The visual language of storytelling

In another life it was my luck to be able to work in schools in Italy and Spain as an actor and English coach.  This was an opportunity to see cities I had never visited like Granada and Venice but it also lead to an alternative way of working with an audience.  You see for most of the people we performed to English wasn’t their native tongue which was a huge disadvantage in terms of following the story.  To be understood the cast had to learn a sort of visual language.  It felt very strange to a young actor only a few years out of college to be virtually signalling the audience but it seemed to work.  As I’m writing this I remember some of the ridiculous conversations in the rehearsals about classical acting; in the breaks actors would talk about subtext and character objectives then go back to waving their lines!  I knew then as well as I know now that what we were engaged in would have Stanislavski doing backflips in his grave but we were there to serve our audience and that was all that really mattered.

Flash forward to today and my experiences on these European tours have been very useful in my storytelling work at home.  Every week I meet lots of young people for whom English is a second language and for some, they are quite new to learning it.  English is pretty complicated and we have lots of ways to say similar things that can be quite baffling.  Imagine you are not only unfamiliar with the language but the content too and one of my sessions is starting to look very alien.  If I don’t offer more clues to aid my audiences understanding a story could be overwhelming.

As I devise my flagship stories (The Twits, The Hundred Mile an Hour Dog, Dennis and the Chamber of Secrets) I consider a series of physical phrases which can be easily repeated to go with certain words and images.  Makaton or British Sign Language it isn’t but, like in Italy and Spain all those years ago, a visual language is necessary to act as a framework for my audience or all of my words and imagery will be for nothing.  An advantage of working in this way is that it’s a lot easier for me to remember a word or phrase if it’s linked to a gesture than it would be otherwise.  Sometimes when I am in the groove it can be like remembering a dance as much as a narrative.  It’s a very active way of working and popular with primary schools thanks to a scheme devised by Pie Corbett called “Talk for Writing” which encourages learners to use pictures and actions to recall and create stories.  This means that for many schools my delivery of stories seems to consolidate their literacy work.

I don’t just rely on hand gestures.  Most of my stories include lots of volunteers, participation, games, props, costumes, music and silliness.  In a Shakespeare session where even native English speakers would struggle I approach the stories in a fun and easily accessible way.  If I’m delivering traditional tales for pre-school and foundation age children I’ll use a lot of repeated language and actions, as well as rhythm and rhyme to encourage vocabulary.  When I tell more complex stories to older audiences the quality of my voice, my use of pace, pausing and power communicates almost as much as my actual words.  Big and visual works for children at home and abroad (the UAE loved The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party! because it was colourful and chaotic) and working overseas and with language schools in the UK is certainly something I’d like to do more of in the future.

There are those that would say that what I do isn’t storytelling and that telling a story should be a sedentary activity.  I would say that I serve my young audiences, offering fun, inspiring and most of all accessible sessions.  I like to think I’m taking an aural experience and making it into something visual.  If it sounds different then maybe you should come and have watch/listen.

For a list of forthcoming events please visit my calendar or if you’d like to make a further enquiry contact me.