Monday 13 February 1995
Leona was telling stories professionally before most of the present generation of storytellers was born. During the Second World War, when she toured as a one-woman theatre company, she devised a programme of traditional tales to present in places where the war had made it impossible to transport sets and costumes for larger events. Realising that story-telling required a different approach from acting, she studied the work of Ruth Sawyer, the American story-teller and author of the classic The Way of the Story-teller (1942).
Leona's story-telling was performance art at its most contained, using voice, gesture and facial expression to convey imagery and character - a kind of minimal acting, incorporating the slightest of gestures and movements within the traditional style of the story-teller. Some of her chosen stories had great depth of feeling: with the Japanese story "Green Willow", she could reduce an audience to tears (there was a golden rule of theatre, she said: "If you cry, they don't"). Humorous stories, of which she told many, were similarly controlled: hence the laughter, approaching hysteria, that took hold of an audience when she performed her masterpiece, the Spanish story "The Bird that Spoke", in which a bird (her expressive mouth, in profile, became a sharp beak) told a story about a talking fish (blowing round bubbles between the words).
Margaret Leona's theatrical career went back pre-war, when she trained at RADA, took part in many "little theatre" experiments and tours and taught movement, drama and speech at Toynbee Hall. During the war she was drama adviser to the Townswomen's Guilds and travelled around bombed areas starting drama groups. In 1953 she married and gave up theatre work to look after her very disturbed seven-year-old stepson - a task in which she was helped by the Jungian analyst Irene Champernowne. She later became actively involved in the Champernowne Trust.
Leona's position in the present story-telling revival was unique. Once it was known that she could teach voice, story-tellers who had problems with projection and strained throats began to beat a path to her little house off Richmond Green. Throughout her long final illness, she continued to weave stories into new programmes for performance. Her irrepressible spirit will live on as these stories are retold.
Margaret Helen Gerstley (Margaret Leona), actress and storyteller: born London 25 July 1906; married 1953 Bill Button (died 1983; one stepson deceased); died Kingston upon Thames 16 January 1995.
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