It's the way she tells 'em

Is there a difference in the way men and women narrate stories? Jonathan Croall finds out.

Do women and men bring different qualities to the art of storytelling? If they do, how does this affect their choice of stories or the style in which they narrate them? And is the storytelling world, as in the days of the bards, still relatively male-dominated?

Such questions are being prompted by a unique event in London next week, the first women's storytelling festival to be held in Britain. For those turning up at the Holborn Centre for the Performing Arts, there's the promise of stories of all ages, cultures and complexions covering a range of "controversial womanly themes". Leading women storytellers such as Grace Hallworth, Pomme Clayton, Betty Rosen, Jan Blake, Marion Oughton, Mary Medlicott and Helen East will be among the 30 storytellers involved in six days and evenings of performances, talks and workshops, including a children's show.

The festival has been created by five women storytellers - four of them ex-teachers - who have also worked together since 1993 as The Ogresses. One of them, Fiona Collins, says: "As a group we like to be outrageous and noisy and exactly the opposite of ladylike."

However, she disavows any overtly feminist intentions for the festival, emphasising that only the programme of workshops is for women only. "It's not about attacking men: we're just making a space for women to tell stories and develop their skills."

Many practitioners argue that women take a different approach to storytelling than men. They are more likely to work collaboratively, to steer clear of the high-octane performance style and to be more at ease working with younger children.

June Peters, another of the Ogresses, was certainly at ease working earlier this term at Pelham First School in Merton, where she held 120 children absorbed in the school hall for half an hour with a couple of Anansi stories. Her method was distinctly collaborative. In one story the children were encouraged to imitate strange noises in a house. In the other she asked for volunteers to join in a dance. Her style was direct, intimate, inclusive.

"Historically, women were the main fireside storytellers," she says. "So many of the metaphors are to do with women's work - weaving a tale, spinning a yarn, cooking up a story."

Women, it is suggested, also choose particular kinds of stories. Betty Rosen, a well-known storyteller in schools and author of the book And None of it was Nonsense, believes this has to do with the crucial relationship between the teller and the tale.

She says: "To tell a story well, you've got to really care about it. If a story is moving for the teller, then it will move the audience. I warm to stories which involve a woman in her everyday struggle against hardship, where she shows the kind of resilience, courage and fortitude that carries people through."

Others believe that women are more interested than men in the psychological aspect of stories, and that as more women have come into storytelling in recent years, so there has been more opportunity to hear stories that focus on pain and grief, subjects women are more prepared to address.

Mary Medlicott, who subscribes to this view, talks also about the storyteller as mother substitute. "When I'm working with children it feels like an extension of mothering," she says. "I feel that very keenly - that I'm creating a bond and empathising strongly in trying to bring them to a new imagining. "

For many, style is invariably affected by content. "Men storytellers dominate in the pubs and clubs, they often go for the more upfront, funny punch-line style," suggests Helen East. "Women, especially when they're working with children, tend to be more reflective, and so more naturalistic." But most of the women agree that these distinctions are gradually being fragmented and blurred.

It is a process that seems set to continue after next week's "wild, wilful, wistful, witty and wonderful storytelling from some of the most powerful and passionate women storytellers around".

The Ogresses Festival of Women's Storytelling, September 23 to 28 at the Link Theatre, Holborn Centre for the Performing Arts, Three Cups Yard, Sandland St, London WClR 4PZ. Tel: 0181 306 58235825. Details on 0181 674 4713 or (school groups) 0181 291 5729

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