Weaving a way with words

l British storyteller

Weaving a way  with words
A combination of enunciation, theatre, music and movements, oral storytelling is an art form that has ancient roots. And for Tim Ralphs, who was in the City recently as part of an oral storytelling performance organised by The British Council, storytelling is a way to communicate with the collective. 

It’s just sharing the same air with people which makes storytelling a special experience for him. In a chat with Ananya Revanna, he talks about his journey as a storyteller and the role memory plays in the craft.

When was your interest in storytelling piqued?

When I was young; my parents used to take me to folk festivals where I came across storytellers. At the time, storytelling in the UK was going through a bit of a revival and people from all around the world were coming to perform. When I was a teenager, I started a storytelling club in school. But this interest drifted away when I went to university, where I trained as a physicist.

Nevertheless, you found your way back...

Yes. In 2006, I started performing little bits and pieces at local folk clubs. And in 2007, I took part in the ‘Young Storyteller of the Year’ competition. Although I didn’t win it, I did well enough to get invited to perform at storytelling festivals, which was amazing. This is when I realised I want to do this all the time.

Do you create your own material or pick from existing stories?

I tell traditional material — folktales, myths, legends and fairytales from around the world. It’s frustrating sometimes, because there are so many stories and I’m not going to get a chance to tell them all. Some stories have to wait their turn as they might be missing something. Until I find other stories that complete them, I keep them on hold. Also, you can’t just say ‘I’ve told this story, I’ll move on to the next one’.

Why not?

Because stories change every time you tell them. There’s no script so they tend to change and grow based on the situation. If I’ve told a story 10 to 20 times, I’d like to think that it gets better with each telling. So it’s good to stick with them, let them grow and develop.

How do you ‘complete’ a story?

Some stories might seem a bit fragmented or like they aren’t going anywhere, and it is a storytellers job to complete them. While performance is a major part of our job description, so is research, composition, development and planning. Getting the fragments together before it reaches the audience is important.

There have been cases where literacy has had a negative effect on oral storytelling... How important is it to be literate and what role does memory in the craft?

Memory fascinates me. It’s true, literacy can have a negative effect on memory, especially in the case of the pre-literate. (Actually, that’s the wrong word, ‘pre-literate’ suggests that literacy is a superior state.) Journalist Joshua Foer says that before, people used to read ‘intensively’ and now, they read ‘extensively’. This is something I agree with. A 1,000 years ago, retaining the contents of the reading material was more important than let’s say, reading a book per week (or more). I don’t want to criticise reading but the shift is interesting. Maybe we can slow things down a bit and stay with one story for longer. In oral culture, in particular, memory is held very differently. It becomes a collective, a shared thing. If you are in a society that holds memory orally, where you meet up and rebuild the community each time you talk to each other, then literacy takes on a different role. And the ways things are written changes with every meeting.

Your favourite story.

I don’t think I could choose.

Have you read an Indian material?

Yes, I’ve worked on a few folktales. And I’m reading stories from the ‘Mahabharatha’ now.

What are some common misconceptions about storytellers you come across?

In the UK, when you tell someone you are a storyteller, there are two kinds of assumptions they make. One is that storytelling is just for kids, which is a shame because adults need it just as much as kids. Second is that I read from a book. They can’t even imagine that someone can just talk!

Can anyone be a storyteller?

Yes. Storytelling is fundamentally a very human art form. Everyone has the ability but only some develop it. And if you have a good story it will carry the teller.
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