Travelling in the footsteps of Eileen Colwell? Blazing a new trail?
Chris Powling – a compulsive storyteller himself – sets you on the road.
The strangest fact about storytelling is that most people think they don’t do it. For them a storyteller is some sort of exotic variant of the Ancient Mariner – a rubber-faced oddball with long grey beard, glittering eye and a thousand voices on tap. Yet aren’t we all storytellers every day of our lives – in the gossip we swop, in the anecdotes we share, in the jokes we tell? Storytelling is doing what comes naturally… shaped up a bit by a sense of occasion.
It’s just this sense of occasion, though, that brings problems for the beginner. Most of us, at first, are beset by the awful stomach-turning possibility that we’ll run out of words. Such tongue-tying is about as likely as a fairy-godmother running out of magic. Hang on to that thought (even if at this point you don’t really believe it). Remember too, that there’s not a single ‘rule’ about storytelling that can’t be broken by fluke or inspiration. So feel free to heed the remark of that consummate storyteller Oscar Wilde – by all accounts even better in the flesh than in print – who once insisted ‘the only thing to do with good advice is pass it on’. My advice to would-be storytellers is – take it in stages.
Reduce that sense of occasion. The Pzazz can come later. Seize on those moments that call for a resume of stories the children already know. During the history project for example, try: ‘Look at this sword Linda’s made. It’s so smashing it reminds me of Excalibur – you know, King Arthur’s sword. Do you remember how he first got hold of it, thanks to Merlin… ‘ and so on.
You do this already? That’s the point. Use these moments to practise and develop the way you shape a story. By concentrating on familiar and half-familiar stories at a time when you’ve got Linda’s sword, or whatever, as the main focus of attention you’ll be taking the heat off you as narrator. Topics, drama, language work, will give you plenty of opportunities. But don’t overdo them – keep it simple and keep it quick (meaning snappy, not gabbled). Don’t give yourself the chance to become self-conscious.
Soon you’ll want to tackle a longer narrative. Why not use art? Show the children a filmstrip of a picture-book by Quentin Blake or Charles Keeping. There’s no better way of raising the quality of their seeing . . . and under cover of art appreciation adding muscle to your storytelling. With the children already spellbound by the blown-up images of, say Ron Brook’s John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat, which appeals to all age groups, your own version may even outclass the original text by Jenny Wagner. And if it doesn’t, so what?
Before long you’ll be ready for a story-session proper. By now you’ll know your listeners well… but how well do you need to know your story? The key to this is the storyline. It’s all important. If you have a sense of its beginning, middle and end and can name its main characters that’s quite enough. There must be no possibility of reciting. You must also be fond of the story. If you don’t think much of it, neither will the children.
But how do you get going? And what if you panic? Two aids can help here: a look-fixer and a cue-card. The look-fixer is just that – something for you and them to look at, apart from each other, without loss of concentration. It could be a tinderbox, a red ridinghood, a slingshot, a wooden-leg… any emblem, that is, of your story. The cue-card should look like this:
Before you start you’ll have settled the children. You too must be settled – in whatever position you find most easy. For when the storyteller on Listen with Mother used to say those famous words ‘are you sitting comfortably… then I’ll begin’, she was talking partly to herself. Once you’re ready and steady, you go – to what the children have been goggling at all along, those antlers. After that, I’ll be surprised if you so much as glance at the cue-card. Why bother with it, then? Two reasons, actually: for a bolster and for ballast. The first boosts your feeling that you’ve prepared thoroughly: the second keeps your feet on the ground when, flushed with success, you’re tempted to give them the complete epic there and then, Aeschere – amputation – Grendel’s Mum and all. Hence also the point of writing out those closing sentences. They’re insurance that you’ll stop short while you’re winning, and on a cliffhanger that sets up session number two.
There are risks. At all costs avoid the following:
|put on too many voices||You’ll mix up your Major Bloodnoks with your Little Jims.|
|invite the children to to join in||You’ll be giving them licence to kill (or at any rate clobber).|
|ask the children questions||You may get an answer. And another. And another. And another.|
|surround yourself with props||They break, bite and fall on your foot.|
|use microphones, lighting or special effects.||You’ll electrocute yourself.|
DO concentrate on the tale – give it a clearly signalled start, a clearly shaped climax and a clear signing-off, all in straightforward, everyday language. Even when you reach your Big Moment, remember: a pregnant pause far outweighs the purplest of perorations. As you gain in confidence confine your experiments to two aspects only. First, add more dialogue (not ‘voices’); second, develop your powers of on-the-wing description – keeping this concrete and close to the kids. Remember, one vivid detail they can identify with (‘the mist was clingy and nasty in the mouth – like sour candyfloss’) is more effective than the most inspired attempt to outstrip the opening of Bleak House.
After all this, what next? Well, next you can ignore everything so far, including those ‘don’ts’. By now you’ll be making your own rules. Through practice, perseverance and the fun of it you’ll have become an expert. Indeed, so hooked will you be on the oldest of the performing arts you’ll succeed with any approach, whether you’ve opted for sonet-lumiere or just folded arms and a faraway look.
At this stage you are in the gravest danger.
Suddenly you’ll be aware of the main threat in telling stories aloud, a personal catastrophe you can ward off only by sheer strength of character: you may never want to read them aloud again.
Currently Chris Powling tells stories as headteacher of Thorpe Hall Primary School in Waltham Forest and as Dad to Katie (8) and Ellie (4). He’s been a reviewer of children’s literature for some time and during the school holidays presents the Radio 4 arts programme Kaleidoscope. Last year Abelard published his collection of short stories, Daredevils or Scaredycats (a Fontana paperback next autumn) and this September, also from Abelard, came a full-length thriller for 9 to 13-year-olds called Mog and the Rectifier (see Editor’s Page, page 3). For Chris Powling, though nothing beats the thrill of improvised storytelling – ‘especially those exhilarating and terrifying moments when even I’m not sure what words are on the tip of my tongue’.