turned out is also disrespectful to yourself. Which will affect your work. The wild eyed artist type in ‘disordered dress’, stinking of sweat, ciggies and booze does not make friends – or progress. This isn’t the 19th century romantic movement or even the 1970s rock scene. Bad behaviour isn’t cool. Competition for opportunity is fierce. If you’re hard to work with, unpleasant to have around – they won’t have you.

As for dull voices and ‘storyteller language’ … don’t get me started!

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UK flag A newsletter alert from a nursery school was shared on Facebook: “Prevent duty: From the 1st July 2015, all schools and childcare providers must have due regard to the need to prevent people being drawn into terrorism…”

Comments were scathing.

“They’re literally assessing the children to check they’re demonstrating British values… *shudders*”

“I hope they’re also teaching [toddlers] how to root out and report illegal immigrants at nursery. Hmmm. Which side of the Iron Curtain were we on?”

We need to get past the clichés. Prevent strategy contains several worrying bits – but I see an opportunity to connect all British young people with a magnificent heritage of story (eg traditional folktales) and some rather important bits of history. Plus of course we can make clear what we’ve learned from national mistakes of colonialism and exploitation.

I sighed with boredom at school over the list of Factory Acts created in Victorian times. Only recently have I understood how important that legislature was: locking into law the protection of workers’ rights; saving childhood and guaranteeing children the right to education.

Now our rest days and right to withhold labour are being whittled away. There isn’t even a Workhouse for people to go and die in when cut off from essential benefits … But that’s another story.

A sense of belonging (or not) really does start among small children. People who feel part of a nation, and who feel they have a chance to contribute to and profit from that national community, are less likely to want to blow it up!

Hmm… What are ‘British values’?

Cleverly, even the Prime Minister who ringingly asserts their importance has shied away from defining British values in his public utterances. But of course there is Department of Education advice for grant maintained schools.

 My version includes a nice cup of tea; generosity and quiet kindness – sometimes, admittedly, only when things are dire; respect for privacy; and an irrepressibly wicked sense of humour!

My British values encourage everyone to be self directing individuals within their group of family, cultural and social circles: to think clearly, form their own opinions, build resilience to life’s downs and ups, treat people fairly, protect the vulnerable, know the difference between authority and bullying, and to have the knowledge and courage to speak truth to power. Or at least to lampoon the powerful – and those who try to control us – without mercy, until they get over themselves…

So here’s a cliché for you: as a pro storyteller working with British cultural stories, I’ll be putting Prevent front and centre of my approach to schools. So there.

A nice cup of tea

“My idea of heaven is a nice cup of tea”

• What are YOUR British Values? What mindset do we need to live together well in the 21st century?

Amid the fury and political stench of the battle for Gloucestershire’s libraries, it was a relief to turn my attention to the 10th anniversary of National Storytelling Week.

Six storytellers from across Gloucestershire, plus me, squeezed into a BBC Radio studio to record mini interviews and 5 minute tales. Some spoke of the oral tradition; some told of new work; one spun an outrageous Hollywood-style fictitious origin of his interest in storytelling… We’re storytellers: what d’you expect?!

NSW events across the county also reflected the mixed fortunes of modern storytelling. Two ‘tellers masked their disappointment as best they could at the paltry turn-out for their evening in a rural library. Free of charge, too. As often happens, the small audience were swept away by the magic and sheer other-ness of the stories. In a delicious touch of reality-swap, the cherries from one tale appeared on a plate for us audience to nosh at the interval.

My own NSW performance was packed out, partly because people in that little town have the habit of enjoying events at their local library – Aha! Another good thing in a LIBRARY! D’you sense a theme here?! – and probably partly because we gave away gourmet chocolate… Radio mentions and good networking probably helped double the expected numbers for the final NSW Gloucestershire event at Stroud’s Museum in the Park, where the storyteller themed her tales to match an exhibition about the tradition of weaving in the Stroud valleys.

Even as the last syllables of NSW floated away, I sent myself on a training course. It was an extension of Bristol’s NSW Storytelling Festival (noted for packing in young, funky audiences) and the 2 days were led by top notch modern storyteller Michael Harvey. He’s been wowing audiences with ‘Hunting the Giant’s Daughter’, a fiery and entrancing Welsh legend complete with hilarious heroic lists and jazz in Welsh.

Continuous professional development for storytellers is.. different. Mind and body get stretched. For me, the course couldn’t have come at a better time: I’m starting to work with very different, very new material and Michael was opening up new ways of bringing stories to life in our own re-tellings. Mind you, I swear there were sharp intakes of breath when the other storytellers worked out what my new story is about…

Oh dear. Looks like I’m going to break the rules again.

  • National Storytelling Week happens in the last week of January/first week of Febrary, Saturday to Saturday
  • Details of the Gloucestershire storytellers involved are in my previous posting ‘Babble On 7’ [26 January 2011]

Chloe by Ken Skehan

While I’ve been snowbound, reading childhood books for the first time in decades – what were your top titles? – and generally fed up with time filler telly, I tugged off a bookcase a lovely little book that seems perfect for these conditions.

‘A Cotswold Christmas’ [Tempus Publishing Ltd, Stroud, Gloucestershire UK] is a delicious mix of historical anecdote, literary tradition and whimsy. Plus grand old photos including the actual River Severn frozen jagged ice bank to bank in 1940.

By kind permission of editor and Cotswold historian June Lewis-Jones, here’s the piece I wrote for the anthology:

‘Every Christmas I sense relief rising off my audiences like steam from a plum pudding. While you listen to a story, whining children and demanding mothers and the whole miserable debt-inducing race to shop, cook and shop again for the Big Day do not exist.

‘In the world of story, Christmas snow lies deep and crisp and even. Wolves howl in the approved manner, forests are satisfyingly mysterious. Ugly women become beautiful by the power of love and kindness (a magic that works in any world). A beggar discovers the meaning of generosity. And it doesn’t matter how fake my Babushka accent is, people laugh when she scolds the Magi and hearts melt when she offers the newborn Prince of Peace all the trinkets she’d gathered for the children she never had.

‘Traditional stories carry the identity of nations, the memories of communities, in myths, legends, folktales. This worldwide heritage contains powerful and moving reminders about what it means to be fully human. Morals and messages underlie every tale. Thoughtless choices have results you can’t imagine, or control. Beware what you wish for – you might get it! At the same time, every listener interprets the tale in their own way.

‘Storytelling is a spontaneous art form. No scripts, no reading out of a book. The storyteller is like a jazz musician – following a theme; drawing on artistry, tradition and adrenalin to make magic.

‘Christmas audiences can be merry, sour or stodged to the ears with festive fare. I have to assess quickly if the telling needs to be crisp and light, rich and romantic, or just over and done with as fast as possible! (…)

‘All year round I go for glamour. At Christmas the serious glitter comes out. Little black dresses, wild child evening wear (pink or peacock!) with swirling duster coats, red and green, and mega-sparkly earrings. Glitter eye shadows, bright lipstick. And, of course, the leopard-spotted or scarlet high heel boots. It’s the middle of winter, it’s England: people are in desperate need of cheering up!

‘In the Cotswolds, one audience can contain a mind-bogglingly mixed bunch: from fusty professors to shiny IT experts to tweedy young WI ladies. Invariably there are weary, wind-blasted farmers. Two golden rules apply: Do Not Get Between An Audience And Their Food; and, Don’t Start Later Than Nine-Thirty. Cotswold people work hard and drive long distances: come evening, they don’t appreciate being kept waiting for supper. By 9.30pm, they’re sleepy, energy for listening dwindles, and I’ve learned to wrap up by 10.30pm at the latest.

‘I lost my heart to the Cotswolds when I was eight years old. It’s a privilege to live here, and to work at what I love. Doesn’t matter if it’s a cosy country inn or a cruise liner-sized hotel all chintz and no taste. Doesn’t matter if it’s a glittering dinner party or a rickety village hall in some hamlet that’s not even on the map. Faces light up with joy and wonder, the atmosphere swirls with dreaming and laughter. Those winter tales and festive fables hold a power which calls to the true spirit of Christmas in everyone.

‘So, next November and December, I’ll be finding my way in the pitch dark, nursing my poor old car down ancient lanes, in gusts of rain, bouncing through puddles with potholes as deep as Australia. There’ll be skies quivering with stars, the smell of frost, bare branches against the moon. Several nights a week I’ll be coming home to hot chocolate, happy cats and (the secret of comfortable country life) my electric blanket!

‘It is very special to be a storyteller in the Cotswolds at Christmas.’

I once performed a full Story Supper in the grip of flu. I’d taken every drug going and probably shouldn’t have been driving, let alone improvising narrative to paying punters! Hilariously.. or not.. my then Midnight Storytellers partner, the lovely and very missed Karen-Eve, was in the same condition. With spinning heads and overly bright smiles, we lurched onstage. Luckily, adrenalin trumps everything. It was one of our more sparkling shows!

I aim to make winter my season of log fires and toasted crumpets, and cuddling warm furry cats on my sofa. Christmas performances in red and green glittering glamour. Not parade of the snotmonster…

To all of you involved in performance, public speaking or just wanting to keep the SAD [seasonally affected depression] at bay, may I recommend:

•    Cheap 500mg Vitamin C tablets. One a day.
•    A bottle of high quality ginger cordial. Even if you normally save money with el cheapo supermarket own brand squash, just once a year you need this spirit-warming substance. Drink hot, instead of too much tea/coffee.
•    Cook often with chillis, ginger and garlic.  Chilli con carne or con veggie; Thai green curry – extra comfort from coconut in the sauce; Chloe’s Restorative Fish Gumbo – contains chorizo, fresh coriander, coconut, extra chilli and garlic, and white wine – WARNING do not try to kiss anybody after eating this, don’t even cuddle your cat…
•    Ordinary honey/lemon throat lozenges: one every night, last thing. The little black throat lozenges: one approx 30 minutes before going on stage. Does NOT replace proper voice warm-up.
•    Stay in the same air temperature at least 20 minutes before using your voice to an audience.
•    Room temperature still water – poured ready to drink – onstage, or immediately to one side. You won’t need it until is isn’t there.
•    Glamorous soft scarf and snuggly coat: put on immediately after performance, especially traveling home tired. Keep neck (throat) protected from extreme conditions at all times. Why d’you think I have so many colourful scarves? – It’s not just to hide the double chins, y’know!
•    After-show treat at home: in a pretty glass or mug, hot toddy made with (optional) whisky, juice of half a lemon, dollop of honey. Top up with just-boiled water. Drink as hot as you can manage.
•    Alternative treat: small glass of cognac and cherry brandy.
•    An electric blanket. Spares you the whole will-(s)he-won’t-(s)he relationship nightmare. You’ll be warm and comfy anyway.
•    A microwave heatable neck cushion (scented with lavender for soothing). Alternatively, a safe hot water bottle with a plush fur cover.
•    Sleep. Afternoon naps whenever possible. 30 minutes horizontal replenishes you for the evening’s exertions. One day a month STAY IN BED with books, radio, cats, hot buttered toast…
•    Deep hot baths. Use essential oils for scent, avoid foam baths as these often irritate.. er.. private bits. Be aware what stimulates (eg geranium) and what calms (eg lavender).
•    Walks, especially at noon to get maximum sunlight (even through cloud). All exercise helps improve mood. Even housework counts! Bung on a CD and bop, if nothing else.
•    Chocolate. But only the good (dark) stuff. Look for 50% – 65% cocoa solids; anything more tastes too strong and is just snobbery. Anything less than 40% cocoa solids is not worth your money. Try dark choc with red peppercorns or chilli, if you enjoy exotic flavours. Look, there’s a whole world of hand-rolled choc truffles, dipped cherries marinaded in brandy, choc orange chunks, Venus Nipples… It’s so intensely satisfying, you won’t want to overeat. Proper chocolate contains natural stimulants, calmants and anti depressants. I daren’t tell you what the modern factory product contains, except it’s probably closer to sweet cheese than real chocolate.
•    Bagged fresh salad. Don’t mess about, it’s winter. Make it easy. Fresh or tinned fruit. Fresh or frozen veg.
•    A woodcutter’s axe, well sharpened. A sheltered sunny spot with a chopping block. See, a log fire warms you at least four times: once when you stack the logs in store; twice when you split logs and chop kindling; thrice when you heave the full log basket indoors; and finally, when the fire is merrily crackling and you’re on the sofa with the purring friends…
•    Fairy lights. Indoors and out. All winter, not just the alleged festive season.
•    Toasting fork, crumpets, real butter, marmite/jam/honey to taste. Do it the old fashioned way. Best thing to drive away the demons of Sunday afternoon. Why real butter? – use less, taste more.
•    Table lamps with bulbs equivalent to 60W. Candles/tealights in safe holders. LIGHT really does affect mood. The gentle, varied light of lamps and candles spells home, warmth and safety. Overhead, fluorescent striplights are despair and death.
•    Box of matches with one match prepped: tail sticking out of closed box. So you can find and light a match in the power cut.
•    Car prepared for winter. Eg de-icer to hand NOT locked in car. OR (fewer chemicals) newspaper/blanket over windscreen in frost. Last year [I’m in the English countryside] made me think about actual winter tyres but need bloke on tap to change all 4 at short notice ie when snow starts. Hmm.. Car should contain blanket, wellies/walking boots, water and chocolate, shovel. Fully charge your mobile phone before snowy driving.
•    Canister of table salt for ice free doorstep.
•    Broadband internet connection. Cheap phone deal. So you can laugh and be in touch with friends without battling through snow and storm.
•    Funky winter clothes. Customise charity shop buys and/or have 1 (2?!) amazing thing(s) that make(s) you feel good every day.
•    Honour the Spirit of Christmas.