Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Review, Festival of Words

Nottingham Festival of Words 2014

With around fifty different listings (the majority free to attend) there was something for everyone that’s ever used a word.
Taking over the city

Lyric Lounge

The Nottingham Festival of Words thinks outside the book. An example of this was found at the Contemporary Art Gallery where words came alive, and not a book in sight. This ‘storytelling special’ and celebration of the spoken word was hosted by the East Midlands’ Lyric Lounge, a group of performers, poets and storytellers. 

The packed programme presented a dilemma, should I begin with the performance poetry or attend a storytelling workshop? The bar was featuring shows from Mark Gwynne Jones and Little Machine. I’d seen Mark before and loved his sideways glance at the human condition. As tempted as I was hear more of his unique crossover between poetry and observational comedy I tossed a coin.

Tails - for the workshop. 

Sophie Snell was offering this taster session on the art of oral storytelling. A full-time professional storyteller, Sophie had recently become chair of Tales from Two Cities, combining groups from Nottingham and Derby. This new super-group was formed after the sad passing of Pete Davis, founder of Storytellers of Nottingham.

Five minutes in and I was sat there with just one other punter, listening to the laughter and applause rising from the room below. Then the other guy gave it the old is that my phone? trick and slipped out never to return. 

People did eventually filter through, providing Sophie with eight of us to teach. She began by telling a gory story based on an old tale called The Hand of Glory, a myth about the dried and pickled hand of a man who has been hanged. This hand can be used by thieves to unlock doors and render people motionless. With Sophie’s changes of pace, facial expressions and body language, it was evident that we were in the presence of a fine storyteller, combining many of the skills of an actor, comic and writer. 

There’s a rhythm to her stories, much like music. And, as with a chorus, there’s often a repetitive section of rhyme that encourages the audience to join in as they come to know the words. 

The language uses minimal description that’s highly visual. In just a few words the listener has enough to form a picture in their head. Many writers could learn from this. 

It seems that to be a master storyteller you must first master the story. The tale travels along in the same order every time but each telling can be different, adapted to fit the needs and makeup of the audience. Each scene or plot point appears as an image in the teller’s head. The describing of this image and transition to the next can allow for flexibility, making each version different from the last, in theory. 

Sophie trawls the internet, digging out folktales, often just the bones of a story, from which she can add the meat in her own style. It’s this that makes the old tales fresh and unique to each new storyteller.

We also learnt how important the venue is: ideally, one with no distractions that also allows the teller to read the listeners’ faces. The tips kept coming in this excellent session. Like, how to keep the stories simple, making them easy to follow and remember.  

Sophie admitted to having caught the storytelling bug and her passion for it shines. The immediate feedback oral storytelling demands must give the teller an adrenalin kick. The nerves, highs and lows akin to that of a stand-up comic. But finding the confidence to tell a tale? Sophie says it’s about doing it, practicing on your own, knowing the basic story then getting out in front of an audience. To prove her point, we told stories, to each other. Then repeated them, working on our timing. 

After Pete Davis did so much to raise the profile of storytelling in the city it’s good to know that, with Sophie, the art of spinning a yarn is in good hands. 

Tales from Two Cities hold regular storytelling evenings, alternating monthly between Derby and Nottingham. Many of these feature open-mic segments so give it a go. Sophie Snell also offers full day workshops to hone your skills. 

By the time we made it down to the bar area, LiTTLe MACHiNe - a South London acoustic trio that put classic poems to music - had just finished and the open-mic section was in swing. Poet Laureate for Lincolnshire Joel Stickley was MCing the bash and he was a good choice for the role. His Dave Gorman-esque style and generosity of limelight allowed the plucky poets and storytellers to showcase their diverse skills.  

From members of the Mouthy Poets to the rank amateurs, the poetry was accessible, and the standard was impressive, the audience equally so. A large crowd, sympathetic and encouraging, cheered each speaker to and from the stage whilst listening with the upmost respect during the performances. It made for a warm atmosphere, perfect for the spoken word. So much so that two members of the workshop found the bottle to join the open-mic. Proof, if needed, of the workshop’s success.

Headlining the evening was Shonaleigh Cumbers one of the country’s leading storytellers. She’s known from her Jewish folk-tales collected and passed down through generations. I’d attended her one woman show at the Playhouse a couple of years back and, unfortunately for me, many of the stories were making a repeat outing here. Still, she was on good form and generated much laughter and admiration from the crowd.  

The spoken word as entertainment is alive and well in Nottingham. 

With thanks to Martin from www.m-dash.com for the Lyric Loung images.

The Outburstables
I popped into town on Sunday and came home a changed man. Having collected a couple of Owen Jones tickets from the Five Leaves bookshop I ducked in the Nottingham Writers’ Studio’s open house to see something called The Outburstables. I’d no idea what to expect but headed down the ramp towards what sounded like a youth club. Uh-oh. Seeing a bunch of young people larking about and breaking into impromptu singing was not my scene and I was close to leaving when silence descended. 

A lady introducing herself as Nicci Robinson said that it was the soft launch of a memoir anthology titled Speaking Out. What followed was both devastating and inspirational. 

Words can entertain and thrill but they also have the power to hurt people and allow those that have been hurt to tell their stories.  

OutBurst is a group for young people aged 11-19 who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, or are questioning their sexuality. They took turns to tell their stories. Several of these memoirs were heart-breaking. Tales of sexual abuse, assault, bullying, loss, grief, self-harm, attempted suicide, depression, and hope. These were people that wanted to tell their stories to help others going through similar situations. These were stories that needed to be told. 

The venue, that had been full of laughter and song, was suddenly filling with tears. But not those of the young. They were displaying astounding courage. Putting their stories out there. Opening themselves up. It was a privilege to be there but a shock of reality. It’s so sad to hear young people demonstrate such suffering, and frightening that this can even be due to nothing more than their sexuality. People need to read this anthology. The disgraceful levels of homophobia and bullying might not shock you but the way schools, parents, and care homes are ‘coping’ with it certainly will. 

There are moments of humour, and the way the group has come together is uplifting, but this is haunting evidence of the power of words, and the courage shown in speaking them.  

The anthology will be officially launched at Waterstone’s next month. I urge you to go along and buy a copy. 

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