Posted by: blethertaygither | May 8, 2010

Rosy Glow or False Dawn? Reflections on a storytelling seminar

‘Rosy Glow or False Dawn? Growing Storytelling in the 21st Century’ was a two day storytelling seminar at Edinburgh’s Scottish Storytelling Centre in March 2010. I’m not going to go through all the discussion sessions here in any detail (it’s a marathon sized post as it is anyway!). Clare Murphy posted a substantial set of notes on the event which you can see on the Professional Storyteller network.
Instead I want to highlight a couple of ideas inspired and drawn from my own sketchy notes that I think are relevant to storytelling today and the club networks (and Blether Tay-Gither) in particular. In the main, I can’t attribute ideas to individuals so my apologies are noted here. So, here goes:

  • The art of the People
  • Growing Audiences
  • Training Opportunities
  • Interesting Projects

‘It’s the art of the People’ – Clare Murphy

Everyone at the seminar agreed that storytelling is vital, but there are inevitably some tensions between the professionalisation of oral storytelling and its universality as the ‘artform of the people’. This can be seen in the difficulty in securing funding for projects, how is it categorized? Part of literacy? Part of the visual arts?

And then there’s the notion that storytelling is just for kids. In the last year we at Blether Tay-Gither have gathered a more diverse set of members in terms of ages and nationalities. But there is always the danger that this may lapse. It was suggested that introducing an element of competition can be good. I know that storytelling, especially in Scotland, advocates a sharing, generous nature, but it was pointed out that adding a competitive element can draw the interest of young folk. The success of Story Slamming in some areas was noted, and local examples of the Tall Tale Oscars in Edinburgh and Glasgow mentioned. Poetry slamming with its close links to hip-hop is increasingly popular.

In England, the Young Storyteller of the Year competition is popular. This is split into three age bands, 16-18, 18-21, and 21-25. Winners are selected by a panel of judges, and the competition is promoted in schools. To me, this is extremely positive. It reinforces the fact that storytelling is not just for primary children, young tellers are encouraged, and even if they do not take up the mantle, awareness has been raised.

We were told of the success of Clare’s group in Ireland (sorry Clare, can’t remember what your group is called or where it is based!) with numbers regularly reaching over the one hundred mark and falling mainly in the 20s-30s age groups. The club grew organically through predominantly word of mouth and has had to change venues on a few occasions to find bigger spaces to hold everyone.

Milk & Cookie Stories (Putting Stories in the Spotlight) is another club in Ireland enjoying success and which is also appealing to the younger age groups.

Blether Tay-Gither is fantastic. We have a great atmosphere in our club nights, and I felt torn when I heard about the number crunching success of other clubs. Yet, even as it is, we struggle to fit everyone’s stories into a single evening. If we had just double the numbers (say 40 folk) then we would end up having a marathon 6 hour club night or, more practically, have half the group leaving without the chance to tell. I do think it’s important however, to try and tap into the younger folk, and to that end, perhaps story slamming as an additional activity is something which should be explored more deeply in the wider storytelling community in Scotland.

Growing Audiences

There was discussion on the need to educate audiences on what storytelling is. All too often tellers turn up with teachers and listeners expecting to be read stories out of a book. This is true of funding bodies as well as lay audiences. Sometimes gimmicks are necessary to get folk to come along and experience storytelling. Ireland’s ‘Tales on the Rails’ project (telling stories on trains) got lots of publicity. It was suggested that schemes like this can help to develop audiences and raise awareness. Another exciting project was a storytelling marathon in Spain (tellers had 10mins each, every member of the village was involved, for a weekend right round the clock). This reminded me of hearing about a story walk week in France where a group of tellers walked for a week, sharing stories en route, and having story ceilidhs every evening. I believe they sang for their supper if I recall correctly, making the project affordable…

Adrian Johnston claimed that, ‘You can shape the story to the ears of the funder’, which I loved! But that is true in most situations; a story is spun to enhance the best, more innovative, exciting elements.

Growing audiences requires targeted marketing. ‘Stories, Stovies and Songs’ at the Village storytelling in Glasgow sold out every month. The general consensus was that food/café environments were particularly successful. Certainly our ‘Stories and Samosas’ event in Cupar was very popular!

Clare suggested that a key way of marketing events is by telling folk what is happening, then tell them again, and finally tell them what has happened afterwards. There is a definite need to make use of electronic communication. Growing audiences require targeted marketing.

Someone (perhaps Adrian?) said what to me was an incredibly simple observation, yet one which I had never considered before:

‘You need to say what kind of storytelling it is.’

No-one would go along to a gig or music event if it was simply advertised ‘Music’. We need to be more specific and let the audience know what to expect, what they will feel, what they will experience. I’ve tried to start putting that into practice but it’s hard. Maybe I need more marketing experience!

Another element in the promotion and marketing discussion was the need for tellers to take control and responsibility for evaluation. To count numbers, speak to folk, ask them if they have seen this kind of thing before, hand out feedback forms, and so on.

Something which works well along with food at storytelling events is stories in Special Places. Finding atmospheric locations is great. Finding the ideal venue has been one of Blether’s biggest challenges. One memorable evening was onboard The Unicorn in Dundee. It was Amazing.

Storytelling on the Unicorn

Training Opportunities

Lots of groups offer workshops on storytelling skills, but is there a need for organisational/business plan training and repertoire development in the wider storytelling community?

Story ‘repair’ workshops were discussed, apparently popular in USA, following Doug Lipman’s rubric (presumably this is from The Storytelling Coach). These are generally residential sessions where tellers bring a tale they have been working on (a challenge, different from their normal repertoire) and ask people to respond – seeking something more than simply ‘that was a nice story’. A type of critique and providing a way to grow as a teller in a supportive, safe environment. It is similar to the tried and tested ‘two stars and a wish’ approach – affirming and praising what is good and requesting a wish for the next rendition. I like the idea of this workshop, perhaps it is something Blether could investigate in the future…

Interesting Projects

The Human library

‘The Human Library is an innovative method designed to promote dialogue, reduce prejudices and encourage understanding.The main characteristics of the project are to be found in its simplicity and positive approach.
In it’s initial form the Human Library is a mobile library set up as a space for dialogue and interaction. Visitors to the Human Library are given the opportunity to speak informally with “people on loan”; this latter group being extremely varied in age, sex and cultural background.’


[murmur] is a documentary oral history project that records stories and memories told about specific geographic locations.


  1. […] Rosy Glow or False Dawn? Reflections on a storytelling seminar […]

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