Storytelling was invented by my ancestor Og Shield after he (although sometimes it is ‘she’ depending on who is telling the story) was chased by a sabre toothed tiger and escaped. When Og returned to the cave, s/he couldn’t wait to tell the rest of the gang of the adventure. I suspect that with each retelling the story and Og’s bravery grew.
When Og died the story did not. Other members of the family who had heard the story kept telling it. Some put themselves into the story. All of them embellished it in some way. Eventually there were so many versions of the story that some of them hardly resembled the original that Og told. In one version the sabre toothed tiger was a wolf and Og wore a red cape.
Each family member who told the story had their own way of telling it. There were those who used their voice in very clever ways. Some would act out the story and wrestle with an invisible tiger in front of their audience. Some would rely on timing to hold the audience in suspense. The silence before the tiger appeared always had the audience on the edge of their rocks. And the sudden roar of the tiger would cause them to leap into the air even though they had heard the story a hundred times before.
The one thing that all the best storytellers used was imagination. No – not their own – but that of their audience. They would give just enough information to start the pictures in the listeners’ heads and the listeners did the rest. That way each person would have their own version of the story. Some times there were arguments about the length of the tiger’s claws or whether the tiger was perhaps a lion but none of this mattered. The important thing is that the story lived in the minds of each of the listeners.
Over the years some of my ancestors tried different ways of telling the story. Some cut out pieces of animal skin in the shape of animals or figures. One wore a sabre tooth tiger skin as a costume. Some would get together with others and act out the story as a little play. One of the most successful of these was my ancestor William Shieldspeare.
As the years passed and technology advanced the stories were recorded in print and the telling of the stories became more and more sophisticated. Two of the most successful of these storytellers were my distant cousins George Lucashield and Steven Shieldsberg.
Now I would never question the success of my storytelling cousins in getting their stories to the masses. Nor would I question the extent to which they have used their imaginations to present their stories. What I do question, however, is the extent to which they use the imagination of the their audience.
My goal is to take storytelling back, not quite to the beginning, but to the time when storytelling was simple with very few props, no costumes but relying on the skills of the storyteller: the way he uses his voice, his body, his timing. With these skills I hope to stimulate my audience to use their own imaginations and create their own wonderful stories in their heads.
I believe that the ability to visualise is an important factor in meaning making that contributes to literacy. Children who are immersed in the sophisticated storytelling of my cousins George and Steven need some basic storytelling to stimulate their imaginations.
To experience storytelling in your school you could hire a video of a movie made by one of my storytelling cousins. Your students will be impressed by the imagination of George or Steven. Or you could have a traditional storyteller visit your school and your students can be impressed by the stories created using their own imagination.
Photos on this page show students of Mackay Central State School enjoying one of my performances at the Mackay City Library, August 2001.
This article first appeared on the John Shield storytelling website, © copyright John Shield 2000 and 2003.