Told tales, nourishment for storytellers and audiences, add up many virtues (we have already enumerated some of them here) and benefits for those who listen to them and for the communities in which the told word inhabits. But we are not going to talk now about the value (or values) of the told stories, our intention is to reflect on the function of the storyteller in the community.
To tell stories, to carry and to transmit them it´s important in itself and implies to assume responsibilities as I will try to show in this article.
This proposal of varied functions intends to be a general frame in which the different cases of each storyteller in a concrete context will fit.
For that reason, it might occur that some storytellers will fit some of these functions whereas other storytellers will fit all of them. It might even occur that a storyteller in diverse contexts will assume different functions.
This study would be incomplete if there were any functions that a narrator has when telling stories which aren’t contemplated here. In this case, any comment or suggestion will be welcomed.
I have differentiated two possible situations at the time of analyzing this matter:
- The storyteller before narrating. That is, the previous work before the actual session of storytelling, especially when it is centered on searching, selecting and putting into words the tales that are going to be told.
- The storyteller when he or she is telling the story that is, when he or she is in front of the audience.
- I have not included a third moment which would be the one after the session that implies a time for constructive reflection on the work done and the work to be done. I consider this implicit in the first part: thinking about the repertory, re elaborating, renovating…and in the second part: thinking about the way to narrate, new lines of action…
ON THE STORYTELLER BEFORE TELLING
As said before, somewhere else on this short study [Spanish], the popular storyteller usually tells in the same place (his/her village, street, home) meanwhile the professional storyteller goes from one place to another, offering his/her repertory (long ago romances, tales and news, nowadays a diverse repertory),
1 TO PRESERVE AND RENOVATE THE COMMON REPERTOIRE
The most common thing is that the first one (the popular storyteller that tells in his/her village) assumes, in a more or less conscious way the role of preserving and keeping alive the local tradition (the memory of the community) the tales that travel from grandmothers to grandchildren for generations (old wives´ tales). It also occurs that in many occasions the local storytellers are in charge of renovating the local repertory (turning funny stories or local matters into verse which are soon known and learned by the community).
On the other hand, the professional storyteller (that goes from one place to another) often brings new texts to the places where he/she goes, done by himself/herself (to then sell in cordel literature (chapbooks) as it was done with the Romances de ciego (ballads) or in the book format as some urban storytellers do these days) or from tradition, collected from other places. Therefore this professional storyteller also renovates and broadens the local repertories, and moreover, communicates, forges bonds and builds bridges among repertories and different communities.
It may also occur that the professional storyteller brings with him/her more complex texts, sometimes more difficult to memorize for the traditional storytellers and thus preserves texts that otherwise could not be kept orally. And lastly, it is also possible that this professional storyteller will include tales known in the area in his/her repertory, but that, somehow, they are texts that belong to a larger community that includes this smaller one (for example a district, province or country) and that are equally to the taste of the group for its variations or basically for being part of themselves.
Whether it is a folk or professional storyteller, long ago (as in many cases today) it occurred that these narrators would feel part of a community as it´s pointed out in his introduction (volume 1) of “Traditional tales from León” *Julio Camarena Laucirica*:
“Usually, in the oral communication chain, narrator and audiences are part of a same community and share common cultural elements: they have common interests and they share a history of personal interrelations. They take part of a common collective memory that allows them to give specific meanings or generic expressions and suggestions, and they approve and disapprove the same things.” ( Julio Camarena Laucirica. Traditional tales from León, volume 1, Menéndez Pidal Seminary, UCM and León´s Council, 1989, page 20)
Or to take an extreme case, as Mario Vargas Llosa says in his book The Talker, the manchiguengas narrators (called talkers) were the ones in charge of the cohesion of the disperse community.
This feeling of being part of the community implies certain responsibilities for the oral narrator even before beginning to tell:
- On the one side the decision to select traditional texts as part of the common voice, the collective memory, that he/she does for his/ her own repertoire is a decision that affects not only him/her as a narrator but also the community. For these traditional texts that he/she adds to the repertoire will remain alive on his/her lips but also in the collective memory.
- On the other hand the elaboration of new material that will become more or less part of the common repertoire should be nourishment for the community ( whether it be for a short or long period of time)
- And finally the previous work that is done with each text determines the survival of the common repertoire and its adaptation to the passing of time (the example is clear with traditional texts, but it could be applied equally to new texts that become part of the collective memory). I will explain myself in more detail on the example of traditional texts:
It can be observed that traditional tales come from two sides: conservation and innovation. Conservation of the traditional texts, its survival, its air and voice nourishment, its need to inhabit lips and ears (beyond sheets of paper and eyes) is what bounds it to COMMON MEMORY, to history, to what we are. To what this community is because it has been. It is that way: we need to know where we come from to know who we are (and who we can be). On the other hand, innovation is bounded to what is happening at the moment, to what makes us change, to what can make us be something else tomorrow.
These two lines of force come together on the storyteller´s lips and become one. He or she, more or less consciously, selects the tales to be told and decides the way he/she will tell them, making those tales that are memory into tales that are alive now and giving them the possibility to become texts in the future.
Nowadays in Spain, even though a rupture can be observed between the storyteller and the traditional repertoire, we can also observe urban narrators with a wide repertoire of popular and traditional texts (from diverse cultures).
This rupture between storyteller and traditional repertoire might be due to the fact that the revival of the profession of storytelling (in the mid eighties of past century) has been linked more to institutions (schools and libraries) instead of town squares; or maybe that this flourishing has occurred in the cities (hence the name of these new storytellers: urban narrators). This matter can give some light to other matters that we will have to look at closely (in another part of this yet to be published short study)
ON THE STORYTELLER WHEN HE/SHE TELLS
The act of narrating, the moment when the storyteller tells a tale to a group of listeners, is an act of communication and (as we have already pointed out) in order for that to happen there should be a space of enough freedom in which the storyteller, audience and context can build up the tale jointly. This peculiarity determines most of the functions that a narrator assumes at the time he/she is telling tales to a group of people.
2 TO GENERATE A SPACE OF FREEDOM
On the one hand I believe that the storyteller enables a space of freedom enough for the tale to happen. The storyteller ensures that this is the case and therefore the storytelling time is a time of freedom.
On the other hand, I think that the storyteller hosts (welcomes) the listeners´ group and invites them to be an active part of the event that is going to happen in that very moment: the told tale here and now, told by the narrator but also on the basis of the audience’s involvement in a concrete environment.
I think all of this determines the quality of the unique and unrepeatable moment in which the tale will be told, a concrete context with a specific audience in a specific time. This fleeting, elusive and unique character of the act of storytelling determines even the narrative course: This is the reason why every time a tale is told there are differences and the same tale is never told in the same way.
3 TO CREATE COMMUNITY
I think that, as a narrator, many of us are aware of the importance of creating a space of freedom when telling tales, a space that allows the audiences to assume ownership of happening at that moment. I think the storyteller has to ensure that this happens so that, in that shared moment, the audience feels responsible for the tale that is being told.
In this sense it is worth remembering Mr. Julio Caro Baroja´s study What we know about folklore in which he talks about the differences between the industrial man and the traditional man. The industrial man lives in a cinema room, in the dark, in which the play is the play, whatever he might do from his seat. Meanwhile the traditional man lives in a comedy theatre (corral de comedias) and there the audience plays an active role on what´s going on onstage: the audience can bring up a bad performance or put down a play that is of no interest.
Mr. Julio´s illustrious words encouraged me to think that tales do not feel comfortable in a “cinema room” but that they usually inhabit the comedy theatre. And the storyteller, in a way, is responsible for making this happen.
When this happens another of the storyteller’s roles comes out: making the audience live what´s going on as theirs. What is more, making the audience part of what is going on, active and responsible for what is taking place.
And this way the told tale creates group feeling, nourishes the community, reinforces ties among people. The told tale might be one of the few experiences that provoke emotion in a group of people, making them laugh together, feel together, and at the same time feel responsible for what´s going on. And it is the storyteller´s role to keep it this way.
4 HAVING THE WORD
It also occurs that a person in the group that is listening assumes the voice and takes the word. This is another of the storyteller’s roles: to have the word. This implies great responsibility: the storyteller takes the word in which there is an ancestral voice alive(diachronic) and in which there are echoes of the voice that will be and at the same time he/she has the voice now (synchronic). It is therefore a word that goes beyond the moment, a word spun by many voices (we could say unanimous with all its etymological significance) and what is more, is sustained in that moment, in that context, with that audience.
Having the word could mean many things: that one has to know the word (the tradition, the text) and has to voice it in that moment (the nowadays, the context) so that it remains alive (the tomorrow).
But if we take the idea of the tale taking place in the comedy theatre and therefore it’s the audience who assumes part of the responsibility of what is going on there when the tale is told, then we find that the storyteller has the group’s word, assuming the word of the community. He/she becomes the spokesperson. But not a spokesperson that stands out above the community, but the group´s voice, the community´s voice. At this point it is useful to be conscious of the responsibility that this implies and overall, not to make use of that word for our personal promotion. There is no room for egocentricity in being the spokesperson for the community.
Being the spokesperson for common feeling is also a role of the storyteller when telling.
5 TO BE LIVING MEMORY
Having the word, as I said in the last item, implies also knowing the word, being an active part of the common memory, of its preservation, extension, and dissemination. I have already talked about this before in item 1: preserving and renovating the common repertoire.
I think an important part of being “living memory” is also the responsibility that it entails in order to articulate it, to narrate it, to transmit it, turning it into living memory. This role consists of three parts:
(a)Adapting the texts: which entails bringing closer, renovating the traditional texts for them to be able to fit to the new times and the audiences of today.
(b) The creation of new texts for the community, that may (or may not) become texts with which the community will identify, will think of itself, will look at itself…
(c) And the way in which these tales are told: which from my point of view, means a continuous reflection on the work of the storytellers (my own and others) and continuous development.
New stories also fit in part (b) (the ones written by you or from other authors) that can feed the personal memory and the collective memory and even become part of the collective imagination. (On this note, I remember the emotion I felt when some friends told me a tale I had invented, a tale that I had written and told for many years and that I had stopped telling many years ago, as though it were a traditional tale. This tale had been travelling from mouth to ear until it decided to come make a visit).
6 BEING PART OF THE AUTHOR´S CHAIN
This question of the adaptation to the voice and to the time, gives hints on the concept of shared authorship that is clear when talking about traditional texts (authors are a “legion” as *Menéndez Pidal* said) and that the storyteller also assumes when telling tales written by others. I think telling a tale written by someone else implies assuming that text, making it our own. This process of putting into words must be sustained by, overall, in the respect to the rest of authors in the chain (either they would be “authors” in the chain of tradition or in the chain of text’s authors) as well as in the rudiments and putting into words strategies that each storyteller uses in his/her working workshop.
Authorship also brings about an important question, that of artistic creation. In this role we should take care of artistic expression because the way we tell is also important.
And as artistic expression, oral narration and storytellers are part of the addends of culture, those of the small group and the greater community. Being conscious of this aspect is also important: taking care that our contribution increases, and doesn’t lessen, in the global artistic computation and culture is also a role of the storyteller.
And finally, from this point of view I think telling implies, overall, to respect: the story, the audience, the selected text author, the collective memory….
7 TO BE CRITICAL CONCIOUSNESS
This might be one of the most personal items in the whole text (actually all of it is), because I think that to have at your disposal the word being part of the community entails an added responsibility: to be the critical word. At least, from my point of view, what is told and how it’s told must be nourishment for the consciousness of the community.
Either by the selection of texts one chooses from the own repertoire (or common) or by the way one chooses to tell them, I think the storyteller needs to be aware of this role that gives so much relevance to our trade.
For many centuries, storytellers from different cultures and in very different moments of history have been critical voices and their words have been flax tow that has set alight the common consciousness. Not all of them, of course, for there were also storytellers submitted to the established order that collaborated to its consolidation by quieting down the critical voice.
In fact, nowadays, we have storytellers that have been censored or vetoed because of their critical attitude towards unjust situations condemned by the community. It is not necessary to go back to Paula Carballeira´s case, the Galician storyteller censored in a village because her support to the “Nunca Mais” (“Never again”) movement after the bad management of the sinking of the Prestige oil tanker, and we say it is not necessary because during that time the storyteller Ana Griott was censored in a Madrilenian village for collaborating with a critical citizen movement.
In this sense Paula noted something that is not a minor point: the most interesting storytellers are those who bring about (give rise to) questions not the ones who provide answers. The more questions that are generated within the community the less dogmatic and more critical it will be. There will be more individual and collective growth.
To conclude, I think the storyteller needs to stand alongside the group, alongside the community because the word has been given to him/her by the community, he/she has been made the spokesperson, and that is a huge responsibility, and a great privilege.
Translated by Sonia Carmona Tapia
Ever since I finished my study on the professionalization of the storyteller in July 2011, I have been taking notes and putting ideas together in order to write a second block of work centered on the storyteller itself. From this second block, and on the occasion of 20M- International Storytelling Day, comes to life this preview in which I reflect on the social role of the storyteller. I hope, little by little, to publish the rest of items that are now pretty much developed.
Once again I want to thank my partners of AEDA (Spanish national association of professional storytellers) and especially the following storytellers: Magda Labarga, Carles García, Estrella Ortiz, Virginia Imaz, Charo Pita, Manuel Castaño e Inés Bengoa for the comments on the draft of this document. And thanks to Paula Carballeira whose notes on the article have enriched it.
This short article comes from my personal thoughts and from the observation of our own work. It’s probably lacking many things, therefore any contribution or constructive thought will certainly be welcomed.