Saturday, 25 February 2017

Amahl and the Night Visitors – a storytelling experience

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Alongside my hubby, Jim, I love storytelling, and everything surrounding it… myths and folktales, personal stories, history versus legend, and the idea that, in this age of digital devices, we can still sit, spellbound, when someone opens their mouth and tells a story.

It’s surprising how easy it is in the UK to find storytelling sessions. The very best tour the country, just like rock stars, and we’ll drive a long way, and wade through a lot of mud to be at festivals, such as Beyond the Border, where performers like Daniel Morden, Hugh Lupton, Jan Blake, Eric Madden, Cath Little, and the great Robin Williamson, bewitch us with their tales.



We’ve started to include storytelling in the parties we hold; what better excuse to sit around a firepit or hearth with friends!

So, to get better acquainted with the techniques of storytelling, we joined a weekly workshop run by a professional storyteller. It was an experience – and a challenge. Each Monday, we delved into storytelling in a variety of ways, but we always started up on our feet, working on our breathing and posture, stretching, and moving to sound, singing and chanting to work our voices. When we eventually sat down, we closed our eyes and used visualization to increase what we saw in our mind’s eye. 

We worked in small groups, which was interesting at first, as we didn’t know each other. Then we began to get fond of one another, and the groups became a relaxed sharing of ideas. One week, we each brought a small item that meant a lot to us. We paired off and told its history to our classmate, making notes, because it was our partner’s item we had to use to make a story we could tell to the class. These became fascinating stories, some of them closely representing the original experience, some going off on a fantastical route. We use this sort of ‘exchange’ a lot – not just using artifacts, but also recalling anecdotes in an effort to ‘release’ stories and allow us to feel we have carte blanche over them.

In another class, we learnt about the monomyth…the hero’s journey…and worked together to create our hero and discover why they journeyed from their home to a threatening, unknown place. We worked on landscape, using all sorts of settings to either create new stories or emphasize parts of familiar tales, and learned how to face an audience, how to pace stories, time the telling, and breaking it into sections and working on relating some parts faster or slower than others.

We learned that in storytelling the five senses count for the most; listeners can feel the emotions of the story via experiencing tastes and smells, textures, pain and pleasure and the entire tapestry of sounds as well as describing colours and other visual descriptions. My writing friends will know that I think the five senses are very important in writing fiction, as well, but here they became crucial to help the listener ‘see’ the story.

We also worked on detail another aspect of written stories that, as my students know, I’m always banging on about. Detail in written fiction is the lifeblood of enrichment; in storytelling it has a similar, equally essential quality of slowing the fast pace of a story and engrossing the audience.

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One thing I really enjoyed as a writer, were the ‘storytelling packs’, which  contained random aspects of building a story, such as character names, settings and places, times and dates, and the random symbols often found in tales, such as talking birds and fantastical beasts, deep wells and ladders of maiden's hair, magic swords and foundling babies. I found it amazing, as someone who spends a fair amount of time trying to build plots, just how simple this exercise was, and how easily a story fell into place.

As a writer of short stories, it occurs to me that the storyteller has an advantage over the writer in one important direction; they can gauge the reaction of their audience immediately. They can also employ the benefits of body language, gesture, voice control and can even add atmosphere via sound and light effects. Meanwhile, the writer put out their stories without really knowing what their readership will think of them, and without any further props to help them get their point across. Getting direct feedback from an audience is  hugely scary, but the responses the storyteller wants are very similar to the ones a writer is looking for.

As we started to have the confidence to recreate and then tell stories, we were shown how to use ‘sparklines’, a method of mapping our presentation, and other ways to be able to remember where we were in our story. We began to include sound effects, background music, costumes, masks and props to aid our storytelling – better to get the basics under one’s belt before including such things – too much going on, and the novice storyteller will crash and burn!

The storyteller connects with their audience by evoking emotions from them. And the audience arrives, hoping for that; they’ve chosen the story…or the teller…because they like comic stories or sad stories or spine-chilling tales. But the storyteller will know immediately if they’ve been effective....if the audience doesn’t laugh at the funny bits, or be seen fumbling for tissues during the sad bits or gripping their knees from fear as the tension mounts, the storyteller knows right away that they have failed.

On the other hand, if feet stop shuffling, sweet wrappers stop being crackled and every eye is on the storyteller…that’s success. The story has woven its spell and the listeners are entirely absorbed. Even their breathing slows. 

For the writer, too, engaging a reader from the get-go is so important. Building tension into the reading experience that holds the reader and forces them to turn the page is equally about the five senses, detail, setting, character identification and empathy. Because we’re concerned for the welfare of the protagonist – plucky, perhaps, but vulnerable, or beset with problems or dangers – we’re totally caught up.  It could be said that every protagonist that walks the pages of a novel is on their personal hero’s journey.

Stories in books have several and varied effects on the reader. Endings might leave them with a feeling of satisfaction, or of vague unquiet...the characters might linger in their minds as they move through their life in the days ahead. But it’s harder for the writer to know if this has happened.

I admit, I still find it difficult to truly work out why some of my own stories are loved more than others. I can mostly put my finger on the reason when it is other people’s work I’m reading, but I sometimes just get too close to my own. 

That’s why I love it to bits when readers write to me; either via a card which drops through my door, or an unsolicited email that manages to avoid the junk box, or a message on Facebook or this Blogsite. I always try to respond. Quite recently, I heard from a reader of the Shaman Mysteries who lives in Scandinavia. I was dead chuffed about that – they love their ‘noir’ fiction in that cold place.

the book of the opera
At the end of our storytelling workshops, we each had to mount a proper performance. Because the Christmas festivities were upon us, I chose Amahl and the Night Visitors. I remembered this story from my childhood. It was originally a one act opera, first performed in New York on Christmas Eve, 1951. It had a haunting connection with early Christmases for me. Researching it, I found that both the music and the libretto was by Gian Carlo Menottia, who produced a little booklet, revealing how he tried to recapture his own childhood in Italy, where there is no Father Christmas. Instead, as in Spain, they celebrate the Three Kings, who bring gifts, usually at Epiphany. I actually never met the Three Kings—he confesses—it didn't matter how hard my little brother and I tried to keep awake at night to catch a glimpse of the Three Royal Visitors, we would always fall asleep just before they arrived. But I do remember hearing them. I remember the weird cadence of their song in the dark distance; I remember the brittle sound of the camel's hooves crushing the frozen snow; and I remember the mysterious tinkling of their silver bridles.

It was a work of love for me, to recreate an opera into a storytelling performance. As I rehearsed, tears often welled up. But blocking and releasing your own emotion is part of the storytelling experience. For my performance, I didn’t use music or props, just gestures and my words. It was quite terrifying (we’d invited a small audience), but exhilarating, too.

 Beyond the Border entices you in.

Finally, comes the applause. Hearty clapping tells the performer that, not only did they wring the right emotions from their audience, but also that the listeners ‘got’ the story; that the denouement, especially, felt right and fit for purpose. Of course, I got my hearty clap…we all heartily clapped each other. But it made me realise one certain thing about storytelling.  Storytellers are very brave people. It is so much easier to put your written story into an attachment and press ‘send’, than stand up in public and weave fictional magic with your own voice.


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