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What I Learned at the Scottish International Storytelling Festival 2016

L to R: Mairi McFadyen, Donald Smith, Ana Maria Lines

By Matthew Tucker

SISF Programme BrowseMy first experience of listening to a professional storyteller was as a child of around seven. A woman with a quilted skirt sat with us at our school to tell stories that were delivered with more eloquence, expression and theatre than anyone before. This encounter led my imagination to create the ‘witch’ who lived in the dark corridors of branches in the hedge at the bottom of my garden. Such was the power of story; I even remember stumbling across her ‘kitchen’.

And then there was the last sunny afternoon of primary school before we went to ‘big school’; our teacher gathered the class under a shady tree in late July and soothingly read stories to us, amid the stifled crying of children who knew that the end of an era was irrevocably over, and a new alien path of maturity lay ahead, for better or worse.

SISF ChalkboardThe Scottish International Storytelling Festival 2016: Festival of Dreams, gave me an opportunity to get back to those memories of storytelling, which in itself is an ancient form that has developed in to many incarnations of the genre that we see every day: Netflix, cinema, even the news. I discovered the festival this autumn after enjoying four years of the Fringe in August. I wanted to see what else Edinburgh could offer beyond those frenzied weeks of comedy, art and theatre. This year, storytellers from around the world – with a specific focus for 2016 on Spain, Central and South America – visited the capital city to explore the festival’s overarching theme of dreams, and “our ability to dream something different into existence, acknowledging the power of storytelling to lift you out of time and place.”

I attended the opening night show, Open Hearth featuring storytellers Donald Smith, Janis Mackay and Mairi McFadyen telling two tales each. They began with the Scots song Happy we've been a' together, in which the audience joined in, traditionally sung at cosy gatherings around a fire before an evening of storytelling between the host and guests.

SISF AudienceA high point of the evening was Mairi McFadyen singing the Gaelic ballad Am Bròn Binn (The Sweet Sorrow), delivering a pitch perfect and beautiful rendition of an ancient song she learnt from a wax cylinder recording from the 1930s. Her tale tells of a Scottish king wooing a beautiful maiden, with a startling turn for the worst.

Other highlights on the Festival’s itinerary included rich flavours of South American history, including a lecture on Simón Bolívar, the ‘liberator’ of Venezuela, tales from Argentinian storyteller Liliana Bonel, and Ana Maria Lines channelling the passion of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

As I learn more about storytelling, it’s clear that it is still evolving, with the latest incarnation being virtual reality, which by many accounts is using narrative storytelling as its lead in these early days of the technology.

But for overstimulated and digitally overloaded brains, getting to the roots of storytelling will bring you back to a rhythm of narrative that is closer to what our ancestors enjoyed. A storyteller isn’t a performer who is trying to impress you with their acting skills, their art of deception. Instead they are one person, as themselves, saying ‘I want to tell you about this thing that happened, I think you might like it’.

Open Hearth Event at the SISF

Next year sees the 70th anniversary of Edinburgh as a Festival City, with the 2017 Storytelling Festival going global to ask, If Not Now, When?, exploring an open world and “the labyrinths of change” in which to weave new narratives with guests from around the world.

Between now and next October, who knows how many changes we will all see; domestic, political and global? Recent events have shown us that change is one thing that binds us all, and stories are the way we make sense of change and weave it into the fabric of our lives.

Matthew Tucker is a Picture Editor for BuzzFeed – follow him on Twitter @matt_tucker

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