Guest Author - Siobhain M Cullen
The great art of storytelling is enjoying a revival – and about time too. There are even courses now, in storytelling,There are storytelling experts, storytelling lecturers, storytelling websites and storytelling workshops. But at the heart of each is the essential element – the story. Without a gripping, well-delivered short story - even the most expertly hosted and luxuriously appointed “Storytelling Experience” (for there are now such things….) would “fall flat on its face,” “go down like a lead balloon” or be “a damp squib.” How embarrassing – a social “faux pas” to rival even those excrutiatingly humiliating pangs endured by that most socially inept of film characters – Woody Allen.
Burn’s Night, Tourist Trails, Stately Home Visits and City Ghost Walks are all examples of the new enthusiasm for Storytelling Experiences. There are guides, such as the one in York, England, who dress up in costume and lead tourists around the deserted city walls in the dead of night. Ok, ok, it just feels like the dead of night by the time he’s finished with them (even though it’s only 10pm – just time to nip into a traditional English pub for a pint of bitter… to laugh off the experience.)
Some of these storytelling experiences are a bit too realistic and atmospheric and are not recommended for children as there are tales which would ‘make the blood run cold.’. The Jack the Ripper experience in London would come under this category.
It is now becoming fashionable in some circles to run Theme Parties such as Murder Mysteries or Burn’s Night Soirees. Party hosts and guests, however, have found that they need to re-learn long-lost ancient skills such as storytelling, playing music by ear and ‘learning by rote’ so that they have a ‘party piece’ at the ready. Indeed, in ancient times, the gift of the storyteller was as highly prized as the talent of the harp-player and in some cultures the two were co-dependent, appearing side by side and complementing each other.
These ancient skills relied on memory. In more recent times, even up until the war, families would have had some basic rudiments of these oral and playing skills, as with no television, they made their own entertainment. Those not lucky enough to have even the slightest spark of musical ability would perhaps have had a ‘Recitation’ to offer – either a poem or a much-requested and highly polished short story. Some of the most popular were, of course, ghost stories.
So, for those wanting to offer their children a taste of ‘times gone by’ and perhaps even resurrect and conserve these skills for a future generation, there are a few pointers.
In the case of Recitations, a good story is a must-have. Also “de riguer” is inspirational scene-setting. Burns Night, occurring in some regions in the dead of those dark, dank, dreary days of new year, lends itself well to ghost stories, although these may be more suitable for adult guests. Indeed, those who remember the British television series “Dad’s Army” may have visions of the dour Scottish character “Fraser” floating before their eyes as they imagine the set-up. As Fraser and the other elderly gentlemen in his platoon cower in the dark, a slow close-up of his lined weather-beaten face, wispy white hair and staring eyes (which grow ever-rounder and larger) appears. He utters, with low voice of great import and Scots Gaelic brogue…
“doooooo-med, ………… we’re aaa-lll dooooo-med…….”
He is promptly disciplined by his superior, Captain Mainwaring,, who seems to want to nip this defeatism in the bud. Quite right too, for the effect of a dark atmosphere and menacing words is demoralising and quite chilling. Yet this atmosphere is precisely the one expected, and enjoyed, by many guests turning up for a ghost story at a Burns Night Theme Party.
Setting the scene could include careful attention to lighting. Subdued lighting, perhaps with flickering candles or artificial effects such as lava lamps and pulsing fairy lights, can be good mood-setters. The addition of a real log fire is ‘the real McCoy’ of course, and if guests can stomach it – total darkness with only the storyteller’s face illuminated is very spooky. A particularly powerful effect is produced when the storyteller is presented in the dark, dressed from head to foot in black and appears hunched over a torch or lamp so that the face is uplit from below.
Careful handling is required here. These effects can be surprisingly powerful and are not advised for children or even for impressionable teens. Party hosts need to be aware of the differences between ghost stories, supernatural tales, mystery stories and true horror stories. Burns Night party hosts should provide, or at least pre-read, the stories first in order to satisfy themselves of their suitability for the particular composition of the invited company.
Good sources for Scottish short stories include Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and collections from old story-tellers, some long since dead, and collected by writers such as Sorche Nic Leodhas. Her collection “Gaelic Ghosts” oozes with ethereal tales of bogles, pallbearers, walking with the dead, unearthly coffins, invisible whistling ghosts and mysterious sightings of those long-since ‘deed.’
A note to Party Hosts - better make sure to get the Scots accent right too, for best effect. A few practice runs are advisable. Remember the vowel sound “ou” as in “house” is, in Scotland, pronounced “oo” or even better….”oooooo-oooohhhhh.” So therefore, we have….(for practice, you understand………)
“There’s a moose, loose, ........ aboot this hoose…….”