Storytellers and Storytelling at the Second Marrakech International Storytelling Festival
The performance venues for the Second Marrakech international Storytelling Festival were dotted all over the city. They included The Marrakech Museum of Music (CLICK HERE), the Dar Bellarj Foundation (CLICK HERE), The Palais de Congress and (of course) the main square, the Jemaa el-fnaa (CLICK HERE).
As I explained in Part 1 of this blog (CLICK HERE), the Jemaa el-fnaa is the traditional hub for storytelling in Marrakech and, reflecting this, the festival erected a beautiful traditional tent on the side of the square. It was a joy, then, not only to be able to tell a few stories myself, but also to be part of the storytelling community and have the opportunity to experience others telling. On the Monday afternoon, I was able to share in the work of one of the master storytellers of Marrakech as he told outside the festival tent. I have long been fascinated with the way that a teller’s communication with an audience is only partially linguistic, relying on so much else in addition for effective communication: this performance provided ample evidence of how we make meaning from the whole of a storytelling performance. I do not speak or understand any Arabic beyond ‘Salaam’ and ‘Inshallah’, but I could still hear the use of rhythm and rhyme in his telling and experienced the transcendent effect of a skilled storyteller exploiting every channel of communication, vocal, gestural, spatial and interpersonal. I certainly would have understood the events of the stories had there been a translator, but the emotion and tensions evoked by those events were palpable through the way that the story was told. Without wishing to get into a discussion of gendered language, it was very easy to see why this performer was described as a ‘master storyteller’.
I have had enough experience of street theatre in my youth to not be that worried whether or not I would have the opportunity to tell in the square myself. However, I dutifully signed up to do a stint and, of course, when I stepped out to tell on the Jemaa el-fnaa with its thousand-year tradition of storytelling, I was completely lost in the moment, but not because of the history alone. The audience was, to be sure, small, but facing a French speaking family with a young child, I found myself ditching the story that I had prepared to tell, and instead went for ‘Siput the Snail’ – a tale that I often use with groups of children in the early years that includes plenty of repetition both of language and action (CLICK HERE to see me teaching ‘Siput’ to an international group of student teachers). And it was the reaction of the young child that made this moment special. In my teaching, I contend that storytelling is always about teller and audience making story together; while some tellings include moments where the audience joins-in with words or actions, there is implicit participation in every storytelling performance. This is because each member of the audience has to use their imagination to construct their own story world, using the teller’s performance to provide cues about the setting, characters and action. Storytelling is, then, always about a combined effort, of teller and audience working together. My worst memories of street theatre were those occasions when people just walked past a performance and we, as a company, acted our way through the routine without connecting with anyone (it is worth pointing I do have good memories of street theatre too). My fear with any storytelling in a public space is that the connection isn’t made. And here, in the Jemaa el-fnaa, I was making that connection with a young French tourist and her parents who joined-in my story at every point that they could (even though my use of English language was way-beyond the child’s comprehension).
On my way to the airport for the return flight home, I shared a taxi with Scots storyteller Rona Barbour, who asked what my highlights of the Storytelling Festival were. I didn’t have to think too hard to identify my two favourite aspects of my week in Marrakech: the fellowship of storytellers and storytelling in schools – and one school in particular. So, I am now going on to explore what it is about these facets of the festival that made them stand out for me.
The Fellowship of Storytellers
‘Fellowship’ is a rather old-fashioned word, but one that I find myself using more and more in conversations both with storytellers and about storytelling. It is a word with religious overtones, or perhaps one that prompts thoughts of ‘The Lord of the Rings’, but when storytellers gather and work together as equals, ‘fellowship’ serves well as a collective noun. And that ‘fellowship of storytellers’ was something that I experienced in Morocco.
At the heart of the Marrakech International Storytelling Festival lay the World Storytelling Café (CLICK HERE). The World Storytelling Cafe is best known as an online storytelling venue, but it is also a real physical space, serving food and drink on the ground and first floors, and broadcasting online storytelling from the top floor. I spent a large portion of each day of the festival sitting and talking with other storytellers, listening to their tales, and occasionally contributing stories myself. The opportunity to talk about storytelling, share stories and react to tales told with other tellers was something very special: it provided shared moments of recognition, empathy, laughter, challenge and transcendence. Obviously, I was as keen as anyone to get up and perform but, when I look back at the festival, some of my most vivid memories are moments when I was simply being with other people who share my love of oral storytelling, sharing a pot of mint tea and some bowls of Moroccan mezze (accompanied by a basket of delicious local bread). Given that the festival was a gathering of over eighty solo performing artists (and the consequent gathering of over eighty artistic temperaments), some readers may think that the rosy picture being painted here lacks credibility. But, while I am the first to acknowledge that some storytellers have very sharp elbows when it comes to securing performance slots, most tellers seem to be held together by something much deeper than the love of the spotlight. I am certain that there must have been corners of the festival that were focussed on the ‘me’ as a performer rather than the ‘us’ of the storytelling community, but my own experience of the second Marrakech International Storytelling Festival was certainly characterised by that word ‘fellowship’.
Storytelling in Schools
Over the week-long festival, all of the 80+ storytellers had the opportunity to visit local schools. It is a measure of the trust in the festival and its organisers that, for this second iteration of the festival, the authorities invited storytellers into around 100 local schools. I was fortunate enough to visit four schools over the week, and the last one of these visits was my second highlight of the festival. Before discussing what made the final visit stand out, I need to acknowledge that, despite over 35 years of working in education) I had felt nervous about the school visits prior to the festival week because there was little guidance on the expectations of the schools, and (ever the class teacher) I wanted some idea of, what is referred to in schools as, the intended ‘learning outcomes’ so that I could plan. When I worked as a class teacher, I was fairly religious about writing detailed lesson plans that outlined the activities and linked them to the desired learning, and it’s a habit that I have maintained as a storyteller visiting schools. All of this may add weight to the way that I described myself in Part 1 of this blog as ‘uptight’ but, in my defence, I will say that I have never hesitated to abandon a lesson plan in the light of how learners have reacted to the activities that I planned. So, walking into a school without being able to prepare was stressful. And it was particularly stressful in light of the inherent dangers in making instant decisions about the language level and maturity of a group of learners, particularly when English has only reached the status as the second language of Morocco in the last year. Either by luck or judgement, however, I think that I managed to provide a mix of telling and teaching over the four schools that, if it didn’t perfectly meet the learning needs of the young people, was at least entertaining.
One of the challenges of working with young English learners is that the complexity of the language that they can understand often does not match the complexity of their thinking. This means that there’s a danger of them feeling patronised by stories which are not only linguistically simple, but which are also too naïve for their emotional and intellectual development. After working in two schools where I sensed that the students had sufficient English to follow the stories that I told without difficulty, I was then faced with an audience of students who did not exhibit the same confidence. Bearing in mind the observation above about the danger of being patronising, I once more drew upon ‘Siput the Snail’, but framed it as the teaching of a story that the teenagers could share with younger members of their families. This approach seemed to allow them to join-in wholeheartedly with this simple tale, without worrying that it was intended for young children.
And so, we come to that second highlight of the festival. I had travelled in a group of three tellers (the charming Norman Perrin from Canada, the effervescent Rona Leventhal from the States, and me) and accompanying translators to a secondary school in the city. It was a very smart building, and we were welcomed by the staff into a very clean interior and greeted with traditional mint tea and pastries prior to our duties as tellers. As we were sipping our tea, the lead English advisor for Marrakech arrived and asked if anyone would be prepared to travel to a school in a poor rural area for which otherwise there wouldn’t be a storyteller visit. I was very happy to volunteer, and I was driven to the school with Mohcine, the translator.
Mohcine and I discussed how I would tell ‘Siput the Snail’ to the young people en route, so there was a little preparation before we arrived. As we walked into the school, the differences between it and the school in the city were readily apparent, with much more basic facilities, and lower maintenance of the buildings. However, whatever the differences between the schools in terms of visible affluence, the welcome was just as warm, and we were once more offered tea and pastries. Moving to the room where the audience was waiting, we found a group of young people in traditional dress and, before we started our telling, we enjoyed three stories from their different tribal traditions. Each of the stories was told or presented in a way that hinted at a lot of preparation for their visitors and, in at least one of the young tellers, there was a glimpse of someone who could perhaps be a future master storyteller of Marrakech.
As if this welcome wasn’t enough, or perhaps because of it, when Mohcine and I sat on the carpet in the middle of the young people and told ‘Siput the Snail’, it was a telling that will live long in my memory. I have been fortunate enough to have worked with translators before and, (to be fair) from a storyteller’s perspective, such a way of working does not guarantee a positive performance outcome. Occasionally, I have felt the energy of the room being drained away as my expression and physicality is reduced to language communicated in a pedestrian and almost monotone manner – which is dispiriting, to say the least. On the other hand, I have also experienced occasions when my performance has melded with that of the translator, so that although we are using two different languages, we seem to have created a performance with a single voice. When this happens, the energy is extraordinary, and the whole storytelling event is enhanced, enabling the audience to create the narrative in their minds. Mohcine, it has to be said, is a storyteller himself (as well as studying for a masters degree in the translation of storytelling), and I am certain this contributed to his being able to pick-up cues from me as the main teller and, in turn, give me cues of how and when to continue. This shared performance – teller-translator-audience - was one of the most profound moments of complicité that I have experienced as a storyteller, and certainly contributed to this school visit being my second highlight of the festival.
Conclusion - ‘To us, it is a miracle’
I hope that in the two parts of this blog I have given a reasonable account of the experience of being a storyteller at the Second Marrakech International Storytelling Festival. I opened the first part of the blog by explaining how the festival was intended, both to help sustain the thousand-year-old storytelling tradition of Morocco, and to stimulate tourism after (what we hope is) the worst of the Covid pandemic. In this closing section, I want to simply report a brief conversation that I had with Annas, a guide in The Secret Garden (Le Jardin Secret) in the heart of the old city. I was with a group of tourists that he had shown round the old residence of the Sultans and, as we were leaving, I fell into step with him and explained that I was in Marrakech for the festival. His parting response as our conversation ended was, ‘To us, it is a miracle.’ That was the point at which I realised that this festival reached beyond the babble of the performers and organisers, but reached out to the population of Marrakech, not least by touching at least three thousand young lives in local school visits.
My experience of Marrakech was exhausting, disconcerting and sometimes exasperating, but the opportunity to experience the city and its people through the festival is not something that I would have wanted to miss. I learned much in my 10 days in Morocco about the country, its people, the nature of storytelling, the natures of storytellers and my own nature as a storyteller. I hope that I will be back one day.