"You need to understand stories and know how to ‘inhabit’ their worlds and let them inhabit you."
Ben Haggarty, Storyteller.
Seven ways to become a better storyteller
Storyteller Ben Haggarty gives his best advice for performers, based on over 35 years of experience retelling traditional tales – folk tales, fairy tales, myths and epics – around the world.
Don’t stick to the script
There is no fixed text in traditional ‘passed on’ storytelling. A traditional story is not about reciting something you have written down before. It is spoken word performance found genuinely in the moment. I know the plot of the story – ‘what happens’ – deeply and well, so I am free to tell it in a spontaneous way appropriate to the occasion, the mood of the audience, my mood, an aspect of the narrative that I feel needs emphasising on that occasion, or many other things.
Understand every character’s perspective
This is an important way to allow your story to change depending on your mood or situation. So one time, I might say: ‘Everybody was sitting in the room, they heard a noise at the door, and they turned and they looked and there was a woman…’
But the next time I might say: ‘She approached the door. She could hear them talking inside. She threw the door open…’
It is also a reason why storytelling can have positive benefits for the storyteller. Sometimes, professional storytellers are asked to do ‘applied storytelling’ – for example, working with young people with who are at risk of falling into crime or are at risk of re-offending. In inviting a person to explore re-telling a story from the point of view of an objective narrator, then from the point of view of the person who has committed the crime, and then from the perspectives of the victim and others who have been affected, this seemingly simple exercise develops an emotional literacy or conscience. That can gradually filter into the teller’s own life, nourishing ‘the golden rule’ that underpins many of the world’s spiritual traditions: ‘Do as you would be done by.’
Be aware of the difference between the narrator and the characters
The narrator is an important difference between storytelling and acting. When you act, you understand the role and motives of one character; when you tell, you have to be able to understand everyone and everything from every perspective. You need to have complete control of that ‘voice’, which is responsible for relating the events to the audience.
You can use direct speech to ‘become’ a character at certain moments. When you do this, you enter the world of the story, seeing everything through that character’s eyes for a moment. Your audience are immediately shown the nature of the person. But you shouldn’t do it for too long - you need to keep that narrative control.
Create a connection between the audience and the storyteller
Storytelling is about co-creation. The audience are not passive spectators – they need to realise that every element of their response may affect the way the story is constructed, and that the performance is a unique gift for them. This means that the ‘fourth wall’ between the teller and the audience has to be demolished immediately.
‘Call and response’ is one way to do that, and it’s a common feature in oral traditions across the world. My storytelling club is named the Crick Crack Club, after the call and response traditions in some Caribbean islands. In Haiti, for example, when a storyteller wishes to tell a story, he or she calls out, ‘Crick?’ Those who wish to hear the story affirm, ‘Crack!’
It can also be done with physical complicity, raised eyebrows, winks, shrugged shoulders and other gestural comments, as well as physical displacement in the space.
Eye contact with audience members as individuals is also important. Even if a storyteller is blinded by stage lights and can’t see the audience, the audience needs to feel that contact. A good storyteller will be able to hear or sense the audience reactions – movements they make, intakes of breath, or a silence – and change their pacing, physicality, volume, tempo and the order in which they reveal the events to the audience accordingly.
Collect stories and remember them
Many of the British storytellers are indebted to the great Scottish traveller, Duncan Williamson (1928 – 2007). He had a phenomenal repertoire of about 2,000 stories – jokes, folktales, fairy tales, and ballads – which he shared with as many people as he could.
Another more formal ‘professional’ tradition of storytelling can be termed the ‘Bardic’ tradition, which survives and thrives in many parts of the world. I have met West African Griots, Korean Pansori singers, Turkish Ashiks, Indian Pandvani Singers, Kyrgyz Manaschi, and many others.
In Ireland, the 12th Century ‘Book of Leinster’ describes the Irish bardic training, which lasted for 12 years. It had a curriculum which involved learning 350 stories (250 ‘prime stories’, plus another 100 ‘secondary stories’ that were restricted to the masters). This wasn’t just a question of memorising plots and details. Central to bardic training was the challenge: ‘He cannot call himself a poet who cannot harmonise and synchronise all the stories’.
What this meant was that to be a true bard, you needed to understand the stories and know how to ‘inhabit’ their worlds and let them inhabit you – something that comes from many years of experience, and is as true of modern storytellers as it was for the bards.
Storytellers with such vast repertoires are rare these days. Most of my stories come from old collections of folk tales in book form. Experience has taught me to discern quality.
Allow your stories to evolve
I’ve told the ancient Sumerian epic Gilgamesh for longer than any other story in my repertoire and it constantly grows and changes. As a 20-year-old, certain elements of the story meant certain things; as I’ve got older different aspects have taken different importance. It has also changed as I’ve told it with three different musicians. Tunde Jegede played the 21-stringed West Africa kora (harp); Manya Maratou played the Turkish Ney (reed flute) and Darbuka (drum); and currently I’m working with Jonah Brody, who plays electronically treated ukulele (Hawaiian lute) and the Japanese Koto (horizontal harp). The soundscapes created by each different musician suggest different worlds.
I had the honour of working with Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble for ten years and researched stories that have travelled back and forth across countries and continents. In Ireland and Japan there is a common story in which a butterfly emerges from a dreaming person’s nose, and then returns, seemingly having carried the sleeper’s soul on a journey. There’s another tale common to both countries in which a generous brother is healed of a physical affliction and rewarded with gold by otherworldly beings (fairies in Ireland, demons in Japan). His greedy brother, however, gets his affliction doubled. Both stories are also found in West Africa, Italy and possibly everywhere in between.
‘The folk’ – that’s me, you and everyone else – have always enjoyed this common repertoire, and recognised and valued the truths they contain and shared them.
In my experience the best storytellers are of a deeply generous disposition, who recognise and celebrate the commonality of human experience.
Ben Haggarty is a pioneer of the British Storytelling revival. He cofounded The Company of Storytellers, and has directed many international Storytelling Festivals including the third UK International Storytelling Festival at London’s Southbank Centre in 1989 and the Beyond the Border International Storytelling Festival in Wales.
He is Honorary Professor of Storytelling at the Arts University of Berlin and Artistic Director of the UK-based storytelling organisation, the Crick Crack Club. He is the author of the MeZolith series of graphic novels which look at the Stone Age origins of Storytelling.
Ben will perform at the International Storytelling Days at the Hans Christian Andersen Festivals in Odense, Denmark, from 20-22 August, which is supported by the British Council. International Storytelling Days performances are free of charge. Find information about the festival, including performance times.