All about the Storytelling Festival
If you’re looking for the Scottish Storytelling Centre, you’ll find it on the Royal Mile in the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town. Over the road you’ll see the World’s End pub, so called because this is where Edinburgh’s world once ended. Take a note of the brass cobbles on the pavement; they indicate where the foundations of the Netherbow Port once stood. This gateway was part of the Flodden Wall, built to protect the city against possible English invasion, and was one of the main entrances to 16th-century Edinburgh. Beyond the Netherbow Port you were in a different world.
For Donald Smith, this is of symbolic significance. As well as running the Scottish Storytelling Centre, he is artistic director of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival, an event that opens all kinds of gateways onto the world. “Storytelling is a wonderful gateway to culture,” he says. “The festival is a gateway into Scottish culture and storytelling is a gateway into international traditions. Also, the Edinburgh festivals are a gateway between Scotland and the rest of the world.”
In this way, the Scottish International Storytelling Festival can be your gateway into Scotland. It takes place not only here in the Scottish Storytelling Centre, in a building that adjoins the medieval John Knox House, but at several venues in Edinburgh and, indeed, right across Scotland. “We’ve expanded the Edinburgh footprint, but we’ve also expanded the festival on tour, so people are going out to perform on Iona, Orkney, Lewis and so on,” he says.
The theme of this year’s ten-day festival is “An Island Odyssey: Scotland and Old Europe,” a title ripe with potential. It gives Smith the opportunity to ask Scottish storytellers to air some of this country’s many sea-based stories, to invite Mediterranean storytellers to introduce us to their island stories and then to venture back 2800 years to Homer’s Odyssey, one of the greatest stories of them all. “It’s a big rich theme,” he says. “Two things contributed to it. One relates to the unique combination of Scottish and international strands that the festival has – we’re interested in the flowering of Scottish culture and its international connections. The other is that this is Scotland’s Year of Islands and it just so happens we have fantastic storytellers in most of our island communities. So we put those things together: the cross-European theme and the richness of Scotland’s island themes.”
Focusing on the art of the traditional storyteller, sometimes with musical accompaniment, the festival is making the connection between Scottish and Mediterranean cultures that you would normally regard as being very different. Represented in the programme are 14 Scottish islands and seven European islands. Expect the Scottish contingent to share tales of pirates, fishermen and selkies (mysterious creatures that shed their seal skins to become human). Their counterparts from Cyprus, Crete, Sardinia and Greece will be remembering the ancient gods, heroes and monsters from their own culture, not to mention the story of the original Olympic Games.
“The storytelling tradition goes back to the Odyssey, so there’s 2800 years in Europe alone,” says Smith. “We are also interested in the relationships between the storytelling, the music, the song and the dance traditions, which is actually quite a big theme in the Odyssey. With many of our international partners this year, you’ll quite often see there’s a storyteller and a musician coming, and in some cases, the Greeks in particular, we’ve got dance as well. The inter-relationship between these different forms is something we’re also exploring in Scotland.”
As for the Odyssey, this great epic poem is being performed in instalments throughout the festival by guest storytellers who will also talk about the culture of their own homelands. This is all a taster for 29 October when, in one marathon afternoon and evening session, the whole story about the Greek hero Odysseus and the fall of Troy will be told. “What the Odyssey embraces in terms of folk tales and the epic dimension of storytelling is worthy of celebrating,” says Smith. “Storytelling as an art is one of the Odyssey’s key subjects. It features in all sorts of ways; accompanied by music, not accompanied by music, involving dance, involving formal bardic traditions, involving somebody getting up to tell their own experience. The event on 29 October is a unique oral telling of the whole Odyssey story – I don’t know if that’s ever happened before.”
There are also performances for children and families, including pre-school sessions in the National Museum of Scotland and a series of “meet the storyteller” events, but the Scottish International Storytelling Festival is very much an adult affair that takes the oral tradition as seriously as any other artform.
In Scotland, it is arguably the oldest indigenous artform there is; everything else – theatre, opera, orchestras, literature – came later. Some of this year’s programme has been made possible by the establishment in 2009 of the Federation for European Storytelling (FEST), an indication of how this ancient craft is coming into the mainstream. Different countries are at different stages of development in terms of their support for the artform, but there’s no question perspectives are changing. “There’s an incredible amount happening around the renaissance of storytelling all over the world,” says Smith. “There’s more acceptance and recognition. There’s a really dynamic set of relationships, partnerships and exchanges going on all round the world.” His own pioneering festival has helped kick-start this movement. To keep the tradition alive, the programme always includes several events in which participants can develop storytelling skills of their own – and this year is no exception.
So it seems only appropriate that the 2011 festival should be his most expansive yet: “It is more creatively ambitious than anything we’ve done before, both in terms of the extent of the programme geographically and the way the island theme is developed and also the way the Odyssey theme runs though it.” As for your own journey through the festival, well, that’ll be another story.