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In Praise of Oral Storytelling (1 of 2)

As it’s National Storytelling week, I thought I’d record some thoughts I’ve had recently over storytelling with young people. I only found about this of course via twitter – how else do we find out about these things? But anything that throws this collective method of sharing stories into the spotlight for a bit can only be a positive in my opinion.

And why does it get a whole week rather than a day? I think this reflects the importance, richness and diversity of ‘storytelling’; which covers many forms including plays, poems, film, books and of course perhaps the often overlooked grandmother of the art forms – oral storytelling. We’re quite a literate culture, and the written word quite rightly gets high focus, particularly in the world of education. Economically too, it’s easier to sell books than tickets to people speaking in rooms and so perhaps this helps to explain the primacy of written stories for children.

But it’s interesting to note that families often go to events to hear these stories performed or ‘read aloud’, and that the most fulfilling way of sharing a story with your child is by reading it to them – through necessity at first (unless they are some kind of genius reading baby) – but then as a wonderful way of sharing time and experiences. Most of the good children’s books are beautifully illustrated so the trick of the good oral storyteller is to create really vivid pictures with their telling.

Anyway, to the point. This week I’ve invented Aboriginal Dreamtime stories with 10 year olds, and told bits of Shakespeare’s great comedies (all borrowed stories anyway!) with 15 year olds.

What struck me is how these diverse groups of young people latch onto the respective stories. For those teenagers who struggled with 400 year-old poetic English, the story of a young woman losing her twin brother in a ship-wreck and then dressing up as him to be get a job with a lovesick Duke was instantly accessible, nevermind how fantastical the situation! Sidenote: in making work for young people we sometimes make the mistake of thinking that everything we tell them must be instantly recognisable for them to understand or care. NONSENSE.

Children are extremely emotionally proficient, particularly in empathising with another’s plight. The reason Fairytales endure so well is that they contain elements of emotional truth that resonate no matter when or where; not because children instantly recognise the world they exist in.

So let’s all have some faith in the quality of the stories we tell. I went in to my workshops with these young people this week thinking ‘are they too old and cool to play at shipwrecks and grieving countesses?’ Definitely not. If adults can enjoy it – they can too.

It’s worth noting that in this instance (a workshop scenario) I wasn’t just telling the story to a listening audience. In a different situation this would be just as viable but the kids here were embodying and enacting; active participants.

In the absence of illustrations we need to create those pictures with our mind. What better way than to get off our seats and create them in the space? But even those who watched their classmates from their seats were able to access this – a little doorway to 17th century drama. The class all had opinions on what Viola should do next – and understood the needs of the story unfolding before them.

This imbued the following dialogue-based exercises with meaning. But story as access to language is a different topic – I’m gonna spend some time thinking about this later!

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