Published articles by Lillian Rodrigues-Pang

Published in Buzz Words
The Latest Buzz on Books for Children
A fortnightly online magazine © Vicki Stanton
15 November 2009, Issue 72

The Tradition of Oral Storytelling and the Creative Writer
By Lillian Rodrigues-Pang

Many of us have heard of the oral tradition of storytelling. It is often referred to as a romanticised feature of days gone by or of the culture of "others". Many professionals are referred to as storytellers: the author, scriptwriter, songwriter, screenwriter, to mention a few. In this world of dynamic communication, with technology changing the face of story delivery, what then does the ancient tradition of oral storytelling have to offer?

While some may see it as a feature of the past, oral storytelling is a practice that is alive and well in Australia and the world. Folk tales, cultural tales, creation tales, religious tales and the life story are available for you to hear in person, on CD, bit-torrent and iTunes download. Oral storytellers are in clubs and pubs, hotels, preschools, aged-care facilities, hospitals, jails, libraries, museums, schools, TAFEs, universities and on the web. When you get a chance to look, oral storytelling is all around us.

I am a professional oral storyteller ( I tell stories to children, youth, adolescents and adults in a number of different contexts and settings. I do not read books to people. I tell the story in the traditional manner, from my mouth and heart to your ears and heart.

There are two facets to my storytelling; one, the performance of stories and, two, working with story. As a performer I work mainly in the preschool, primary school and festival environment. I do a show that is interactive, large and includes music, song and a range of languages. When I work with stories it is mainly in primary school and mental health settings.

Over the years I have had the pleasure of providing a number of storytelling workshops to writers’ groups. This article springs from that work and will explore how the ancient art of oral storytelling is still relevant and can inform your written practice.

The relevance is vast, from adaptation of the story content (think Pamela Allen, Paulo Coelho), calling to the traditional story characters (think Anna and Barbara Fienberg with Tashi) and holding onto the structure (i.e. three failed attempts, then success leading to happy ever after). All writers may or may not draw on these elements of the oral story.

As a writer and a performing storyteller I believe the main offering is characterisation. To deliver a captivating tale an oral storyteller must deliver a believable and full-bodied character to the audience.

Following is a description of the character development process I undertake. It may hold features that you can implement in your creative and/or writing process.

Regardless of the audience age or length of the story, my preparation begins with:

Stage One
I develop a full graphic (mental) picture of the main character(s). In this picture I include:

  • name
  • the history and meaning of the name
  • character’s like/dislike of his/her name
  • birth date and in particular the birth year of the character
  • The historical/political social setting of the character (when born, growing up and time of the story)
  • physical characteristics, such as height, weight, hair colour, ethnicity, descendent from, as this may inform characters looks and language usage. t will also suggest movement features, e.g. a corset restricts slouching, riding boots lead to heavy footsteps, a child who has only ever worn ballet slippers may move everywhere on their tip toes.
  • likely clothing of the era/age group including use of hats/shoes etc
  • colours that this character wears or is drawn to
  • relationships (mother/brother/sister/best friends/recent friends/friendships of convenience that exist with the character at the time of the story and before the story/event. At first this involves only the most obvious ones.
  • environment that they live in/restrictions or offerings that hold for the character

Note – If the character is not human, as is often the case in folk tales, I do all of the above with an emphasis on the environmental issues such as style of home/nest, river conditions etc. In one story I have a rooster who loves eating (pecking at scrap heap) but loves having clean chest feathers, so this allows the tensions/adventures of the tale to develop.

Stage Two
I call this the play or incubation time. This is time away from the paper/computer. I take long walks, swim laps or drive very distractedly on long trips. During this time I allow the character to take a voice in my head. I also practise out loud and play with the physical aspects of the character, getting in touch with the character’s movements, speech patterns, dance style, etc.

During the incubation time I play with the characteristics I have assigned in stage one. Some features will change and some will grow. I also find that within the first three times of performing (editing when it is a manuscript) this is wide open for change.

An example is the story of the Hat Seller. The hat seller is asleep under a tree and has his hats stolen by the monkeys who inhabit that tree. He has to figure out how to get his hats back. When I tell this story I have him placed in Mali. Originally the image was of him dressed up in traditional clothing (very colourful and gregarious) which drew kids and adults in. During my 'playtime' I decided that his clothes were a distraction and only the hats would be colourful; he became a simply dressed man. I now find that during feedback sessions the kids will draw or tell me of the hats, the monkeys and the physical environment more than the man. This is important to me as it holds to the essence of my version of the story.

During the playtime I also assign an animal figure to the character. This is a drama skill I learnt during a master class with Wolfe Bowart, one of the world's greatest clowning and physical theatre performers.

What does this actually mean? Well, in my example of the hat seller, the animal I have assigned to the seller is a giraffe. He is tall, has a long neck with stacks of hats making it longer. He dresses plain. He moves gracefully over distance but is a bit lanky and awkward amongst villages.

What impact does this have? Prior to performing the hat seller story I decide what percentage giraffe I will give him. For a younger audience I may assign 80% giraffe. This impacts on the way my man will move, the time it takes to get anywhere, the kind of view/terrain he will notice. He may grunt and lick his lips all the time, which affects the words he will use, etc.
I also play/perform him as 20% giraffe. He has big eyes, is a bit of a long slow mover when he travels amongst people and is always stretching his neck to get the gossip.

Ultimately assigning a 'guiding spirit' this way helps me to understand the characters and to represent them properly in my performance or writing. When the story I am telling is long or involves many characters this feature helps me to stay true to the character which is very important when choosing dialogue or events to include.

Stage Three
This is where the written and oral practices diverge. During stage three I create a new image of the character – a list or drawing or combination of the two. I really go to town with the crayons, pens, paints or clay here just because I can! I am not a good visual artist but I really enjoy it. I may also create/choose a piece of music that represents the character.

I plot the events I know will happen, with constant reference to the (named and animal) character. Having such a profile often suggests or eliminates events/dialogue. In our example of the hat seller, I do not have my man involved in regular Saturday markets. He travels independently from village to village according to a walking plan. He does get involved with the local gossip – it’s business after all – as I can see a giraffe sticking his head in every now and then.

So you can see how the first two stages are essential for me to present a believable/consistent character, be that on stage or as a written piece. It is a practice that has developed over years, with different elements taking priority at different times. Many people have unique character development processes, and this one may or may not be something that you would like to try. One final suggestion – do not act out your characters in the front room with the curtains open. Some neighbours have started to avoid eye contact with me!

©Lillian Rodrigues-Pang