Being a Storyteller
The Art of Storytelling
Storytelling is of course as old as stories are themselves – both pre-date the beginnings of the civilised world. In early times, before the book, before literacy, before the private experience of silent reading, the oral tradition represented the very lifeblood of a culture and a community. Ideas about history, the difficult, confusing and dangerous aspects of life and death – all were mediated by traditional stories, what we now tend to refer to most commonly as legend or the folk- or fairytale. With their potent recipe of warnings, wisdom, humour, pathos and very often, but not always, the mystical and the mythological, stories and their tellers made sense out of the chaos, they united neighbours and generations with a common bond. Despite the now predominance of the written word and Film as chief media for the story in most cultures and nations in the world, in recent times the art of Oral Storytelling, as well as interest in it, has undergone a growth in interest and appeal.
Storytelling is a complex art. Modern storytellers, like their ancient forebears, require a wide range of skills – as well as natural talents – in order to be successful. Aside from a highly imaginative and well developed gift for imagery and metaphor, and a good memory, storytellers need dramatic ability to convey characterisation and dialogue (and many, though by no means all, storytellers have some degree of dramatic training). They must of course possess strong voice skills and non-verbal communication (facial and body movement, and gesture). Some storytellers employ music and song in their performance. All need self-confidence and a generous helping of the X factor: ’presence’ or charisma. But storytellers also need to be able to learn how to pace and develop a story for maximum impact, how to adapt stories for a wide range of audiences and they need very strong research skills, too.
Storytellers are avid collectors of raw material. Some storytellers will tend to concentrate on particular stories which reflect their own cultural background or a culture that particularly interests them, such as traditional stories from the Welsh, Scottish, Irish or Caribbean cultures, for example. Or they may develop a repertoire that quite literally spans the globe. They may sometimes reinterpret and adapt stories and relocate them out of their original culture. They may modernise elements. Indeed, some stories may come from their own family history. But whatever stories they choose, storytellers do not learn stories off by heart. Rather, storytellers make stories their own by mastering the plot and turning points of the story, the ‘architecture’ of the narrative, so to speak. Before a story is ready to be told and practised, the storyteller will have developed their own unique, vivid, rich imagery and metaphor to bring the story truly to life – and to meaning. As the storyteller test drives and develops both story and its performance, they will continue to embellish, alter and refine the story until it is at its most effective. However, the immediacy of performance and the very act of Storytelling, which employs a large element of spontaneous composition and ideally actively engages with each particular audience that hears it, means that no story will ever be told in exactly the same way again. And this accounts for much of its freshness and ‘magic’.
Finding a story
Where do storytellers find their stories? Some professionals find them through travel and in the way that they were originally intended: orally. But you won’t need to pack your suitcase in order to find stories to tell. Start by widely reading collections of traditional tales: folk and fairytales, myths and legends from Britain and around the world. These are still very well stocked in both independent and the larger commercial bookshops, and are easy to find in your local library. Read widely. Do your research. Make notes. The stories you’ll find will give you a good grounding in the types of story out there, a chance to find out what attracts you and may become opportunities for development and eventual performance. With the invaluable information resource that the internet provides us with these days, stories are only a click away on your mouse. A vast array of story sites can be viewed online. Storyteller Tim Sheppard has compiled one of the most comprehensive lists of links to free story sites now available on the net, as well as a very handy set of FAQs on developing skills, stories, style and a Storytelling career.
Many people associate Storytelling with performance for children. Certainly, work with children in schools is common, and some storytellers do specialise in this area, either through private arrangements or funded through the Literature Wales Writers on Tour scheme. Encouraging interest in this ancient art, good storytellers will stimulate creative possibilities that remain long after the class has ended, and which will sometimes extend into cross-media work, such as art or music.
Many storytellers in Wales have also worked with the Literature Wales Young People's Writing Squads.. However, storytellers engage with a wide cross section of ages and in many fields, including in therapeutic settings and working with those with disabilities. They entertain at festivals and perform before more general audiences at arts centres. Storytellers these days can find themselves delighting members of a Women’s Institute or even business people, in a corporate setting.
Earning a living
How much money you will make – or more to the point the degree to which you can make a living from your art - will depend on your level of expertise and commitment. Initially, when you’re starting out and still polishing your art, you may do the odd gig for nothing, but should soon expect at least somewhere in the region of £40 for a 35-40 minute performance. Those working in certain environments, such as in schools or therapeutic settings can generally expect £100-150 per half day and £200-£250 per full day. In a school setting you will be expected to perform before, and work with, children and you may also need to prepare resources for teachers.
As is the case in any field, your fees will increase as experience and excellence grows. How much work you will get is dependent on making good contacts and getting known. Self-promotion is very important in the field of Storytelling and once a level of accomplishment and practical experience has been achieved, a website can prove a very useful tool. Simply but attractively designed websites cost modest amounts but can really help to promote work. For more information on websites and other ideas on how to promote yourself click here.
Developing the skills to be a storyteller
Storytellers need stories. But storytellers also need other storytellers. It’s therefore important to attend as many events and performances as you can, to hear the kinds of stories being told - in all their infinite variety - and to meet other likeminded individuals in order to network and exchange stories. Events in Wales are regularly advertised on the Academi website under its What‘s On page. And Wales is also home to the highly acclaimed biennial Beyond the Border three day Storytelling Festival set in the grounds of St Donat’s Castle. The next Beyond the Border festival is scheduled for July 2010. Further information on the festival programme, bookings and other events run throughout the year by Beyond the Border can be found by visiting the website.
Similar festivals also take place throughout the UK and Ireland. For further details of festivals and events taking place both nationally and internationally visit the Society for Storytelling. The Society for Storytelling also hosts a steadily growing repository of information on the skills and art of Storytelling, along with podcasts of storytellers available to listen to for free. The recent establishment of the Forum for Storytelling Wales provides information on events all over Wales, as well as a comprehensive list of storytellers based in Wales.
Enrolling on a Storytelling course or joining a writers’ group or workshop can prove invaluable. Either setting will enable you to practise your current work and offer you the chance to get some practical feedback on your delivery, narrative pace and story structure, as well as providing a useful setting in which to exchange stories and tips with other storytellers.
The University of Glamorgan offers courses through the George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling. As well as courses, the Centre also holds conferences and seminars on Storytelling.
Adult education courses specialising in Storytelling can be found by contacting the Lifelong Learning Unit at your Local Education Authority or college or by visiting hotcourses. Click here for further details on courses.
The National Writers Centre in Wales, Tŷ Newydd, offers a week long Storytelling Retreat in September. Click here for full details of residential courses at Tŷ Newydd, together with information on fees and bursaries available.
Another popular week long residential course on Storytelling in August is run by the Bleddfa Centre in Powys. Fees for 2009 are £325 and include camping in the orchard but do not include meals. Go to for further details on the course. A residential course is also available at Cae Mabon, in Snowdonia, run by storyteller Eric Maddern.
Many storytellers also provide workshops alongside their performing life and a comprehensive list of storytellers and eligible subjects offered under the Writers on Tour Scheme can be found in the Academi’s database of Writers of Wales.
Current workshop groups focussing on Storytelling practice and performance can also be found on the Academi website under Writers’ Groups.
In addition, a small but growing number of storytellers who offer private workshops are listed in the Directory of Storytellers. Many storytellers offering tutorials or workshops will advertise their services in your local library or arts centre.