Wednesday, 29 October 2014

talking stories at the Scottish International Storytelling Festival

Netherbow Theatre : stage set for Hearth Stories
In Edinburgh, we are in the middle of one of 12 annual festivals - the Scottish International Storytelling Festival. I am going to as many events as I can, and so far have had an evening of stories telling of the power of place, have heard about the storytelling quality of the famous Walter Scott, celebrated Orca whales, heard powerful poems of place and identity from two Pacific Islander women, and today, have talked about story and storytelling.

Let's take today's conversations and look at them a bit. Some of the conversations were about a collaboration between four European cities - Aachen, Germany; Florence, Italy; Lisbon, Portugal; Edinburgh, Scotland - to explore story and place. Seeing Stories seeks to recover the narratives of urban and rural landscapes in Europe. This afternoon, we heard from each of the partners, of the ways in which a Europe they didn't know before has been uncovered for them, connections in communities have been rich and life-giving, ancient stories and a new generation of storytellers are being heard and valued.

In Portugal, rural stories of work, witches and werewolves have been given new life, and in the city, myths of snakes and women have again resounded in the streets and squares.
In Aachen, four guided walks follow ancient water ways and sacred sites as stories old and new are told to foster understanding and community.
Florence has seen a collaboration between storytellers of different times and places, the mentoring of a new generation of storytellers, and the discovery of the importance of food as we gather for stories, and the need for time, for the end of the story is just the beginning.
And Scotland's storytellers have rediscovered that every place has a story, have fostered a connection between people and place through story and taken story to a broader audience. Here, the learning has been the need for both deep appreciation of the traditions and the ancient stories, and generous fostering of emerging storytellers, new stories, and renewed ways of telling story.

All agreed that there is something profound happening as storytelling regains a vital place in our communities. When we talk and listen together, trust is fostered, and deep things happen.

One of the strands of the conversation had been exploring whether, and to what extent, storytellers can change a story. Can you change facts? Can you embellish with fiction? Must the story stay the same? I shared with Ana Sophia, a storyteller from Portugal, the wonderful introduction Megan McKenna gives to the stories she tells: All stories are true, some of them actually happened, and this one is going to happen to you. It is a glorious affirmation of the truth held in all stories, factual or otherwise, and the way stories act on us, because they are living beings, and just like human beings, they grow and change as they interact with the people and stories they meet along the way.

gratuitous photo of local beer.
drunk in the storytelling cafe,
so there is a connection. 
I sat down in the cafe at the storytelling centre with two hours before me, waiting for the next conversation about story. As I took out notebook to draft this post, one of my new friends entered the cafe with another of her friends. They joined me at the table, and we began to share our stories - of work, of home, of travel and of family. In time, another friend entered the cafe, and he and I were introduced. You are both performers - and we shared stories of projects just completed, in the dreaming and planning. Dylan (I hope I'm remembering his name right) asked questions of my PhD performance that planted seeds, the fruit from which I very much look forward to tasting. What would it be like to include informative content beside the story - breaking out of 'storyteller' to become 'academic' at various moments, to make links between this story and our own? I will play with this as I develop the story for performance. He asked the question because of a show he is dreaming, in which poems and letters might be performed, with information woven throughout …

The conversation about story of the early evening was an annual lecture incorporated into the festival, and this year presented by Dr Virginia Blankenhorn of the Celtic studies department at University of Edinburgh. Mostly I simply allowed the exploration of Gaelic Scotland as lost horizon or living landscape to wash over me and through me with its stories and songs. There was a dual tone of celebration and love for Gaelic Scotland, and lament for the changes brought through the violence of recent centuries and official attempts to eradicate the Gaels from Scotland. In some ways, I thought the lament for traditional Gaelic song in particular overly pessimistic, with perhaps less appreciation for the revitalising of the tradition a way of keeping the tradition alive, if not exactly the same. But I loved the musing that in any place where people live and walk about, every stone and tree stump has the potential to become part of a story.

Stories are, indeed, everywhere, as we had observed over coffee, tea and hot chocolate this afternoon. Stories that are true, stories that happen to me and to you - stories that live and grow and never leave us the same.

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