Kolkata: The classic fairy tales and folklore which grandmas have related through the ages to put little ones to bed find a new portal of expression in Xanthe Gresham, a globally acclaimed British performance-storyteller.
For Gresham, who travels the globe narrating a vast repertoire of fables, storytelling is an integral part of good parenting and forging strong bonds with one’s children without being preachy.
“They only listen when I tell them stories. Parents can get through to them via stories. Keep repeating the stories, add twists, and the more you tell, the better you get. I think stories are fun, they are playful and they help you remember,” Gresham, who was at the Oxford Bookstore here to conduct a storytelling session in association with the British Council, advised parents who want to be good storytellers.
Telling stories for both children and adults, Gresham has created many performances such as “Aphrodite” and “The Real Red Shoes”.
Live performances for family audiences include the popular “Shahnameh” or the “Iranian Book of Kings” performed with musician Arash Moradi and “Indian Tales” performed with storyteller Seema Anand.
Gresham wishes to narrate the epic Mahabharata to perfection some day.
“I find this epic fascinating. It has so many brave characters. I will try to interact more with the people to get the names of the characters and their pronunciations right,” said Gresham, who is in her 30s.
What was once identified as Grandma’s storytelling has morphed into a 21st century narration-based live art replete with props, anecdotes, rhymes, music and, most importantly, getting the crowd to participate.
“Telling a story, not with a script and actually improvising and luring the audience to participate and making them one with the story, is the way of the storyteller. It is both an art and a craft”, Gresham pointed out.
Known for her energetic and fired up signature live acts of folktales, fairytales and mythology, she draws inspiration from European, Russian, Celtic, Greek, Persian, Iraqi, Mesopotamian, Afghan, South American, Egyptian, Viking, Chinese, Native American, Indian and Sufi traditions.
“I have travelled a lot and somehow keep coming back to mythology and folktales. And I find children are more attracted to the folktales because of the variety those offer. I love to perform my favourite – the tale of Shahnameh,” explained Gresham, who also lectures in storytelling and drama at the University of East London.
For Gresham, who was trained in literature and theatre, storytelling as a way of teaching happened quite accidentally.
“I had no idea there was such a thing as storytelling. I was teaching, but I wasn’t doing very well with the children. Then a professional storyteller walked in one day and it was like a magic spell had been cast. The children were rapt with attention. Even if you are learning loads, it’s not work,” she emphasised.
What began as an aid to teaching has now become a form of expression for the vivacious keeper of tales.
“Ben Haggarty is one of my inspirations in the field. I trained with him and after six or seven years of on-the-job training, I developed my own style,” revealed the storyteller.
Dressed in bright colours and draped in shawls, with an accordion to highlight sensory moments during the telling, her one-woman show uses props to make it a well-rounded audio-visual experience.
“Props prop you up. The children need to have a visual aide to get the point,” says Gresham whose acts are marked with voice modulations to bring to life the characters.
With an adroit mix of folklore and allusions to political and social happenings, Gresham makes it a point to use words, phrases and proverbs specific to the area of origination of the story that affords a glimpse to a different world.
“It is a cross-cultural thing. People from different lands are transported to other places, the unknown. I do play a bit of music as well to remind them of the specific country,” Gresham said.
With hi-tech entertainment forms springing up every other day, performance storytelling is getting bigger by the day.
“It is a big thing in the U.K. When I started, there were more men than women, but now there are more women. When it comes down to other art forms, I feel all arts are brothers; they are like each other and complement each other. In fact, India is known to us for its tradition of storytelling, ” said Gresham.