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Settle Stories Reviews

SETTLE STORYTELLING FESTIVAL

10-12 OCTOBER

LAUNCH

Passengers arriving at Settle from both Leeds and Carlisle trains on Friday could have been forgiven for thinking that they’d stepped into some kind of alien world when they found the platform filled with children and enthusiastic adults – some in distinctive green sparkling headgear and in their midst local MP Julian Smith and two silver suited spacemen.  However, there was nothing to be alarmed about as this was in fact the launch of the 5th annual Settle Storytelling Festival. Paying tribute to festival director, Sita Brand’s, energy and vision Julian Smith echoed the thoughts of many when he said that it was difficult to believe that the festival was now in its fifth year and that it had grown steadily year by year. This year’s is the biggest event yet with over 40 different events, over 25% of which are free and is drawing visitors and storytellers from many nations to Settle. This worldwide involvement is clearly reflected in the stories on a postcard, now displayed at Settle Station, which has attracted entries from as far away as India, Italy and China and from all ages. The stories themselves range from detailed tales in tiny writing penned by pupils at local schools through to elegant and moving 2 line epics which capture a world of emotion in just a few words.  However, as any storyteller will tell you some of  the best stories focus on a misunderstanding which reveals a truth so maybe the most apt line about the launch came from a passenger who on seeing the spacemen was heard to comment, “Oh, they’re in protective suits! You don’t think they’ve got that virus here?”  The answer is positive, the town is now officially in the grip of “story-itis” and it’s highly infectious and by the end of the weekend the majority of the population is likely to have caught the bug. There’s also no known cure – which is a  particularly pleasant prospect!

 


CANDLELIT STORY TRAIL: SITA BRAND

FRIDAY

 

Decked out with handcrafted lanterns a mixed age band of travellers braved the elements to weave their way through the cobbled streets of Settle and listen to  Festival Director spinning yarns of times and places long ago. The hidden corners of the town provided a perfect backdrop for this kind of activity and the first of the tales told of a wanderer who fell into an enchanted sleep that lasted a life time and concluded by posing the question as to whether the lives that we dream when asleep are more real than those we live when awake or whether it is in our waking hours that we are actually dreaming? There is something almost trancelike about participating in a story as it is about the sharing of experiences and finding themes that are common to us all and the second of  Sita’s tales examined the idea of how do we measure usefulness to society and the importance of speaking from the heart. Wandering through the streets it is very easy to begin to appreciate the role which sincerity plays in the re-telling of tales and the fact that the silence into which a story is told is as important as the words used in the telling. Sita Brand is a very compelling artist, holding her audience spell-bound even in the most appalling of conditions and so huddled under umbrellas beneath darkening skies of upper Settle the group listened to a myth of how six foolish hunters so undervalued their wives and beautiful daughter that the womenfolk finally decided to leave and calling on their magical powers ascended to the sky where they remain today as the sparkling stars known to us as the Pleiades.  Then with lanterns sparkling like stars in the night, the group descended back into the town to hear a question tale in which a cleric was asked to answer the three most impossible questions and through practicality and cunning was able to find answers which while perhaps not scientifically acceptable were certainly logical and beyond argument. Which is true of most stories for hidden in them all is a grain of common truth.

 

VOYAGE: MAPPING A WAY THROUGH STORIES AND POEMS

FRIDAY: VICTORIA HALL

This was truly an incredible journey bringing storytelling into the 21st century with style, mixing traditional tales and techniques with modern technology to great effect. Pivotal to the experience are the incredible images of Christine Morrison which are projected as a backdrop for the performers but are in themselves integral to the whole feel of the performance as they capture the varying moods of the central character in all the tales: the sea.  The stark monochrome accompaniment to tales of  drownings in the western isles gives way to startlingly bright colour for the lively re-telling of Homer’s Odyssey and the evocative image of the four birds swooping low over the waters will stay with the viewer for days.  Interwoven with the fabric of this event is the incredibly inventive music of Giles Perring who creates all manner of imaginative sounds of the sea with a wide range of percussion so that shimmering cymbals and haunting bird cries create the soundscape for stories from Jura. On a technical point however, much of the actual story was lost due to the acoustics of the hall which created a particular problem for those struggling to cope with hearing aids when the speaker spoke over the music. The story telling however by Ian Stephen was mesmerising. Clearly a navigator and sailor himself, he speaks of the sea with great authority and navigates his way through the tales as confidently as he navigates around a sea-chart. His intonation on his lively re-telling of the Odysseus’ voyage home to Ithaca was a real joy. The final component in the piece is the incredible voice of traditional singer Kirsty Law,  whose songs anchored the performance with a real sense of time and place.

 

HOLY MOLY AND THE CRACKERS

FRIDAY: VICTORIA HALL

Not one for storytelling purists, this event was less to do with stories – though many of the lyrics were stories in themselves – as to do with having a wonderfully riotous party to mark the start of the weekend.   Holy Moly and The Crackers hail from the north east but are more about New Orleans than Newcastle. Their music is high volume, adrenaline-rushing, foot-stompin, get up and dance music and the audience did just that!  This is folk music mixed with blues, waltz tempos and hoe-downs crossed with french Zazou and outlandish carnival style. It is loud, funky and fun but perhaps not quite what all the audience were expecting.  Performed with great energy there was a vast array of talent on display in terms of the musicality  and clearly there was also a not inconsiderable talent in the song-writing itself.  All the songs had a certain sense of anarchy about them which added to the drive in their delivery. In many ways Holy Moly and The Crackers are the marmite of the music world in that if you like them, you will really like them and if you don’t like them on first meeting then you probably never will. One thing is certain though – they are unforgettable and unlike anything else you will have encountered!.


BEHIND THE SCENES: VOYAGE (SATURDAY)

One of the real pleasures of  the festival is the opportunity it presents to get closer to the actual creative process and discover the actual nuts and bolts of how an idea is brought to life either via workshops or through sessions such as this one where the artists involved discuss their work.  Featuring story teller Ian Stephen, musician/sound artist Giles Perring and visual artist Christine Morrison this was an opportunity to find out more about the collaborative processes which led to the creation of the fantastic multi-media presentation “Voyage”.  In discussion the trio examined how the physical space of a venue can impact on the performance itself in terms of acoustics, proximity of the audience and technical restrictions such as the need to have the projector raised to such an angle that the operator needs to sit on a step ladder! Similarly the angle of the projection can have an impact on the actual performance as it may need to be placed in such a way that the storyteller is required to remain seated throughout, curtailing the dramatic performance and so throwing more importance on the need to vary tone and pace as gestures become limited.  The discussion also allowed all three artists to explain more about how they keep the performance fresh by never fully scripting what will occur so allowing each performance to be part improvised in relation to the reaction of the audience, thus highlighting the important role of the audience in any story. Equally fascinating however was the insight which the session gave into how and why “Voyage” was created and the personal stories which lie behind the story which was revealed to the those fortunate enough to join in the previous evening’s production.  This back story proved to be equally fascinating and helped to give a clearer insight into the way-points of the creative process and how as a group they navigated their way towards a collaborative production in which the various elements complement one another rather than compete for attention.

 

 

WE’RE ALL STORYTELLERS NOW: VICTORIA HALL (SATURDAY)

It was particularly pertinent that a key event in the festival should focus on the role of storytelling in the 21st century and what we actually mean by the title: storyteller. Sadly the outcome of the discussion was always going to be somewhat predictable, in that as with so many other creative topics there are as many definitions as there are people taking part in the discussion and trying to reach a consensus on which all will be able to agree entirely is probably as futile as any of the impossible challenges set in traditional stories eg how do you number the grains of sand on a beach?  The important thing here however is not that an agreed answer is found but that the answers are all recognised of being of value and that the truth lies somewhere in all of them. Therefore the fact that there was no agreed answers was not so relevant as the process of discussion and what each party brought to the table. Consequently there were a wide range of topics and views from the members of the panel all of which helped to highlight various aspects of the question. Director of MA Writing for Performance and Publication at Leeds University, Garry Lyons began with the suggestion that a story is a vital component of human existence and though it changes with changes in culture and advances in technology its role remains the same even when the platforms for expression alter and so we are all potentially storytellers. Traditional storyteller and Director of Toto Tales, Mara Menzies focused on the importance of stories as a means of expressing identity in terms of nation and culture and achieving a sense of self through belonging. She also spoke of the differences between storytelling in the oral tradition and story writing in the written tradition and how the flexibility of storytelling allows the central ideas to retain relevance to the group of listeners. For former editor of the Dalesman, Bill Mitchell, stories were always about people and rooted in a strong sense of place whereas content marketer and managing director of Fabl, Mags Walker, the focus is inevitably more on creating content that attracts and the use of modern media was key. However though the discussion ranged widely there  were many points of consensus, not least being the recognition that stories would always remain a key part of the human psyche and that for a story to succeed it has to have a sense of authenticity, a touch of humour to ground it and a teller who can tell with conviction. Chairman of the panel, Chris Bond, an author and features editor may often have felt that he was trying to herd cats when attempting to control what was a very wide ranging session but must surely have been content to know the topics were widely explored by panel and audience alike and all unanimously agreed that there could never be a time in which we could have too many stories.

 

SACRED STORIES: MARA MENZIES & BOB HARTMAN

SATURDAY: SETTLE PARISH CHURCH

For those who thought that sacred stories may mean that the tales would all be solemn and serious, then the bouncing puppy-dog enthusiasm of Bob Hartman would come as a serious shock.  His ebullient exuberance is the hallmark of his retelling of the Bible and audience participation is a must, therefore a church full of mixed age audience found themselves cheerfully being flowers, twinkling stars and flying creatures with arms flapping wildly as he delivered a rapid fire version of the creation story. His old testament tales are peopled by characters with very modern traits and references which all will recognise in his lively, physical re-enactments. By contrast Mara Menzies sharing of tales from Yoruba mythology – one of the world’s oldest and most widely practised religions in the world – was almost balletic. Her gestures and facial expressions are incredibly precise as she inhabits her stories and summons up the various deities. However, they also twinkle with genuine humour and these are gods with very human faces and were an absolute to delight to watch.  The event itself was therefore a joyous celebration, not just of storytelling itself but of those beings who inhabit the sacred dimension of individual belief systems.

 

MISSION TO MARS: SATURDAY

FRIEND’S MEETING HOUSE

One of the many strands in this year’s festival is the link between stories and science  and this was reflected in this stunning opportunity to meet two people who are hoping to set out on the journey of  a lifetime by going on a one-way ticket to Mars.   Hannah Earnshaw and Ryan McDonald,  who hope to join the Mars One Mission and be among the first human settlers on Mars shared their stories with an intrigued audience during what was a real highlight of the festival. The session began with a  presentation by astronomer Gurbir Singh who introduced the audience to details about the space technology that could send them to Mars and also helped them to understand some of the problems which the would be settlers will face, ranging from greatly reduced gravity and pressure through to the fact that at present the success rate for launches is running at about 50% when viewed over all the attempts to visit Mars but considerably higher when viewed over the last decade. Even with these improved odds, the key question uppermost in everyone’s mind was clearly what would motivate a person to volunteer to leave earth and never return? While both Hannah and Ryan in their different ways did touch on this topic the most powerful comment of the afternoon came from Ryan’s Grandfather, who actually answered the question addressed to Ryan as to how he does he imagine his family will feel if he succeeds in his wish, by answering that while it is his grandson’s choice to do this it would be very hard to know that he may never be able to physically touch him again, but I wouldn’t want to stop him from making this choice.  The audience were also able to view actual photographs from the current Curiosity Rover and learn more about the Indian space mission as well as to quiz Hannah and Ryan about aspects of the selection process and the practicalities of living and developing settlements in space.  Topics ranged from the ethical and moral aspects of cultivation of the planet’s surface, through to practicalities for actual survival, the psychological impact of being part of a small settlement and being so alone, the financing of space exploration and the prospect of the colonisation process being streamed as a reality TV show  and the legal implications of establishing a “new nation” on a different planet. Their answers at times were perhaps closer to the stuff of science fiction than might seem comfortable and yet for most of those in the room the moon landings were events which happened in our lifetime but would have seemed like something out of a story to our parents; so is it any more fantastical to believe that these two young people might one day be the pioneers who set out for a home amongst the stars and that their stories may become science fact to be passed on to the next generation?

 

MAKE A WISH: MARA MENZIES (SATURDAY)

The dusk light was perfect for this charming session as a train of toddlers and parents set out to explore the magical worlds created by the tales of Mara Menzies.  This really was a session for children of all ages, and many of the adults present were as enchanted as the youngsters as they were drawn into tales where eyes fell out down wells to be returned by travelers and fairies became captives in cobwebs.  Sprinkled throughout the walk were some spell-binding moments which captured on cameras will create marvellous reminders of the evening,  making a wish with sparklers and floating candles in pools will undoubtedly be among the many memories of those taking part. Mara Menzies is an outstanding story teller, weaving her enchantments out of the everyday and responding swiftly to the surroundings and the audience in order to draw them yet more firmly under her spell.  Her whimsical tales were perfect for this setting with enough of a strain of reality to leave the audience with questions to ponder and advice to carry into the real world while still generating an aura of enchantment out of the everyday.

 

TRICKSTER: DOMINIC KELLY

SETTLE VICTORIA HALL: SATURDAY

It was one of those rare quirks of fortune that, if told as part of a story might seem to be stretching credulity a little too far, meant that a show which had never been meant to be performed as part of the festival should end up being such a triumph and for me personally one of the most intriguing performances of the whole event.  Stepping in at the last minute when the intended show was cancelled, Dominic Kelly’s “Trickster” as a story telling tour de force with tales within tales and myths, history and folk tales all feeding into one another and all performed with a wonderfully studied air of nonchalance which is both the hallmark of  storyteller and the central character of the trickster himself.  Essentially the story revolves around the events which begin on 15th June, 1910: when a red-haired boy leaves school with bigger plans than life down the pit, but the tale darts back and forward through time and imagination and into the world of dreams as schoolmates, teachers, and the local doctor are made butts of the trickster’s humour and life becomes a game of staying one move ahead. John Henry Williams, the hero of the tale is by turns a thief, soldier or captain, pit boy or rich man , a charlatan and a shapeshifter he goes through life with his eye on the main chance, a bag of disguises and always a trick up his sleeve to cheer the day. He is a charming rogue and by turns delightful and dangerous but with him life is never quiet and you simply never know what the next day may bring.   To watch Dominic Kelly portraying Williams is to watch a real masterclass in story telling as he fluidly moves from one tale to the next, with each twist in the tale as compelling as those which preceded it. He is completely engaging, laugh aloud funny and then totally heart-wrenching and through it all entirely endearing.  This is a marvellous tale told in a genuinely original manner which leaves you not begging for more but absolutely satisfied in knowing that it ended exactly where it should, at the point where it began.

 

GHOST STORIES: Sita Brand & Adrian Beckingham

THE ROYAL OAK: SATURDAY

Watching a variety of story tellers telling a diverse range of tales is one of the real pleasures of the festival, but the key to this session is that the genre of the tale is always the same and so what is really on show is the skill with which the story tellers manipulate the audience to achieve that tingle down the spine which is the hallmark of a truly ghostly story.  With Sita Brand’s first tale “Mr Fox” the drama was clearly heightened by the repetitive elements in the story so that the listener is drawn in to the tale. This was emphasised by the dramatic gestures and commanding tone of voice for Mr Fox himself, the ghastly nature of his crimes being overshadowed by the sheer nastiness of his demeanour.  The second of her stories again created chills not by the unlikeliness of the events but simply by the fact that it was initially only too easy to identify with the idea of a person who has no real story to tell. However, what happened next would certainly not be worth experiencing simply for the sake of a good tale to tell over a pint.  Adrian Beckingham too used the actual everyday nature of things as the starting point for his first story, beginning with a couple of guys leaving a pub on a misty night after a few drinks and a session listening to ghost stories… However, the drive home took on some unexpected elements and left a distinct chill in the air!   Once again, so much of the impact was as a result of the way in which the audience were drawn into the story by the speaker’s skilful use of tone of voice and simple gestures.  The evening culminated with Adrian Beckingham’s retelling of a thirty thousand year old aboriginal ghost story, an event which literally held the audience spellbound. From the outset it was obvious that a key part of the telling was to be the audience involvement but also an essential component was the audience’s  desire to believe in what they were hearing in the hope that somehow they might be able to connect with something that explains the events which we cannot otherwise fully explain. This sense of longing was masterfully exploited as the story progressed so that it became increasingly easy to forget the 21st century trappings and see only the fire and shadowy figures and hope that somehow this ritual retelling could summon the ghost. Whether or not it fully succeeded is not known, and not even really relevant as all that matters is that for that short period every member of the audience was truly convinced that it just might….

 

YOU’RE A STAR: MARA MENZIES

CHILDREN’S WORKSHOP (SCOUT HALL): SUNDAY

Designed as an opportunity for children to learn performance tricks and story telling skills this workshop with Mara Menzies, ably assisted by local volunteer Bretten Lord,  was clearly a success as even approaching the building the sound of  youngster’s laughing and whooping could be heard as they created their own stories.  Watching them working on the final stages of creating a performance for their parents the most telling quality was the level of commitment and concentration which the session had engendered. This was not about competition so much as encouraging each other to work together and create something special as a team.  Their involvement in the activities was impressive to watch and it was fascinating to see them developing a narrative together and then exploring ways of creating characterisation through voice and gesture.  It was also interesting to see how swiftly they had adapted to storytelling techniques such as using the “magic hat” made familiar through earlier festival activities to denote the special position of the storyteller and to show who was the key speaker at points in the story.  This was an amazing insight into how the imagination and creativity of children can be developed by a session in the capable care of an inspirational performer.  Special congratulations to all the young performers who retold their story so confidently and fluently for their parents and the fortunate audience.


MEET THE STORYTELLER: JONATHAN KAY

FRIENDS MEETING HOUSE: SUNDAY

Jonathan Kay is a fool, but this is not by any means an insult as in conversation it becomes swiftly apparent that fooling is something that he takes very seriously indeed. He is in fact recognised as a leading teacher of Fooling and uses this art form as a way of helping individuals and groups to become more aware of themselves and what it means to them to be human. Far from being “foolish” he is extremely intelligent and articulate by normal understanding of the terms but he very adroitly plays with words and perceptions to encourage the listener to question themselves and their understanding of their inner world and the person which they present to the outer world. In the world of the fool reason and logic operate in an entirely different way and it is this that formed the basis of the conversation. Throughout the Festival Jonathan Kay staged a workshop to encourage others to find their inner fool and also a performance aimed at stimulating the imagination of the audience through getting them to explore their perceptions of the world. His view and ideas were probably some of the most challenging on offer at the Festival as learning to accept yourself as a fool demands a shift in your perception of what is “foolish” but in encouraging people to re-evaluate their perceptions the fool is certainly ensuring that people continue to question rather than simply conform and surely that too is part of the art of telling a story as every story needs an audience who responds and questions.

 

TEA AND TALES: SITA BRAND, ADRIAN BECKINGHAM, MARA MENZIES AND ANA MARIA LINDS

ST JOHN‘S HALL: SUNDAY

This final event of the festival is always a delight. With a wide range of tales on offer from festival favourites it was a pleasure to enjoy some stories that were familiar and some that were new along with cakes and tea. Adrian Beckingham’s “jack tale” was a familiar fun story with a twist and a warning to husbands about bad habits. It was told with great wit and considerable physicality. This was followed by a story with a morale by Mara Menzies, told as usual with great grace and humour and not inconsiderable audience participation. Following on from this Sita Brand shared the story of  Prince Lindworm, a tale of  magic gone wrong which can only be defeated by more magic.  However, it was the amazing tales of Brazilian storyteller Ana Maria Lindis which will stay with many as the strongest memory of this event as she presented what must surely have been one of the oddest contenders for The Great British Bake Off recipe book with her story of “Barbecued Husbands”.  Delivered with a great sense of fun and a very dry humour her tales of Amazon tribes left no room for any ambivalence when it came to the need for men to learn to respect their wives and recognise that both sexes require one another to add flavour to their world. Her performance was outstanding, both in terms of timing, pace and sense of delivery. This truly was a magnificent way to close what has been an outstanding festival weekend.

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