A Case for Storytelling

(c) Nicolas Laborie

I don’t want to name drop or anything but, well, I’m going to.

Back in 1996, when I was a trainee electrician, working on a super-low-budget short movie, I found myself sharing the back seat of a car with two, hopeful, unknown actors. One of them was Ewan McGregor and the other was Jude Law.

Ewan expressed the view that acting was all very well but his perfect job was “Like in the old days, when everyone gathered around the camp fire – I would tell stories and everyone could listen. I could do it for hours.”

That was the first time I ever thought about storytelling. Now, it’s my full-time job. No longer an electrician, I have a successful career spinning yarns myself. There are hundreds of professional storytellers in the UK. Although of course, like all artists, we could have the rug pulled out at any time.

Because… in a wider sense, the arts are in crisis. Take “Aye Write” for example. Glasgow’s behemoth of a literary festival, has just been cancelled at the last minute. London’s Vaults festival has gone, despite a huge fundraiser to support it. And now, Britain’s oldest storytelling festival, Beyond The Border, has closed forever too. I could go on. Festivals, venues are vanishing away as we watch. This is terrible because we need art of all kinds more than ever.

Technology is changing the way we relate to the world. Our society is algorithmically saturated with anxiety, division and rage, leaving people grieving and perplexed. Right now, we are desperate for art to refresh and renew us- to wash the dust of life from our weary souls.

Oral Storytelling as an artform that is uniquely suited to now. Unlike political spin or journalism, oral storytelling brings people together- in person- and creates understanding not division.

Whether the tale is literally true or something more mythical, we respond instinctively to it’s spoken humanity and (many studies have shown) we can’t help but feel in sympathy with the speaker. Our listening is imaginative but effortless because storytelling is primal.

Ancient folktales can connect us with precious cultural heritage or identity. True tales bring history alive or help us imagine other people’s lives. Stories can make us laugh, cause shock, bring joy, or they can scare the daylights out of us! Oral storytelling is the root of filmmaking and literature and yet it’s utterly different because, it’s communal, participatory and empathetic.

It’s perfectly placed to bring wonder and magic to our modern world.

Even better, we do not need much investment to bring this art to a wider audience. A performance costs almost nothing aside from the storyteller’s fee. It’s very gentle on the planet. There is no requirement for materials. It can be done without electricity. It can happen almost anywhere without disturbing the neighbours- in a garden, a front room, a school, a gallery. I’ve experienced dazzling storytelling with the crowds in Trafalgar square while I’ve ALSO been moved to tears by a short anecdote, told without a mic, in a community centre. Whether high or low, The Word casts a spell over us and we remember how to listen as well as speak.

I’m here to make a case for more Oral Storytelling in the UK. If you work in a school, why not book a storyteller? If you are an academic, consider storytelling for your next project. If you’re arranging the office Halloween party, why not book a storyteller? If you are a government (or an arts philanthropist)… why not fund a storytelling festival? It’s just what we all need. I reckon Ewan McGregor would agree to that.

4 thoughts on “A Case for Storytelling”

  1. Oh! Vanessa. This was heartfelt. We need to keep the stories alive. We need the storyteller to thrive! When stories get lost, the world gets lost!
    Thank you for sharing!


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