Within the broad remit of ‘spoken word performance’, an evening of storytelling is a relatively anomalous thing to encounter. Storytelling itself, compared to live poetry or stand up comedy, has an inverse relation to standard modes of communication; to drop lines of self-composed verse into conversation will raise eyebrows and pre-meditated attempts at humour often seem transparent to the point of faux pas. Anecdotes, however, are an indispensable staple in any type of conversation that it’s possible to have, which means that, in everyday life, it helps to be good at telling stories.
My own encounters with storytelling in its performative capacity stem from ceilidh-going in the Highlands. Now, more often than not, a ceilidh involves drink and dancing, but in the traditional sense a ceilidh is large gathering akin to an open mic night, where attendees take turns to entertain one another. Drinkers and dancers are not excluded, but they take their place alongside chanteuses, bards, hecklers, reciters, and whoever else. Storytellers always seem to dominate these proceedings, because they take the longest amount of time to deliver their bit and now, through organisations like the Crick Crack Club, such storytelling is making some kind of comeback.
When we watch a film, a television show or a piece of theatre, we encounter complex stories told by multiple voices. What makes formal storytelling different is its vocal singularity and simplicity; it shows how the scaffolding of a narrative, with only one guide, is more than sufficient to edify and entertain us. However, an evening where we listen to three distinctive guides build such structures with words goes beyond sufficiency into something approaching sublimity. If you’ll further indulge my architecture metaphor – by the end of the Crick Crack Club’s Dia de los Muertos celebration, it was as if an entire street had been constructed, rather than just one solitary house.
The Day of the Dead theme celebrates death and life and the pleasures thereof; universal themes that allowed the speakers to use creation myths, folk tales and metaphysical morality plays, amongst other ‘types’ of story that could be adumbrated by analysts. Stories, though traditional, are heterogeneric things. They allow the figure of death to change from the scythe-wielding black-cloaked skeleton into a snarling dog, a burrowing substance hiding from God’s angels in an old lady’s skirts or an effervescent removed presence that watches over a ludicrous scene. There is room for every sort of permutation there.
Tellers are equally heterogeneous. This is an expected statement, but it bears repeating. What a successful storyteller does largely predicates itself on the communication of personality. Tim Ralphs’ style, for instance, seems entirely composed of his personality. His stories were charming, funny, and familiar, and they were told in a casual and comfortable manner. He also, I think, received the most palpable emotive response from his listeners at the climax of his first tale, which had something to do with the confluence of his down-to-earth sensibility with an aesthetically imaginative moment of climactio in his prose. When you adopt the position of ‘everyday man speaking to his contemporaries’, as Ralphs does, you effectively stress the commonplace aspects of storytelling, and point towards its relation with everyday life.
Which is one way to do it. The other way is to emphasise its distance from the contemporary. In a way, this is what TUUP (The Unorthodox Unprecedented Preacher – pronounced ‘toop’) does by appearing in traditional African clothing, blessing the stage with ‘a little libation’, and utilising percussive instruments: all of these things draw more attention to storytelling as an ancient tradition that requires declaiming and ritual, and has a strong relation to music. He frequently used the chair, while the other tellers stood. The stories that he chose for the occasion received the most laughter from the crowd, possibly because they revelled in their quality of contrivance. They were also by far the most abstract; the kind of abstraction that is sometimes mistaken for postmodernism, but actually was expressed in older literature like Guillaume de Lorris’s Roman de la Rose, and the Arabian Nights. When, like TUUP, you speak through these all these layers of traditional culture, you end up sanctifying a bond with our ancestors, thereby easing the dislocation with older modes of being that we might feel feel after exiting the tube station and being immersed in the urbanised architecture of Shoreditch.
Clare Muireann Murphy is still more different. When she tells a story, she does not just rely on words; the words completely shape her physicality. As she describes the droopy skin of an old man searching, so her eyelids seem to gain weight and her cheeks hang down. Watching her, we become aware of ourselves interacting as a group, aware of our collective enjoyment at the spectacle informing the narrative. If we close our eyes while listening to her then we miss an entire expressive dimension of her telling. Murphy does not just speak her stories: she performs them using her body.
Even though protean and integral enough as to be imperceptibly subsumed into the everyday and old enough to be of archival interest, storytelling also a form of art which lives upon the stage; through performance, it subsumes theatre, comedy (and any other generic boundary you can think of) into itself to make the ancient seem fresh and relevant.