by Helen McKay
Text of an address to the Australian National Library, Canberra – October 1997
I look out my office window 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 sunshine and showers. Almost as I watched, bulbs forced upwards spearing 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 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 artform 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 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 became the popular artform, surpassing storytelling, as people in the computer age were able to self-publish and promote their work.
Because of the exciting discoveries, the world began to embrace the technology with a passion previously unheard of. Our lives now 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.
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. Consequently, there is currently a big swing back towards the communication artforms. 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 Springtime – it’s storytelling’s turn for a place on the cultural agenda, as people feel the need – once again – to make that elusive connection with the storyteller. The truths, values and healing powers of stories are more relevant today than they ever were. Many people live alone and with only a television or computer screen for company; are starved for the most basic of all needs – the need to communicate with others. Storytelling answers this need at a very basic level.
As he has done since the beginning of time, the storyteller transmits the 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.
George Miller, the film-maker, found to his amazement “that stories connect us through time and space. As his Mad Max films made their way around the planet, they seemed to resonate somehow, culture to culture. As he says in his article The Apocalypse and the Pig, ‘To the French they were post-modern, post-apocalyptic westerns and Max was a gunslinger. In Japan, he was an outlaw samurai. In Scandinavia, a lone Viking warrior.’ They were all examples of the `universal hero’ myth, which is the basis of all good stories”
When he wanted to shoot one of the Mad Max movies at Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) in the mid 80s, he discovered something even more incredible. George says, ‘To the Aborigines of the Central Desert, this place – Kata Tjuta – is sacred. We were required to sit with the tribal elders of the Pitjantjatjara and present them with our story. They had heard the story before. Many of its motifs and archetypes corresponded to some of their own. So here were the custodians of a culture 40,000 years old, and connections were being made.”
Storytelling is not a new artform – 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 the significant events of our forebears to connect us to our family mythology.
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.
In his book `A recipe for Dreaming’, 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 a storyteller telling his story to you, orally.
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.
Because of a new awareness of its value in communication and education, storytelling is currently enjoying a world-wide resurgence. At the recent Australian National Storytelling Festival we saw many examples of the power of story. There were tales, which first brought laughter then tears – Donald Davis was a master of this type of storytelling – and he played us like a fiddle, as he wove his magic with stories. Children came to the festival and competed in the final of the NSW Junior storytelling event, telling existing stories, or stories they had written. One young lass reduced us to tears with her story of a rabbit.
Although some of us were aware of it, we discovered that storytelling is an excellent device to encourage children to listen to stories – then read and write their own; often switching on reluctant readers. Parents who spoke to us, were overjoyed that their children had finally found something at which they excelled.
During that weekend we heard stories from historians, stories from our Aboriginal communities, stories from other cultures. All the stories we heard, were very relevant to our lifestyle today.
I have an interesting example of how storytelling and technology can work together. We were contacted by a group of Norwegian students, who had seen our website in Norway and while they were here – in an exchange student program – rang us in Sydney – from Queensland, to book 9 seats; before climbing into two cars and travelling down to Sydney for the Showcase Concert.
Financial recognition for the festival, came from the Australia Council and Arts West Australia. I believe that support firmly places storytelling up on the cultural agenda with other activities. Although we were not funded by Carnivale, we were promoted and publicised by them.
We also experienced unheard of support from the media. Two National radio stations aired interviews and daily storytelling performances, while television interviews were aired at prime times by Channel 9, Channel 10 and Optus cable TV. The child storytellers were recognised by the media, who interviewed them on both radio and television. Many newspapers and magazines (including some very prominent business ones) gave space to articles about the festival and its participants. Our competition winners were interviewed by the media.
Recently, I attended a function at which, I was thanked for encouraging that particular Asian community to tell one of their traditional stories at the ’97 Festival. Initially, they didn’t value their stories and were surprised, when I asked them to perform. They did it brilliantly, highlighting the story with dance and drama – it was one of the most popular performances on the program.
This performance gave them a sense of value as a community – they now felt that their stories were valid. This group say they will continue to encourage their people to tell – not only the stories from their homeland – but also stories of the struggle to find acceptance in Australia, their new country.
People with disabilities told wonderful stories – we had a brilliant 4th generation profoundly deaf woman, who told a wonderfully funny story by signing, with the assistance of an Auslan interpreter. A blind man came with his beautiful black Labrador dog and told us a wickedly funny story, and a lady from West Australia, ran a most inspiring workshop – Follow your Dreams – from her wheelchair – and later, told stories in a group storytelling session.
Throughout the weekend, we enjoyed the opportunity to attend our choice of twenty six workshops (many of which were booked out), five concerts, four group tellings, three competition finals, some swapping ground performances and – not a partridge in a pear tree – but a Liars’ Contest – complete with a “Load of Bull” trophy.
From where I view it, storytelling is experiencing a groundswell of enthusiasm, throughout the world and certainly – within Australia. When we called for expressions of interest from guilds around Australia, we received 76 excellent workshop propositions from professional tellers. Deciding which to place on the program was very difficult. We also tried to make the program truly representative of the talent in this country. This meant that some of our storytelling concerts were quite long. But it was all so worthwhile. It is really surprising to see the depth of talent we have among our professional tellers in this country.
People praised our committee for inviting the international storytellers who came from around the Pacific rim – our regional neighbours. Together with our Australian storytellers, they created an interesting blend of cultures over that weekend, building bridges of understanding and acceptance.
We found storytellers who worked in schools, community organisations, health facilities, social work situations, children’s entertainment, the corporate communications area, tourism, writing and performance – to name but a few. Storytelling currently seems to be the `flavour of the month’ in the communications industry. The tellers who attended, were drawn from all ages and occupations – the diversity was surprising.
Opportunity knocks for storytellers in this country, as tourism grows. I have travelled on trains, planes and ferries – especially tourist boats – and heard the most dreary recitals of statistics – usually about overpriced real estate- rather than the wonderful stories associated with those places. Yet some of the really interesting stories about the historical places in this country – taped – as are the descriptions of paintings in our more innovative art galleries – could make our journeys so much more enjoyable and interesting.
Our guild has been approached to train guides, in some tourist venues, to tell the stories of those places, rather than recite a list of boring facts, as they currently do. Good storytelling can bring tourists – and the wealth accompanying it – to this country in the future. The year two thousand is almost upon us – with its Olympic tourist hordes – what an opportunity for storytellers to polish some of the folk tales of Australia. The tales of Australia lie on the ground like gemstones, waiting to be discovered and polished.
Health facilities are increasingly using story, to release people from problems, such as, grief, post traumatic disorders and other stressful symptoms, allowing their patients to resume normal, happier and productive lives.
Educaters are realising that storytelling is a very cross-curricular activity. If you get kids involved with a story, you can do so much with it – extending it right across the curriculum.You can feed dry food to kids, saying it’s nutricious – but although they may eat it – they won’t enjoy it. Using story, changes the subject into chocolate and the children will always ask for more.
In a recent newsletter is an article about the use of storytelling, to counter bullying in schools in the UK. I can see that we can certainly use those methods here, as bullying is a major problem, which needs to be addressed in our schools.
From these few examples I have given, you can see that opportunity certainly knocks, for storytellers, brave enough to step out and think laterally in a changing world. But to make a career of storytelling, we must first get the public to accept that storytellers are professionals, who need to be paid a reasonable fee for their work. They need to be housed, fed and clothed; just as other professionals, such as librarians and teachers.
Many activities, where speakers, writers, performers and storytellers have been invited to perform, the only appreciation of their services – for many years – has been the pretty card, box of chocolates, bottle of wine, souvenir spoon or bunch of flowers. While the gifts are delightful, they don’t do much towards feeding, housing and dressing these talented, professional people.
The speaking industry has addressed this problem by setting standards, which now bring fees for keynote speakers from $2000 to $12,000. The irony is: the best speakers in the world are great Storytellers!
To gain a greater appreciation for their talent, and fair payment for their storytelling skills, the NSW Storytelling Guild saw a benchmark was needed, by which organisations hiring storytellers, could gauge their worth. We also felt that it would give storytellers structured goals to work towards, helping improve the standard of storytelling in our guild. So our guild instituted an accreditation process.
Accreditation is on three levels: Accredited Storyteller, Professional Storyteller, and Master Storyteller. The accredited status is recorded on each membership card, which hiring organisations know to ask for, and a certificate is issued at each level. Since this began a number of years ago, the standard has lifted and payment to tellers has improved, although it still has a way to go yet. Our guild encourages anyone who is keen to develop the skills needed, to come and learn at our workshops, preparing them for a career as a storyteller.
Whether storytelling will continue to be regarded as just a “nice folk hobby”, or as a “professional career choice”, in the future, is up to us, the storytellers. The financial rewards that speakers have achieved, are available to storytellers.
By gaining the public’s acceptance that we are professional storytellers – the same as teachers, librarians, or health workers – who are regarded as professionals, we can achieve better rewards for our work. This will take committment and an attitude of professionalism by all storytellers. We must unite to give the Guilds strength. The Guilds are dedicated to fostering the art and image of storytelling for their members.
The Bi-ennual National Storytelling Festival, has stimulated the interest of both guild membership and the public, who make up our audience. It is up to us to keep up the momentum, carrying storytelling bravely forward into the new millenium.
To quote George Millar, “Somewhere in our neuro-physiology 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 © 1997
– Text of an address to the Australian National Library, Canberra – October 1997