I’ve just returned from the fabulous Beyond the Border International Storytelling Festival at St Donats Castle on the South Wales coast, where I was performing and teaching.
The course I ran, Tell It Your Way, for entry-level storytellers, involved some learning for me too as I’ve never led a three day workshop before. Two areas of interest that arose for us are also pertinent to my Fabrica enquiry.
This is an idea borrowed from Zen Buddhism and refers to an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would. I believe it is especially relevant to storytellers in the west today, who are in many ways attempting to reinvent a native tradition that was almost extinct. Most of us do not acquire our repertoire and techniques direct from an unbroken lineage of master storytellers. Instead we scavenge, learning what we can from tradition bearers of various cultures, from printed versions of the stories, from other art forms and increasingly from each other.
Because there are less givens, each time we retell a traditional story we are compelled at some level to ask ourselves why we are telling it. Which leads me to my second point:
The story of the story
Each day I would start my teaching with a short story that I felt illustrated some aspect of the storytelling process. For example one day I told the Chinese creation myth of Pangu, a primeval giant whose body after death forms the world as we know it:
his breath the wind
his voice the thunder
his eyes the sun and moon
his body the earth
his blood the rivers
and so on!
One story behind the story of Pangu is the human imaginative faculty for understanding the incomprehensibly vast in terms of our own bodies. We still talk about the foot of the mountain, the mouth of the river and the head of the valley, for example. It is likely that versions of the myth was once told right across the Old World and its influence can be seen in many other stories (such as the legend of the Sleeping King.)
A second story behind the story is the deeper notion of using metaphor to create images of what is beyond us. Perhaps all art aspires to this.
A third story behind the story is the way that just as the dismembered parts of the giant’s body make up a world, so the disparate individuals in a storytelling performance cluster to form an audience and a teller whose purpose is to resurrect and embody the ghost of the story.
The point of elaborating the myth of Pangu in this way is to point to the fact that there is always more to the storytelling than the words told. A good storyteller will be sensitive to what German tradition calls the ‘red thread’, the secret inner life of the story that plays out in a different way for each listener. (For more on this see Dan Yashinsky‘s book Suddenly They Heard Footsteps.)
This doesn’t mean one has to analyse and intellectualise every story one tells. Sometimes it’s enough to ask, ‘Why am I telling this story to these people now?’ If the answer that comes is, ‘I don’t know, it just feels right,’ that’s fine!