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Wild Storytelling

Gordon with a captivated audience
Gordon MacLellan, environmental artist and storyteller -  known to many as Creeping Toad -  describes the power of a story well told. Gordon will be returning to the Highlands this August/September.
Telling tales of wonder and delight, stories to enchant, intrigue and captivate. Telling tales to draw people into the landscapes, plants and animals around them. Or at least that's what I hope I do. It's certainly what I set out to do but as with most creative activities we share with the public (or pursue as individuals) in the end, like water and weeds, the creativity finds its own path.

Good storytelling captivates people. A good storyteller draws their audience into a personal encounter that has them feeling the story has been told just for themselves. After 20 years of freelance work, I still find the power of a story well-told remarkable: to watch all those techno-savvy children and jaded adults relax and just listen. No big screens, or small screens, maybe just a pine cone or a feather as a prop, and still they stop and settle, absorb and react. There is an intimacy between a storyteller and her audience that makes stories special, a sense of experiences shared. It is a measure, I think of the emotional integrity of the 'teller, if that doesn't sound too trite: a good 'teller feels the story he is telling, knows the passions of the characters and their adventures.  People warm to that public intimacy and a powerful storyteller will take people with him into the story and through it, out into the world around them.
"Good"? Storytelling is very subjective, Maybe I should say "effective" rather than "good". 

Effective storytelling should inspire people - often quietly, unobtrusively - and get them looking, touching, maybe talking. For me, the heart of "environmental" storytelling lies in the thought that there are "adventures everywhere" and that this is the "message" - if any - that lies within my work as a performance and workshop 'teller.

Everything has stories. Everything is worthy of stories: worms, birds and mosquitoes; deer, rivers, trees and mountains. Anything we see, anyone we meet, everyplace we walk, might already hold its own story or might be in the middle of its own adventure even as we meet it. To a storyteller there is excitement everywhere (cracks in the tarmac of a school playground were once the last traces of a treasure map buried before the school was built and cracking the playground so its story wouldn't be lost as the map itself disintegrated….).

Storytelling should ignite wonder, shyly, laughingly or with a degree of delighted horror - but I hope an audience will walk out of a storytelling session wondering. My storytelling isn't good at fulfilling deliberate agendas. That storytelling is often species specific but I find that while I tell a story because of the idea it holds for me: species, place, theme, images, flavour, I tell it knowing that my audience are quite likely to discard my agenda and take something completely different from the experience.

So I could not recommend someone to book a storyteller (or certainly not me!) to deliver that direct campaigning message. I would, however, trust a good 'teller to find the stories that might wake a love, care and passion in the hearts of her listeners, even if they might not manage the "we should all always recycle" set of conversions. We can hope but not predict what people will do with the thoughts woken by a storytelling session. There might be a "happy ever after" or there might not but we can hope that the sense of adventures everywhere will run on and when they go home, our listeners just might turn to someone else and say, "do you know that once upon a time, in the early days of the world, hedgehogs didn't have prickles"
What makes of a good storyteller? Watch them first, if you can…
  • does a "once upon a time" opening line stop everything and call the audience in
  • does she feel like she's living the story as she tells it?
  • does he tell the story to everyone
  • can she tell her story without anything other than herself (props can be useful but the essence of the story lies in the pictures it raises in people's minds)
  • does the storyteller respect the audience to find their own responses to jokes, sadness, thrills and woes? 

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