Friday and Saturday I found myself plugged in to what, for me, is the utter joy of a storytelling festival. It still exhilarates me that such numbers of people will devote their attention and commit time to hearing stories.
A stage and performance apron is spread beneath the shade of a peepul tree. The audience sit in tiered, semi-circular rows, and it holds about 300. In the morning, I told stories for a younger audience, then sat back, thrilled to listen to England’s Emily Hennessey and Tim Ralphs, both brilliant tellers. Th
ere was, from India, a family of musicians. Bloody amazing! Two men sang in raw, gutsy, incredibly soulful voices whilst behind them two others beat out mind-bending rhythms on dhol and another drum I didn’t recognize, and a third skirled wildly on harmonium. The two singers seemed to be adversaries. Then, to the delight of the audience, next entered, clad in rich red salwaar kameez and a fine red chador, a woman. Only this woman was a young, slender man playing the part of woman, just as would’ve been the case in Elizabethan theatre. Next to me, Indian storyteller Usha Venkateraman, herself a very poised, witty and skilful teller, told me the story was a kind of Romeo & Juliet. It seemed a hell of a lot funnier! The whole story was sung and acted and, performed as it was under a peepul tree, I could so easily imagine this performance under similar trees in rural villages stretching back hundreds of years. Stunning.
The audience was wonderful, intelligent, attentive and with a deep knowledge of and engagement with traditional storytelling. And the organisers worked wonders with publicity. I kept missing performers because I needed to give interviews for TV, for radio, for print media. That seems a touch more switched on than Blighty.
I had the honour of closing the festival on Sunday night. I told East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon. My telling might not be to all tellers’ tastes. It’s a serious story, Norwegian, from the Ancient Greek Eros & Psyche, and chronicles the journey of the Soul to Love, but the Norwegian version is so intrinsically funny! Talking bears, old ladies bearing impractical gifts which turn out to be just the thing that’s needed, and trolls so bad at handling frustration that they inflate and detonate? Now, you could tell this reverentially and solemnly, but, to a sassy, sophisticated & urban audience, who doesn’t believe in trolls, why on earth would you? I play the straight bits straight and the wonky bits wonky.
As you know, I can’t see my audience, not really, but can sense their attentiveness. I got to the end, a quiet, a low-key close, because the end is serious, and the applause engulfed me. It took Blind Pew a while to realise, but the entire audience had risen to their feet! They stayed there until they were quite clapped out.
And thereafter surrounded me for selfies, photos, autographs and handshakes. A woman declared, loudly, that I was “A rock ‘n roll storyteller! I’ve never seen a storyteller mobbed like this!”
So, I became a storyteller because I lost some sight. Do you believe me now when I tell that, even though sight-loss was my first real experience of grief, I honestly can’t now regard it as a misfortune?
India continues to astound me.
Giles Abbott, UK Storyteller