Festival at the Edge 2022: A Personal Review







 

Alastair K. Daniel is a performance storyteller, consultant and independent scholar. He specialises in a participative style of storytelling in which a conversation is created between teller and audience, and provides evaluation of, and training in, oral storytelling and narrative communication within educational organisations. CLICK HERE to go to Alastair's website.

 

Introduction

After last year’s triumph of a festival (still working within some Covid-19 restrictions), this year's FatE was going to have to be something special to match up to the experience of 2021. The good news is that, for the most part, FatE 2022 provided a first class line-up of tellers, both well-established names and some new faces. This was the second year at Hopton Court near Cleobury Mortimer in Shropshire, and we were again blessed with glorious summer weather and an organisation that (on the surface at least) seemed calm and in control. As last year, the site proved popular with everyone that I spoke to, and the separation of potential sources of noise (such as the music tent and catering facilities) in the walled garden, away from the storytelling tents, outside the garden, meant that there were fewer distractions during the tellings than the previous year.


Last year’s FatE was always going to be special because, after all of those purely digital encounters over the pandemic, it provided the opportunity to meet members of the storytelling community in real life once more. Despite this, however, the delight of seeing friends in three-dimensions again didn’t seem to have been diminished by the passing of a year. Of course, we couldn’t take Covid for granted and there were people who were sadly unable to attend because they had tested positive, and I certainly do not take for granted that I was able to attend.


In this blog entry you will find short reviews of four of the performances at FatE this year. Following are some reflections on storytelling style and (unconnected) the festival catering. Please do come back to me if you think that I have got something wrong, or you would like to talk about any of my observations.

 

Some of Surrey Storytellers (http://surreystorytellers.co.uk/) and friends at FatE 2022

I am a longstanding member of Surrey Storytellers, and it was a joy to meet up with those who have been able to join us in-person as well as those who have become friends through online encounters over the last few years.

 

Stories of Welcome

As is my habit at FatE, I attended the Stories of Welcome on the Friday evening. Stories of Welcome sets the tone of the festival for me each year, and (without wishing to diminish the contributions of tellers in previous years) the 2022 offering was the strongest I have seen yet. Perhaps it was the variety of the tellers’ styles that made it special, but special it was. A line-up of Hugh Lupton, Jumana Moon and Abdullah Mufa, Jack Lynch, Gauri Raje and Cath Little gave us contrasting and honest performances from within their own traditions. But it was Jumana Moon’s story of coffee (a good tale anyway) that stood out, elevated by the complicite between her as teller and Abdullah Mufa who accompanied her on the ney and drum, words and notes fusing with each other, creating a single act of communication.


Jonathan Day Collective, and storytelling from Jon Buckeridge and Peter Chand: ‘Then & Now - Tales of Water, Iron, Fire’ (the festival opening ceremony)

The opening ceremony is an opportunity to create something that goes beyond the bounds of a marquee and blends word, action, image and music. The connection between the theme (water, fire and iron) and Shropshire's place in the Industrial Revolution was clear, and the variety of performances was interesting, but the mix of projected image, dance and poetry at times lacked artistic coherence. In particular, the telling of a story over a 2015 animation of the Haida creation myth Raven Steals the Light (CLICK HERE) felt awkward. Questions of cultural appropriation are complex (and I am still wrestling with my own thinking around the issue), but the use of an almost complete third party film as a visual accompaniment for a story, for me at least, lacked authenticity in the telling and respect for the work of the filmmakers.


Peter Chand and PKCtheFirst: ‘Pearls for Breakfast’.

I first saw Peter Chand perform with his DJ nephew at FatE 2016 and was intrigued by the combination of spoken word with ambient sound/electronic music. I remember going along six years ago with a very sceptical outlook towards this mixed-media approach, and I look back and have to ask myself why I questioned whether the combination of storytelling and the live curation of electronic music could work, when I wouldn’t question a performance given by a live teller working with an acoustic guitarist. Needless to say, I was a convert in 2016, and I approached this new show expecting to be delighted. And I was. Peter Chand’s words were held by PKCtheFirst’s music, heightening their emotional impact and helping to move action forward. Of course, the stories could be told without the music, but then ‘Coppelia’ could be danced without the Delibes’ ballet score, and one has to ask why would you separate them as long as the music is there?


Maria Credali and Pupils from Farlow Primary: ‘Letters Through Time’

Knowing Maria Credali a little, I knew that her response to the FatE commission for 2022 was never going to be pedestrian. True to form, she conducted and co-created a deeply moving account of the life of writer, broadcaster and postman Simon Evans with the children of Farlow Primary School in Cleobury Mortimer. Accompanied by Jake Thomas, Maria and the children took us from Evans’ childhood in Wales, through his first world war trauma, to his working life as a postman in Cleobury Mortimer (on the edge of which town, FatE is hosted).

As a former teacher, I am used to the expectation that children should perform in what might be thought of as a ‘showbiz’ style, akin to that of the most glitzy of musicals. However, under Maria’s direction, the children were able to tell the story of Simon Evans in an understated and controlled manner that gave space for neuence and took the audience on a postal round which touched most (if not all) of the audience. A stand out moment for me (although it involved no words) was when, in turn, the children started to blow on the ‘trench whistles’ that hung round their necks, a chilling reminder of the signal for WWI soldiers that they were to rise up and climb over the top of their trenches. If I was a teacher at Farlow Primary School, apart from gratitude to Maria, FatE and the funding agencies that enabled the commission to happen, I would want to fill my classroom with storytelling, drama and poetry, capitalising on the children’s experience of being able to move people through their words and action.


Some thoughts to consider… Do we tell stories or tell stories about stories?

My review of last year’s FatE included my concerns over the lack of criticality that was being applied to some of the storytelling, with (what I consider to be) lazy cultural generalisations and gender stereotyping. I am absolutely delighted to report that I didn’t have any such concerns this year. Of course, this could be because I didn’t have ears everywhere or experience every storytelling set, but last year concerns over criticality was the topic of quite a few conversations between sets, and this year I didn’t hear (and was not part of) such chatter.


Whilst criticality wasn’t an issue in the sets that I experienced, two of the performances that I witnessed shared a feature that I had not been aware of during previous festivals. I spend some time theorising storytelling as part of my scholastic output, but I do so in the hopes of understanding the processes of telling better so that I can, at the same, improve my own storytelling and contribute to the understanding of others. As part of this theorising, I like to distinguish between telling and reporting. When we report events, the recount itself is the subject of our language and a distance is maintained between the speaker and those events - one can imagine a police officer saying to a witness, ‘Just tell us what happened’, followed by the witness talking about what they saw, perhaps with the interjection of ‘What happened next?’ In the guidance produced on giving evidence in court by the (UK government’s) Home Office in 2020, witnesses are told to avoid giving personal opinions (CLICK HERE), but one of the central tenets of storytelling is (what Labov[1] refers to as) evaluation.


Evaluation in storytelling is about taking a personal stance on the story that you are telling. Sometimes this is achieved through comments on the narrative (‘...and would you believe it’), but it is continually expressed through tension in the body, tone/pitch/volume of voice, rhythm and pace and, of course, the choice of words used. In other words, what is taboo in a court of law is an essential element in performance storytelling. It was interesting (and, for me, disappointing) to experience two performances at FatE in which the evaluation was primarily attached to the story as an artefact (or object of interest) rather than the events occurring inside the story world. These sets were, then, more folkloric presentations than storytelling. I have been a storyteller long enough to know that, for some people, it is the presentation and interpretation of folklore that holds fascination rather than the performative aspects of storytelling. For me, however, storytelling is the means by which tales are given life and relevance to a modern audience: the social and historical background to stories can be fascinating, but it is through performance that the tradition remains living oral literature.


Some thoughts to consider… let them eat cake - if they can find any

In the introduction above I commented that FatE 2021 was always going to be special because of the Covid-pandemic, and this meant that I (and everyone I spoke to) were so grateful that the festival took place, we ignored any irritations connected with the organisation. This year I am going to raise a couple of niggles, however, but do so in the knowledge that Covid is not over and that the service industries lost many businesses during the pandemic, which may make it hard to source facilities for events such as FatE.

The tea tent. Yes, there was no tea tent. Again. This may sound such a small thing to those outside the UK and Ireland, but the ritual of a cup of tea and a biscuit or slice of cake is an important meeting point in our cultures. A few years ago Paul Jackson (at the time, chairman [sic] of the Society for Storytelling) asked us to what we ascribed the longevity of Surrey Storytellers as a club, and I said ‘cake’. He thought I was joking, but we went on to discuss how the sharing of food at the interval was a time of (and here’s an old fashioned word) fellowship - a connection between food and community that world religions have understood for millenia. It was suggested that the tea tent would be back again this year, which makes me think that a caterer had perhaps let the festival organisers down, but I wonder if it would be worth contacting local groups in Cleobury Mortimer to see if they wanted to run a tea tent as a fund raising activity. To drive home the point, the picture was taken at FatE 2016...


The catering at FatE post-pandemic is a problem generally. This year there were only two food outlets from which you could source a main meal: a traditional burger van and a Polish caterer. Perhaps it is the nature of storytellers, but the queue for the Polish food often stretched half-way across the field, while the burger van managed a far more modest demand. But long queues means long waits, and when people need to get food in a time limited break before the next performance, this is problematic. There was a cake stand, but it was dominated by the kind of confection that simply melts in the heat, and the stallholders gave up on Saturday and went home.


So, what’s the solution? Fortunately for me, I am in the position of being able to express my disappointment at the availability of festival food without any responsibility of having to do anything about it. But I would suggest that, if the festival organisers are let down by catering firms that promised but don’t deliver, they are upfront with the festival goers. At the start of each performance we were reminded to support the caterers and stall holders (quite rightly) but adding a notice that explains that there have been problems would mean (or at least, I hope would mean) that the punters start from a position of sympathy for the festival organisers.


Finally

It is an indication of how much I love FatE that, before any other considerations, I booked the B&B for FatE 2023 as soon as we arrived home from Hopton Court. The opportunity not only to hear storytellers at the top of their game alongside newer and emerging tellers is made even better by all of those between-sets conversations in the (bring your own) refreshment tent, or the queue for pierogi and sour cream at the Polish food outlet. There is a power in simply being together and sharing (here’s that word again) fellowship of storytellers and story-lovers.


FOOTNOTE

[1] Labov, W. (2013) The Language of Life and Death: The Transformation of Experience on Oral Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University