01.05.2004

Tell me a story - And I'll imagine the world

Adrian Glamorgan taps into the power of storytellers to unleash our adult and child imagination with more than just a hint of a "Once upon a time . . .

Adrian Glamorgan taps into the power of storytellersto unleash our adult and child imagination with morethan just a hint of a "Once upon a time . . .

You can tell fairy tales to children, as Bronwyn Maddockdoes to her five year olds in kindergarten classes.Their eyes light up like the peaceful candle they sitaround. But I've also seen a café theatre chock-a-blockwith adults hanging off every word Brian Hungerfordutters, in his blustery, husky voice.I've seen grownups' eyes open wide when Jenny Hill gives an all-agemythic story performance, while children in the audiencesit still, silent and expectant for an hour beside theirdelighted mums and dads. Nurse Julie Goyder has usedthe 'everyday act of storying' to remake meaning outof Alzheimer patients' shattered memories. Jasmin O'Hara'sCeltic mythology participants now rediscover their ownlife purpose in their retelling of an ancient story.And we are told that in the times before, stories criss-crossedour continent and kept all living things well and inharmony throughout, thanks to the Dreaming. Tell mea story, it seems, and I can imagine the world.

Brian Hungerford says that when he was growing up,"There was no such thing as serious storytelling. Itwould be insulting to tell a story to adults. I wroteradio plays - 42 of them, for the ABC." Brian endedup working for the United Nations in Third World countrieswhere they used storytelling and informal drama to promoteagricultural techniques. "I watched the storytellersin Africa, they had distinct techniques. People whowrite are often judged by their description. In storytelling,people describe a character just as a 'beautiful girl'.Everyone's got different imagination that they bringto it. You see your own sense of beauty in a story."

Brian distinguishes his own trade from how it's oftentreated in a library, when a story gets read from abook to little children... "With the best motives they'retrying to inculcate reverence for a book, but it educatespeople away from storytelling." Brian now tells storiesfrom all sorts of traditions (Celtic, Spanish, Japanese,Romani and personal stories). He is an encyclopaediaof storytelling. He might relate how Little Red RidingHood was a story of hapless wolf seduction in 15th centuryFrance, or how in Sumeria it was the questioner whowore the red hat, and Grandma with her shamanic wolfskin cape would relate answers from the Other World,chant it, and a coven would attract a man by it, sohe could be eaten.

Usually without prop, sometimes with his uillean pipes,Brian will perform before audiences of any size up to10,000. "It depends on culture," he says."Here, 20 seemslike an audience. In Asia, they'd say no one was there."Australian men are often reluctant to come, broughtalong by wives. "It's not what 'normal' people do,"Brian says. "It seems like 'kid stuff'. By the end ofthe night these men'll be the strongest part of theaudience."

He teaches his art. "Storytelling is the easiest thingto do quite badly. People try to elocute. They learnit off by heart. It becomes unlistenable, unless it'sdone by a good actor. For some people, it's difficult,but everyone has it. The myth stories are the rightside of the brain, the feminine and creative side. WhenJack comes home with three beans, his mother alwayschucks them out the window, she doesn't plant them ina row. That would be left side thinking. When Parsifalinherits the Red Knight's horse, it bolts, he has nocontrol, it goes everywhere. Eventually Parsifal learnsto sit up straight. The horse is his imagination."

Bronwyn Maddock, a Waldorf kindergarten teacher, believesimagination gives children the ability to create innerpictures of the world. As we grow older, imaginationenables us to take initiative in the face of hopelessness,and fosters compassion when we can stand in another'sshoes. The best stories create "wonder in their faces,anticipation, reverence and joy." The art is importantbecause "stories allow us to learn about different sidesof ourselves. Telling stories more than once gives thechild a chance to live into all characters. You canhelp a child through a difficult time. The adults aroundthem may seem to be floundering, but the charactersin the story are steadfast.

Try it with a child in your own life. For a baby asong might be the start of story: "A parent's commitmentand love is heard through the human voice," says Bronwyn.Stories can happen at bedtime, around the dishes, andon long car journeys, where a never-ending story canbe told. Books are useful, but "recognise you have awonderful gift in yourself and start there. Childrenlove to hear about your childhood. Start with very innocentstories of your journey through childhood, like losingyour first tooth, your first ride on a horse, or yourfirst birthday party."

Stories apply at all life stages, she says. "Withpeople who are dying, it's about listening. Use yourskills to draw them out. Get them to tell their storyto honour them. In dying there can be fear as to what'sahead. To hear their own stories and characters cantake them out of their fear." One of her favourite storytellerswas her grandfather. "He told of a time you could imaginebut could never know. Like speaking about the Aborigines.You knew they lived there but not in your time. He wasthe link."

Bronwyn nominates Jenny Hill as one of her favouritestorytellers. I'd already been enthralled by Jenny'sperformances at Victoria Hall in Fremantle one rainySunday. She uses fairy tales, folk tales, adventures,humorous yarns. Combining her love of visual arts, livemusic, simple props and lighting, Jenny can take theengrossed audience on a journey of pleasurable storytelling."I see more than I say. It's like a massage of coloursand living pictures, not a fixed image like on the screen.The audience has to create it, and can bring to it what'sit's safe to bring," she says. Even hardened adolescentscan go doe-like sometimes.

"Children and adults get into another universe whereanything's possible. They can be the hero, they do thejourney, they play the tricks. They go into a space,'once upon a time, when horse could talk and.'

Jenny admits that apart from among indigenous people,where it is well-practised and profound, storytellingin the rest of Australia is still to come into its own.She herself came to storytelling relatively late, inher early 40s, from a literature background ("thoughI used to read all my university texts out loud!") andfeels now after 10 years of working in the field shestill has much to learn. Jenny works with adults, includingteaching storytelling, but gets most of her work withschools, appropriately enough, through "word of mouth".

Jasmin O'Hara is a mythologist using her own nativeIrish myth and story to access the Australian imagination."Take Oisin and Niamh as a couple. It is about the internalmasculine and feminine story of relationship and entrapment.People can be too bound to the physical place, or lostin the other world. Applying these stories can helppeople develop balance in their lives," Jasmin says.She still remembers the one or two Galway storytellerswho'd come house to house with rambling stories thatcould last four or five nights.

"Stories reach further than psychology. They tap intoanother dimension not under rational control. It's onlythrough imagination we're going to solve the major environmentaland human relationship problems ahead."

Her workshops are a "sojourn into the right brain,where memory for all time is stored. It's an antidoteto left brain worship. People who are too bound to theleft brain may one day fall into the right brain andnever get out. They become lost and overwhelmed.Theyare unable to return from their voyages. But we cannotstay indefinitely in the Other world. Like Oisin, wemay turn to dust on our return to the mundane world.We may crumble as we hit solid ground. Much better tomake friends with the Other world, learn how to leaveand enter with grace and blessings." She has becomeconvinced that our left brain fetish is related to theepidemic of dementia.

It's strange how many storytellers made a connectionwith dementia, one way or another. Dardanup writer JulieGoyder has just been short listed for the WA Premier'sBook Prize for her work on Alzheimer's Disease and theEveryday Act of Storying, called We'll be married inFremantle (FACP). While nursing in aged care, a 90 yearold man she calls 'Joe', took a shine to her. "I remindedhim of his fiance. He asked me to marry him, and ona whim I said 'Yes'. It changed his life. Because Ilistened to his story fragments he was able to recreatehimself. We would connect in a human way. I'd neverthought Alzheimer patients could connect with the present,yet he could remember me each day with 'there's Julie.'It seemed to redignify him." Apart from enlivening herpatient, it changed her. "I have an eight year old boynow, and from the time he was born, I've loved listeningto him. If it wasn't for the Joe story, I wouldn't havelistened well, I wouldn't have realised how importantit is to be heard."

As Jenny Hill told me, "When you sense imaginationit's quite enlivening. It feels healthy. You get integration,quality, a weaving together of feeling and thoughts,drawing on something you already know. It has the powerto give laughter, sadness, joy, and questioning."

Here's a true story, related by Susan Sontag: Jewsare driven to a remote place to be shot by a Nazi firingsquad. A poet reaches over and reads the palm of oneof his fellow condemned, saying: "You will live a longlife." Inmate after inmate thrusts their hands in frontof the poet, who finds one after another they will livelong and happy lives. Bewildered by this sudden attackof longevity, the German guards order the men back onthe truck. The poet dared to imagine.

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