Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ C for Campaign

It’s not been a brilliant week. A good friend and colleague with whom I was chatting has just learned that the funding streams for some of her very well-established work with Early Years children and staff have been cut for next year. Then at the end of the week, I got the news that storytelling workshops I was due to do at a conference in London next Thursday were being cancelled due to insufficient take-up. Two swallows do not make a summer and two pieces of disappointing news do not denote a bad winter. But they do give pause for thought.

C for Campaign

Time for a Campaign about the importance of Storytelling in Education? I think so. Even the seaweed on a beach where I walked this week seemed to be in agreement. In another sense, so was an email I received from the Headteacher of Brady School in Rainham. I’d written to let him know about the Blog where I talked about those wonderful letters that had come from children at his school following the Local Legends project I’d done there back in 1997. His email said he remembered the project and its impact. ‘The quality of work from the children showed just how much they became integrated into the project.’

It’s exactly this kind of point that Arts people are currently making in the press and elsewhere about why the arts in schools are important and why their place should not be diminished. Like visits from authors, artists and theatre companies, storytellers coming in to schools can make a huge impact on children. It gives them something to remember, something that awakens their imagination, something that can work in their memory-banks long after the particular occasion where the seeds of new thought and ideas are planted.

C for Coincidence

Pondering the many ways in which storytelling has been able to thrive in education, I thought about Storytelling Clubs in schools and the dedicated work my storytelling friend, Debbie Guneratne, has been doing in that area. I wrote about it in Mirror, Mirror, one of the personal tales I’ve recently been working on. Mirror, Mirror is a story about stories and storytelling. As well as an extraordinary coincidence, it figures an African folktale I very much love. I hope you enjoy my piece of writing and tell the tale to someone else.

Mirror, mirror

Debbie, has been one of the country’s pioneers in setting up storytelling clubs in schools. On several occasions I’ve gone along to give talks when children in her clubs have been participating in celebratory events where, typically, they tell their stories to invited listeners – teachers, parents and other school children. On each occasion when I’ve done such a talk, I have of course told a story.

Once, the story I chose was an African story that I’d heard some years before from another storytelling colleague, Karen Tovell. Although it’s never become a regular part of my repertoire, it’s a story that often comes to my mind because of the way it draws attention to the beauty of the natural world and the way artists can help bring that beauty to other people’s awareness.

The artist in the African story had a reputation for being able to paint portraits so lifelike that people could scarcely believe they were paintings and not the persons themselves. Because of his amazing skill, the artist’s reputation began spreading further and further. Eventually it brought him a messenger from a powerful chief who, having heard about his extraordinary power, challenged him to make a portrait of God. It was a tricky commission. What could the artist do to fulfil it? Would he give God the face of the all-powerful chief? If he did not, would he so insult the chief that he might put himself in danger?

The artist at first appeared to delay. Each time the chief sent his messenger to collect the commissioned portrait, the artist said he was not yet ready. Then came the time when the artist said it was ready but the chief would have to come to collect it himself.

When the chief arrived at the artist’s dwelling, the artist brought out something with the size and shape of a painting. But the chief could not see it because it was carefully wrapped. The chief, said the artist, must take the work from him and walk with it alone to the top of the nearby mountain before he removed its coverings from it.

At the top of the mountain, the chief was consumed with nervous excitement. The artist had made a portrait of God. What was it going to look like? Was it going to look like him, an ultimate acknowledgement of his power?

As the wrappings fell away, the chief found himself looking at something he’d not expected. All that was there was a piece of glass. Mystified at first, he soon became angry – what was this? – until as he studied the glass, turning it over and over, he began to see reflections in it, reflections of the grasses that were growing nearby, of the blue sky and clouds in the sky high above, of the immensity of the landscape on each side of the mountain. Noticing all this, he realised that, observing the beauty of creation all round him, he was seeing God.

For me, this story has a significant parallel in the way storytelling itself creates new awareness by bringing people together in the lap of the story. That’s why I decided to make it the story I told for Debbie’s club’s special event.

At the end of the afternoon, a deputation of Debbie’s storytellers came to me saying they had some thank-you gifts for me. It’s Debbie’s style to do lovely things in a lovely way and all the presents were beautifully wrapped. One was specifically a present from Debbie herself and when I unwrapped it I saw a box and, inside the box, a beautiful pendant on a delicate chain. It was a gift that overwhelmed me. But something more was to follow. When I opened the back of the pendant, I saw that inside was a small square of glass, a tiny little mirror that Debbie afterwards told me she herself had put it in there on the basis that, sometimes before a performance, a storyteller might need to check their appearance. She’d had no inkling when she decided to do that what the story in my talk was going to be. How could she have possibly have guessed that it involved a piece of glass that acted as a mirror?  I’d not told her, nor had I been sure until the day before what story I was intending to choose. The coincidence was hard to believe. But then, coincidence is one of the most extraordinary and frequent features of story. It’s something that draws our attention and causes us to think.

See you next week!

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