Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Breaking the rules

This week, I’m owning up to breaking what has always seemed to be a rule among storytellers. When first I fell into storytelling, it was the early days of the storytelling revival. At that time, as I wrote in this blog a while ago, even such a thing as including a poem in a storytelling session was regarded as not allowed. Ever since, I’ve also felt aware that, as a storyteller, I should never expect or be expected to read something in public. No. My role, I felt, was to maintain the distinction between reading and telling and to bring to the fore the art of telling without a script.

Doing readings:

So let me admit to breaking that rule on two London occasions (and also, I’ll now admit, a year ago down in Pembrokeshire too).  The second London occasion happened last Sunday evening; the first had taken place in December a year ago. On both these London occasions, my husband Paul was giving a concert at Clapham Omnibus Theatre in aid of Crisis, the homelessness charity. Paul does the singing with his friend Steve playing the piano and this year, I’d say, they outshone what they did last year and in their first Crisis concert the previous year too. It was during this year’s event, as during last year’s, that I did readings.

So in December 2016 there I was, standing in front of this London audience, holding a book and reading the second part of A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. It’s a piece I’ve loved since childhood. The rhythms and humour of Dylan Thomas’s writing, the way he summons up the magic of Christmas time: all this I felt honoured to try and put across. Afterwards, people who’d never previously known anything of the piece came to tell me how much they appreciated hearing it. So did people who’d already heard or read it,  some in their own childhoods.

Success can breed a desire for more. Because my reading went down well last year, Steve and Paul asked me to do two readings this year. So this year, in the first half of the concert, I read the hilarious first half of A Child’s Christmas in Wales and towards the end of the concert, I did a piece that is known as Twelve Thank-You Notes of Christmas. It’s a skit on the well-known carol, On the First Day of Christmas, in which, on each of the twelve days of Christmas, the true love of the person who is speaking or singing sends more and more extraordinary gifts, the first of which is a partridge in a pear tree and the last of which is twelve people playing bagpipes. But as the days go on, the recipient of these unusual gifts becomes gradually more and more desperate as her home is overwhelmed. Her desperation becomes ever more obvious in the increasingly exasperated tone of her thank-you letters. (And if you’d like a copy of the piece, original source unknown, you can find any number of slightly differing versions on the internet. Take your pick and amend as you wish).

It feels quite obvious to me that those pieces of writing – A Child’s Christmas in Wales and the Twelve Thank-You Notes just have to be read. They can’t be told as the storyteller would tell them. Yet, even as I was presenting them at Paul’s concerts, I was realising the powerful links that can and do pertain between storytelling and reading aloud. For a start, voice and expression are vital in both. So is recognition of the rhythms of the words and the feelings behind them. Indeed, whether it’s reading or telling, either can be as much or as little of a performance as you want.

The links between:

Interestingly, I’d developed a growing sense of these shared factors when, earlier this year, I began writing Storytelling and Story-Reading in Early Years, the book I’ve recently completed for Jessica Kingsley Publishers (which, by the way, has just ceased to be an independent company and joined Hachette). During some of the storytelling workshops I’ve run for teachers over the years, I’d recognised the reality of the fact that an important way to encourage teachers into storytelling is to help them to see what they already do when they read to their classes. It then becomes possible to identify with them the particular steps they need to take in order to tell a story without a book. As all oral storytellers are deeply aware, these involve remembering, visualising and becoming conscious of the images, feelings and rhythms within the story.

At the same time, it’s also true that making the move into storytelling can help teachers and others to enliven their reading aloud. Getting to know a story for telling brings a new focus to the power of words, whether they’re written or told. It brings a fresh sense of the pace and rhythms of a story and how these can be managed to encourage attention.  Also, crucially, it brings a new awareness of the audience and the qualities of performance which motivate people to listen. After all, when you’re telling a story you are looking directly at your audience. You can see whether or not they are being stirred.

Now I’ve owned up, I hope the storytelling world won’t send me to Coventry (which, by the way, has just been declared City of Culture for 2021). I’m not going to be giving up on telling. In fact, I’m currently starting to give serious thought to possible ways in which the wider world can be helped to see (or see again) the huge sense of involvement and value that storytelling can bring to education, let alone anywhere else. But at the same time, I’m also going to think a bit more about the particular ways in which readings can give people a great sense of enjoyment.  So there we are, as we say in Wales.

PS: Imagine how much you miss if you can’t read! My photos this week (and I’ve used them before) are of two amusing signs seen on different occasions in Pembrokeshire, one in springtime on the door of Nevern church, the other in some Pembrokeshire woods owned and managed by the National Trust.

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