OUTSIDE EDGE: Putting in a good word for storytellers

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The Independent Culture
In the era of the Internet and the information superhighway, the ancient art of storytelling continues to enthral a growing adult audience. The move from the nursery, once seen as the sole place for stories, to venues such as pubs, arts centres an d theatres was largely pioneered by the Company of Storytellers, founded 10 years ago by Pomme Clayton, Ben Haggarty and Hugh Lupton. "We knew that stories were told to adults," says Pomme, "and also that there were thousands of stories that you couldn't really tell to kids."

Lupton sees storytelling's appeal as being a reaction against high-tech information systems which are one remove from human interaction. "I think people are refreshed by a basic exchange," he says.

The company works solely with traditional, usually anonymous material, ranging from wonder or fairy tales to epic myths. A few musical instruments, such as a singing bowl or bells, are used to punctuate the tales, but basically it is the storyteller, th e audience and the tales. These take the listeners into a realm of tricksters - testing the audience's moral boundaries - giants, heroes and witches. At the same time, this is a recognisable world of dysfunctional families and human crises.

The company is convinced of the stories' continuing relevance, and is defiantly proud of its PC credentials. "It's definitely an art form that is environmentally and ecologically sound," says Haggarty. "It's only sound, and one is recycling materials. Its audience is among people concerned with the planetary and the human environment."

It is culturally sound, too. Britain, in particular, has allowed a multi-cultural tradition to grow rather than a narrow, rigidly nationalist one. Lupton, who works a great deal in Norfolk, says: "Where there's very little cultural mix, storytelling offers both the sense of the similarity between cultures and celebrates their diversity. Storytelling is still fighting against the assumption that it's rather twee, regressive and whimsical," he adds, "which is very annoying because the stories are hard-edged and very challenging."

The lack of a critical forum in which to discuss professional storytelling frustrates all the company. Haggarty says: "The margin is an interesting place, but being marginalised is not." Ironically, the art form is growing in popularity: 10 years ago there were only 20 storytellers, now there are over 350. But Haggarty says there has been a dilution of quality. "If you ever get stuck in a room with a bad storyteller for two hours, you'll never go near storytelling ever again."

This year the Company of Storytellers will be touring Britain with The Three Snake Leaves, a wonderful, intricate tale, based on tales by the Brothers Grimm, which is all about storytelling and the possibilities of redemption. It was specially commissioned by the South Bank Centre. "In all our 10 years," says Haggarty, "this was our first paid rehearsal time. It would have been obvious to use the gory tales - pure Grimm's platter - but we thought, no, let's try and find the compassion." After

one performance, a man came up and said: "That's the most devastatingly hopeful thing I've ever seen."

At least, that's their story, and they're sticking to it.

n For information on storytelling events contact the Crick Crack club on 071-284 4367