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The lost storytellers

Updated: Nov 14, 2021

Storytelling is part of all cultures, today and going back to the earliest humans, from folk songs to oral storytelling to prehistoric cave art. This ever-presence shows it must be important to us - a necessary way to understand ourselves and others, and to share how we make sense of our lives. Although there have always been elite storytellers - shannakees and bards - the act of telling stories was once shared. Today, however, there is a danger that we will become divided into those who create and tell stories - novelists, film-makers and TV producers, and others who consume them. Either you study, qualify then become a paid creative - accepted by institutions and cultural caretakers or you consume the stories offered to you. Even worse, the institutions that develop creative people and create new work are generally based on a narrow sector of society - often from wealthier backgrounds and elite universities. Consequently, the stories offered to us mostly come from their view of the world.

Many barriers stop us from becoming involved in the creation and sharing of stories but I believe the most important of these are: I don't have time , it costs too much or it won't be any good.

The I don't have time problem is a practical one - modern life comes with many pressures on our time - work is intense and tiring and our remaining time is used up by the rest of the things we need to do - looking after children - shopping - housework etc. Even worse, electronic and social media are designed to use up the time we have left. How many of us have time to write a novel or play - even to make a start?

The it costs too much problem is about the fact that most storytelling art forms are expensive to produce. For film, there are endless costs - salaries, hire costs, insurance, expensive equipment etc. For theatre, costs are less but are still high - venues to hire actors to pay. Studying in the arts is also expensive and dwindling number of people from 'normal' backgrounds can be found in arts education.

The it won't be any good problem is perhaps the worse of all. Our arts scene is dominated by the idea that we should strive to create art that stands up alongside the wonderful films, novels and plays that everyone has easy access to today. Although, in many ways, this can be good, it creates the mind set that - 'even if I try it won't be any good'. So either you study to work in the arts industry or you don't try. Private education tends to focus much more on the arts than publicly funded education so it is hardly surprising that the arts scene is so dominated by a narrow group of people. It is even worse than this because this mindset has been with us for so long that a culture of even if we try it won't be any good has become deep rooted. Many of us from a 'normal' background know the experience of being laughed at by parents or peers when we try to do something 'arty' and our early attempts are laughed at as 'being rubbish.' Only those with high self belief can overcome this but this quality is also rare if you come from this kind of background. Some artists from 'normal' backgrounds do succeed, of course, but these are becoming fewer and fewer.

So does all this matter? Perhaps only those from the 'metropolitan elite' worry about these kind of things - most of us just get on with our lives and don't care. Worrying about these issues might just be another way to impose values on people who simply don't share these values and don't want to share them. Experience tends to contradict this, however, because when people become involved in the arts, from whatever background, they often love the experience - it enriches their lives - I can think of endless times when I have seen this.

Another reason it matters can be illustrated by the following anecdote. Earlier in my career, I helped set up a group called Write-On that brought together local writers and actors to perform staged readings. For similar reasons to those already discussed, we were very keen to give everyone a chance to see their work - however 'good or bad'. We also let the audience - not us - decide which ones they liked most so we asked them to vote for one or two plays to take forward to fuller productions. The interesting thing was - they almost never voted for the plays that might be considered ‘good writing' or ‘well structured' or ‘without exposition' or all the other criteria we tend to use to decide what is good and what is not. Instead, they picked plays about their day to day lives or were fun or exciting and, often, the topics were ones we almost never see in films or plays. The point here is that many stories are filtered out by ‘cultural gatekeepers' who decide on 'what is good and what is not.’ This is really important because, in our fragmented society, we rarely meet people from other backgrounds and less and less do we hear their stories. This creates divisions - many people feel their voices are never heard - a common phrase in our recent debates about Brexit and in the Trump's USA.

So what can be done about these lost stories?

Although many attempts have been made to widen access to the arts often with success, more needs to be done and I believe the issues of time, cost and it isn't good enough are key. If the expense or time required to be part of an arts programme is too high, it simply won't work. If it doesn't appeal to those who think ‘it's not their kind of thing' then new people will not come.

Finding a way to change this is hard, of course, but here are a some thoughts that might help:

1) Bring people together. Simply, bring existing groups together- for example, people who like to write and local actors who like to act to create new work or it might be local historians with actors in a similar way. It is surprising how rarely this happens. Joining people like this widens the creative community - taking it out of its ‘silos' - people ‘spark off' each other and try new things. We did this with Write-On and it is still going 20 years later.

2) Keep things local and small to allow everyone to have a chance. If an initiative is too large and wide scale (e.g. covering the whole of Eastern England) - it will, for simple practical reasons, be necessary to be selective and this closes down voices and stories.

3) Just have a go - For those who are old enough to remember the punk rock scene, the brilliant thing about it was that everyone had a licence to have a go - often with awful results but also with glorious ones. Avoid bringing in judges who decide what is good or bad - never hand out prizes to the ones you like. A local play or film about a local community and the people who live there might be 'poor quality', compared to the things we see in professional theatre or television, but the audience might relate to it much more and remember it for far longer. Once people start doing something they love, they always try to do it better the next time.

4) Always think of time and cost. By avoiding the need for expensive equipment, such as expensive cameras, costume hire and venues, barriers will be removed. For example, by bringing someone who loves to write together with local actors and someone else with a mobile phone who knows how to edit footage, short films that can created then put onto you-tube at next to no cost. Likewise, stage readings take far less time, in terms of rehearsing and learning lines, than fully staged plays but can still be really effective.

5) Target the young. The age group 13-18 is key - life-long attitudes form at this age - and involvement in the arts can end at this time. There is a tendency for arts projects to focus on primary schools because children at this age are more receptive. It is also tempting to focus on schools in wealthier areas that are less hard work.

6) Make use of retired people. Retired people are a great resource because they have more available time. Certain art forms think they are for the young and, let's face it, often the young don't want to be with the old, while older people can be scared of the young. Be honest about this and try to overcome the problem on both sides because it is wrong.

7) Find subject matters that engage people and the best way to do this is to ask them - for example ask - if you were given a pot of money to make a film or play about your lives what would you spend it on? The question could be asked via a school or a local newspaper? Examples might be - what happened to you in the recent flood - or what important event in local history or famous local character would you like to celebrate.

8) Sometimes we will fail and empty halls and stony faces might be the result of our work. It is important to try and learn from this and not to give up. Success is not only about full rooms and large audience - it is also about the stories and storytellers and what they do next.

An important point to make is that none of this is against the existing arts industry and the wonderful artists and great work it promotes. Thriving local arts should live alongside the professional arts scene and they should compliment each other with flow of ideas and people between them.

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