Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Seeing the audience, seeing yourself

We all know the syndrome. The start of a new year makes you eager to sort things out, throw things away, clean your cupboards and your shelves, pursue new objectives and resurrect plans you’d half forgotten about.

For me, this new year has done all those things. It has also brought the satisfaction of seeing that  Nursery World, the magazine that specifically deals with working and living with early years children, has now brought out the big piece on storytelling with early years children that it commissioned me to write towards the end of last year.

Seeing the photos:

Writing my Nursery World piece made me aware all over again how important it is for us storytellers to keep our flame burning by helping new generations of potential tellers to know what storytelling can do.  The new pleasure has been seeing the wonderful photos that were taken to go with the piece. Anna Gordon, the freelance photographer extraordinaire who was commissioned to take the photos, has generously agreed to my using two of them to illustrate this blog today. My thanks to her and to Nursery World and to the centre where the photos were taken. Actually seeing the photos – and in the top one here I’m holding up what I know as my rainbow cloth – makes me very aware of how the children are responding. In fact, seeing the photos made me think a lot about audiences and how important it is to the storyteller to think about the different ways in which they respond.

Sensing your audience:

When your audience is going to be early years children, it can feel very alarming in prospect to someone new to storytelling. Until you get the hang of it, you can live in dread of the chaos that can result if you don’t get the children’s attention. On the other hand, too much lively response can be as hard to handle as the nightmare that can arise when you don’t catch the children’s attention at all and they turn away, interacting with each other but not with you and your story.

Where Anna Gordon’s photos are so lovely is that she has totally captured the ways young children can respond – those instinctive little hand movements they make that imitate what the storyteller may be doing, the attention they give with their eyes, even the tentative shyness with which they attune themselves to what is going on. Perhaps one of Anna’s skills, as became quietly apparent on the occasion of the storytelling, is that she almost became invisible in the way that, with no fuss at all, she’d be moving round the group, sometimes on the edges, sometimes lying on the floor in their midst.

Perhaps the good photographer is one who knows how to portray the audience at its most natural. And perhaps the art of storytelling is to enable the audience to relax into the experience, feeling drawn in to the story rather than feeling self-conscious or in any way on display. How do you enable this to happen?

Creating a sense of community:

A first important point is to realise that unless you’re doing a stage performance, you are not actually on a stage. You’re with a group of people and hoping to create a sense of community around you. To do this, it is important to be yourself. Your ‘you’ as a storyteller may be different – will be different – from the ‘you’ that ordinarily goes about. As the storyteller, you have in some ways to take command. You’ve got something to offer, so it needs to be plain from your manner, tone and volume of voice that you’re the one who is going to be doing the talking. Then you need to get on with it. Your great saving in this situation is that what you have to offer is a story.

So your story has to be one you want to share. It may be sad, it may be funny, but it’s got to be one that has attracted you to it enough to have made you want to know it inside out and feel comfortable with it. With the age of young children who are the subject of my Nursery World piece, that also means thinking about what sounds and actions will appeal, helping the children to realise what is going on and see how they can join in. Meet the children at their level – as Anna Jones did with her camera – and you are half way there.

Different audiences, different responses:

An adult audience can be much less transparent. It often happens that their faces remain outwardly impassive, showing no emotion at all unless there’s something outrightly funny or sad. Yet afterwards you may get someone from that audience coming to speak to you and from what they say you hear how much the story meant to them. On the other hand, it can happen that an audience member comes to speak to you and says nothing at all about the story you told, commenting instead on the clothes you’re wearing or some instrument or object you may have brought out.

You have to accept it. It’s all in the day’s work. I remember long ago when I was quite new to storytelling, one job I had was to tell stories to what turned out to be a great hallfull of young-teenage boys. I got it utterly wrong, including making some mention of a bodily function I now won’t name in the mistaken sense that this might get them on my side. No, it was quite the worst thing to do. Instead of coming on side, they started to giggle – not with me but at me. I’d lost them.

On the other hand, I remember a drama room in a Cardiganshire secondary school. The room felt more like a cave. The young people who were to be my audience looked almost adult as they came in and settled themselves on the mats. Some lay down on their stomachs. I told them The Land Where No One Ever Dies, the story I’d first heard told by Betty Rosen, one of my great inspirations. As the story got into its stride, the atmosphere stilled, becoming more intense by the minute. Suddenly in a moment of deep quiet towards the end, one lad stirred, as if from a dream, and said aloud: ‘What’s going on? What’s happening here?’

But it was immediately plain that he wasn’t saying this as a challenge. It felt more that he had suddenly truly found himself in a different place from where he normally was. Other young people in the room responded: ‘We’re here, we’re listening to a story.’ I finished the story. I felt incredibly moved. The occasion often comes back to my mind.

When it’s all over: 

If things go well, you come away with tender feelings about your audience. You have shared something with them. You’ve shared a story and you’ve shared yourself. If things go badly, the experience of it not having worked can linger painfully in your mind. Yet the lingering can be instructive, helping you get a sense of how to get onto a better wavelength another time. Even if things go badly – and it’s so important to realise this – you live to see another day.

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7 Responses to “Storytelling Starters ~ Seeing the audience, seeing yourself”

  1. Meg Philp Says:

    Dear Mary
    Thanks for this lovely, reflective piece about drawing the audience in. Good to hear your writing is published once again. Have been mulling over whether I prefer adult audiences recently. I don’t think it much matters now. It’s the connection with whoever the audience within the story I’m telling that matters. I think? Have been forgetting that the story’s the thing.
    Here’s to a Good Year for storytelling!
    Cheers Meg

  2. Clare Winstanley Says:

    Nice one Mary.

    I have forwarded details of your blog to some young German friends, Thorwald and Stephan, who are respectively an illustrator and writer of children’s stories. They also do live sessions with children’s audiences in Germany.

    They have a new book out later this month: Leonardos Flugmaschinen: Anselmo und das Vermächtnis des Meisters

    Clare

  3. Mary Medlicott Says:

    Dear Clare, it’s just so nice to know of your friends in Germany beavering away on children’s stories and doing live sessions too. I think it’s the liveness that really works best. Many thanks for writing. Mary xxx

  4. Pam Says:

    Thanks so much for your reflections and encouragement, Mary. As an inexperienced storyteller I found your blog very helpful.

  5. Mary Medlicott Says:

    Dear Pam, belated thanks for your recent comment on my blog. I can’t tell you how much of an encouragement such responses are. They really help me to keep on writing! All best wishes, Mary

  6. Lesley Dowding Says:

    Thanks Mary such an inspiration to start the year.
    I really like the way the photo with the rainbow cloth shows the faces of the children and how they are connecting with you.Its a delight.
    I told a Margaret Mahy poem/story Down the Back of the Chair and one little one called we have a robot down ours.
    May story stay alive and well for all ages this year.

  7. Mary Medlicott Says:

    Dear Lesley, sorry to be slow in responding to your message about the rainbow cloth. It’s always a pleasure to hear responses to my blog. Gives me a real feeling of a community of storytellers – and in your case on the other side of the world. Many thanks and all best wishes, Mary

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