Reflections (part 1)

Storytelling workshop participants Emily Dolmans and Alex Paddock joined me (Hannah Ryley) in a presentation at the English Graduate Conference Oxford. Chaired by Britton Brooks, our panel took place first thing on Friday 6 June 2014. I began by introducing the project and its aims, and outlined progress thus far. Emily and Alex then went on to describe their own responses to the ‘Medieval Storytelling’ workshops by offering personal accounts of developing storytelling skills (Emily) and adapting a medieval tale (Alex). Collectively, our presentation responded to the conference theme by addressing the ‘marginalisation’ of both our intended audiences (KS2 schoolchildren) and of medieval literature more generally. Together we reflected on the various ways in which our ‘Medieval Storytelling’ project hopes to overcome these margins.

For a flavour of our panel, please see Emily’s presentation below. In a couple of days Alex’s presentation will also be available to read here.

Emily Dolmans on storytelling:

Most of us here are literature students. We have chosen to spend several years of our lives, or maybe our whole lives, studying written words. We spend our days reading, wondering what a particular book, poem, or text can say about a writer, a reader, a society, a scribe, a patron. But, in my experience, I find that in spending such a long time on my tiny, focused area of specialisation, I often lose sight of what brought me to literature in the first place: the stories.

This isn’t only the narrative itself, but also the process of reading or listening to a story – that feeling of being utterly transported, where nothing else exists but the words and the images conjured inside your head. And then when you emerge from it, it feels as though everything has changed, when in fact only a small amount of time has passed.

Rather selfishly, perhaps, I decided to participate in Hannah and Gareth’s storytelling workshop so that I could somehow get in on the magic of it all. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that not only did the workshop reignite my passion for medieval stories, but it also helped me to develop a skillset that would help me pass on that passion to school students.

Although I learned a whole variety of skills over the course of the two-day workshop, I’ll do my best to boil them down to three primary points.

The first of these is the ability to recognize what makes a good story for oral storytelling. One of the things that I think is great about this project is that the benefit of telling medieval stories is, of course, that many of them were oral stories to begin with, so often have a structure that lends itself to easy memorization. In this sense, the task of picking an appropriate story was quite easy. The variation between versions, and the fact that many medieval stories don’t have a clear authorship, means that you have space and flexibility on how to adapt your story for your purposes. You can really make it your own. When asked which stories we were thinking of adapting, several of us chose romances or Breton lays, partially because they’re short and have a straightforward narrative, generally focused on a single character or situation, but it was also thrilling to think that we were relating these stories in the way that they would have originally been communicated.

The adaptation process is one of the most enjoyable aspects of storytelling; in making a story your own, you have the ability to describe scenes in the way you choose, to conjure images and maybe even slightly change the narrative. As Hannah mentioned, medieval stories can often be too bawdy or gory for schoolchildren, not to mention their teachers, so there’s a challenge in striking the right balance between being true to the story and making it acceptable for children. But there’s also the added challenge of making the story to come alive, to move from being a narrative sequence to a fully realised, coherent whole. In the workshop, Jenny Moon gave us an exercise in which we had to choose a story that we knew and describe a single scene from it – to describe the sounds, the smells, the tastes that the scene evoked. In doing so, an image in the storyteller’s head was transformed into an experience that could be shared by everyone. Then the audience had to ask three questions about the scene to bring out any aspects or details that the storyteller may have missed. The scene from the story became a point of dialogue, and we really got a sense that we were having a communal experience.

Thirdly, and perhaps most practically for academic purposes, the actual act of storytelling to an audience is a remarkable experience, which has improved my confidence in public speaking. But I also came to realise that telling a story aloud gave me the same feeling of transportation as reading them; I felt like I became a channel for a story that had been around for centuries, which, all in all, was an amazing experience. So, I’d just like to say thank you to Hannah and Gareth for organizing everything, and I’m very much looking forward to sharing stories in the future as the next stage of the project unfolds.

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