There is something almost holy and transcendental about Myth, and the pedagogical importance of traditional storytelling has always fascinated me.
These forms are as old as mankind; their histories are lavish and their stories are as diverse as the human imagination. But, however diverse, all myths are unified by a true ‘purpose’.
Myths are lessons. Lessons on life, love, faith, ideology and society. Lessons that we so readily deny ourselves today. We have forgotten the developmental importance of stories.
Maybe because there are no myths about algebra, no folktales to help one remember the periodic table, that we have discarded them? Maybe we think ourselves beyond learning from fiction? That we are somehow too mature as a species to learn from anything other than cold fact?
Yet it’s folk stories that teach us about ourselves; about who we were; about why we feel the way we do and how to respond to universal problems. They present the Human condition. They teach us how to behave towards one another; the importance of heroism and strength; and the ramifications of cruelty, pride and aggression.
They also make for a truly spectacular show.
I have been chatting with the artist, Yokko abut her Butoh Medea and Lindsay Corr from the Scottish Storytelling Centre about the significance of Myth and the art of Storytelling. I’ve also had a look at some other performances visiting Edinburgh this year.
Storytelling in Scotland, as with many cultures, harbours the soul of its people. It is that fine fabric that weaves generations together; a living history kept alive by those who practice the tradition. And by those who listen. The Scottish Storytelling Centre is a working shrine to this tradition; I got in touch to ask what it was all about:
The Centre is the world’s first purpose built centre for storytelling as an art-form in Europe, which came out of plans to rejuvenate the space, which was called the Netherbow Arts Centre. Director of the Netherbow at the time, Donald Smith, alongside a core team of traditional storytellers had been operating a small scale Storytelling Festival and could see the potential for those interested in Scottish identity and values to discover them through a dedicated space celebrating, preserving and showcasing traditional storytelling told eye to eye, mind to mind and heart to heart. The City of Stories got its Storytelling Centre, right in the heart of the Old Town in June 2006, meaning we’re a decade old next summer!
– Linday Corr (Marketing and Communications Manager)
Lindsay talks about the value of identity, the preservation of tradition and, most importantly, human intimacy. I spoke further with Lindsay, she was kind enough to spare a few words on the true significance of storytelling:
Traditional Stories come from before the development of written language and folk tales were the way in which history and morality was passed down through the generations
It’s well known that Scotland has one of the richest oral traditions in the world:
Storytelling is in the DNA of every culture, but definitely more at the forefront in Celtic traditions as it was intrinsically linked with the traditional Scottish welcome of a ceilidh – a relaxed sharing of stories, music and song amongst friends and visitors … Humans have been telling stories from the beginning of time – through drawings before the development of language – and we continue to live our lives through narrative, even in our modern technological world
So here we all are, with a chance to experience one of Scotland’s proudest assets, a chance to celebrate the national heritage behind the international festival:
Scotland’s traditional folk tales are the everlasting literature of humanity. They ignore reason, logic, fact and history, and favour the doorways of imagination and dreams. They speak to creative powers lying dormant in us all and speak to what is not, yet must always be
– Bea Ferguson (Chair of the Scottish Storytelling Forum)
I have pulled out a few enticing performances from this year’s programme to talk about.
It seems only right to start with Callum Lykan, a traditional Scottish storyteller. His show, Brave and Free: Traditional Tales of Scotland, will be on at the Scottish Storytelling Centre throughout August. There is a wonderful recording of one of his stories, follow the link above to listen. What is most resounding about Lykan has as much to do with his tone, his charm and his own engagement as about the story itself. So much of what makes stories impactive is how invested the teller is; how transcendental the experience is for them. There is something about Lykan’s telling that is deeply mesmerising, allowing the story to flood in.
Bea Ferguson tells us what we can expect from traditional Scottish stories:
The basic components of Celtic myth are the works of gods and goddesses, often reflecting worship of a mother goddess connected with nature and with respect for the land, as well as mythical creatures like selkies and the fairy folk. Passing them on to future generation’s preserves history through the ancient beliefs and attitudes inherent within the stories; giving a deeper insight into how people experienced their world
– Bea Ferguson
The Master Storyteller, Xanthe Gresham-Knight, is another must-see performing at the Scottish Storytelling Centre this year. Her show, Morgana Le Fey, retells the interwoven mythology of one of England’s most devious and notorious witches. Her shows are traditionally composed; using song, dance and storytelling to haul her listeners back to the Arthurian wilderness. Gresham-Knight and her co-performer, Nick Hennessey, are a playful duo who relish in their story; they come very highly recommended.
Lip Theatre Company also have a Scottish tale in store for us from the Hebridean island of Colonsay, The Selkie and the River God. An interesting tale, one which neatly comments on our own relationship with modernity and heritage; the two worlds of the living and the mythical. A Selkie is a creature from Celtic folklore. They are of two worlds themselves; living as seals in the ocean but taking exquisite human forms on land. Their tales are normally romantic and tragic, and Lip’s story combines the temptation, betrayal and power of these legends into something new for us. This is a play that is returning to the Fringe after a successful go at it last year and I’m looking forward to seeing it.
Donald Smith, the Director of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival, recalls one of his most important storytelling experiences:
It was the Edinburgh Folk festival in 1979 and I went along to listen to Scottish Traveller tradition bearers – Belle Stewart and her daughter Sheila Stewart. They were mostly performing ballad singing that evening but in the middle of the set, Sheila launched into a story called ‘Orangie and Aipplie’. For the first time I experienced hearing a story told by a person whose whole culture was shaped by oral Storytelling and she delivered a magnificent traditional tale with complete personal and artistic commitment to story and audience alike. It was a conversion moment for me that bore fruit much later but was never forgotten
– Donald Smith
It’s that commitment to the story, to those listening, that really sets these traditional form apart from the others. To see a true storyteller is to see someone engaged in an act that, to them, is as necessary as breathing.
Thank you to Lindsay, Bea and Donald for agreeing to contribute to this article.
But it’s not only the Scots who can weave an epic yarn; here are a few companies with folktales from across the world.
KILN come tearing up from the underworld with their show The Furies; a fierce collision of concert and immersive theatre. The Furies are amongst the most spectacularly grotesque and terrifying of the Grecian legends; they are tormentors, creatures cursed upon mortal men who have wronged women. KILN’s show looks like an amazing way to spend the early hours of the morning; the lights, the screams, the bodies, the music, all clawing at you. Prepare yourself for their vendetta.
The Ship Of The Ryukyu is making port with a new show, Okinawa Sansan. This company are on a mission to bring the cultural heritage of Okinawa to the world. These mythical islands off the coast of Japan have a rich history of performance; native dances, instruments, costumes and stories barely known by the international artistic community. This new show tells a traditional story of life and love on the tropical island, and is likely to be a wonderfully majestic and exotic experience.
Yokko, a fascinating performance artist for Japan, has totally reinvented Euripedes’ Medea; combining the contemporary Japanese dance form, Butoh, with the ancient myth. Butoh Medea, adapted by Sean Michael Welch and directed by Brian Rhinehart, is a jaw-dropping rendition of a classic tale of devastation and human downfall. I caught up with Yokko; I wanted to ask her about why myth is so important:
Myths are powerful. Myths are relevant to today’s society. Human beings deal with the same struggles – family, relationships, culture, war, rules. Who does not have these struggles? Constant struggling is a very human thing
There are universal truths embedded in our oldest tales, and that’s a very comforting and unifying thing. The framework of the human condition remains unchanged beneath the ever-turning wheel of modernity. I asked Yoko what Butoh brings to the myth:
Butoh came from post-World War II Japan. Human struggle is one of the essences of Butoh, known as the “Darkness Dance.” … In this production, we wanted to make [Medea] as human as possible, so adding the Butoh element helps make her human by going to her inner dark place. She is struggling with herself, as we all do. Butoh touches the dark place inside all of us
With familiar tales, especially ancient ones, the way in which the tale is told becomes paramount:
Myths are flexible and able to be adapted to how we want to tell a story addressing relevant issues. Many myths are well-known to theatre audiences, so practitioners look at how to tell the story, and how we can connect with the audience … In this production, Medea’s spirit is on stage telling her story. I have been inspired by Japanese Noh theatre and using Butoh … to tell Medea’s story from her perspective. I am telling a story of human struggle through Medea, which resonates with many people in this world … Yes, we retell these stories, but we approach them in a different way. In this production, Medea speaks to the audience directly. The audience will experience what happened to Medea with her.
So what does Butoh Medea have to share with us?
Butoh Medea teaches us that we are all human, no matter what we do. I want the audience to feel it, experience it, and think about it after they see Butoh Medea … She tells us, “we are all human beings”
I cannot wait for this show; it is shaping up to be one of my most eagerly anticipated outings. Thank you to Laura Kressly for putting me in touch.
Haste Theatre really caught my attention with their show; The Hideout. What interests me most about this show is it’s composition and, what I believe to be, the ingenious combination of ancient and contemporary form. Haste have combined jazz, dance, clown and Ancient Myth to create the perfect atmosphere for a transcendental theatrical experience; something that borders on the ritualistic. The term ekstasis in Ancient Greek theatre was used to describe a spiritual awakening; a divine possession experienced during performance. Ekstasis was achieved through the ritualised use of song, dance, tragedy and comedy; a multi-disciplined journey into transcendental liberation. Whether by design or sweet coincidence, The Hideout incorporates all of these liberating forms… I can’t wait to see it.
I need to somehow crowbar Kate Tempest into this article; not only for her expertise as a storyteller, but also on account of her exceptional poetry collection, Hold Your Own. Tempest will be performing for one night only during the Edinburgh International Book Festival and giving a talk alongside her Editor, Don Patterson. Tempest is among my most favourite artists; having enjoyed her plays, Spoken Word, her music, and her writing. Hold Your Own is a collection of personal poems that recount, or perhaps accompany, the ancient myth of Tiresias. What a rich tale to retell! The blind man, the woman bestowed with inner sight, called upon by the gods to settle a timeless quarrel between the sexes. Tempest presents our common state as one that is blind. blinded by the safe and shining distractions we surround ourselves with; distractions that numb the troubles of modernity, driving us there and back between madness and alienation.
Fiesta de los Muertos, by Modern Troubadours looks like an interesting bag of bones. Through a combination of international folklores, music, dance and storytelling, the Troubadours look at the relationship between life and death through the prism of the Mexican Festival of the Dead. What interests me most about this show is the universality; they look at our differing understandings of death, travelling between numerous cultures, folktales and myths, unifying us all under the veil of mortality.
These are stories that help us grow.
They are stark reflections, the historical ledgers of our mistakes and triumphs; if our heads and hearts are open to the idea, we could better ourselves by engaging with them. We’ll never outgrow these stories.
We won’t ever reach a point when reflection becomes trivial. We must remember to learn from the past. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t argue if you were to say that ‘ these stories are for children’; I would simply point out that, in so many ways, we are all still children. Lindsay Corr agrees:
Stories are the connection between cultures and generations through the ages. Storytelling encourages participation and develops confidence and self-esteem, which is crucial in a world being increasingly quietened and less orally exchangeable due to technological advancements.
If you’ve never been along to a storytelling event then give it a go. It may just surprise you.
– Lindsay Corr
For a final thought, I think this sums it up perfectly:
words carry a soul