Festival for Peace in the Galilee
I draw on my personal experience of living and working on all five continents; and on reminiscence and language support work in immigrant and refugee communities to inform my workshops in participatory storytelling and music.
I have been running Arts projects with people in exile and immigrant communities since 1995. Through storytelling, song and 'join-in' music games I emphasise the use of traditional material from the participants’ original backgrounds, and promote work that enables other cultures to be seen as an invaluable resource contributing to a shared diversity in the wider community.
I have devised and presented several of my own radio programmes on traditional music and oral history including programmes for BBC Radio 3, Spectrum Radio and Radio 4’s "Woman’s Hour"
Story & Song with Early Years children, Santiago, Chile
In my refugee and inter-generational work my main aims are to bring people together and to break down inhibitions; to increase self confidence and build cooperation, while being aware of the conflicts and stresses felt by people when being settled in a different culture.
I always encourage workshop participants to celebrate our differences as much as to enjoy the common experiences of sharing, creating and using the universal language of story and music.
Sing & Move, Seoul, Korea
Member of Society for Storytelling
SEE BELOW:Articles about my work
Nursery Songs - Khaya Mandi Township, Stellenbosch, South Africa
"Storytelling presence and performance energy"
(three aspects of storytelling presence in a case study of Sef Townsend)
Article by Dr. Alastair K Daniel, principal lecturer University of Roehampton, May 26, 2018
Shortly after writing the substantive content of this blog, I was lucky enough to see Sef Townsend’s set ‘The Pongo’s Dream’, which he performed with the accomplished classical accordionist, Iñigo Mikeleiz Berrade. At the same time as I was completely captivated by the music and the storytelling, I couldn’t help but allow part of my brain to consider how Sef Townsend was using his body throughout the performance.
The first thing that I noticed was the way in which he shifted his weight constantly between ‘balanced’ and ‘alert’, with brief moments of punctuation where he was either ‘settled’ (often achieved by stepping back, away from the audience) or ‘imbalanced’ (suddenly coming towards us to draw a conversational response, or to confront us). In the same way, as he told the stories of South American indigenous peoples, he used changes in his physical tension to underline the moods of the story - relaxed and fluid when referring to young lovers, taut and immobile when conveying anger. Moving from song to speech to animal and bird calls, Sef’s voice was clearly controlled on the breath as he could both extend sounds, and use his voice percussively, in short bursts.
I didn’t have chance to ask Sef about to what extent he is aware of how he is using his body to create presence and energy in performance, and it may be that this is tacit knowledge – something that he has learned to do through practice and has never analysed for himself. But it is clear that he, as a master storyteller, is in control of his physicality and able to exploit it to maximum effect.
They say that the telling of stories, after the first human efforts at singing, is the oldest art form. Writer, historian and mythographer, Marina Warner, claims that 80% of the world’s greatest literature is just direct transcribing of age-old oral stories. It is also claimed that there are only 7 basic story plots to which all other attempts to create novel plot lines always return. Whether these claims are true or not, there is one thing that I do know is true and that is to sit with people (adults or children) and to share a story either by telling or listening can be, and is, a truly captivating experience. I found this magic in telling stories when, years ago, working as a specialist on language acquisition in schools, I was frustrated with the results of my work with groups of newly arrived Bangladeshi children. I tried one day to start telling them a story and noticed that they immediately became rapt in a story whose language they actually ‘didn’t understand’ but to which they were paying absolute attention. Next day they wanted more “Story! Story!” , and it was noted by the class teachers that that intake of new arrivals seemed to be making great strides in their class work and that their language skills were going in leaps and bounds. They just seemed to get it, and very quickly joined in with the rest of the class on their curriculum activities. And it was from that sudden breakthrough in engaging children whose only language had been Sylheti that I started to hone my skills in telling and I became a storyteller.
Now much of my work is with adults in areas ranging from projects in peace and reconciliation, interfaith initiatives and action on refugee displacement and asylum detention; to working with a Jewish LGBT community (see photo) on reclaiming their stories within their religious practice; to museum events at The British Library, The V&A and The British Museum.
But it is not just the telling of the story that is a storyteller’s main work. Most of us are involved in working with stories where the actual story becomes the shared and neutral centre to a whole lot of questioning, problem-solving, solution-finding, retelling, interpreting and sharing of feelings around the story. Recent research has demonstrated very clearly that children suffering trauma are able to recover much more rapidly if they have previously been exposed to hearing, reading, discussing and playing with story narratives than those whose imaginations have not been exposed to story.
And to many children and adults too who suffer from emotional anguish, displacement, or from bereavement, then stories can offer an escape route out of the current period of despair. So often in a story we see the protagonist suffer huge trials and near collapse or even near death, but through the ancient and ever-present story structures, seen also daily on our TV screens or in Hollywood films, of - ‘Situation/Character; Problem/Disaster; Struggle/Try-Try-Try again; Pull through/Succeed; Celebrate - And once more an escape route out of the Slough of Despond is found. It may seem awfully glib written out like this but, if you have the time or the inclination to look into it this “Mythical Structure” is still hugely alive and kicking, and is the stuff of the storyteller.
Many times I’ve been approached by an incarcerated Asylum seeker or a refugee who has lost family members with requests to keep telling and working with stories because, seeing them some weeks later they will say such things as “That story has changed my life.” or “I had no hope but now I feel I can do things to change my life.”
It seems that lately, storytelling has changed my life too. In the last few years people have wanted these stories so much that, apart from regular trips around Britain, they have taken me from Beijing, Belfast and Buenos Aires to Stellenbosch, Shanghai and Santiago, with another trip coming up in April, working with teachers and their students in Chile and Argentina.
Newsletter of Beit Klal Israel, March 2017
Some things about me...
Storytelling - the way of my life
(from an article in a London community newsletter)