Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Baa-aaa

P1060973A bit of patter is part of the art. It may be only to say where a story comes from, where and from whom you heard it. Or it may be something about the weather, the event or the audience you’re addressing. It may be some introductory narrative that includes something about being a storyteller (after all, lots of people still don’t know what to expect) or you may have a joke that puts people at their ease. Whatever it is, it’s all part of creating a receptive atmosphere.

Dylan Thomas in Fitzrovia:

This week, I participated in the Fitzrovia Festival, an annual week of events that take place in the area round London’s Fitzroy Square. This year’s festival has been dedicated to Dylan Thomas. I did two sessions of Dylan Thomas readings and, among other things, my patter for my second session included a delightful (and true) little story I once heard from one of the people involved. This was an English lecturer on a visit to South Wales to see her daughter and her daughter’s two little children. An excursion to Laugharne had been planned so as to visit The Boathouse where Dylan Thomas lived and the shed where he worked. The children had heard a lot about this proposed excursion and on the way in the car, one of them piped up from the back, ‘Mum, will we see see Dill and Thomas?’

For my first session, which I knew in advance would be for young children, one piece of patter that came in handy was what I’d discovered a few days previously when making decisions about what poems and prose-readings I’d offer. Two possible poem options – Poem in October and Poem On His Birthday sent me scurrying to look up when Dylan Thomas was born. A hundred years ago, yes. But when exactly? The answer was 22nd October – the very day of my readings.

Preparing for the 6-year olds: 

P1060978Of course, children love thinking about birthdays. Mine is 23rd October.  So the near-coincidence of birthdays, mine and Dylan Thomas’s, proved a handy way to bring my audience of young children, who were just 6 years old, into what was clearly for them very unfamiliar territory. Had they ever written a poem? Yes. Had they ever written a story? Yes. Well, I was going to read them a bit from a very famous story called A Child’s Christmas in Wales. And in introducing it, I was able to tell them how, when I was 6 and 7 and 8 and 9, my Aunty Mali used every year to put her much-treasured LP of a reading of that story onto her old box gramophone and I would sit listening by her fireside, enthralled as the resonant words rolled out.

I’d also realised that I’d have to tell this special little audience something of the story before I began it. The part I’d chosen to read is at the beginning where the boys in the story are snowballing cats (cue for making pretend snowballs) when they hear Mrs Prothero calling ‘Fire!’ When the firemen have been and done their work and are on the verge of leaving, the story ends when Miss Prothero, the aunty described by the narrator as always knowing what to say, comes downstairs and enquires bizarrely of them, ‘Would you like something to read?’ My audience, bless them, got the joke. Before we started, I’d not only alerted them to the characters but warned them to listen out for the very odd thing Miss Prothero says to the firemen. 

That kind of destructuring of a story before you begin it never seems to destroy it for young children. I’d say it does the opposite. It helps them know what ground they are about to enter and enables them to enter it at their own level. Of course, with A Child’s Christmas in Wales, there were many things my little London audience needed help with recognising, not just Dylan Thomas himself. Apart from one child who’d been there, they’d never heard of Wales either. They knew neither what it is or where.

The sheep:

P1060986Before they went back to school, however,  one thing those children really did know was how to recognize a sheep.  Charles Stephens, the organiser of Tales from the Shepherd’s Hut, the event in which I took part, had not only imported a shepherd’s hut into the unlikely surrounding of Fitzroy Square. He’d brought a shepherd’s smock for his readers to wear and also – the tour de force – a sheep’s pen and six sheep to go in it. This created an unexpectedly rural image for a poet who was unashamedly urban,  but it made a most unusual and thought-provoking set-up. For my morning audience of 6-year olds it was a major thrill. For most of them, sheep were an entirely new experience. One little girl actually said it out loud: ‘I’ve never seen a sheep before.’

Last-minute bookings?

P.S. This next Wednesday 29th October at 5 p.m., I’ll be presenting my seminar ‘Shemi Wâd’ (it’s on the charismatic old Pembrokeshire storyteller of that name) in The Zen Room, Atrium, University of South Wales, Cardiff Campus, Adam St, Cardiff, CF24 2BP.  The lecture is free and all are welcome to attend but booking is essential.  If you would like to reserve a last-minute place please email emily.underwood-lee@southwales.ac.uk. 

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