Storytelling’s springtime

(A southern Hemisphere offering)

I look out my office window, from time to time, on to what was until recently, a patch of almost bare ground. We’d experienced a particularly cold winter and small plants in that garden had received little to nourish them.

Suddenly, it was September. Spring arrived with its bright sunshine and frequent showers. Almost as I watched, bulbs forced upwards through the soil, their leaves reaching high, to feel the warmth of the sun. Buds followed and in days, there were clumps of splendid daffodils, bringing their dazzling colours – yellow, orange and gold – to that previously dull corner.

A bare-branched magnolia burst forth, covered in glorious rosy bloom. Other plants sprouted new growth and quickly formed buds, as they gained their nourishment from the spring rains and the sun.

Storytelling in this country, is a bit like my patch of garden. The art form has been there for many years, but with the advent of television and other forms of electronic entertainment, suffered a little from the cold of winter – and a loss of nourishment.

The storytellers were all still there, but storytelling was not being accorded the status it deserved. The new electronic media had caught our fancy and we all rushed, to keep up with all the developments, in this new `Gee Whizz’  technology. Writing the stories – rather than orally telling them – became the popular art form, surpassing storytelling, as people in the computer age were able to self-publish and promote their work.

Because of these exciting discoveries, the world began to embrace the technology with a passion previously unheard of. Today, our lives move at an even faster pace than ever, with the advent of the Internet. Ideas and information, race around the planet, at the speed of light, to bring us together into a closer global community. We swap information in seconds, by email, with people on the other side of the world. What would previously have taken weeks, by traditional mail, now allows full conversations, in minutes.

People are reacting to this change in an interesting way. The more they are required to interact with electronic machines, the greater seems to be the need for human communication in their leisure time. There is currently a big swing back towards the oral communication art forms. Performance poetry and theatre are, once again, popular forms of entertainment, as audiences seek that which they have lost – the art of one-to-one communication.

Now, it’s storytelling’s turn for a place on the cultural agenda, as – once again – people feel the need to make that elusive one-on-one connection with the storyteller. Storytelling is humanity’s oldest tradition. Through stories, we learn our values, and how to overcome adversity. We seem to have a deep-seated need to share our stories with others.

Storytelling is not a new age art form – it’s been with us since the beginning of human communication. First came the cautionary tales – warning of the dangers lurking in the unknown – outside the cave. Then came tales of triumphs and disasters, of joys and sorrows. These stories have been passed down through generations, telling of significant events in the lives of our forebears, connecting us to our family mythology.

The truths, values and healing powers of stories, are more relevant today, than they ever were. Many people, who live alone, with only a television or computer screen for company, are starved for the most basic of all needs – the need to communicate closely with others. Storytelling answers this need.

As the storyteller has done since the beginning of time, he transmits pictures in his head, through his oral and body language, to his audience – a truly human exchange of his vision. This exchange is a two-way phenomenon; as the audience, in turn, sends back signals that they received his pictures, allowing the teller to continue with the story. This process is called entrainment – the connection of two minds.

In his book `A Recipe for Dreaming’, author and storyteller, Bryce Courtenay, says: `Each of us has been designed for one of two immortal functions – as either a storyteller or as a cross-legged listener – to tales of wonder, love and daring. When we cease to tell or listen, then we no longer exist as a people. Dead men tell no tales.’

Aboriginal communities agree, believing that the loss of their stories – and language – is a recipe for disaster for their people.

Films, television and other forms of electronic entertainment, cannot fulfil the need of human beings, to share their stories and experiences. You cannot react to a film image, in the way you can to an oral storyteller, telling his story.

Story entrains minds – it has the ability to reach down deep into our souls and open up blocked areas deep within us, releasing grief, wounded feelings and suppressed creativity. The freeing up of these blockages, allows us to expand and grow – to reach our creative potential.

From where I view it, storytelling is experiencing a groundswell of enthusiasm throughout the world, and certainly, within Australia. It is up to us, to keep up the momentum, carrying storytelling bravely forward, into the new millennium.

To quote filmmaker, George Millar, “Somewhere, in our neurophysiology, we’ve been hard-wired for story. There is a kind of narrative imperative — we can’t be without stories and we will find them where we can”.

Helen McKay © 2009
Author: About Storytelling – ISBN086806652-4
published by Hale & Iremonger, Australia