Storytelling Unplugged

by Wendy Welch and Jack Beck.

StUn (Storytelling Unplugged) is a Scottish non-profit organization, set up in 2000, whose members are tellers, singers, musicians and artists using their skills as practical problem-solving tools with people of all ages and abilities and in all kinds of settings. Prior to the establishment of StUn virtually all of the Scottish storytellers were either working in mainstream schools and libraries or in a limited number of storytelling clubs. Few were using storytelling as a problem-solving tool.

In May of 2002 StUn received funding from a national BBC radio and television fundraiser, allowing them to put two of their members every Thursday afternoon into Rachel House 一 the only children’s hospice in Scotland. Rachel House is fully funded from public donations, so this seemed almost like a pre-ordained alliance.

Because nothing like this had been done before, Wendy Welch, coordinator of StUn, and Alison Blair, Play Development Coordinator of Rachel House, had a good deal of prior discussion about just how to get the maximum benefit from the project. Surprisingly, the first thing Wendy found was that the hospice wasn’t inundated with offers from other artists to work with these children. This is perplexing and may be due to the fear that people have in dealing with death, particularly when it involves young people and children. The pre-meetings helped to establish a good working relationship between StUn and the hospice, both parties agreeing that there should be a real attempt to deal with the children in an individual way, through the use of briefing and report forms. These allow the visiting artists to know in advance what particular physical, mental or psychological problems individual children have, while also providing a means of reporting back to staff on the results with children taking part in the activities.

As the time to commence the program approached, there was some trepidation among the team chosen to work at Rachel House, so a preliminary visit was arranged to allow some ‘toe dipping’. All the artists were completely bowled over by the experience. The actual building is modern and well equipped, with very attractive outside play areas and gardens. There are sufficient staff members and volunteers to allow for one-to-one supervision at all times, and the general atmosphere is a mixture of caring support and enormous fun. The hospice is not a hospital and, since its purpose is to provide parents and caregivers with respite, children are only resident for rairly short spells. Following the ‘reconnoiter’, the StUn team was motivated to get started, and a schedule was organized which would alternate a mix of the various performance skills available. Generally tnis meant blending musicians and storytellers, although a visual artist was also involved.

The first big lesson the team learned was that the ill children only constituted part of the client group; the siblings, parents, caregivers, volunteers and staff were just as appreciative of the opportunity to relax and lose themselves for a time. The staff work on a one-to-one basis with the ill children, and this means from the time they wake up until the time they go to sleep -12 hour shifts, usually!

During the ten months the project has been running the team members have been severely challenged on many occasions. The biggest lesson is that no matter how much you have prepared, you must be willing to ditch it all in order to respond to the immediate needs on the day. Every week is different because you will never have the same group of children, siblings and caregivers from one week to the next. The age range of the children is from a few months to 18 years, but intellectual ability may be totally unrelated to age. One week you may have a group gathered round you in the main lounge; the next week you may find yourself moving from room to room doing ‘one-to-ones’. The needs and wants of the children are absolutely paramount, no questions, no problem. This means that although the StUn sessions are nominally 2.00 p.m. through 4.00 p.m. every Thursday, they might not start till 3.00 p.m. if the kids decided ‘en masse’ to go to the circus, or the local video store. The session might even get shifted from Thursday (the usual day) to Saturday with only a couple of days’ notice.

The team has learned to watch for the stained glass dove appearing on the door. This is the subtle signal to house visitors that there has been a death, and a grieving family is resident in the house. Sometimes this completely changes the planning for that day. Although stories involving death are not taboo, they are also not ‘harped on’ and the team is sensitive to the moods of the house. That doesn’t mean that we tiptoe around looking solemn on these occasions – the rest of the kids still expect and deserve to have fun. We must be mindful, however, that although it is unlikely that we would encounter any grieving family members, there will be staff and volunteers involved in our activities who are likely to be feeling ‘down’.

The team undertaking this project consists of a storyteller/balloon artist, a storyteller/community musician, a storyteller/singer, a folk singer, a storyteller/playwright and a storyteller/art therapist. The approach taken is to always have a mix (two StUn artists attend each weekly session) in order to have the widest possible range of sensory experiences. StUn has pioneered the use of ‘tactiles’ to give children with limited eyesight or hearing the maximum benefit from the sessions. Stories are amplified through the use of textiles, natural materials, odors, etc. A piece of green cloth becomes a grassy meadow with all the kids holding the edges; blue cloth makes the sea, the children running under it the billowing waves. When the kitchen maid burns the cakes we burn incense, and when the princess’s silk dress turns to a canvas coverall the kids get their cheeks stroked with silk and canvas. Children who have been excluded from stories because of disabilities become totally involved on their own level.

So, what are the feelings of the team as they approach the end of the first year?

All those involved have become totally committed to the work, and have found the need to respond with complete flexibility to the needs of the children a useful discipline. Singers and musicians become storytellers, storytellers become musicians and singers, and everyone buries their egos and does whatever is needed. On occasion they find themselves helping the staff to organize games based on their stories. They have also said that the wide age range (from elderly volunteers through 30something staff members to very young children) in a typical week’s audience has helped them to develop new strategies. They are so inspired about the work that they recently agreed that Rachel House is thus far the most satisfying project of the many StUn has taken on.

StUn is in the process of applying for another year’s funding and looks forward to a long and mutually satisfying relationship with Rachel House.

This article appeared in the Diving in the Moon Journal, Issue 4, Summer 2003.

Wendy Welch tells stories as second nature. She writes a newspaper column on folklore and storytelling, is founder of the American Folklore Society’s Storytelling Section, has written numerous articles on the art and study of storytelling, and teaches college classes on folklore and telling techniques. Her repertoire comes from her native Appalachia, studies in Newfoundland and current home in Scotland.

Jack Beck sings the folksongs and ballads of his native Scotland and, since meeting and marrying Wendy, has begun to include more and more stories in his repertoire. He is a lifetime honorary member of the Traditional Music and Song Association of Scotland and examiner in Scottish song for the prestigious Degree Program in Scots Music at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. His monthly folksong and story radio show for Heartland FM in Pitlochry is syndicated on stations in the US.

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