Last week I wrote a blog in answer to the first of three questions Paul Bishop asked me about Green Storytelling. Before I got around to answering the rest of the questions, Paul came along to the workshop and filmed an interview me and I covered all the questions and more. (THANKS PAUL!!)
1. Why tell stories? (in an age of mass distraction)
2. How can stories help ME? (ie: in this ‘i-generation)
3. What can story do for our world environment that won’t otherwise happen? (ie: Why MUST people come to this workshop if they seek a sustainable human future)…
It is 19 minutes long, but even if you only have 3 mins to watch it, you’ll get an idea of what Green Storytelling involves and it starts with scenes from the workshop. Transcript below.
JENNI INTERVIEWED BY PAUL BISHOP
Paul: I’ve just come down to Redland’s IndigiScapes where today we’ve got an Australian storyteller, Jenni Cargill-Strong who is doing a six-hour workshop with people from north, south and west of Brisbane. They’ve all come to the east to Redland City to learn about what she’s called green storytelling.
When I’ve been speaking to Jenni prior to today (and I’m about to do an interview with her), we’re just talking about the importance of story and as we enter climate of change and age of complexity, how important it is that we use the very simple art of telling stories in order to take complex information and share it in a simple way to help people have some understanding about what to do, how to think and therefore where we can change our actions, our attitudes and our behaviours in order to create a better future.
I’ll let Jenni speak more about that as we do an interview. I hope you enjoy this. Here’s Jenni Cargill-Strong.
Jenni: So I have a company called The Story Tree Company. I came to storytelling when I went to a drama school in Sydney, which was very community-based. So it was a very community-based theater, very psycho dramatic. There was a therapeutic element to that dramatic training. So that’s where I first came to storytelling, which is as a performer.
And then I got taken under the wing of other storytellers and began to learn the culture of storytelling and the soul of storytelling. It wasn’t just about performance, it was about serving. I’ve been very blessed and I’ve sought out amazing mentors internationally.
I’m now also on the board of the Healing Story Alliance, which is an organisation that started in America, but is international. I’m the Australian representative and they used stories in therapeutic applications.
I initiated a particular page of stories around the environment because I knew there were amazing environmental storytellers. I was a baby taking baby steps, but I just was very enthusiastic. And then I invited people and friends. [Darlene] has filled up that page through her connections.
So we’re using stories for particular purposes, but of course the amazing thing about stories – and I’m slightly [inaudible 00:02:28]. The thing about stories is stories are very rarely single purpose. They usually will let you serve many purposes from community building to environmental awareness to many different things.
Paul: So what’s the workshop that you’re doing here today in Redland City?
Jenni: It’s a convergence of many of my deep passions. So it’s storytelling, using storytelling to connect the community and also using storytelling to raise environmental awareness.
More recently in the research that I’ve been doing is about how basically everything is interconnected. And in fact, you can’t be a good environmentalist unless you’re also good at sharing and good at working in a team. If you need to understand that, you need to take your slice of the pie and not the biggest slice and all those things.
Storytelling is great for communicating. And although I’m aware that in the general population, there may be a prejudice against fair tales and sometimes for a very good reason because a lot of the fairy tales and folktales that we get told in mainstream media like the recent remaking of Cinderella, it’s not a well story. It’s not a great story. I don’t think it is sexist, but there are problems with those stories. But that’s not the fault of folktales. That’s the filter of the particular folktale has come through to us through our mainstream culture.
But there are really beautiful folktales. And the folktales that will help us in the process that we are currently facing are all about the traditional values of our ancestors. It’s about connecting to the country. It’s about honouring the country. It’s about sharing. It’s about building community and about realising that there is no free lunch and that rubbish. Always, there’s somewhere for it to go. Everything is interconnected.
And so folktales work really beautifully to demonstrate. You can take a scientific fact and you can use that to demonstrate an environmental principle. You can engage people’s hearts and minds because storytelling is a very intimate thing. There’s a Scottish proverb that says, “A story is told eye to eye and heart to heart.” So you make a connection with the person as you tell them the story.
Seminar Replay: The idea is I’ve got Barry Commoner’s four principles. I want you to think of a scientific fact or example in your life that matches that and then a folktale or the other way around. Whichever way your process works, think of the folktale first that fits that principle. And then maybe one (there will probably be one that fits many) and then go back to the scientific fact if you think of one. It doesn’t matter if you don’t. It’s just a potential. On the back, you’ve got the easy ones for later reference.
Paul: We’re moving into a time where the amount of data that we have access to, there’s so much information and there’s so much complexity. Why is story important at this time? And why is it important to bring it back to a human scale?
Jenni: There’s a really beautiful quote by the poet, David Whyte, who just came to Australia recently, which is that one good word is like bread for the masses. It’s soul food because we are so bombarded in the information age. And I love it! I love all the information. I love all that connectivity. I love connecting to people all around the world about storytelling and I’m really excited about that. At the same time, it’s completely overwhelming.
There were many folktales actually that demonstrate the ability to discern this from that, to sort the poppy sage from the dirt, a good corn from the bad cord, the sorting. So stories speak in a very different language.
We are bombarded by information that is sometimes not what we ask for and not what we need, but storytelling takes you to a deeper, slower place, a soulful place. Good stories are what I’m talking about because there are bad stories too.
So because it’s a slower experience, it’s like the Slow Food Movement. Instead of going to McDonald’s through the driveway and eating as you run around like a crazy thing, you think about how the food is grown and you sit and you eat in community.
Well, storytelling is similar. Instead of just jumping in a car and reading a book, which is great, live storytelling (which is not the only way I’m enjoying it), live storytelling is a real connection of people. It’s very profoundly different. And you can still feel different even when you’re watching – you can even watch a video of a story that’s told beautifully from the heart and still have a bit of that connection.
Does that answer the question?
Paul: Yes, it does. It brings me to the art of the storyteller.
Paul: For many years, we seem to have allowed big Hollywood blockbuster multimedia solutions to tell the stories to a western world.
Jenni: That’s right. They are our storytellers now, yeah.
Paul: What is changing? How is it changing? And why is this back to local storytelling, heart-to-heart, eye-to-eye, why is that important?
Jenni: I think what’s jumping out of my head at the moment – that’s a big question. I’m pondering. But it’s like, “Think global, act local.” So the beautiful thing about storytelling is that, as I was saying to the participants, firstly, the most important thing in terms of the art of the storyteller is to tell from the heart. If you’re the shakiest most nervous person with no drama training, if you tell the story from the heart and you understand that the story needs to come through you, that you’ve chosen the story thoughtfully, then you can honor that story.
You don’t have to be an amazing performer or have an amazing voice or anything or any experience to tell a story well. It helps to be around other people who are telling stories. And that’s what people have just found. But ultimately, it’s just about telling from the heart.
I’ve lost my thread. Where were we?
Paul: I’m just asking about why is this connecting back to the authenticity.
Jenni: Yes, the local. Recently, just last Sunday, I held a concert with my circle of storytellers in Byron. We have a Byron Circle of Tellers. We held an evening of local stories. It was an adult Sunday event and you could only tell a locally set story.
The reason I did that was because many years ago, I was touring in New Zealand. Before I was able to perform to the students, the primary school students, the Māori principal said, “Look, before you do your performance, the kids are going to sing you the song of our mountain.” So, you know how the Māori Mana is so great. So they sang the song of their mountain and they sang the song of their river. And they sang it with such pride and with such manner.
I looked and I was so moved. And there were these little kinder kids in front that were singing in Māori and they’re singing their mountain and they love their mountain and they love their song.
In that moment, I thought to myself, “What kind of a world will we live in if everyone could sing the song of their mountain, tell the story and dance the dance of their mountain, their region and their river?”
Paul: Sorry about that. Thank you. I understand totally the passion of youth. How important is the desire and yearning for young people to have access to meaningful stories, connected local stories?
Jenni: That’s really interesting. There was a wide range of age groups although we’ve made it for adults for particular reasons because we wanted to go very deep. We wanted to be able to tell stories, not only some macabre stories, some sexy stories, some different kinds of stories, but also to be able to go deeper conceptually. That’s why we made it adults only. But there was a wide range of age groups of young adults there and they looked so hungry and so loving it.
Recently, I’ve just been performing for Year 9 students and telling stories to them [within the Southern Cross Uni UniBound events]. Now, I have to say if there are any casual teachers watching us, I work as a casual teacher. I don’t get to tell stories as a casual teacher. I come in as the bottom of the pile and the chances of me being able to settle them long enough to actually sit and listen to me tell a story are nothing at all.
But in this setting, it was all set up beautifully. Once I got rolling, they just sunk into that space. It’s really interesting. Even this generation that we think of as digital natives that couldn’t bear a story, I was telling them the story. I did unpack it a little bit for them. I was telling The Heroine’s Journey and The Hero’s Journey. This is a story that you can use as a roadmap for your life. So we unpacked it a little bit:
These are the characters.
This is what it means in your life.
This is how this happens internally.
This aspect of the story, this can also happen in your life and anything challenging at all.
We were also talking about the inner critic.
This was a low socioeconomic group who probably had – I mean all socioeconomic groups can experience hardships and emotional hardships, but this group felt particularly like they’ve been through a lot.
When I started talking about the internalised inner critic being represented in stories by stepsisters and stepmothers – all apologies to stepsisters and stepmothers – they got it! They really, really got it. They were just totally there in the story, [even though] they probably had never heard a storyteller tell a story before. So it works it’s magic.
Paul: We think of telling stories to young people. What happens? Where do we go when we listen to a well-told story?
Jenni: Yeah, a beautiful question. We go deep to a collective space where we’re all united in experiencing that story. When a storyteller starts telling the story as a gift and when you become a channel for the story and you allow yourself to really get so comfortable in it, so relaxed in it, so in tune in it. And this takes some experience. Some people might find it easier quickly.
The art of it is to choose the right story for the right audience for the right occasion and then to tweak it according to their mood at the time and what’s just happened. So you end up intuitively doing that. What that means is that the story lives in you differently every time you tell it.
As you tell it, as you get out of the way, you’re not performing. It’s not about me. It’s about the story coming through me. I have to get out of the way. Every skill that I bring enhances the beauty of the story in some ways. But even if I don’t have these technical skills, if I am connected soulfully to that story and I’m imagining it, the audience will imagine it. The beauty of a story in that way is that they’re all imagining in their own way.
There’s also a form of hypnosis that happens with storytelling that can happen when you’re reading a book or when you’re reading a book to somebody else. There is that, “I have ingested that story. I have integrated that story and I’m retelling it and my whole being is resonating with that story, your being will resonate with that.”
There is a way of imagining that the storyteller is casting that golden net over the audience. But the story lives between me and the listener, between the storyteller and the story listener and we are co-creators of the story.
If you sit there and play with your mobile phone and you cross your arms and you look away and you’re distracted, there’s only so much that I can do. If I’ve got a guitar and a microphone and a song, I can sing the song no matter what you’re doing. I won’t enjoy it as much, but I can still do it. Telling a story with a disinterested audience is much more difficult. And telling a story with a fantastic audience is like a sublime riding a wave instead of fighting a current. It’s a very co-creative, very intimate experience. It’s very co-creative and the story lives and hovers between you. So, as a storyteller becomes more experienced, they will sense what the audience needs and that will come into the story as it flows through everyone.
Paul: We’ve got only four minutes left of tape here, but I’m interested in the notion of place and the holding of space. In that last response, you’ve spoken about the importance of the connection between the storyteller and the listener. I’m interested. You said the other day when you were doing that workshop that the space was set up appropriately. How important is the place in which you tell a story and the space, the curation of the space? Where are the new places that we’re going to to see stories? We either watch television or we go to the theatre or cinema. Which places work best do you find for storytelling and listening?
Jenni: That’s a good question. It’s something that makes it not straightforward to hold the storytelling event because you need it. As I was saying, you’re very vulnerable to your audience, but you’re also very vulnerable to your external setting because it requires not only a lot of concentration by the storyteller, but by the story listeners as well because they’re going into a trance state. They’re going deeply within themselves and imagining.
That takes an enormous amount of mental focus to imagine the story in your own mind and you’re also interpreting all the nonverbals that you’re seeing in the storyteller. That takes a lot of concentration.
If there are alarms going off and people are talking loudly and all that sort of thing, it’s much more difficult listening. Even seeing maybe a theatre show, it takes maybe even a little bit more focus. So it’s very important.
I mean, it can happen anywhere where you can shelter yourself. Well, we did it in a local community hall recently, but we went to a lot of effort to create a homey space. We made it like we were in our lounge room. We put carpets. We put lamps. We put candles. We made a little enclosure around the group so this big hall felt more cozy.
So you’re doing a little bit of attention to detail. And at the same time, a story could happen in a car. It could happen on the beach. It can be amazing what can happen. But ideally, you need a bit of focus.
At the same time, I’ve been to England, at the Lakes District and I [went along to] a storytelling club that happened in a pub, but it was in a section of the pub. And when they got a drunk, crazy man talking over them, they said, “We’ve never had this before. This is awful!” It didn’t help.
But in answer to the other question that I forgot to get back to, “thinking local, act globally,” I think that storytelling is another way of helping us to connect to our love of place through story. So we can tell stories of country, but those non-indigenous of us who desperately love our place, we can celebrate that by telling other stories of country.
What I was thinking when I saw that Māori song, was that the more that we tell the story of our country and that we sing the song of our country and we dance the dance of our story, the stronger we are embedded in it and the more we will defend it. And then we will be inspired to get off the couch and actually do something about it. The more that we share stories in community, we’ll be more bonded to our other community members so that we can actually work together harmoniously.
So it has many knock-on effects. And that was what I was humbly hoping would come back from that.
But it’s a fun night for whatever reason. We had stories from Rochelle Ferris [daughter of Lance Ferris] of Australian Sea Bird Rescue (ASR) talking about diving on Julian Rocks. We heard stories about our local Snakeman [Morrissey] from the 1800s [and a flood story from the 1970’s]. We heard stories about Tilly Devine [the Sydney Bordello Queen of the 1920’s] coming and visiting [someone’s relative[. So there are some colourful characters. We had Lois Cook, an indigenous elder and custodian who came and told creation stories in versions I’ve never heard. And it was just beautiful and it felt very heartwarming.
Paul: Jenni, if people want to learn more about you, your work and the network of people you’re connected with, how can they do that?
Jenni: Okay. So personally, my website is www.storytree.com.au. And you can follow the links there. If people want to know more about storytelling in Australia, there are storytelling guilds and circles in most states, in about five of the seven states, which you can find through my website, I’m pretty sure or e-mail me if you can or you can Google them.
It’s very strong in Victoria, very strong in Sydney. There’s going to be a national mini conference coming soon [held by the Australian Storytelling Guild (NSW)]. A national conference happens every second year, so the next big one will be next year.
There is Australian Fairy Tale Society, which I’m presenting an adaptation of Red Riding Hood set with a dingo instead of a wolf. That’s going to be happening in Sydney.
Then if people are interested in therapeutic stories, you can look up the Healing Story Alliance [or healing story].org, which is a fantastic resource. So yeah, glad speaking to you again.
Paul: Thank you so much for chatting with me. Thank you.
Jenni: Thank you.