Tell me a story, please

Performing arts

Tell me a story, please
It could be a storytelling morning on a warm summer day at the Festival at the Edge, held in the rolling green countryside of Shropshire in UK, where you would find storyteller and actor Sarah Rundle regaling her audience with her unique stories against the backdrop of fields of wild orchids. Or you might catch her at a lively evening at the Torriano Story Nights in London, keeping people enthralled with mysterious tales of faraway lands. Or it could simply be a night under the stars in any other country where you would see her leading her guests in song or entertaining them with a spot of stand-up comedy with a plot thrown in.

From storytelling nights, entertainment evenings to Christmas shows to national tours in venues as diverse as museums, theatres, pubs and cafes, Rundle has traversed many paths in her journey towards becoming a professional storyteller. Today, she is seasoned in her craft and enjoys great popularity, both among young people and a mature audience. She likes to weave complex tales, stories within stories, and yarns with sudden twists that are sure to keep her audience spellbound. Her repertoire includes folk tales from Britain and Ireland, stories from the Middle East and the Silk Road, along with yarns from Finland and the Arctic Circle.

During our conversation, it was evident that she is passionate about the art of storytelling and plans to expand its scope and variety in the days to come. Recounting her days travelling across India, she says, “I must say that Indian audiences are good listeners and very enthusiastic about joining in.”

Rundle launched her professional storytelling career around 10 years ago, but she had been doing some amateur storytelling for several years prior to that. “I just love the sense of intimacy and connection with the audience, and the way a storyteller has more control over their material than an actor,” she says. Her most popular stories are from Japan, China, Mongolia, Iraq and Turkey, but she also enjoys narrating Italian, Finnish, and British folktales. According to her, the art of storytelling began when people first started communicating with each other, and it evolved over the years.

From bedrooms to festivals

“Storytelling turned into something that parents did for their children at bedtime, when they read them stories from a book, rather than a live art for the whole community. But the art of community storytelling never died. For example, there has always been a strong storytelling tradition in Ireland and Scotland among the gypsies and travellers. About 30 years ago, a storytelling revival started gathering pace and people like Ben Haggarty, Hugh Lupton, Sally Pomme Clayton started storytelling sessions both in schools and as performances for adults. Today, there are storytelling clubs all over the UK where grown-up people go to listen to tales,” she explains.

When it comes to preparing for a storytelling session, Rundle has her own ways of warming up. “I go through the stories that I expect to tell, and try to do a voice and body warm-up,” she says. “The major challenge that I’ve had in India is that no one can predict what kind of audience will be there. One festival organiser confidently told me that I would be telling stories to 14-16-year-olds, and when the children walked in, they were seven years old. I had just a couple of minutes to think up stories suitable for younger kids. So for each event, I always prepare two or three lists of stories — one for an older audience and one or two for a younger audience.”

Stories for unity

Rundle is fascinated with the art of storytelling because she believes that listening to a story brings a group of people together. “A storytelling session is like a triangle. On one side, there is the story, and on the other side, there is the storyteller, and on the third side we have the audience. You need all three of them to interact to get a good session,” she says.

Rundle explains that her style of interaction with her listeners depends on the audience. “With younger children, there will always be stories with a lot of phrases that are repeated, and they join in or bits of songs that they learn and sing. With an adult audience, it is more about including them in the energy of the performance, and acknowledging them as co-creators of the story,” she says.

Finding material for her storytelling sessions is no easy task, but Rundle loves doing it. “I prefer folktales, which I tend to find in books. People ask me if I’ve travelled the length of the Silk Road gathering material in the field, and the answer is no  — I take the metro to the British Library at King’s Cross, tap ‘Iraqi Folk Tales’ into their catalogue, and the computer comes up with a list of 47 volumes, which I then settle down and read.”

When she is not working, she loves reading, cooking, chatting with friends and walking in the countryside. Talking about her latest projects, she says, “I am currently working on a new show about naughty Japanese badgers (tanuki). They can shift into other forms like a Buddhist monk, a teapot, a dumpling, etc, and they get up to all sorts of mischief,” she says.

Her only tips for those who want to get into the art of storytelling is observation and practice. “Read as widely as you can. Go and watch good storytellers and learn from them. Also, don’t forget to go and watch bad storytellers too — the boring, the pompous, the long-winded — and quietly learn from their mistakes,” she says.

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