Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Storytelling. A cowardly prince and a rhino.
Have just started to come down off a high after attending a second storytelling conference, followed by a three-day workshop & class run by Jennifer Cayley and Jan Andrews.
The conference, the annual gathering of the Storytellers of Canada-Conteurs du Canada (SC-CC) followed only two weeks after the other storytelling gathering in Saskatoon that I reported on in my blog of June 22nd was organized in Saskatoon by the team led by Kathy Bennett, Judith Benninger and Bonnie Logan, with other members of our local guild helping out in various ways.
There were many high points during the conference, too many to relate here, but Judith’s last-minute filling-in for an absent concert star on the Saturday night was, for me, quite special, because she dipped in to her huge repertoire of African folk tales and told us about a cowardly prince who first rode on the back of a hyaena, then a hung-over lion (believe me, this was important to the story), grunting in terror both times, thus winning the heart of a princess in the next kingdom and the permission of her father for a wedding. The prince ended up routing an invading army as he rode, (the grunt in fright again) on the back of a huge horse. He was followed by his warriors, who copied the noise, assuming it was his war cry, as he pulled up trees in an effort to stop the animal’s mad dash towards the enemy, who collectively took one look at this amazing sight and fled. Of course they all lived happily ever after – it would not have been a folklore tale otherwise. In reducing this story from its original 15 minutes to 4 sentences I have lost the atmosphere, but even writing it out in full would not convey the proper feeling - especially the grunts.
The workshop that followed, also dubbed a master class, had only eight students, so we had lots of chances, over the three days of the sessions to learn techniques of voice pitch control, range, and the visualization of scenarios. The other “students” were all experienced storytellers who used traditional folk tales from a variety of cultures.
I try to tie African animal folk tales into life experiences and I started the story out with my first attempt to capture Black rhino, moving into the story of how rhino used a porcupine quill to repair his skin after being beaten up by elephant, which explains his territorial behaviour and his untidy skin. You can find it here in the form that I used for writing it as a piece for reading. Although it had interesting content the group quietly suggested that it could take a lot more scene-setting and personal involvement. Six hours of writing and re-writing, late at night and early in the morning, gave a whole new structure to the story. When I re-told it at the end of the gathering I had added quite a few elements and Ottawa storyteller Lucie Roy voiced a thought that “The first time you told it, it was an interesting anecdote. While this time you were telling a story.” This time the rhino really did have wrinkly skin. Another thing that soon became obvious was that writing for telling is a different skill than writing for reading. I still have to explore that side of things, as there are so many wonderful traditional tales that I can link to real-life experiences. Among them, why hippos live in water, how the zebra got his stripes, how the leopard got his spots and a favourite, how the tortoise’s shell became criss-crossed.