by Tracy Chipman
For ages and ages, since the birth of language, storytelling has existed. Some folks know exactly what storytelling is and some folks are just not quite sure. It can be a slippery notion to understand in this age of technology, but really it’s pretty simple… Storytelling is a live, in the moment, interactive craft most cultures and every age of civilization has experienced. Stories are told to educate, preserve culture, instill values and beliefs, and to entertain. Stories are told by and to the young and the young at heart—it is for everyone!
In this ancient art, the storyteller weaves language, vocalization and gesture, conveying the images of a story to a live audience. From that collaboration storytelling emerges through active listening and active imagining, and without one part of this dynamic duo the process and art form cannot exist. With each telling the interplay between the teller and listeners creates a new experience, a new story. With each telling comes more inner satisfaction and more understanding of the mystery of our humanity—something more powerful than a string of words and phrases is gleaned, digested and absorbed. Yum!
The earliest forms of storytelling were spoken word combined with gestures and expressions. Traditionally, these stories were passed from generation to generation, and survived solely by memory and the desire to share and hear them. Early storytelling may have shown up as simple chants in praise of nature, to express the joy of life, or to explain the deeper mysteries of creation and to ease the drudgery and boredom of day-to-day life.
During the Middle Ages, storytelling expanded into the art of the traveling troubadour and historian. These bards journeyed across the land combining their stories with poetry, music, and dance. They were welcomed in castle, court, and the market place. They gathered the news, conveyed the best tales, and were expected to know the favorites in each region. Their position as bard was highly regarded in society and they often spent many years in training before their travels began. In this way, professional storytelling was born. The development of print publishing led to reading replacing listening, and some say, to the decline of storytelling. Technology though has also made it possible to record, transcribe, and share oral tradition over wide regions of the world. In spite of rapid modernization, there are still cultures today where some part of their living history and folklore is perpetuated by their vibrant oral tradition.
Recently there has been a rekindled interest in the art of storytelling. Professional storytellers tour the world performing at schools, festivals, and community spaces. Storytellers of today prepare a story to present to their listeners, perhaps researched from written material, collected from other story and tradition bearers, or even created on the spot from their own imaginations. Folklore stories such as myths, epics, legends, wonder tales, and fables continue to be favorites. Joseph Sobol, storyteller and historian on the American storytelling revival in The Storytellers’ Journey, says:
“Storytelling is strongly dependent on the power of personal presence — of the trance-inducing interaction of live performer with live audience, and the direct transfer of narrative imagery from mind to minds. Whether within a traditional community or a contemporary performance context, storytelling tends to be prized precisely for its immediacy.”
There are countless “classics”— books, films, and television programs that will entice you into a good story, so good you may return to them time and time again. However, nothing beats the live interchange between teller and listener—eye to eye, mind to mind, and heart to heart. Whether you are a parent looking to share this experience with your child, a retiree looking to share your memories and experiences with your family, or are just curious about the art and craft of storytelling, storytelling is well worth exploring and experiencing because we all relish a tale well told.
Tracy Chipman lives in North Menomonie and has been telling tales professionally to ages 3 to 93 since 1995 at libraries, schools, parties, cafes, bookshops and performance spaces in pockets around the country and in the UK. She also founded The Hebridean Folklore Project in 1996, where she gathered folklore in all seasons in the wilds of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides islands.