Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Could I Be A Storyteller?

Michael Williams, host of The Teller and the Tale
As the host and producer of the Teller and the Tale, my weekly, half-hour storytelling radio programme on Blues and Roots Radio (www.bluesandrootsradio.com), I’ve had the privilege of getting to know a lot of storytellers. In fact, over the past four years I’ve interviewed nearly seventy tellers from Scotland, Canada, the United States, Denmark, India and other places. And if you’re a listener to the show, you’ll know that I’m fascinated by a storyteller’s upbringing and, in particular, whether or not they had a “special start” in life. Did they grow up in a “storytelling” family where parents and grandparents told lots of stories? Were they encouraged to read at an early age or given special help to become articulate? Did their parents encourage them to perform in front of others? I ask these questions because many people I meet believe that these are the pre-conditions to becoming a professional or even a non-professional storyteller.

What I’ve discovered through my interviews, however, is that there are no particular “pre-conditions” to becoming a storyteller. The majority of storytellers I’ve interviewed report that they didn’t have “storytelling” parents or grandparents, although many remember at least one parent or grandparent who enjoyed sharing day-to-day experiences of work and family. Most storytellers don’t recall being encouraged to read or write or speak out any more or less than other children. In fact, many older tellers remind me that they grew up in an era when children “were better seen and not heard.”
What about school? Again, most storytellers don’t recall a particular momentous occasion that hurled them toward a storyteller’s life, but they often do praise a particular teacher—usually an English teacher—who told stories, encouraged creativity, and regularly praised a student’s imagination and creative efforts.

What I find interesting, though, is how many storytellers reveal that they were shy as adolescents and not particularly outspoken at all. They did not identify themselves as natural extroverts or performers. Yet, they do report having a very active inner life. Many have told me that journaling or keeping a diary or writing poetry was a way of expressing themselves as adolescents. Very often, it’s not until they are in their 20s or 30s that they acknowledge that they had an unique voice that longs to speak and be heard.

And if there is one particular event that unites these voices, it is the experience of hearing a storyteller for the first time. Expressions such as “I want to do that” or “I could do that” are typical responses upon hearing a storyteller for the first time.

Many storytellers take the first step by enrolling on a half-day or full-day workshop. I was well into my 40s when I began what amounted to a seven-year “apprenticeship” through workshops and courses at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh. My initial reasons were to augment my professional development as a teacher so I could offer storytelling to a wide range of pupils, but soon I was beginning to see other possibilities. Similarly, many storytellers tell me that they too undertook storytelling as a complement to their work as teachers, therapists, social workers, mental health and community workers, librarians, actors, and, of course, as parents and grandparents. And while the art of storytelling is a useful addition to these roles, once bitten by the storytelling bug, as I was, many go on to explore the world of professional or public storytelling.

Of course, I have to qualify the word “professional”. By it, I mean those tellers who tell in situations for which they are paid. Like any professional artist, storytelling can be developed as a sophisticated and entertaining art form. Some tellers develop their art to work in therapeutic or even business settings. But earning an income from storytelling does not define a storyteller.

In a larger sense, we are all storytellers. To be human is to have a story, or more accurately, stories to tell. And there are many different ways of telling or sharing our stories. We can tell to our children, our partners, our communities, to strangers and friends. We can write our stories, we can dance them, sing them, draw, paint, and photograph them. There is no one way to tell our stories and no one way to become a storyteller. Every voice, like every life journey, is unique. And yet, the stories we tell, though differing in the details, link us together through the experience of our common humanity.

Over the past four years as a radio host, I’ve discovered dozens of wonderful storytellers and had the privilege of hearing their stories. And I’ve come to the conclusion that no matter where they come from, storytellers are like you and me, no more special, no better, no worse. They are just like us – people with a story to tell. And if there’s one message they all pass on is that everyone should have a chance to share their story.

So, could you be a storyteller? Of course you could. Today, storytelling is enjoying a renaissance. Storytelling workshops and courses abound both online and in venues everywhere. Most towns and cities have storytelling clubs or guilds which welcome newcomers. They’re a great way to making new friends and feeling part of a vibrant community. Start by doing an online search for “storytelling groups” or check your “What’s On” section of your local paper. Why not make this year the year you started sharing your stories and learning new ones. After all, if you don’t tell your story, who will?

© Michael Williams 2017

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Ghostly Tales with Michael Williams

The "Ghostly Tales for the Telling" competition took place over the summer of 2016. It was sponsored by the National Library of Scotland the and Scottish International Storytelling Festival. The competition was held to honour the 200th anniversary of the writing of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein", arguably one of the most frightening and poignant tales ever written.

More than 300 entries were received and the task of selecting the finalists was a difficult (although I'm sure an enjoyable one). Ten stories were selected to be read and performed to an audience at the National Library by a stellar group of storytellers including Claire Druett, Daniel Allison, Tim Porteus, Ian Stephen, Fiona Herbert, and Michael Williams.

In this week's programme, two of those tales are featured - "The Tapestry House" written by Ewan Irvine and "The Winter Visitor" written by Joel Pierce.

"I have a soft spot for ghost tales," says Michael, "although I'm not a fan of the overly ghoulish kind where people get ripped apart. I loved the subtle nature of these two tales. They raised the hairs on the back of my neck. I felt they were a fitting tribute to the gothic genre."

Rather than read the tales, Michael chose to tell the stories, requiring him to adapt the text for an oral telling. "It was not an easy choice," explains Michael, "I wanted to honour the authors' texts but I also wanted to honour my profession as a storyteller. This event was, after all, part of a storytelling festival. So, I chose to learn the stories and prepare them as I would for an oral telling. To do that, I had to create a context for them and my telling. I'm pleased to say that both authors approved of my telling of their tales." 

The recordings here are courtesy of the Scottish Storytelling Centre and can be found--along with other performances from the night--on their YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCuS51i5TYePy1z7n622kWyA 

The Teller and the Tale plans to feature other stories from the evening on future programmes.

The Teller and the Tale begins at 7am ET (Can/US), 12noon (UK/Ire), and 9pm (Australia) on Blues and Roots Radio (www.bluesandrootsradio.com).  Go to their website and click on the "Listen Now" button.