The Status of Storytelling

The Yorker (Vanbrugh College, York, UK), June 28, 2012


Last weekend, the York Castle Museum played host to the York University Storytelling Festival. Eighteen English and Education students tucked away in a leafy glade in the gardens, armed with tales of murder and mystery and dinosaurs who learned to care, surrounded by groups of enthralled children and parents.

The performance stood in the long tradition of storytelling gatherings. The festival comes as part of a resurgence in storytelling as an art form, which captures the magic that sitting back and listening to a good old yarn can induce when told by the right kind of teller.

Storytelling has found new credibility relatively recently as a performing art, beginning in the counter-culture revolutions of the 1960s and continuing into the present day. The creation of World Storytelling Day in 1991, and various storytelling festivals springing up across the globe are beginning to offer storytelling a role as an art form in its own right, separate from theatre.

The mistaken temptation with storytelling is to classify it as a sort of low-level children’s drama performance; a sort of minimal monologue. However, the two art forms are entirely different, and require different skills from their audiences.

Theatre distances its audience from whatever the people on the stage are doing, forces them to sit back and watch the action fully realised before their eyes; storytelling invites the audience in, asks them to engage and pay close attention. They have to rely, like generations before them, on their own imaginations, and the storyteller’s gift for suspense and language, to create their own world.

In many ways, the rise of interest in storytelling may indicate a sort of backlash against contemporary bite-size culture, with its small blocks of information designed to be digested quickly, and its commitment to artificial and digital memory. The hushed attention of the children and parents at the festival, and the genuine reactions of fear and joy that the tales provoked, could perhaps be a sign that there are still, in York at least, people prepared to lend their ears and listen to a good story.


Subjects Covered: storytelling festivals

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