Monday, 23 August 2010

Hi Folks -this fresh from the Independent on Sunday over here in the UK. Come early -and help us put our enormous, resplendent School of Myth Tibetan tent up!One free doughnut and a used copy of 'Trickster Makes This World' for every hour spent hauling gear. See you there!

from The Independent & The Independent on Sunday
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Tall tales: Meet the storytellers spinning edgy new yarns for the digital age
Spinning a good yarn is the most ancient of entertainments – but thanks to the iPod generation, it's getting a new lease of life

By Lena Corner
Sunday, 22 August 2010S

Should you be at a loose end in the country next Saturday night, in a field in Higher Ashton, not far from Exeter, you'll find a storyteller named Martin Shaw. He will be giving a rendition of the 13th-century European masterpiece Parzival – a tale of knights, loyalty, romance and the search for that pesky, elusive Grail. He plans to start his yarn before midnight and finish some time around daybreak. Bring coffee and a warm blanket, advises Shaw; it's an all-nighter, but not as you know it.

Shaw's marathon tale is one of the highlights of next weekend's Westcountry Storytelling Festival, a three-day extravaganza of myth, saga, epic and plain-old fairy story told by the top tale-spinners on the circuit. While it's not quite Glastonbury, it has slowly been gathering followers. "We started out nine years ago with a group of about 100 people gathered in a meadow in Devon," says artistic director Chris Salisbury. "Since then it has grown exponentially." It's a similar tale in South Wales at the Beyond the Border festival, which takes place against the dramatic medieval backdrop of St Donat's castle, perched on a cliff-edge. When it started in 1993, a humble three storytellers featured on the bill. Now there is a cast of 90 telling tales to an audience of a few thousand. It is the biggest festival of its kind in the world.

"Storytelling is an art form with deep integrity," says Salisbury. "It is so simple and stripped-down. A good tale well told doesn't need set design or costume. It's as if our lives have all become a bit complicated and this is what we seek."

The revival of interest in the art form can be traced to the mid-1980s when Hugh Lupton, Ben Haggarty and Sally Pomme Clayton formed a collective called the Company of Storytellers. The group spent the next decade tirelessly promoting its craft, teaching new blood how to spin a yarn and, crucially, persuading people that storytelling was a valid adult art form. "There was a misconception that stories were to be told only to people under the age of six," says Salisbury. "People began to realise this wasn't necessarily so."

Prior to this revival, the oral tradition had undoubtedly been on its last legs. One of the last remaining troubadours was Duncan Williamson, a Scottish traveller who had a repertoire of 3,000 riddles, tales and ballads he'd learnt at his grandmother's knee. He took to the road at the age of 14 to share his extraordinary knowledge, but died three years ago at the age of 79. "It really was a forgotten art form," says David Ambrose, festival director of Beyond the Border. "Our forebears knew all about it but we forgot how vital it was. I think it was a social thing, to do with the fragmentation of the family unit. I'm sure TV played a part, and the rise of literacy – we live in a world where things can be written down so we no longer have need to remember them."

Although storytelling occupies a territory somewhere between comedy, poetry and theatre, its reputation also suffered due to an association with crusty old men telling tales of goblins and dragons. "When it gets done badly, and it does, it is truly awful," says Salisbury. "It's a folk tradition which comes from the heart so you do get a right old mixture. At least at festivals there is a quality-control filter in place."

Ambrose believes storytelling's revival is tied up with a resurgence of interest in live performance, particularly music. "For a while we all became a bit infatuated with TV, film and digital art forms, but people have become hungry for live experiences again," he says. "You only have to look at what's gone on in the music industry. Live performance of any art does something that recorded performance can't." '

Most storytellers describe their craft as the art of painting visual images in listeners' heads. Some believe that to tell stories is their birthright and calling, while others study at one of the many storytelling schools in the UK. It is never, ever about reading aloud: Salisbury compares good storytelling to improvised jazz; as the musician riffs on a familiar tune, so the storyteller breathes new life into familiar tales.

And so the scene continues to grow. You only have to look at the audiobook market, currently one of the few areas of growth in the publishing industry, to see how much our appetite to have stories told to us has been whetted. The scene is particularly vibrant in Scotland, with much new work coming out of the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh, and in Shropshire, where the annual Festival at the Edge attracts thousands. Meanwhile, in London, the Crick Crack Club at the Barbican, also started by Ben Haggarty, has raised the bar for storytelling and often sells out weeks in advance.

A final indication that something is afoot is that finally storytelling has spilled out from within its specialist confines. Literary festivals such as Bath, Cheltenham and Hay have brushed aside any snobbish preconceptions and welcomed the tellers in and now even mainstream festivals such as Latitude, Cropredy, Big Chill and Port Eliot all feature serious storytelling programmes.

Ambrose believes his job now is simply to continue spreading the word. "The business of telling and the business of listening is deeply, deeply inside us," he says. "The Greek myths, Persian epics, Arabian Nights, Brothers Grimm, they form the backbone of what we know of the world and give us the ability to say something about what it is to be human. It's our job to make it speak to now."

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