Writing the City

Writing the City The Arts House National Arts Council spacer British Council

Storytelling and I
by Verena Tay

Since the dawn of human time, people have been telling each other stories of who did what, how, why and when. Whether or not these tales are fictional or describe actual events, somehow the form of story has been a key means of communicating our experiences and imagination. Story imbues facts/abstract thought with the human dimension and helps people make sense of and connect to their communities and the surrounding world.

Imagine if every man, woman and child spoke to each other only through a series of ones and zeroes, somewhat like how your maths teacher might have seemed to drone on during your school days… What kind of world would that be? Thankfully, we have story to make our world a more interesting place.

As a child, I loved listening to the family stories that my mother and aunts told. When I could finally read, storybooks hypnotised me. As an awkward teenager and young adult, I was fascinated with theatre. What a wonderful way to bring stories alive and connect with one’s audience visually, physically and viscerally! As a result, more than twenty years of theatre-making has shaped me as a person and an artist. Yet as I approached middle age, I was drawn more and more towards communicating story in the most direct manner possible: simply standing and telling a story to someone else.

Since 2003, I have been a storyteller, part of the contemporary revival of the art form here in Singapore that began during the late 1990s. We tell (not read aloud—story-reading being a totally different genre) folk tales, myths and legends from around the world and sometimes original stories to children and adults (yes, storytelling is for grown-ups too) at schools, public venues and even in a corporate context. We are a community of both amateur and professional tellers; those that tell stories for a living also conduct storytelling workshops to supplement their income. In 2006, we formed the Storytelling Association (Singapore) to promote the art form. This society currently comprises professional members as well as associate membership for anyone who wishes to explore storytelling or who simply loves to listen to stories.

If you want to tell stories effectively, the principles behind storytelling are actually quite easy to adopt (although it takes time to master the craft through persistent practice). First, choose a story that speaks to you. Only when you have a strong emotional/spiritual bond with the story will you be able to make your tale sound authentic and alive to your listeners.

Next, you have to be very clear about the story sequence, which comes through much reflection and out-loud rehearsal. As you tell to your audience, visualize each story element and communicate what you see in your mind’s eye directly to your listeners. If necessary, use gesture, action, song, props and audience participation methods to add depth and variety to your telling.

Because the genre is an oral/aural form, use direct language so that your audience can understand your tale more easily. You need not memorise and reproduce your whole story word-for-word like how an actor must deal with his/her entire performance text; being fluid with your words allows you to readily adapt each telling according to your audience and context.

Last but not least, tell your story again and again. Constant re-telling to an actual audience is the only way through which you will improve what you tell and how you tell as you modify each performance on the spot based on how the audience responds to you there and then.