Ripping yarns

26th July 1996 at 01:00
Sitting outside a tent in a former jousting field below a 14-century Welsh castle, David Ambrose looks around with satisfaction. "People turned away from storytelling for a while, but now they're coming back."

The attendance at Beyond the Border, the latest Wales International Storytelling Festival, of which he is artistic director, seems to bear this out. Three years ago the first festival attracted 350 people for a day; this July about 2,000 have come for a long week-end to listen to the cream of storytellers practising their art.

It's a cosmopolitan and diverse gathering, both in age and appearance, that has come to St Donat's Castle in South Glamorgan, in the grounds of Atlantic College. New Agers mingle with American anthropologists; folkies sit listening alongside freelance theatre directors; and every session has its quota of children and parents.

The audience listen to Cherokee creation myths from Gayle Ross, a Turkish epic from Seref Tasliova, a re-telling of The Odyssey by the English-Welsh duo of Hugh Lupton and Daniel Morden, a rare display of Innuit "throat singing" from Nellie Echalook and Mary Iqualluk, and much else.

In such a cornucopia of storytelling, the value of having a strong oral tradition becomes clear. In Turkey ashiks, or bardic storytellers, are apprenticed to a master at the age of 14, in Kazakhstan epics are delivered by zhyrau, singer-storytellers whose job it is to pass on traditional ethics, history and literature.

It's all very different in the UK, where the oral tradition flickered and almost died, especially in England. The "revival" has been happening since 1981, clubs are still springing up around the country, festivals are increasingly popular. But questions are now being asked about standards, training and qualifications among the 300 or so practising storytellers.

"There's a lot of bandwaggoning, and some storytellers are awful," says Ben Haggerty, a prime mover in the revival. "There's now a fear among funders, teachers and arts programmers that the art of paid storytelling is being brought into disrepute by amateurs posing as professionals, that cowboys are muddying the waters for the good storytellers."

Some of these "cowboys", he suggests, are to be found among the ranks of former advisers who previously acted as valuable mediators between schools and storytellers. Once the advisory network was all but destroyed, many set up as storytellers themselves, making use of their previous contacts.

While there are now even degree courses in storytelling in some US colleges, there is virtually no training in the UK, and therefore no qualifications to guide teachers, librarians and others wanting to hire storytellers. More than ever, recommendations have to depend on word of mouth.

The Society for Storytelling has a directory, but entries are based on a Pounds 20 payment rather than any special quality. The decision to be neither all-inclusive nor selective was a controversial one, and prompted several of the most established storytellers to boycott the directory.

Then there is funding. "Storytelling is only slowly being accepted as a distinct art-form," says Hugh Lupton, co-founder of The Company of Storytellers. "It's very different from theatre, and because it's an unknown quantity, it takes a long time to persuade people of its value."

In recent times storytelling in England has been shunted back and forth between the Arts Council's drama and literature departments. Meanwhile within some regional arts boards there is a reluctance to fund what is sometimes dismissed as "people telling Gothic stories".

Yet storytelling remains a valuable educational tool: several performers at St Donat's testified to its potency in the classroom, not least for developing children's listening. George Macpherson, who started learning and telling stories at his father's knee "at the age of three", works in both rural and inner-city schools in Scotland.

"Children respond very well, especially in the deprived areas," he says. "The teachers think they can only concentrate for three minutes at a time, so they're amazed when the children sit and listen for 40 minutes, and then tell the story back to you. They seem to relate to hearing about things they've never heard of before."

The Society for Storytelling is at PO Box 2344, Reading RG6 7FG, tel: 01734 351381. For information about next year's international festival, contact the St Donat's Arts Centre, St Donat's Castle, Llantwit Major, South Glamorgan, CF61 1WF, tel: 01446 792151792162.

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