Chloë answers…
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What does a storyteller do?

As soon as there were firesides, there were storytellers. In what’s known as the Oral Tradition a storyteller hears a tale then later retells it in their own words. No learning scripts, no reading from books. It is a largely improvised spoken word art. Or craft.

I think of my work as verbal jazz. Definitely as entertainment. Like a jazz musician, I know the shapes and themes of a piece, how it starts and ends; it’s up to me to bring it alive in new ways for different audiences.

You learn timing, too. After dinner you might fill an hour with a mix of tales. In a festival slot you have only 55 minutes officially and you’d better finish on time, even if the audience took 15 minutes coming in… On BBC local radio your limit is three minutes!

It’s not acting. No scripts, remember? And unlike actors, storytellers make eye contact, we interact directly with the audience. Nevertheless, theatre skills are needed: to be heard at the back; to study and understand the piece; to have presence and hold the audience’s attention.

Traditional storytellers mainly work with folktales, legends, myths and wondertales (fairytales).

Modern storytelling is seeping into the UK from the European continent and from the USA: ie personal stories, true life tales, recent and contemporary fiction. My perception is that it’s taken a whole new generation of ‘tellers the whole 15 years I’ve been working to bring new creativity into the genre.

Many storytellers specialise in tales from their particular ethnic background or regional heritage. Stories can contribute to community (family) identity and give insights into history and culture.

Storytelling is also applied in therapy, in care for the elderly (reminiscence work) and for a wide range of disadvantaged groups. Some projects enable refugees and survivors to tell their stories, though not necessarily to the public.

In the whole of the UK, I’d guess that barely 600 storytellers work full time in storytelling.

Most people take part in storytelling as a hobby. And while that’s great for inclusivity and accessibility, and for community connection, it also means you’re more likely to encounter storytelling via unpaid amateurs of unreliable quality. I regularly meet people who “never want to hear another storyteller” because they’ve been bored out of their socks by an dull ‘teller. Yes, there are hundreds of boring storytellers out there!

The few full time storytellers make a scant living mainly from children’s events and from Arts in Education, or Theatre in Education, particularly linked to literacy. Children who absorb narrative structure and vocabulary through hearing and telling stories then move into reading and writing much more easily than those without story experience. Stories stimulate imagination and creativity. And when it comes to values, personal development and citizenship, teaching tales packed with moral messages have been used around the world for literally thousands of years…

Since the UK recession and especially since 2012, schools and arts budgets are severely reduced. What’s more, along with music and all arts and performance, there is now an expectation that if you’re a ‘creative person’ you’ll work for nothing.

Multi cultural dreaming

For me, storytelling is naturally – joyously – multi cultural. You’ll hear stories from around the world in my Schools repertoire and in my Story Cabaret sets and shows. For example Tales of Lust & Chocolate include stories from the Middle East, the Caribbean, the Welsh Marches, from France, Thailand and (of course!) Switzerland.

Lost Legends of Britain includes romantic Scottish folktales, English legends, scary yarns from Wales and East Anglia, and possibly some tongue-in-cheek blarney from near the Bushmills Distillery!

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How long is a story; how long is one of your performances?

Typically clients require one of the following

* After dinner 45 – 60 minutes
* Schools: a day of up to 4 x 50 minute performances with Q+A sessions; assembly 30 minutes
* Studio theatre performance around 85 minutes + interval
* Multiple minishows 20 – 30 minutes during a larger event; for example at heritage sites, museums, festivals etc.

During a set, however, individual stories vary in length. One piece might be 3 minutes, another could be 20 minutes. Mind you, an audience laughing uncontrollably can add several minutes..!

I design Story Cabaret sets to take listeners on an emotional journey. Most of my adult audiences are experiencing story theatre for the very first time, so I start with something easy and brisk. Then off we go into danger, drama, dilemmas; into the deep difficult places of being human… Finally the stories bring the audience back to a more comfortable emotional place.

I like to leave my audiences laughing – or at least mellow and dreaming.

Master storytellers can hold an audience spellbound with one epic piece for a whole evening. A fine example is Hugh Lupton working with Daniel Morden, in particular their Iliad.

The longest single story I currently present is 21st Century Scrooge which runs 55 minutes and is inspired by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. My re-creation features a bullying businesswoman with no work-life balance; it’s funny, romantic and thought provoking.

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Storytelling is just for children, isn’t it?

That’s what a lot of people think.

In our age of screen based entertainment, real storytelling has been relegated to kiddyfodder – something to keep children quiet. Same as balloon clowns or video game.

Storytelling is accepted as contributing to literacy in schools and libraries, but it struggles with a quaint old-fashioned image. And since 2008 most UK schools have no spare budget to hire storytellers.

In the 20th century, traditional storytelling found refuge in folk clubs and folk festivals. While this saved the heritage, I think it also contributed to storytelling acquiring a ‘folksie’-beardy-real-ale image with limited appeal. And now the folk scene folks are dying out so what happens next? I don’t know.

In every other major culture storytelling is ALSO a grown-up activity. From Australia to Africa, from India to Scandinavia, the heritage of traditional story is alive and actively enjoyed. By adults.

Some 30 years ago, a storytelling revival got under way in the UK. The revival has been determindly amateur-led and low key. Nationwide, there’s still no more than a sprinkling of story circles and clubs, and about 2 story festivals. Some of the whizzbang music and arts festivals, and a few literature fests, feature storytelling – but only in the kiddy tent!

Oh yes, I nearly forgot – the UK does have a National Storytelling Week. Last week in January/first week in February. When it’s too grim to go anywhere and everyone’s wallet is cleaned out after Christmas and the taxman!

Back in 1999 I hoped performance storytelling would follow in the footsteps of comedy or performance poetry – becoming cool, intelligent, young/any age.

It never happened. Research I commissioned in October 2010 revealed diminishing outlook for ‘storytelling’ – under that name. I now call myself a Spoken Word Artist. This has only a little to do with my natural pretentiousness… As a professional, it’s just not good to carry the tag of an artform that suffers from such a bad rep.

The truth remains: that good stories appeal to all ages.

Good storytellers – sorry, spoken word artists – have repertoire and speaking styles for business audiences as well as for children. And when you face a mixed audience with ages ranging from 7 to 70+, then you find out how good you are!

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How d’you remember it all?  Aren’t you scared of forgetting and drying up? 

Me – run out of words? Ain’t gonna happen! This is freestyle performance. No scripts. I can literally make it up as I go along. If I forget a bit, mostly it doesn’t matter or I can put it back in later. So I’m completely relaxed.

There are techniques to memorise story plots. I have a crazily vivid imagination. When I’m telling a story, I feel I’m standing right in that world – I see, hear, smell, know the texture of everything. My struggle is to select what’s important to get the story across to the audience.

The massive irony here is that, at school, I was the kid who couldn’t answer back. Hounded by playground bullies, I never could summon sharp repartee to see them off.

We live and learn…

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How did you get into storytelling? 

All my life I’ve loved words and performance. In 1991 at Sidmouth Festival I heard live storytelling for the first time: the late, great Duncan Williamson from the Scottish travelling community. He was fascinating. He had students. I thought, “I could do that”.

At the time I was working as a freelance copywriter: brochures, newsletters, leaflets. Also I was presenting training seminars throughout the UK and abroad; I already knew I could keep an audience awake all day.

In 1992 I helped steward a festival in East Anglia. Duncan was there. I was asked to drive him to Stansted Airport for his flight home. This was delayed and Duncan insisted I keep him company over a cuppa. He was nattering non stop, even after a whole weekend of talking! Finally I found the nerve to tell him I wanted to try storytelling.

To which Duncan responded, “Well then, tell me a story.” PANIC! But in those days I was trying to write fiction so I told the little story I’d finished the previous week. Surrounded by piles of luggage and yelling children. New details tumbled off my tongue as I spoke. Duncan looked me in the eye and said, “You should be doing storytelling.”

Only in late 1993 did I stumble across a restaurant that just happened to want a storyteller for a few Saturday nights. I had no repertoire, no idea what I was doing. I read my own stories. Even so, people enjoyed the evenings and came back for more – which was terrible for me ‘cos I couldn’t write new stuff fast enough. But I got paid for storytelling all winter!

By 1997 I had writer’s block. Desperately. My copywriting still limped along but my dreams of penning the next Lord of the Rings had bitten the dust. I was scared.

Somebody gave me a leaflet for a storytelling evening class. I went along knowing that I was already a competant public speaker. I thought, “If I’m telling a story out loud I can’t dither around waiting for the perfect sentence – writer’s block can’t get a hold – I’ve just got to spit it out, get on with it!”

That first evening, in the stone-floored studio by the crackling fire, was a revelation. The tutor was Alexander Mackenzie, a big shambling Irishman in colourful clothes; probably the most gifted spontaneous storyteller I’ve ever encountered. It was like coming home. I realised I might be good at this storytelling thing.

Having experienced many styles of storytelling and several schools of thought since then, I now know how lucky I was to find Alexander. He taught us to improvise and to be completely comfortable with freeform storymaking before we ever tackled the discipline of traditional tales.

Those two years of classes inspired me to change my life.

Karen-Eve joined the course in 1998. Both of us were keen to use what we learned. In November 1999 I organised the first ever Midnight Storytellers show, at the wine bar in Northleach (Gloucestershire). Nearly 40 people came but only because they knew me. An audience of business people and socialites, accustomed to London theatre… Karen-Eve and I were terrified. Worse, our tutor was to attend.

We rehearsed for weeks to make sure we sounded completely spontaneous! And then magic happened: that whole roomful of sophisticated adults was moved to laughter, tears and every emotion in between. Afterwards, Alexander told us, “You can go anywhere with this”.

Karen-Eve and I enjoyed working together but, with upheavals in both our personal lives, the business stood little chance. Between 2000 and 2004 we did the best we could, including amazing summer and winter shows at Westonbirt Arboretum (Gloucestershire) which are still fondly remembered. But it was desperately difficult to make contacts in the theatre, arts and entertainment world – “We’ve never heard of you; we won’t book you until we’ve seen you; you don’t have a track record” – and impossible to make money.

When Karen-Eve returned in 2006 to her native USA, to be with her ageing parents, the arts community in her North Carolina home town welcomed her with open arms and introductions to everybody useful. K-E now directs a respected local storytelling festival. Quite a contrast with the arts scene here, eh?

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I like the idea of storytelling but have no idea how to include it!

Do you have guests/ delegates/ visitors who would enjoy intelligent, spoken word entertainment?
Would you like sparkling creativity on a fair budget, without technical staging hassles?

Typical bookings include:

  • Studio theatres and village halls
  • Weddings, major anniversaries
  • After dinner for professional association
  • State and independent schools
  • Women’s events including WIs and business networking
  • Libraries
  • Museums and National Trust properties
  • Probus luncheons
  • Literary, Arts and Historical Societies including NADFAS
  • Business groups, conferences
  • Festivals – arts, fringe, literature, music, storytelling
  • Cruise ship
  • Wine tasting

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How can I try storytelling? 

Chloë has a background in training and will happily design and lead a course for your organisation, or an informal workshop for leisure learning.
Whatever the context, you’ll build confidence and skills. And discover the power and laughter of stories told live.
– Minimum group number 8
– Maximum 20

Chloë attends refresher courses and has much appreciated the following:

Hawkwood College (Stroud, Gloucestershire UK)

Stroud is in Laurie Lee country, and is a centre of alternative lifestyles. Hawkwood is a lovely big old house in pretty grounds on the edge of town. Many storytellers have taught here but recently the storytelling content has faded out. Look for courses on their events list.

www.hawkwoodcollege.co.uk    Tel (44) (0)1453 759 034


Wonderful voice – speaking and singing – and powerful stage presence. Glorious sense of humour. A generous, accurate and supportive teacher. She’s mainly busy on projects and shows but catch her rare courses if you can. Particularly strong on voice preservation.

Search for @ShonaleighQ on Facebook.

Annual Bleddfa Storytelling Festival (Wales)

Check through the website that the annual course is happening. Usually in August.

Week long course + mini festival with guest performances and tutorials, in a tranquil corner of Welsh countryside near Knighton/the English border.
Lead tutors are usually Hazel Bradley and Michael Harvey – impressively experienced, approachable, encouraging and creative. Explore story preparation and delivery: voice skills, verbal invention, non-verbal expression. Play with story!
Individual tutorials sometimes available – very useful – as is a HUGE collection of books.
You can camp in the orchard (delightful! – excellent facilities) or stay locally; self catering apart from lunch; evening meals available at local pub one minute’s stagger away…
Stimulating blend of playfulness and learning.

www.bleddfacentre.com   Tel (44) (0)1547 550 377

Hugh Lupton, Eric Maddern (Ty Newydd, North Wales) 

Two of the UK’s foremost storytellers have collaborated annually for some 20 years to lead extraordinary creative retreats at this Arvon-linked centre in Lloyd George’s old home on the Lleyn Peninsula.
Less a formal course, more a joint investigation. Playfulness blends with esoteric knowledge. We’ve taken mirrors into trees and visited a hermit’s cell in the wilderness.
Intensive story study and creation amid inspiring landscape: woods, rushing rivers, mountains, sea.

www.tynewydd.org    Tel (44) (0)1766 522 811    Also a full programme of writing courses

www.caemabon.co.uk  Tel (44) (0)1286 871 542   Eric Madden’s roundhouse and alternative living project, in the middle of ancient Welsh woodland.

International School of Storytelling (Forest Row, East Sussex, England)

Weekend, summer and full time courses in England and other countries, in various aspects of story from personal development to business communication/leadership. Emphasis on the connection of storytelling with general spirituality, nature and concerns about the environment.

www.schoolofstorytelling.com    Tel (44) (0)1342 822 563

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© All text and images unless otherwise credited Chloë Lees-Saunders 2017

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