Storytelling Training and Skills

An address by Donald Smith
of the Scottish Storytelling Centre
to Storytellers of Ireland/Aos Scéal Éireann
Training Day 25thSeptember 2005
At Collin’s Barracks, Dublin
Sponsored by The Arts Council Deis Scheme

Well, it’s very, very nice to be here.  It’s very exciting actually to see so many positive and enthusiastic and also talented people all getting together to really put the shoulder to the wheel of advancing the storytelling scene in Ireland.  It’s very exciting and it’s tremendously positive for us in Scotland because, really, we can’t do what we’re doing if you don’t do what you’re doing, if you can see what I mean. We sort of depend on each other.  And just in that regard, I thought I might begin just by mentioning something.

"They were not butterfly-in-the-case scholars..."

Sixty years ago the world was a rather eventful place.  It was 1945 and there was quite a lot going on, one way or another.  The atomic bombs had been dropped.  The concentration camps were being opened up in Europe and it wasn’t maybe the happiest of years and yet that was the year that the Irish Folklore Commission, based here in Dublin, employed a Scotsman, a Gaelic speaking Scotsman called Calum MacLean to start to act as their professional agent (not like one of the many volunteer collectors who supported the work of the commission), to gather stories in the Western Isles and Highlands of Scotland.  A quite astonishing fact when you look back on it.  And that was to have huge implications.  I don’t think I would be sitting here today talking to you if the Irish Folklore Commission hadn’t done that in 1945, because it lead on to the foundation of the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh, which was founded by Calum MacLean and Hamish Henderson.  Calum MacLean was a very interesting man.  He was a Gael, as we would say, a native born Gaelic speaker.  He was born on the island of Raasay, which is between Skye and the mainland.  What’s interesting about that is that that was a very, very Presbyterian, Calvinist Protestant island which was to produce some very, very talented people including Calum MacLean’s older brother Sorley, who was to be become probably the greatest of the 20th century Scottish Gaelic poets.  However, Calum MacLean really found a second home, a spiritual home, if you like, in the Uists, in South Uist and Barra, which were of course the great Catholic islands of the Western Isles and great centres of tradition.  He actually converted, he became a Catholic.  He died tragically, quite young, from cancer.  But in his time he made a huge impact, not just in the sense of the scholarly side of folklore, which, of course, is very important and led on to the School of Scottish Studies and all that. (And when the school was founded one of the first things was that the Irish Folklore Commission donated to the school copies of everything that had been collected by Calum MacLean in Scotland under their auspices.)  But there was another side of it, that was actually (you could argue in the long run), almost more important - and that was that Calum MacLean and likewise his Scots compadre, Hamish Henderson, were passionately committed to the maintenance of living traditions of storytelling and song.  They were not butterfly-in-the-case scholars.  They were absolute cultural, and to a large extent, political activists in Scotland.  They were people who came to be hugely respected in communities up and down the country and they brought to the attention of a wider public not just the continuing existence of the older traditions of storytelling and song, but that those living practitioners and artists of those traditions deserved a place in the modern world and a recognition for their artistry and their knowledge.  And really in doing that, (in not simply withdrawing the thing into an academic institution and spending their time in going to those worthy conferences that academics go to over the world),  in doing that side of it, they sowed the seeds of a much more community-based activist revival of older traditions that is still going on.  And out of all that, storytelling was probably the last thing to get on the wagon.  (I know storytellers here are always trying to get off the wagon – we were busy trying to get on.)  The music and the songs got the attention first and gradually people began to realise that the storytelling thing was strong.

So that’s a wee background, because I think the values and attitudes that were laid down there continue to be so important.  A living community thing, albeit in changed and changing social circumstances.

   "What was it that we learned from the older traditions?"

Now what did we learn?  Because we’re really here to talk about training and skills and all that sort of stuff.  What was it that we learned from the older traditions?  What was it that, as people who were keen on storytelling and keen to take storytelling forward, what was it that we learned from the Calum MacLeans and the Hamish Hendersons and the people they collected from and that they brought, and indeed, the Tradition Bearers who are still coming to our clubs and to our schools and all the rest of it?  I want to suggest to you that there were three elements, if you like.

One was that storytelling was supposed to be entertaining, it was about entertainment and that was at the core of the tradition.  And by the way I just don’t mean humour there.  Entertainment is something wider than humour.  The capacity to hold and engage was utterly fundamental.  I mean, nobody was going to sit there out of a sense of duty.  And I’m sure we’ve all had the experience at times of listening to some people - that it was a bit like ploughing your way through a whole giant packet of Allbran that was a month past its time.  There is a sense and there remains a sense - and I think you have to own up to that and you have to put it up front at the very beginning, that there is - I’m not going to say ‘natural talent’ because I don’t actually necessarily believe in that concept – (I’m going to go on to talk about skills, skills that can be learned and improved.) I think I’d rather talk about ‘natural inclination’ because, at the end of the day, I do profoundly believe that that sense of ability to hold and engage comes, if you like, from people’s internal imaginative delight and engagement with stories.  If somebody in their own mind is not hungry to know about stories and listen to stories and live with stories then what they do isn’t going to come across of interest.  So you can see there is an element there that is about natural inclination.  I’m not going to put it stronger than that but I think we have to acknowledge that and say that this is going to be right for some people - for some people it’s going to be right in a big way and for others perhaps it isn’t.

That was the first thing we learned from the tradition:  the element that everything was based on entertainment, a good way to pass the time whether it was aimed to be consciously humorous or not.  And I suppose what we carry on from that is just the enthusiasm, the desire to know about older traditions and stories and that’s something we all take forward.  It’s an aspect of imaginative inspiration.

  "There is an art in storytelling and there is a craft to the telling of stories..."

However there were two other things that we felt we were learning from the older tradition bearers and tellers and one is the whole area of art and craft. Because there is an art in storytelling and there is a craft to the telling of stories. There’s an art in stories. To be sensitive to the structure and pattern in stories.  To stories that work well, stories that work less well. The stories that are going to be good for you because of their appeal. The stories  that aren’t going to work for you. There is a whole area of an artistic sense of how the imagination pans out in a story that is for oral telling and has been honed and passed on through oral telling. And that is where we have to be ready to challenge the Arts Councils of this world, to say: this is an art. It is an art that is thousands of years old. And there is a deep level of construction, of form, of pattern, there’s a whole aesthetic about the way stories work and don’t work. And it is an art and we can study it and we can learn about it and listen to other people telling stories. And we can listen to how it’s done in other cultures and we can learn more about that art. And that is an art that if we respect it, as practitioners of it, then we should also expect those who are responsible for supporting and conserving and developing the art and the creative skills that lie behind it - we should expect them to recognise and support the art of storytelling.

And then alongside that there are the craft skills of the telling, you know, which are more just knacks, knacks that we can see in operation, that we pick up from experience. That we can be pointed to by others and helped learn. And as somebody who is enthusiastic about storytelling, you feel you just go on learning. Years and years and years of just listening and enjoying what different people do and the way we do it.

So that was the second element, the entertainment, the delight and the enjoyment that’s passed on and that we can gather from the older traditions. There’s the demonstration of art and of craft and those are things that we can actually study and we can learn from. So, remember , we’re talking about this in term of the training.

"The tradition of the ceilidh house was the great social tradition in which storytelling took place..."

And then there’s a third thing which I think is in some ways the area that we’re still most neglecting and that we’re just kind of opening up and beginning to deal with. All of the storytelling traditions existed in social contexts, right? The storytelling happened in specific social situations and that was not accidental. If I can just give two wee examples of it from our Scottish side, and remember - this is in the context of what we learnt from these early pioneers who brought the older traditions back to our attention. One of the things they were very, very good at and Calum MacLean has a marvellous, very easy to read book called “The Highlands”, where he spends a lot of time describing the actual situations he heard the stories in and the people he heard them from. Now in the highland or most rural side of the culture in Scotland, which still in the Highlands and the Western Isles was mainly borne on Gaelic, it was language-borne on Gaelic, the tradition of the ceilidh house was the great social tradition in which storytelling took place. And the ceilidh house, all it meant was the house where people knew if they went along in the evening they were going to get some stories. And all that ceilidh meant was “visiting.” It was just a form of neighbours getting together. And the pattern of what happened in the ceilidh house was one of those under-stated things. It wasn’t an obvious ritual but actually it really was. Everybody was so familiar with it that it just gently found its place. People would come in bit by bit and they would exchange a wee bit of the news, what had happened that day, what the news was,  maybe then there might be a bit of a wider discussion about something that a newspaper had told or some development or somebody’s relation or whatever. And from musing and gossip and anecdote, at some point it would just slip in and somebody would tell the first story and after that it was a pattern of story and song exchange. And that, if you like, was a very profound way and a yet very unforced and natural way of emphasising neighbourliness, the sense of community. And perhaps the particular stories that might be chosen to be told… there might be a reason for that. It might be, oh, somebody just felt like telling that story and that was entertainment or that was somebody’s special story and they told it. But it might also have been some kind of a response to something that was happening in the community or in the wider world. And I’ve heard the ceilidh house tradition described almost as a Community Health sort of thing, as well as the do-it-yourself entertainment and, as well, as the main social structure which bore the community. Remembering, of course, as well that in those days, certainly in Scotland, the structures of organised religion were very distant. People all have this thing: “oh it was so religious…”. But actually in that older highland society religion was quite distant to the reality of life in local communities.

Now the other social aspect of the tradition of ceilidh-ing was an urban one. We didn’t have a famine. We had the blight, a much milder form. We didn’t have the huge trauma of The Famine of the 19th century and the mass emigration. What we had was successive generations of Clearance.  First in our Lowland areas, where people were cleared off the old farms villages and settlements to towns. And a lot of them came to the North of Ireland, actually, at different times and then on to America and Canada and the rest. And then in the 19th century when urbanisation really set in and there were huge pressures on “congested” areas of both the Highlands and islands, we had big clearances both overseas and into the Scottish cities which just mushroomed. And this was all tied up, in our case, not with agricultural failure but with Industrial Revolution. But the key thing was a massive disruption of the social and community patterns of the majority of the people.  And it was after people were cleared into the cities, whether that was in America or here, that there was this tremendous upsurge in organised religion. The churches became the  backbone of people trying to hang together for some kind of solidarity in the cities and out of that grew a great tradition of urban ceilidh-ing which was similar in its social purpose but really it enabled people with some kind of common connection, whether it be of place of origin, or culture, or a religious element or whatever it might be, or a class, a social class thing – the survival of the working people in these situations. People would tend to get together in a pub or houses and share stories and songs and that was a  very humour-driven thing and some of our blackest, sharpest, absurdist stuff came out of that (and Glasgow was the great fulcrum of it), out of that kind of urban ceilidh-ing. And it’s interesting because the romanticised idea of older traditions tends to forget all that side of things. But that was an equally powerful and important part.

So, if we recognise that there are those three elements - the entertainment, the inspiration, the imaginative delight; there’s the art and craft; and there’s the social context - what does that mean about how we might develop our skills and knowledge as storytellers working together and separately in today’s society?

We’ve worked on the theme for a few years now of what we call “Traditions and Skills” That’s what we call our training programmes. And they’re always based on the humble recognition that to some extent, storytellers are born and not merely… whatever. You know, there’s always got be a sense of acknowledgement that people are going to come at this in different ways. And, remember, of course, you see the great thing is that in traditional culture and in a traditional community all these different aspects – the art, the craft, the inspirational delight, the social context and how that worked for the storytelling, was picked up as people went along, because they were part of it, they heard it, they knew what was going on, they soaked it up and the people who were sharp picked it up and saw what was going on and learned from it. And that’s not so easy now. We have to network and work together and look at very different social contexts.

So “Traditions and Skills” is the theme we’ve taken and that, if you like, is a recognition of two aspects-- One: learning from tradition. (And when I say that, I mean all the aspects of tradition as I’ve talked about and described this morning; the social effectiveness, the entertainment, the art and the craft.) There’s so much that could be learned from the traditions.  And those might not just be Irish and Scottish traditions ( in that case they’re all hopelessly mixed up anyway) but we might be talking African traditions here. There’s all sorts of ways in which we can learn on this side of tradition. And that’s acknowledging that there’s education here as well as training. There’s a growth of knowledge and awareness that goes on that is educational and vital for storytellers and for people who are supporting and working with storytelling and you can see an arena there – you want to educate your arts officers and your librarians and your teachers -- there’s a whole scope of people that’s drawn in on that.

"What is a repertoire?"

Two: On the skills side there’s the whole business about the art and the craft of stories and telling. So there’s a focus there on the actual narrative sources, whether those be traditional or contemporary; how they work; how you can choose; how you can develop, how you can work with them. And then also the individual teller’s skills and enthusiasms and interests and experience.  And, a very, very interesting question actually, which takes you to the whole heart of this and I don’t even intend to begin answering or even suggesting an answer, because I think it is something you will want to wrestle with, collectively and individually:  What is a repertoire?  What is it that an individual storyteller should garner and develop and how do they do that? And do you just go around listening to what your mates start telling and pick up the good ones in the hope they’re not going to be there when you tell their story or whatever -  And it wasn’t their story because they stole it from someone else in the first place.

There is that whole fascinating question of how do you develop a repertoire that’s right for you? It’s a fascinating question and it’s tied up with that whole education and learning and growth of skills thing and you could call it a lifelong pursuit. So there’s that set of education and skills that are all around the tradition and skills side.

Now there’s another set of skills that have become more challenging for storytellers because of the diversity of contexts in which you might find yourself telling stories now.  The natural arena for storytelling was in the ceilidh house, or by tenement fireside or whatever it might be. Now, let’s not abandon that. That can still happen and in fact. I detect sometimes just a little glimmer of a revival of interest of people just doing gatherings of friends in their own houses. You know I think that’s there and that’s very interesting. However if you’re getting into storytelling now as community volunteer, as a working storyteller, to some extent, working professionally you’re going to end up in libraries, you’re going to end up in schools, down here in Dublin you’re going to end up in prisons, in barracks – it’s amazing where you’re going to be, and each of these situations is going to call for a set of interactive skills, right? It’s about the response and how you handle that. It’s about the telling of stories and it’s what you get back, what you enable by the telling of stories, what you get back from people and how you work with that creatively and positively respond to it.

And I believe, of course, that that was always a part of the tradition -- the sense of response and engagement. But I think it’s become more important now because so often you’re asked in where people are looking for the storytelling to be entertaining, to be delightful and all those things, but also maybe they want it to inspire or open up some kind of educative process or it could be a community development situation where you’re trying to unlock what it is people want for their own community or their own situation and that could be a geographical community or community of interest – you could be working with a mental health group…. The variations are numerous. But in a sense what each of them is asking for is for the storyteller to go a wee step further forward than simply telling their stories. But, as I say, I refuse to see that as something that is entirely different from anything that’s gone before because I think it is about similar skills and active engagement but perhaps one has to be consciously aware of these being used in a different way and certainly applied to very many different situations .. And therefore that, I think, becomes very specifically something that we can learn about, that we can work together to improve what we do. And we can bring other people in who have different kinds of skills that would impinge on what a storyteller does. Ask them to support what we do and at the same time in these partnerships, whether with a teacher or an educator or with a health worker or with a community worker, there’s a two-way thing there where we storytellers can learn from them and, in fact, we’re going to see more of those people really becoming storytellers as well, which is an exciting thing. But also we have something to give.

"We don’t want to claim that we’ve suddenly become magical healers..."

There’s a phrase that is sometimes used in discussions – “parity of esteem”. I’ll stick it to the wall here as well, because that is an area we do have to think about, how we’re engaging in what we’re doing. We shouldn’t illegitimately trespass on areas of professional skill. You know there can be wee lines of demarcation here. Sometimes these need to be respected because we don’t want to claim that we’ve suddenly become magical healers, or whatever it might be. However there’s also an issue that what the storyteller does in that situation also deserves respect. Parity of esteem. It’s not just a matter of saying, “Right, oh well done, yes, if you come along we’ll have three stories, please, on why children shouldn’t pick their noses….” – you know? Yeah, you know what I’m on about there.

OK, so: education and knowledge of the sources; the skills, the craft, the art of telling and of developing your storytelling; the interactive skills which are demanded by new situations and contexts, working with youngsters and all the rest of it.

And fourthly: developing our understanding of these different contexts and what’s going on about them and the different partners. And then a final point , an absolutely pragmatic one, but I’m sure one you would be very much aware of yourselves as you’re laying the keel, if you like, of co-operation and structure as a network yourselves. You’d realise immediately that, as storytelling develops, there are all sorts of areas of business and management skill, teamwork, project work – like, it’s one thing working as an individual storyteller, what happens when you have to work with a group of other people. There might be other storytellers, there might be teachers and the rest of it in it. So there are all sorts of practical – parade-ground skills we could call them really here - about the management, teamwork and structure and all that.

(Pat Ryan: It’s not only training the storytellers and organisers of storytelling,  but it’s training those other professionals, too, how to work with storytelling.)

Yes, sure. So there are practical aspects there which might find a place in a training programme. I’ve brought along copies of the last three years of Scottish Storytelling Centre workshop leaflets.  And we do a selection in a central venue, as it were, but really only in order to promote the possibility of these themes happening in other places as well. If you see what I mean, it’s like the carrot. If you say:  “at the storytelling centre there will be this workshop..”  then what you’re also saying is, “but a local council or library or education authority could organise something around this theme that we could provide a storyteller for”. And behind that as well, I think it is also important to say that we do regularly do this --  get together as the working storytellers to work out ideas and share new things that are happening.

(Donald reads from SSC workshop brochures)

Storytelling Step-by Step That’s become a very established one. Introducing storytelling skills for librarians, for teachers or whatever.

Resourcing The Tradition.   Which is, as it were, re-sourcing.  Engaging with different strands of material.  For example, a lot of people in Scotland say, “Oh, you know, Norse  stories are not about us” and then you find we’ve got all this Norse stuff in the North of Scotland and we can get in at that level to the tradition of the sagas.

Can You Hear Me at the Back?  A voice workshop.

Taming Pokemon, Power Rangers and the Power Puff Girls . “This workshop looks at how the energy and enthusiasm children have for popular culture can be drawn upon in the classroom to develop fun learning activities.”

Doing the Business  … That’s storytelling organisation.

Telling to Tots – Storytelling with the Under Fives
Also there’s Beginner & Intermediate Storytelling Skills, Classes with experienced storytellers, Masterclasses.

Living Stories: Children as Story Makers  The kids developing their own (stories). Because when you tell kids stories that gets their imaginations going, they want to create and tell stories themselves.

There’s a thing there on Scots language. The language, it’s a great way of getting language resources, getting people interested. We have Gaelic Media in the schools now so the storytelling’s a great way of getting the teachers and the pupils naturally using it.

And there’s one we co-did with the Edinburgh Harp Festival on Storytelling and Harping So there are two of three people now that are doing storytelling and harping and that’s becoming popular.

What did we have this year? Oh, Glendale Gathering for Scottish and Irish Traditional Storytelling on  the Isle of Skye.. We had workshops, walks and talks – and the man who talked most was Miceál Ross! No, no it was great, wasn’t it? Stunning. We had two days of astonishing sunshine in a remote glen away up in the North West of Skye, which is saturated with stories and traditions.

I’m finito-ed. The thing I will say though is: I wouldn’t ever want to be an embarrassment by saying, “This is the way you should do it.” You will find your own ways of organising and themes and your own ways of tackling the geography issues. But there is something I want to say very quickly, to finish:

I’m finishing back where I began about the whole exchange between Scotland and Ireland and all the different mixing of traditions, past and present, which seems an endless non-stop process that goes on. We have an international storytelling festival every autumn, The Scottish Festival, at the end of October each year and next year will be the first year that we’ll be back in our new Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh in The Mile, which we’ve been working away at and developing for the last five years or so. And for the first festival in our new home we’re going to take Scotland/Ireland as the theme. We’re going to go right back to our roots.
So I just want to say that I am looking very much at developing a programme. I hope that we are going to be able to invite some of you folks over. Others may travel over to be part of this.  We’re talking to the Irish Government about doing this, because it’s all about, again, respect, and the place of storytelling and the structures. We’re speaking to the foreign affairs people and I think that would be a great occasion for us. It would be wonderful to have you folks over. But also I think it might lead on as well because that hopefully will also assist in giving momentum to the increasing recognition that you folks are now gaining here and we hope the increasing support that your work will have from the government agencies, North and South.