Are we all storytellers?
And are you sitting comfortably?
The Fireside mini summer festival is brand new and is coming to Baldock Weds 28 June – Sat 1 July. I ask the founder, theatre director Joanna Bowen, some tricky questions about dress code, heckling, and why we’re obsessed with narrative.
Why did you start Fireside?
In 2008 I was involved with the Baldock Town Hall becoming an Arts and Heritage Centre and I wanted to build an arts programme. Initially I was going to do a general arts festival but then I noticed that there was a bit of a buzz going on about storytelling and thought it might be interesting. I went to Sarah Bennetto’s storytelling festival at Leicester Square to listen to people telling anecdotal and stand-up type stories. And then Ben Haggarty was doing an advanced storytelling workshop at The Unicorn Theatre so I joined in and became fascinated by the fact that there was an ancient tradition of telling tales which was still alive and being practised. So I thought I would like Fireside to house all kinds of theatre, comedy and spoken word, and musical events that are story-based.
Why a new mini summer Fireside?
Our main festival in Baldock is at the end of February but as the site at Lannock Farm is being used for a conservation farming conference at the end of June, we thought we would piggy-back onto that. Also, Kate Norgate from The Crick-Crack Club asked me if I could find a spot where she could pitch her story-yurt, known as The Fabularium, and so we needed a rural setting. As we were planning it for June, at the time of year when everyone is getting new work ready for touring, we thought we would show ‘work-in-progress’ pieces at a time which I think is often the most interesting in the life of a show – the performers are still playing with different ideas and it is exciting to be the first audience for an event. So while the traditional shows are in a tent, the other events are in a beautiful barn.
As an actor and director, you are obviously a storyteller. Are we all storytellers and do we need more stories in our lives?
We are all storytellers. Every time you pick up the phone and say “You never guess what just happened”, you are telling a story. It may be accurate, or it usually starts off being more or less accurate, but then people laugh at some embellishment and over the years if people say, “Oh tell about when…” you end up telling the story and probably realise that most of it didn’t happen, but you have told it so often it has its own wings. Just because it’s not accurate doesn’t mean its not true because Truth is generous and your desire to please is part of it. I hate it when people say, “I bet that’s not true…”, it’s so missing the point. A hilarious friend of mine just died and we talk about him all the time – not because he was a great guy, but we remind each other of his stories – they will live on.
The word narrative has crept into everything from election manifestos to council tax bills. Your thoughts?
Hmm, that’s quite a deep question. I think this trend is the symptom of a much deeper thing. We have an primal need to listen to stories – they have been part of our culture for millennia and when I went to the Ben Haggarty workshop I mentioned, I learnt that in us there is an inherited instinct in watching the person you are talking to and changing the way you tell a story by sensing whether to get dramatic or very quiet and slow. It is a fluid and unscripted process and you never hear it the same twice. Because we live in a digital world we can watch You Tube clips again and again, but they are always the same, and I think we need that live, unscripted experience. It’s also why we are watching reality TV and why comedians are doing more anecdotal work rather than sketches. Also The Moth, which has recently come to the UK but is huge in the States, is a company which gets people to record 10- minute stories, selecting the best and then hosting them in huge venues. It’s a kind of X-Factor final where the audience votes for their favourite. I hope that answers the question? I’m not sure it does, but corporate publicity and marketing understand this atavistic need for stories, hence the language they choose tries to capture that.
For someone new to a storytelling festival, can you reassure us? Will we have to sit cross-legged on the floor? Is it acceptable to heckle?
In the yurt you will hear traditional stories re-told for a contemporary audience and the teller will be in charge of whether he or she wants audience participation. We are also having a couple of comedy acts on the Saturday; if you are a die-hard heckler maybe go to one of those. Sarah Kendall does hilarious roaming anecdotes and I’m sure she can cope with interruptions.
What are the highlights at the summer festival?
You can’t ask me that because I have directed two of the shows! Catherine Ireton’s show is the most entrancing experience. We have done a couple of rough showings in Brighton at the fringe and she really did make people laugh and cry. Her voice is extraordinary and she sings parts of her story. At the time of writing I am working with two comedians on The Blade of Barrington which is shaping up to be really funny. Then there is The Crick Crack Club. Well all I need say about them is that it is an organisation which books storytellers for all sorts of London venues: The South Bank, Soho Theatre and the British Museum to name but a few. They collect the very best of traditional storytellers so they are the crème de la crème of the genre. So these all are the highlights and as they are very different from each other I can’t choose.
Is the whole festival for the whole family?
Yes, we have got children’s stories as well as adult events.
What’s a Fabularium?
It is a giant tent that has been specially created for stories. The audience will be seated on chairs but it gives a different vibe from the barn where the other events will take place. As this is the Crick Crack Club’s first outing in it we will be the ones to decide how well it works but they did something similar on the South Bank to enormous acclaim so it should be good.
Will the festival be fun?
No. We are having none of that. Of course it will, we have programmed something for everyone. If you are a history or poetry buff you can go to Hugh Lupton’s story of the Enclosure of land in the 19th Century using the poetry of John Clare and the story of how he was driven mad by what happened. If you want knock-about silliness then The Blade of Barrington is for you. Ben Haggarty’s storytelling is extraordinary and he is wonderful for children. Then there will be a man with a harp telling Finnish myths and an Irish teller giving us Irish fairy tales for grown ups. There will be food and a bar – what’s not to like?
As visitors, should we wear a comedy hat or wear bells on our toes?
No, please don’t, I would feel embarrassed. I find all that folky stuff a bit squirmy – like doing the hokey-cokey or shouting stuff out. But some people love it so each to their own.
Will you be performing yourself?
No, at the moment I am involved in devising work for other people and directing shows. I find it more satisfying but sometimes I get corralled into performing and if the project fun and interesting I can be persuaded.
Fireside Festival Weds 28 June – Sat 1 July, Lannock Farm, Weston SG4 7EE