How do we know human life existed thousands of years ago? An obvious answer would be history. Stories have been told and retold by kings, queens and common man alike. They have been a significant part of man’s life on earth. It would be no exaggeration to say that storytelling is as old as human civilisation. Stories about war, conquest, exploration, love, loss and life have decorated the pages of history like stone sculptures on the walls of caves and temples. We all have stories to tell and have been storytellers at some point in our lives. But what it takes to be a master storyteller has been explored little. In an email interview, Singapore-based storyteller and writer Rosemarie Somaiah talks about the subtleties of the art of storytelling and what it takes to be a storyteller. Listen to Rosemarie’s stories at the BeST Festival in Bengaluru. Excerpts from the interview:
Can you describe the art of storytelling?
The art of storytelling is one of the most natural, intuitive human skills. It is about one person making a connection with another through the offering of a story.
Can you tell us about the origins of storytelling?
I am neither a scientist nor an academic to say for sure, but there is sufficient research that shows the human brain is hardwired for a story. It is how we process the world around us to make sense of it all. We then share this gift of story with the ones we love or live with, to enable them to get through the complexities of life. So, while researchers may consider whether it began with cave drawings and pictures, or gestures, grunts, growls, words or languages thousands of years ago, the main purpose of telling stories is to derive meaning from what we experience in life and pass it on.
As a storyteller, what do you experience when telling a story?
When telling a story, I am sharing a part of who I am–my hopes, my dreams, my fears and my truth–with the audience. However, this act of intimacy is balanced by the fact that a story or a narrative is an efficient tool to carry a multitude of facts, opinions and perspectives. However, one must understand the difference between fact and fiction, truth and story.
“What I am really interested in are the quiet, untold stories shared by people who don’t realise how important their stories are.”
It is said that storytelling is therapeutic. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
The act of telling a story to a listening audience is an act of affirmation and connection between human beings. The storyteller re-examines his or her own point of view in the telling and the listeners are either reminded of things they already know or they are introduced to new facts or perspectives.
When I offer a story, what I am hoping for is to hear another story in return. I love listening to other people’s stories. It is not the bright, bold performance of a story alone that interests me. What I am really interested in are the quiet, untold stories shared by people who don’t realise how important their stories are. Everyone should have someone who is willing to listen to their own story. That is what makes storytelling therapeutic. People are often capable of solving their own problems, what they need is someone empathetic who understands why they do what they do.
Grown-ups enjoy a good story just as much as children do. Can you tell us about your experience of storytelling with different age groups?
Stories are for human beings. The most important things in life–love, peace, happiness, security–are the same for all ages. Important questions such as why are things the way they are remain the same as well. A storyteller uses language that is simple, but resonant. If I am given the opportunity to know a little bit about my audience beforehand, I can shape my offering of story for them. I enjoy telling stories to different age groups.
It is an innate quality to narrate a story well. Do you think it is a skill one can acquire?
Definitely! Since it is already an innate quality, all one needs is a good mentor who will allow your own storytelling style to develop and flourish. I have been training people of all ages for many years and many of them have become excellent storytellers.
Do you use any techniques to tell stories?
I use whatever skills I have, voice, body, gesture, the ability to connect with an audience, audience participation, simple props and whatever technology is necessary when relevant. I also collaborate regularly with other artistes from all genres. This helps me keep my work fresh and exciting both for me and the audience.
A celebrated oral tradition of the good old days, why did storytelling lose its sheen over the years?
As William Shakespeare said in Julius Caesar, “There is a tide in the affairs of man…” Stories are about problems and solutions. It is natural for people and communities to take things for granted and turn to different, seemingly new ideas, to explore new strategies–in politics, economy, social life, technology etc. The fact that there is a revival of storytelling only shows once again that the important things remain the same. We accept the new and test it to see if it will bring us what we continue to value most in life.