Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Becoming a storyteller - Beginning and beginners

I'm the one in green tights getting ready to be Peter Pan!
My mother says I came out of the womb telling stories. I wrote stories all through my teens and in to adulthood and still do. When I began telling stories to strangers and non-family members in 1990 at Youth Hostels on the South Coast of England, most were my own written tales. I learned a few folk tales, and fairy tales and told those too. Then a school group took me to a storytelling presentation by Eric Maddern in Battle, Sussex where the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066. Eric brought history to life to everyone there. It was brilliant. So brilliant I bought a three tape cassette pack of his Stories in Historical Places. I still have it. Eric Maddern opened the door to storytelling for me and was to a degree, my first inspiration in that direction. And then I bought Northern Lights, stories,myths and sagas by Kevin Crossley-Holland. He too, was another great inspiration to me with storytelling. I was in love with the old traditional stories.

Avebury, England © Simon Brooks 2016

A few years later, I crossed the Atlantic and a good few years after that, in 2003 I got a job as a children's librarian in Thetford, Vermont.  I told stories again to non-family members and children of stranger and not friends!  The mommy circuit spread my name to other libraries and the dozen stories I told became too small a repertoire. So I began learning new stories.

For me, telling tales to kids was easy, but then every once in a while we would do a community event and I would tell tales to kids and grown ups and I got very nervous.  At first I would have a cheat sheet, or crib sheet near me that I could glance at it if needed.  Then I would break stories down to their main bullet points, reduce them to an essence and tell from those bullet points. And then I was told about Odds Bodkin and got to see him.  He made noises, sound effects, and great character voices.  This was a first for me.  He became my third inspiration and opened a new door for me.  I already used voices, but sound effects!  When I read to kids I used sound effects and voices, especially with my own kids, but never when I told stories.  Odds Bodkin 'gave me permission' to try something new with my storytelling and I took to it with gusto! A new dimension was added to my tales. The stories became more alive for me in my mind and that reflected outward to the audience who also came into the stories with me more easily and more willingly.

When I met Eric Maddern, he was standing telling his tales to a large group.  He might have used a couple of sound aids, in the form of a bull roarer, and maybe bells.  He did straight telling and when I later read the picture books he published, I could hear his voice telling them in his soft lyrical, yet powerful manner.  I still love listening to his tapes, which I was able to digitize, as do my kids.

When I heard Odds for the first time, he was all out - go-and-get-'um type of thing. But he softened his 'attack' with the instruments he used (harp and acoustic guitar), which lulled us as he spoke.  I also got hold of recordings of Jim Wiess who told in a soft gentle manner, occasionally using guitar.  His style made you feel you were sitting all cozy in a room, drinking hot chocolate with the kids on his lap. Odds was the only one, really, to use character voices and vocal sound effects.  The actor and mimic within me liked that, and as I was already reading to kids like that, had told stories and jokes since school like that, so it was a great step to make and very natural for me.

Some tellers use character voices and some do not.  Some use musical instruments, some do not. Some stand or sit and tell with their voice, some, like me bounce all over the place. I did not use musical instruments, as I only played the drums and taking a full kit to a storytelling performance would not work. I could not play guitar, or any other stringed instrument and my harmonica had rusted up, along with the very little skill I had of playing it. I decided to buy a bodhrán.  I did not know how to play it, but figured it could not be too hard as I was a drummer.

I bought a cheap drum, in case I did not like it, or decided not to go with it.  It took three days to learn how to play a steady beat, torture for all in my house at the time. I am still learning new ways of playing it today, more than six years later. I now have a very nice bodhrán! I can play it quite well with and without other musicians! When I set up and people are coming in and before I am introduced, I can pat away on my bodhrán and it helps get me into story space and takes my mind off the audience. It allows me to go to a place in my mind where the stories live and wait to be told, or jump out demanding to be told!

After I heard Odds Bodkin a few times, I thought I would never be as good as he is at telling stories. But then I realized I didn't have to be as good as he is, I needed to be as good as I could be. I had to be the best Simon Brooks I could be. Everyone has their very own style and voice. Sometimes when you start to learn anything new, you mimic those you love, those you read, listen to, etc.. But after a while you find your own voice. This goes for singers, musicians, writers everyone.

Me and Papa Joe

You might use a musical instrument, you might not. You might use character voices, you might not. You may jump about like a maniac on the stage, you might not. You might use mime, you might not. You will do what feels right for YOU. You will do what you do best. What you don't do best, you should drop like a hot brick. Or work at it, until you have it perfected. Or not.

The most important thing to do though, the two most important things you should do are:
1/. Tell stories that you LOVE. That will come over to the audience when you tell a tale. It comes across if you don't really love the tale too!
2/. Have fun with it. If you have fun, so will everyone else.

Oh, and a third thing: Don't beat yourself up if you make a mistake. We all make mistakes (even the very famous ones!). Those of us who have been doing this for a while cover it up well and you will too.



Harvey Heilbrun said...

Well said and oh so true. It's always helpful to see how tellers we admire got to where they are. Gives us. Lot of hope. Thanksmfor sharing.

Bob Reiser said...

I hate an empty comment board -- It looks so forlorn! So----
Tell the Stories you love and Love the stories you tell!

And -- here is food for controversy:

Don't be afraid to change an old story and make it yours -- In fact, if you look at a story and can't think of anything you can add or change so that it speaks for you -- skip it -- And find one that's crying out for YOU to tell it!