Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Props 1: inviting response

Last week brought lovely comments on my thoughts about audience. So this week – and over one or two following weeks as well – I’ve decided to write about props. It’s a subject that interests me a lot. Why use a prop or props? Do they help or hinder a storytelling or indeed the storyteller? How many props might one use in a session and how is best to deploy them? And where might one obtain them?

Props stimulate questions:

Placed on a theatre stage, props can intrigue the audience. Props arouse subliminal questions. Why is that object there? Who is going to use it and when and why? But storytelling is generally less theatrical. So why would a storyteller make use of a prop or props? An immediate answer has to do with the very nature of a prop. A stick, a stone, a badge, a flower: a prop is some kind of object that has been selected with a view to intriguing or informing the audience. Perhaps it is itself going to be the subject of a story. Perhaps its colour or shape is going to be significant. Perhaps it’s a matter of who owned it, where it came from. Props stimulate questions.

Props attract attention:

But the very first impact of a prop is that – hopefully – it seizes the audience’s attention. Held up in the air, placed on a table or plonked on the floor, it summons the question, ‘Why? Why this?’ With adults as with children, a prop can attract the eye, arouse questions, lead on to other things. And, of course, where there’s one prop there can be a whole clutch of them. I always remember that sense of expectation in Beulah Candappa’s storytelling. She would produce a whole little collection of fascinating objects and then weave her story around them.

Props lead on:

It’s a basic idea in Chinese storytelling traditions that a big story is preceded by a small one. A prop is ideal in enabling this to happen. Produce a prop and you immediately give yourself the opportunity to tell the story of the object itself – where it came from, why it looks as it does, who has used it and why. Also an introductory story that is well-chosen can provide an excellent introduction to the main story to follow. Perhaps a similar object appears in that bigger story. Or perhaps the prop that has been used is of a kind that can become a metaphor. Something hard that cannot be broken, something beautiful that can’t help but be valued: the well-chosen prop can highlight some underlying quality or message of the story to come.

Props create a sense of atmosphere:

So today, I want to focus on how, with adults or children, simply bringing an object or a selection of objects out of a bag or a box can make a wonderful introduction to a storytelling session. Just showing the object, saying a bit about it – where it came from, what other people have made of it – and then quietly inviting responses can stimulate imagination, give a sense of new possibilities, create an atmosphere of sharing.

Using props: an example

Take as an example the cloth I call my rainbow cloth. By now I’ve had it for many years and I still feel it was my lucky day when, as a young adult, I came across it in a cloth shop in Mombasa in Kenya. There it was, hanging from a pillar in the shop. But as I examined it, a young man who worked in the shop came running up to me. ‘No, no, no,’ he said. ‘It’s only old women who wear those!’

By now, the young man would surely be encouraging me to wind that cloth round my head. For buy it I did despite his reaction and for a long time now, it has lived in what I call my Story Bag. Out it has come for an introductory session in many a storytelling workshop. ‘Here’s a beautiful piece of cloth. But what might it be for? What might it be for?’ When the cloth is then handed by me to the next person in the circle, that person has the chance to say what he or she thinks it might represent before it goes on to the next person.

‘All the peoples in the world,’ says the headmaster of a Primary School. ‘A fairy’s field,’ says a young girl.

Furthermore, the cloth has long since figured in Sun Frog and Moon Frog, one of my most-often told stories when working with young children. For in that story, the cloth becomes the tail of the Tikki-Tikki Bird who comes to help the two frogs when their lives are in danger from a terrible flood. The beautiful bird becomes their friend and, as evidence that she will always remain their friend, her  tail ends up as the rainbow that appears in the sky after heavy showers of rain.

Props: in sum

In sum, a prop can act as a prompt to people’s ideas. Or it can take its place in a story, giving focus and possibly also a sense of movement to a character or an idea in the story. It can, too, bring variety and colour to a storytelling session and, for all these reasons, it can be a real help to storytellers whether they are beginners or experienced in the art.

I love my props. I love them for where they came from. I love them for the different kinds of attention they generate when I bring them out, the ideas they have generated and my memories of how different people have responded to them.

So next week, more about props. But meantime keep your eye out for something that could bring you as much joy as my rainbow cloth has brought to me.

PS: Naturally, my photos this week are of my lovely rainbow cloth. The bottom one appeared last week too – the fantastic photo by photographer Anna Gordon for my big piece on storytelling with early years children in this month’s edition of Nursery World. So well worth using again!


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2 Responses to “Storytelling Starters ~ Props 1: inviting response”

  1. jean edmiston Says:

    Dear Mary — yet another wonderful blog about props — I love working with my bag of props and cloth is so tactile and evocative. I have a beautiful woollen blanket woven on Isle of Skye and i was inspired to buy it by ‘The Princess’ Blankets’- a magical book – the story written by Carol Ann Duffy and illustrated by Cathering Hyde. On Wednesday for the first time — I decided to tell the story to a group of residents in a Care Home where i tell stories regularily — I took the blanket as a prop. How everyone loved the weight and warmth and colours and it was the perfect prop for the story of the Princess who is always cold — hmmm — wonder why i chose that story says the storyteller — shivering as the snow falls outside. Thank you Mary for the memories and inspiration — Warm wishes Jeanxx

  2. Mary Medlicott Says:

    So lovely to hear all about that blanket in your comment on my blog. Blankets are so diverse and – yes, shiver – so important. I remember the ones from my grandmother’s house (wool and scratchy) and I remember the ones I made for my dolls (patterned and soft). Excellent idea to take a whole blanket as a prop! Thanks (as always) for writing. With love, Mary

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