The second Oxford Storytelling Festival (CLICK HERE) was held at Waterperry House and Gardens near Oxford (CLICK HERE) over the August Bank Holiday weekend. I realise that this review is a bit late in being posted (at the end of October), but there have been other demands since the festival which have somewhat delayed the vital editing stage of writing this review.
Preamble: some background to this review
This review draws on comparisons with the 2018 Oxford Storytelling Festival, the review that I wrote of it, and the discussions with the events founder that followed. If you would like to go straight to the discussion of the storytelling performances CLICK HERE.
The first Oxford Storytelling Festival was held in 2018, and I attended just over half of the two day event (sadly, I had to leave early on the Sunday because of a family emergency). Following the 2018 festival, I wrote a personal review (CLICK HERE) in which, while expressive appreciation of many of the performances over the weekend, I offered a critique of the event describing it as ‘a collision between two events: one a storytelling festival, and another where the focus was a spiritual connection with the earth (as a shorthand for a range of alternative spiritualities). I think it is fair to say that my review ruffled some feathers, and I had an online meeting (at her request) with Rachel May, the festival’s founder, which lasted for almost an hour. I need to pay due respect to her for wanting to speak to me and to understand my concerns over the spiritual agenda of the festival. The meeting was amicable and dialogic, but I think it is fair to say that we failed to reach common ground on the appropriateness of a spiritual focus to a storytelling festival, the general purposes of storytelling festivals and the nature of storytelling itself.
Having said all of the above, I attended this year’s festival in the knowledge of what had gone before and, for some readers, this may diminish my right to critique this aspect of this year’s event. But (as in 2018), there was nothing in the 2022 publicity to suggest that Oxford would be anything other than a storytelling festival like other similar festivals. The website main page stated:
As in my review of the 2018 event, I have separated the discussion of storytelling from that of the spiritual focus but, as I consider the latter, I have decided to put more of myself into the review than previously - which is why this blog entry refers to ‘a (very) personal review.
The Oxford Storytelling Festival 2022 drew some of the UK’s most well known tellers including, Jan Blake, Emily Hennessey, and Nick Hennesey, and I filled my day with performances which in combination entertained, lifted and challenged me.
The stand out performance, for me, was Emily Hennessey’s ‘Kali’: her wide ranging account of the Pavarti strand of the Hindu myth of how Kali, the bringer of destruction, came into the world. Although the focus was on Emily, as the teller, the performance owed much of its power to the way in which sitar player, Sheema Mukherjee, wove music and voice through Emily’s words throughout the telling. Indeed, at the points where the two women spoke or sang in unison, their voices were matched to such a degree that they sounded like a single voice that was being doubled - an indication of the complicité between the two performers.
But this performance was more than words and music, demonstrating an embodied storytelling in which the poses and mudras (or hand gestures) of classical Indian dance enhanced a physical retelling which made use of the whole stage space and guaranteed a dynamic and engaging performance.
Jan Blake returned to Oxford this year with ‘Son of Buffalo Woman’, a shortened version of a longer series of tales based on a legend from Mali. Accompanied by her long-term collaborator percussionist John Predare, Jan brought this set of stories about injustice, heredity, power and magic to life with the exuberant style that we have learnt to expect. As we entered the wonderful Waterperry amphitheatre, she and John were playing the drums, and audience members moved in time with the music as they made their way towards their places, some taking the opportunity to spend some time dancing before taking their seats. The drumming provided a transitional device which separated the experience of queueing outside the wall surrounding the amphitheatre and being within the amphitheatre itself (with its clean lines and staged seating - see aerial photo below). The same (very effective) strategy was used by Jan and John at the end of the session as the audience departed. One of the reasons that I love Jan Blake’s performances is the way that they engage the audience - and the entrance and exit drumming provided not only an opportunity for engagement, but also of transformation as the audience moved from the everyday world to the world of the story. And, of course, Jan carried involvement through the performance with invitations to the audience to join in with chant, song and action.
An interesting distinction (for me, at least) between Jan Blake’s performance and that of Emily Hennesey was the use (or not) of voice amplification. As a storyteller, I have used amplification when I was worried about the strain of performing in schools day after day on my voice , but my preference is for acoustic telling; these two performances presented a chance to compare the effect of amplification.
Many years ago, I interviewed the Church of England’s adviser in acoustics, who suggested to me that voice amplification in the context of worship should support, but not dominate or drown the voice of the speaker. I have used this piece of advice ever since when setting levels for my own performances, and I think that her guiding principle, that the voice should clearly come from the person talking, and not be disembodied from loudspeakers, is one that makes sense for storytelling. Jan Blake’s set being unamplified meant that her voice was of the same nature as that of the members of the audience. Her voice, while honed, rich and vibrant, was still human.
By contrast, in the show ‘Kali’. both Emily Hennessey and Sheema Mukherjee’s voices were amplified such that the directionality of the sound did not point to them as the origins of their voices. I am not sure of the rationale for this decision, and it could have been simply pragmatic (the need to balance voices and instruments), but this was an occasion when amplification certainly mitigated against embodiment. However, this needs to be read as an observation, rather than a criticism, as the mythic nature of the performance (with Emily narrating the actions of gods and giving voice to the divine) meant that it could bear the amplified voices.
In addition to the amphitheatre performances, there were other storytelling performances and workshops across the site, and I want to highlight a couple which I valued being part of.
I have known David Heathfield as a virtual presence since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and admired the support that he provides for young storytellers around the world (and particularly his work with the Palestinian community). It was, therefore, something of a treat to see him in three-dimensions as he told his ‘Water of Life’ set of stories. These were tales from around the world, and David touched upon issues of appropriation and the sensitivities involved in telling stories from cultures that are not our own. This is an area of great contention in the storytelling world, and writing as someone who usually relies on printed sources, it was a joy to hear David tell stories that had been given to him in encounters with people of different races and cultures - it added a real authenticity to his set.
Shane Ibbs is a well-established teller based in Essex, but until the weekend of the Oxford Storytelling Festival we had only met online. Already having an interest in how story both reflects and creates place, I made a beeline for his workshop ‘Dreaming the story, a mindful Exploration’ in which he asked participants to become part of their surroundings. There were only four of us who took up the offer of the workshop, which was perhaps a pity for Shane but a privilege for the participants. Encouraging us to pay attention to place, to hear the sounds around us, and feel the breeze on our skin and the earth beneath us, Shane led us in a story that he learnt from Duncan Williamson, using our senses to create place and envision action. I am very familiar with the practice of visualisation through my own work in schools and universities, but it is a long time since I was led in one myself, and Shane reminded me of the power of this practice to the point where I continued to give more attention to place days later, and found myself being surprised by how acute my sense of smell had become as I travelled to a storytelling gig.
Sacredness, Storytelling and Inclusion
In my review of the Oxford Storytelling Festival 2018, I was very critical of an agenda which, I suggested, went beyond storytelling and strayed into the realm of new age spirituality. I need to contextualise what follows by pointing out that I had conversations with other attendees at the 2018 festival who were as uncomfortable with this aspect of the festival as I was. I also need to be clear about my own spiritual background which is unapologetically Christian, but point out that those with whom I discussed the festival included not only Christians, but also humanists and pagans. Whilst I cannot claim that I was fooled (as I was in 2018) by the publicity that this year’s festival was going to be free of a spiritual agenda, I think that there is still a discussion to be had both about the appropriateness of this emphasis (in what is being advertised as a ‘storytelling festival’) and the nature of inclusion.
As in 2018, Rachel May’s introduction in the programme to the 2022 festival provided a spiritual dedication to ‘all the beings of the Earth, Air, Fire and Water…’. I challenged Rachel in our discussion in 2018 about this, and asked her how she would feel if she opened the programme for an event which was advertised as a ‘storytelling festival’ to find my welcome in the name of the ‘holy and undivided Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit’? As I have said above, Rachel and I could not reach a common mind in our discussion, but I repeat the question, and suggest that if people found an overtly Christian dedication in the programme they would have a right to be surprised, perhaps even confused; even Christians in attendance would probably ask (as I and those I spoke to did) whether this was the right place for such words (however personally meaningful to the person who wrote them)?
Add to this the presence of an area labelled as a ‘Sacred Space’, and I fear that we had some very exclusive messaging going on - those who could open themselves to these spiritualities did not belong here. Much more worrying, though, is my concern that anyone attending the festival as an introduction to storytelling, might consider storytelling itself to be necessarily associated with such spiritualities. The festival organisers could rightly say to me, ‘Well, you didn’t have to use the sacred space.’ And that’s true. However, I did use a sacred space, popping into the church which is next to Waterperry House - but of course this was not the festival sacred space.
In fact, despite the church (in theory) being a spiritual home from home for a Christian, I suggest that the space that seemed most sacred to me was the open patch of ground where Shane led his workshop. Not only was the piece of rough grass and its surrounding trees consecrated by our use, but it was also transignified by Shane’s storying, which enabled the audience to reflect and shape our encounter with the natural world.
So why not make this a festival of ‘spirituality and storytelling’ and be absolutely clear about the agenda? or that there is a hope that people who may come to the festival with no pre-interest in alternative spirituality, would be so uplifted by the experience that they will want to learn more and explore it for themselves. If there is a third reason that I have not considered, I am very happy to receive ideas…
I want the Oxford Festival to succeed, but I travelled with a couple (who are not at all religious) who, like me, decided to attend only one day of the festival because they didn’t want to find themselves rubbing-up against the quasi-religious aspects of the event over the whole weekend. This year’s festival was considerably less-well attended than that of 2019, and there may be all kinds of reasons for that (not least, perhaps, the post-Covid context), but I can’t help feeling that a festival which was clear about its purposes would be easier to market.
 I find David Wray’s term ‘envisionment’, which he uses to explain the process of comprehension when reading, to be perfect when also applied to how we make sense of stories when we hear them. Wray suggests that when we envision we create complex webs of ideas and images: ‘Envisionments are dynamic sets of related ideas, images, questions, disagreements, anticipations,arguments and hunches that fill the mind during reading. [But] Envisionment building is not just an activity occurring during reading; we build envisionments all the time when we make sense of ourselves, of others and of the world.’ Wray, D. (2004) Teaching Literacy Using Texts to Enhance Learning. Abingdon: David Fulton p12
 When something is transignified, its meaning changes for those who are present at the time. In this case the ground on which we sat, and the nature that surrounded us was given meaning beyond simply being a physical space. Both the notions of consecration by use and transignification are found in ritual studies, but I suggest that they have wider applications which can help us better understand what is going on when we create story together.