The universal voice | Rachel Rose Reid

British storyteller Rachel Rose Reid speaks to us ahead of her visit to this weekend, as she prepares to give a workshop on storytelling for children and an evening of ‘poetry, storytelling and song’.

Rachel Rose Reid.
Rachel Rose Reid.

What would you say is the ‘status’ of the contemporary storyteller in today's day and age? With the advent – and, arguably, oversaturation - of digital media, it's often been said that formats like stand-up comedy may be the ‘last bastion’ of traditional live storytelling. Do you agree with this (at least to some degree) and how would you say your own work is reacting to or against the contemporary milieu?

Stand-up comedy is not the last bastion of traditional live storytelling, because traditional live storytelling is the last bastion (or rather, ongoing multi-layered practice) of traditional live storytelling! Stand-up comedy definitely comes within that, of course, but storytelling – whether of myth and legend, or of true-life tales is live and present throughout the world. Modern society has grown quite obsessed with viewing the arts through a particular hunger for fame and celebrity. Many forms of art are more subtle and less in need of a stadium concert tour to prove their worth. Anyone who has sat around a fire on a summer night for long enough, will have found the hunger for stories present in small gatherings and intimate moments like these.  To say that storytelling is a dying art is to be blinkered to the many practices of this art form around the world, formal or informal, hilarious or transformative, in distant cultures or trickling off our own tongues every day.

Would you say there is a fundamental difference to performing for children, as opposed to a more ‘general’ adult audience?

Of course! Storytelling for children is totally different. When working with children it becomes an incredible educational tool, and we engage all different kinds of young listeners through using interactivity, physicality, song, call and response. These techniques take care of the most twitchy listener, and engage them in the process of the story at every step.
An adult audience still has such twitchiness, but has learned how to internalise, and even hide it, out of politeness. So I work to engage your sensory memory, stimulate your imagination, give you more challenging narratives that match the emotional complexity of adult life. It’s unusual and exciting that we can all engage in the same story, while each seeing our own unique ‘movie’ of it in our minds.

Along with Shakespeare, with whom you've also been engaging with, Dickens is in many ways a quintessentially 'British' cultural phenomenon. When you're performing abroad - as you'll be doing in Malta - how do you pay attention to transmitting what 'works' about both of them in a way that can travel and be relevant and comprehensive to all?

As you know, my family travelled through many countries, and my stories, too, are sensitively gathered from many places. One of the best things about storytelling is the surprise and delight we can experience when the story of another person meets or matches with something of our own.

On a related note, how do you feel about the fact that English remains the lingua franca you're working in? What would you say are some of the advantages and disadvantages of this?

I would love to be able to speak many more languages. Perhaps that would be my one wish! Each language has its character and conventions. When researching stories from other cultures I have to be extra vigilant in my research, since much is truly lost in translation. A friend of mine who tells folk stories from India speaks about satirical jokes that he has heard retold by misguided English speakers who assume that all old stories from India are reverent and holy!

Rachel Rose Reid will be giving a workshop entitled ‘Skills for Telling Stories to Children’ at 11am and ‘Broken Hearts and Unbound Dreams: An Evening of Poetry, Story and Song’ at 8pm. Both events will take place at St James Cavalier, Valletta. Her visit is organised by The British Council. Click here for more information.