Lea Taylor describes storytelling to us with the simple phrase, “out of the mouth”. Storytelling is not simply reading from books, even if the initial ideas might be garnered from them. To open her talk on a warm August evening, she explains how storytelling was a pre-literate tradition, key to many Indigenous cultures, where bards were upheld with prestige allowing people in communities to gather and store information with precision. This ties into Taylor’s educational work, which includes using storytelling to help improve literacy for people of all ages; Taylor is both a performer and a community worker.
As her job title suggests, Taylor’s appearance at the CCA Club Room is filled with entertaining and unexpected anecdotes. Speaking of the strange places her storytelling has taken her, she recalls arriving at one event in a forest in the States, only to realise she was about to perform to a naturist community, fully-clothed. As well as requiring refined social skills for dealing with such situations, her career encourages the use of various artistic mediums – accompanying Taylor on the train from Midlothian is a wicker dog named Dougie. She handmade Dougie for her show, Pedigree Tales, made up of funny stories from a canine point of view.
Taylor finds the seeds of stories all around her. When she stumbles upon an idea, whether it’s a pet’s tale or a forgotten protest by the Edinburgh suffragettes, she “rips out the bones to find the essence”. From there, if it piques the imagination, it can be adapted for an audience, and become a fully embodied performance. Storytelling requires fast-thinking improvisation, and engagement with the body language and mood of the audience.
To illustrate the way storytelling affects an audience, Taylor asks us to participate in an exercise of the imagination. We all close our eyes and visualise an elephant, then feed back to the group the details of what we imagined. Everyone brings up different features of the animal and setting. This is how the art of storytelling distinguishes itself from the art of writing. Whereas the written word is rich and visual, spoken stories paint worlds for listeners’ ears so that they do the work to fill in the gaps and make the world come alive in a unique way.
Currently, Taylor is working on research for a novel about the folk tales of Midlothian. In true storyteller fashion, instead of “cheating” by looking through history books in the library, she is following leads from person to person around the area through chance meetings and interviews (being a good storyteller, she advises, comes from being a good listener), uncovering all sorts of local lore. They will be complied into a handbook of inspiration for other storytellers. The truth, she says, is malleable when it comes to storytelling, and stories morph and change between every performance to performer. This allows stories to stay free from the rigid confines of paper.
For more information about storytelling events, visit the Scottish Storytelling Centre website.
Lea Taylor’s official website can be found here.
– Words and Images, Ellen MacAskill