Shwmae. Dwi am adrodd stori i chi heddi. Stori am fenyw, am wrach, a’i henw yw Ceridwen…
I’ve spent the last week working with PuppetSoup in Abergavenny on the initial research and development phase for a new show based on the legend of Ceridwen from the Tale of Taliesin. Working intensely on a project like this for a week with the support of Creu Cymru and the Borough Theatre in Abergavenny has been a huge privilege. We also worked in conjunction with Llanfoist Fawr Primary, running storytelling and puppetry workshops with pupils from a range of age groups each morning, getting feedback and ideas with regards to the story, and making a show in the afternoons for scratch performances on Thursday and Friday.
I led many of the initial storytelling sessions, sharing Ceridwen’s story with groups of children, plus restructuring and reworking storytelling elements of the piece itself alongside other members of the team. While creating a show in a week was a huge adrenalin rush in itself, the structure of the project made me reflect on and evaluate my own storytelling practice a fair amount. I’m beginning to realise that the diversity of the projects I work on, whichever role I take (storyteller/facilitator/director/performer), are all serving to develop my approach to storytelling as central to my creative work. It’s such a fluid art form, straddling the boundary between literature and performance, and the more I study it, and perform it, and think about language and traditions of tale-telling and narrative structures, the more I’m drawn to it.
Here goes: a few thoughts and revelations and undeveloped ideas I had during my five-day stint in the mountains.
I told the same story over a period of three days to different age groups and asked for their feedback. This immediately encouraged me to evaluate the way I was telling it, the language I was using when introducing characters, and the way the story itself is structured, because we were actively asking for feedback and questions from groups as soon as they had heard the story. I’ll give you an example: the first time I told the story, to a group of Year 2s, I began it like this:
“Once upon a time – amser maith yn ôl – there was a witch whose name was Ceridwen. Now Ceridwen had two children – a girl, Crierwy, who was beautiful and powerful and magical like her mother, and a boy, Afagddu, who was stupid and slow and mean.”
Creirwy is not a central character in the story and, in fact, is never mentioned again: the story proceeds with Ceridwen attempting to better her stupid son Afagddu through means of a magic potion. However, when I asked the children in the group to tell me about the characters in the story, there was an immediate uprising of, admittedly and perhaps concerningly, small girls who claimed they loved the “pretty lady”. Upon further probing, it was not Ceridwen they were interested in, but Creirwy, despite Ceridwen taking the central role in the story.
For the next telling of the story, we restructured along these lines:
“Once upon a time there was a witch whose name was Ceridwen. Now Ceridwen was beautiful and clever and magical but she was also powerful and terrible and you did not want to cross her…”
Giving just a little more information with regards to Ceridwen immediately generated more interested in her in the next group, and also in other reincarnations of her throughout the story, as she later transforms herself into a greyhound, an otter, a hawk, and a chicken.
It seemed, therefore, that the first moment a character is introduced to a spectator is key to the way they are perceived in terms of centrality to the narrative throughout the rest of the telling: it was crucial for us, in retelling the story in the scratch performance, to find the right language to introduce each character for this reason. This isn’t a new idea: the work of Angela Carter and other 20th/21st Century authors who have taken old stories and shaken them up for retelling have all proved that the language you use when you first introduce a character to an audience is everything: a pretty girl can be the main character, but it’s no good if she’s only ever read as passive.
Next time, I’m even going to drop the “beautiful” and just go ahead with “clever and magical”.
This week’s R&D was also my first foray into interweaving guitar and singing into my storytelling: up until now, I have worked with much more talented musicians who have provided soundscapes for my storytelling in performance settings. While I often sing acapella as part of my storytelling sets, I have never played an instrument myself onstage before, apart from for a brief song in Branwen. For the purposes of these workshops, however, I taught a variation on a traditional Welsh song – Milgi Milgi – and played a simple backing to my own storytelling.
Finally, multi-roling again for the first time in years was hugely challenging and exciting. In the final scratch showing of Ceridwen (performed on Thursday at Llanfoist Fawr Primary and again on Friday at the Borough Theatre), I performed two characters, both played in mask: the storyteller and Ceridwen herself. I have never worked in mask before, and this work was, in some ways, very far removed from my “everyday” storytelling work: I will usually tell in relaxed, informal settings, adlibbing with the audience and, if audiences are very young, asking for suggestions and suggesting moments of communal activity such as song or gesture. The notion of storytelling while wearing a mask was something I was initially sceptical about: I like having my face open and to be able to make clear, unrestricted eye contact with spectators.
Wearing masks is pretty transformative, however. While I cannot pretend to be a mask expert, having only ever made half a mask (a slightly wonky cat – discarded after initial workshops for a dream sequence in Land of the Dragon) and only ever experienced a single hour of a mask workshop in connection with NYTW about eight years ago, there is something that instantly changes your physicality when you put on a mask. You adopt a stance, or a voice, or both: in some ways, you do what a storyteller does when they, for however brief a moment, “wear” a character. I have seen storytellers physically transform themselves to voice a character; I have seen others who remain themselves almost fully but who, I would argue, always wear a persona of some kind when telling, even if that persona is simply an enhanced notion of themselves, in the space, as a storyteller.
I am always seeking ways to improve my practice as a storyteller, and I feel like a foray into mask work and more puppetry with PuppetSoup this week did just that. I had to think on my feet: to create two distinct characters over approximately three and a half days, to develop a story over the course of three workshops, to let myself go physically and to do the hardest thing: to create without thinking, to throw things away and avoid too much discussion and simply trust in the story.
We’re back out on tour with Land of the Dragon after a couple of months off over Christmas at the beginning of March. Tour dates and details here, and keep an eye out for more developments with Ceridwen in the near future.
Two days after completing my five-day stint on R&D for Ceridwen, I told the same story to an adult audience at Chapter Arts Centre for “Tales for the Turning Year”. Finding a way of interweaving a song of transformation into the magical chase sequence is my next challenge: if anyone has a good version of The Two Magicians, pass it this way…