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Storytelling Performance Part 4b: ‘I am what I am’ – role in storytelling

In the first part of this blog (CLICK HERE) , I introduced a layered model of storytelling (see figure 1: Storytelling Roles) and explored how a storyteller shifts between the roles of narrating from outside the story and enacting, or behaving as if they are within the story. In this second part, I will go on into more detail what evaluating means in the storytelling context, and why narrating and enacting are layered within it. Finally, I will unpick some of the complexity involved when someone tells stories in-role as a character.

Taking a stance: evaluation

‘Evaluation’ is a term that I have borrowed from the work of William Labov (1972) who carried out research into the storytelling practices of African American youth in the 1970s. Although his research was very culturally specific, his findings have been replicated in situations in which people tell, write and make stories, all over the world. One of Labov’s most significant findings was that storytelling is not only an oral recount of events, but the way in which the story is told communicates the values of the teller, both to the story and real world. These values are revealed both through narrative choices (among other things, the events chosen for recounting, and the identity of the protagonist(s)) and performance itself (whether there is a commentary on events, the use of vocal tone and physicalisation to indicate whether words are to be taken literally or as irony, the use of repetition, and the creation of stereotypical (or recognisable) characters to evoke sympathy or antipathy). The teller, then, through their performance, lets the audience know which aspects of the narrative they approve of, and which they regard as undesirable[1].

I have placed evaluating as the outer shell of the model in Figure 1. My suggestion, then, is that everything we do as storytellers exists within this role of evaluating both the stories that we tell and their relationship to the world around us. However, the evaluation that is inherent in any story that a teller may tell (and how they tell it) is not always ‘owned’, but represents an inherited (or at least subconscious) view of the world and the story’s relationship to it. Indeed, whenever we adapt a pre-published story for performance, we are working with evaluations that the story’s writer and editor have made. This means that, unless we question the values that we are promoting through our telling, we are in danger of implicitly supporting reactionary perspectives on the world that we would never adapt outside of the storytelling context such as assumptions about gender, race, body shape, sexual identity, etc. Although storytellers may not see Disney as an authoritative source for stories, the media giant has a significant influence on the wider public, many of whom treat Disney films of fairy tales as canonical versions of the stories, which are then fixed. To be fair, Disney has been working to some degree to address gender roles, ethnic diversity and even LGBTQ+ visibility, in its films, but this does not prevent the influence of the brand shaping and fixing perceptions of traditional tales[2] that we may wish to challenge. In my role as a teacher educator, I see this influence on how student teachers understand traditional tales, versions that they will go on to use in the classroom practice, reinforcing particular ways of thinking for the children that they teach.

Having said all of the above, I can’t claim moral superiority, and I realise that I am often guilty of failing to think through the messages that the stories I tell convey. And it is this word ‘convey’ that is important. When I, or any other teller, simply works within the received values inherent in a particular published version of a tale, those values are conveyed to the audience, whether or not they represent our own world view. Jack Zipes (1995) has written about the need for revised fairy tales when working with children to avoid the damage that can be caused by normalising child abuse (think of Hansel and Gretel) and other negative values, but such an approach would appear to ignore that these tales are ‘out there’, and that children will continue to be exposed to many of them in some form or another. I would rather side with Joe Winston, who talks about teachers engaging in critical dialogue with children over such messages in traditional tales, and developing a ‘critical mistrust of distortedly inappropriate moral values’ (1998: 36). While this discussion has been focussed around how we share stories with children, the argument can be extended to suggest that storytellers need to critically engage with their material no matter the age of their audience, recognising all ages are open to the influence of story (as even a cursory glance at the news will highlight).

The role of evaluating, then, is fundamentally about the choices that we make: the stories we choose to tell, the elements of pre-existing tales that we include (and those which we jettison), and the values that we ascribe to particular actions or characteristics, through the way that we perform the story. I am not always proud of the evaluative choices that I have made in the past, and I was discussing with a colleague how in decades past we would have used accents to emphasise particular character traits in stories, but that now we would be far more cautious about making such stereotypical associations[3]. In addition to the way in which a narrative is performed, it is also possible to step outside the story world to offer an evaluative commentary. As an example of how simple it can be to challenge received values, I will highlight a moment in my own (fairly traditional) telling of Snow White. At the point in which Snow White finds shelter with the dwarfs, I say, ‘…and the dwarfs said that they would care for her, if she would care for them. So, Snow White did all the cleaning, cooking, sewing and washing. Because (after all) she was a girl….’. I then pause. I don’t have to pause for long before someone in the audience challenges the statement that I have made about role or women, and we can then have a (brief) and critical exchange about gender roles in story before the narrative moves on.

Perhaps all of this sounds very ‘PC’, but awareness of the origins of those stories which have come out of a world in which difference from the ‘norm’ was treated either as a threat or something exotic is important. Evaluating both the narratives that we tell and how we tell them, then, is an essential role of every storyteller, if we are not to be accused of failing to challenge injustice, prejudice, or just plain lazy thinking.

Character based telling – narrating within enacting

It could be argued that storytellers can’t escape from enacting, because that role of ‘storyteller’ is one that we take on, and is not who we really are. Although it is true that as every storyteller is engaged in the role of narrative, they present a version of themselves in performance that is distinct from the ‘real person’ that one would meet socially[4], the reality is that we take on multiple roles in our lives, each one a version of ourselves whether it is storyteller, partner, parent, teacher etc…[5] . I would argue, therefore, that the storytelling role is not enaction as explored in the first part of this two-part blog. Perhaps, the crux of this distinction is the extent to which these performer identities are authentic versions of ourselves. In my interview with Ursula Holden Gill who was centred on the question of ‘who are you, when you are a storyteller?’ Ursula told me about her first experiences as a storyteller, telling Rumpelstiltskin with a group of children. She presented herself as a storyteller by adopting a persona that she thought would work with the children, but this meant that her ‘voice’ was not her own and she quickly realised that it was only by finding her own authentic voice as a teller could she establish the dialogic connection with the audience that she wanted.

I understood Urusla’s point completely because of an experience I had when first teaching storytelling at university. During the module, I modelled a range of aspects of storytelling, but failed to communicate that the style which I was modelling was my personal way of performing. One of the quiet students took my modelling as a required style and imitated it, creating an exuberant performance that was not his own, but one in which he was invisible, and his own voice, silent. Ever since then, I have emphasised the need for students to find their own storytelling voices.

Having said that, there are contexts when a storyteller adopt a character which is distinct from themselves, and tell in-role, thus creating an additional layer of framing enaction to the model as previously presented (see Figure 3). Such a layered approach to storytelling reflects some narrative traditions (such as those exemplified by the Tales of a Thousand and One Nights - commonly called The Arabian Nights) in which stories are layered like an onion, one inside another. For instance, the tale of The Sage Duban is framed by the story of The Fisherman and the Genie, which is itself within the story of Scheherezade (the principal framing tale of the collection) (Mahdi, 1990: pp30-41). The two outer stories (Scheherezade and The Fisherman and the Genie) provide framing narratives for The Sage Duban, each of them creating a distinct time and space as each story is narrated.

This dramatic form of storytelling is not part of my own experience as a performer, but I have worked alongside museum educators for whom character-based storytelling is regularly used as a means of bringing historic spaces and artefacts to life – indeed, the interview with Ursula Holden-Gill took place in the spring of 2019 while she was preparing for Adverse Camber’s Leeds Storytelling Takeover, for which she created characters who could tell stories of the city as she took groups on a walk, introducing them to significant places through story. The diagram (Figure 3) Character-based storytelling shows the complexity of what is going on here: enacting the story is still understood through the context provided by the narrative, but the act of narrating is, itself, understood within the world that has been created through the storyteller’s characterisation (the framing enaction). In this way, the aspect of the Storytelling Framework ‘storytelling is located the outside world’ (CLICK HERE) remains true: the character is outside of the story that they are relating. This is true in the stories from The Thousand and One Nights (Mahdi, 1990), with the fisherman telling the story of The Sage Duban from outside that story world, and Sheherezade telling the fisherman’s story from outside his world. Character-based storytelling, then, is about a continuous enaction which gives context to the narrating (which in turn gives context to the enaction of the story). In this way, Ursula’s stories of Leeds were shared through characters who had connections with particular parts of the city; in the Royal Armouries Museum in Portchester, the teller may be in-role as a nurse in the Crimean War and tell stories that bring to life artefacts, which are humanised through reference to the lives of those who cared for wounded soldiers.

There are, however, some limitations to in-role storytelling:

  • the teller needs to be able to maintain the characterisation consistently throughout their contact with the audience;

  • the teller needs to have good improvisational skills as responses to, and exchanges with, the audience need to remain true to the character;

  • It is hard to maintain a character and at the same time deal with practical concerns which lay outside the character’s world – if the audience needs to move from location to location, how does a character facilitate that? If they are in-role as a nurse in the Crimea, how do they tell someone where to find the museum toilets, or what time the museum café closes? None of these issues are insurmountable , but they need to be thought through (the simplest solution, but a costly one, is to have another person present who is responsible for managing the group).

Finally, the role of evaluating remains a consideration for in-role storytelling. The addition of a layer of framing enaction makes evaluation more complex as the teller now has to give critical consideration, not only to the story and how it is told, but also how the character is created and what the characterisation itself is saying to the audience[6].


In this two-part blog, I have explored the way in which storytellers have to navigate between narrating the story and enacting aspects of it. The layered model (Figure 2: Storytelling Roles) shows how the enacting of aspects of the story (such as speaking in role as a character, or using a booming voice to to give extra meaning to words describing a storm) are understood within the context of the narrative. And that this narrative is, in turn, understood within the values that influence the storyteller (consciously or unconsciously) in their story choice and performance of that story.


[1] In everyday conversation this could be as simple as saying, ‘and then he shouted at them – well, you know what he’s like!’ to mark disapproval at a character’s actions.

[2] Heather Widdows’ explored the role of Disney in shaping the view that Beauty = Goodness in her conference paper ’Beautiful Girls are Good Girls’ recently (developing themes from her recent (2018) publication ‘Perfect Me’), and the whole issue of body image was brought home recently (and starkly) to me by a teller who explicitly linked a male character’s physical attributes (which were less than godlike) to his undesirability and bad character.

Jack Zipes has been a consistent critic of Disney’s treatment of fairy stories, and I have listed two have two references in the bibliography below.

[3] This is not to say that one shouldn’t use accents or voices to differentiate between characters under any circumstances. In tales with substantial cast lists, creating different voices can be very useful markers to help the audience to follow the narrative – the point, rather, is to take a critical stance and question why particular voices have been chosen.

[4] This is unsurprising as the performer, working with groups of people, needs to heighten their communicative energy beyond that normally required in social situations. Some people will refer to this as ‘projection’ (particularly when referring to the voice), but the theatre anthropologist, Eugenio Barba, refers to the ‘dilated body’: ‘We often call [the] performer's power 'presence'. But it is not something which is, which is there in front of us. It is continuous mutation, growth taking place before our very eyes. It is a body-in-life. The flow of energies which characterise our daily behaviour has been re-routed. The tensions which secretly govern our normal way of being physically present come to the surface in the performer, become visible, unexpectedly’ (1991, p54).

[5] The work of Erving Goffman in the 1950’s has been highly influential on the way that role as a sociological phenomenon is understood. For Goffman, the role of storyteller would simply be one of many roles that a person may play in social performance.

[6] My partner and I were on holiday in another English-speaking country and saw a sign advertising a free storytelling session. We settled down with the families to wait for the teller, who then appeared at the top of a set of stairs, dressed in a pink tutu and carrying a glittery wand, announcing that she was ‘The Story Fairy’. Everything she did thereafter was contextualised by this fey characterisation and the stories that she told lacked colour and any sense of complexity.

References for Parts 1 and 2

  • Barba, E. (1991) The Dilated Body. In Barba, E. and Savarese, N. (1991) A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology: The Secret Art of the Performer. London: Routledge, pp54-63: p54

  • Goffman, E. (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, New York: Doubleday

  • Hutcheon, L. with O’Flynn, S. (2013) A Theory of Adaptation (2nd Edn.). Abingdon: Routledge

  • Kennedy, M. (2014) John Humphrys throws down gauntlet to Melvyn Bragg over use of present tense. In The Guardian. 27 July, 2014. Available at: (accessed 26/10/19)

  • Labov, W. (1972) 'The transformation of experience in narrative syntax' in Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular, University of Pennsylvania Press, 354-396

  • Mahdi, M., The Arabian Nights. Translated by Haddawy, H (1990). New York: W.W. Norman

  • Widdows, H. (2019) Beautiful Girls are Good Girls. Presented at Pretty girls & brave boys: Fiction and the real world in children's literature Conference, University of Birmingham.

  • Winston, J. (1998); Drama, Narrative and Moral Education: exploring traditional tales in the primary years; London: RoutledgeFalmer

  • Zipes, J. (2006) Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre. Abingdon: Taylor and Francis

  • Zipes, J. (1999) Breaking the Disney Spell. In Tatar, M. (ed.) The Classic Fairy Tales. NY: WW Norton, pp333-352

  • Zipes, J. (1995) Creative Storytelling: Building Community, Changing Lives. London: Routledge.

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