Jenni employs a wide repertoire of dramatic skills and a beautiful singing voice to hold her audience. Her training includes a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Sociology from the University of Queensland, classical singing training and a diploma from the Drama Action Centre in Sydney. There she studied clowning, improvisation, dance, singing, mask, mummers, percussion and workshop facilitation, specialising in storytelling. Her professional experience was gained in over twelve hundred schools in Australia and New Zealand. She has performed for ABC national radio as well as ABC TV’s ‘7.30 Report’. She has performed and presented workshops for the Bennelong Program at the Sydney Opera House, The Powerhouse Museum, the National Storytelling Conference, the Woodford Folk Festival since 1993, Byron Bay Adult Community Education and The Byron Bay Writers Festival 2004. She is currently recording two new CD’s, one for adults “Stories to Light the Dark” and one for children “The Mermaids Shoes”. Both combine stories and song, some traditional, some original. In 2007, she will become director of her own storytelling school in Byron Bay, a first in Australia.
What made you want to become a storyteller?
I trained at a drama school in Sydney called the Drama Action Centre for two years full time. It was a very exciting and nourishing time. We studied mime, voice, singing, clowning, percussion, rythmn, dance, mask, mummers, outdoor performance and storytelling with some of the best teachers in Australia and New Zealand. I had the dream of performing in schools and in community theatre.
In first year we were given a storytelling assignment- that is to find a story to tell. I reacted with a big yawn. ‘Oh how droll’, I thought and I dragged myself through the process of finding a story. Then after a few days, I happened to find the oldest written story: the myth of the Sumerian Goddess Inanna, as translated by Noah Samuel Kramer and interpreted by the famous storyteller Diane Wolkstein. As soon as I saw the ancient Goddess image on the front cover my heart leapt! Then as I read the text, it was like the road of destiny opened up and I felt something big was dawning in me. As I worked on the tale with various teachers, I realised I had a strong calling to be a storyteller.
Was the journey difficult? Any help?
I was very lucky to have a mentor who helped me enormously. I was a very nervous beginner as I was launching myself straight from Drama School into professional storytelling in schools which is a little pressured. You need a minimum audience of 120 children per show, in order to make it worth while for an agent to book you and I knew I couldn’t sell myself.
I also had a highly overdeveloped inner critic. While this helped me strive toward excellence, it also made me feel like giving up at times.
My mentor was an experienced American storyteller living in Sydney at the time, Chardi Christian. She helped me develop my show, came to my first few shows and helped me get a really excellent agent. Then, as there wasn’t enough storytelling work to make a living from, I got a job in a medieaval music ensemble- as a storyteller, singer and percussionist.
I worked and toured with them for seven years and this really developed my musical skills and performance experience, but I let my storytelling idle in that time as I tended to use the same few tales. I let my fire go out so to speak. The touring life was a wonderful job and a great way to see country Australia and different cities, but I could rarely make it to storytelling events. It’s very helpful to connect with and see other storytellers perform to keep growing as a teller and I missed that.
When I became a mother, I left the medieval band, settled in Northern NSW with my partner and concentrated on mothering and storytelling. I continued touring for another three years- mostly to Sydney, Western Australia and New Zealand, but by the time my second child came along I found touring a solo show and juggling childcare was too stressful. My partner had a job, so I couldn’t leave the kids with him and he had to stay behind mostly. So I gave up touring when my second child got to be four months old. Since then I have worked in ways that complement family life- which means more teaching and CD sales, some festival and local work, but not much touring. I have had more time to read not only more stories and develop a wider repertoire or range of stories, but also I have read about storytelling which has been invaluable. I have also learned a great deal from teaching storytelling to adults.
My main obstacles have been isolation and my self critic. Now that I live in Northern NSW, a few hours from the nearest city, I don’t see many other storytellers unless I go to a Storytellers Conference, but in Australia they only happen once every two years. However, slowly by teaching and performing locally, I am building my own local storytelling community, so I’m not so isolated anymore.
With young children, I don’t want to travel overseas to attend festivals and workshops, but if Moses can’t go to the mountain then I plan to bring the mountain to Moses! Next year I will be starting up a storytelling school. That way, I can regularly bring great storytellers (I happen to have a great network) here to teach and perform. I live near Byron Bay which is one of Australia’s most popular holiday destinations, so it’s a great place for weekend retreats and Winter Schools. (It’s too hot in Summer here for a Summer School!)
Of course, the world wide web is also a fantastic way to connect with the international community of storytelling, and I love listening to stories on Storyteller Net. www.storyteller.net
Another form of isolation that limited my repertoire previously was that most of my work was in schools. There are only certain kinds of story and storytelling and only certain sets of stories that hang together to keep 120- 250 students and teachers happy and thoroughly entertained for an hour. Since becoming a mother and telling to my children and smaller groups of children and adults as I work locally, I have connected with a broader community and so I have been able to explore a wider range of stories and styles.
I also now understand children a little better- in terms of what they can and can’t understand and what interests them at certain ages. I feel that has made me a much better teller. Also I can characterise mothers and children in the stories I tell in a richer way and with more conviction.
Problems with my self critic have lessened as I have gotten older and (hopefully) wiser. Having children has helped too, because mostly my kids never take anything too seriously and when they occasionally do, I can see how silly and unhelpful it can be!
What were some of your favorite stories growing up? What made those stories so special?
I especially loved the tales my mother told me of family life, both before and after I was born. Mum had such a cosy, warm voice and was very expressive. I loved the tale of how my brother and sister (who were much older and usually very well behaved) nearly burnt down the house when they were little by playing with birthday candles under Dad’s wing-backed chair. Mum also told a very simple made-up story about a little girl going to the market to buy an enormous cabbage that was so big she could hardly see around it and she got it safely home and every one was pleased. I didn’t even like or eat cabbage, but I LOVED that story and I would ask for it again and again! My mother was always surprised, “Not the cabbage one again?” she’d say.
I don’t especially remember adoring traditional stories then though I may have, but I certainly do now and so do my children!
Is there a difference between writing a story and telling a story?
ABSOLUTELY!!! Just try it! Sometimes, I have sat down at my computer to write out a version of a story that I have been telling for years and there is a temptation to start changing it. I have been doing a lot of this lately because I am recording two new CD’s: one for children called “The Mermaid’s Shoes” and one for adults called “Stories to Light the Dark”. Sometimes the story becomes more literary and when I go to retell it, it doesn’t flow.
Told stories ‘cut to the chase’. They are mostly action and dialogue. You can have some short passages of description, but you can’t go on for too long with florid descriptions and you can’t explore too many tangents or your audience will get confused and/or bored. It is a very different thing to read a story as opposed to listening to a story. Different processes go on in your brain. For a start, one is received visually and one aurally, which involves different regions of the brain.
When you are listening, you can’t turn the page back to check which character did what. If you were in a small intimate group, you could possibly ask the teller to clarify a detail, but that would disrupt the flow of the story. So it’s better not to get too complicated. You also need to be careful of painting a scene or character so fully that the listener has no room to imagine it their own way.
There is also a big difference between a story written to be read and a story written to be read aloud. Mem Fox- one of Australia’s most famous children’s writers, says that a good read-aloud story should be so well crafted, that it’s words flow like a Mercedes on a smooth road, instead of bumping along like an old truck on a road full of pot holes!
What is the difference between a fable, a parable, and a fairy tale?
Good question! Can you let me know? To tell the truth, I can’t abide many fables or parables, so I haven’t pondered this deeply. I suppose I think of fables as short stories with animals as main characters and an obvious moral.
A parable has the moral laid on even more thickly and perhaps a religious flavour. If the lesson in the story is laid on too thick, then frankly I lose interest. I am not opposed to morals in a story and in fact they are pretty much inevitable especially in folk tales or tales written in the style of a folktale, but I like the meaning to be subtle- something that seeps into you gently over time, rather than something that hits you over the head like a mallet! Of all the teaching tales that I have read however, there is one series that I love and that is all the Turkish tales of Nasruddin Hoca or The Hodja. Although they always have a clear moral, it is served between thick layers of humour and irony, which for me, makes the lesson quite palatable and delightful.
A fairy tale is another name for a folk tale- a tale which has a certain predictable formulae in which good prevails over evil, a good protagonaist or main character has to overcome some kind of difficulty and because of their honesty and goodness or loving heart they receive divine or magical assistance. After facing several daunting challenges successfully, the hero or heroine succeeds in their quest and brings home a boon/ treasure/a magic skill, marries the prince/princess and lives happily ever after. The positive hopeful ending and the predictability of the basic plot is invaluable for the hearts and minds of the young, for whom as Bruno Bettleheim put it “all is becoming.”
Teenagers and adults can cope with tragedy and developmentally they need to be able to handle tragedy, but I don’t believe that this is what young children need to cope with. Even though young children may experience real tragedy in their lives, in the world of story, they should be able to find respite and a salve for their sore hearts. Though I am not a Waldorf Mum, I think Steiner had it right that children need different stories at different stages. They can be exposed to frightening stories with wicked and terrible villains (once they show the desire for such stories), as long as justice prevails and the evil are thoroughly defeated. Young children must be encouraged with stories of hope, hope and more hope! I very much dislike seeing books aimed at young children which paint a gloomy outlook on life. They are often very ‘clever’ and sophisticated, and are sometimes awarded prizes by adult panels, though they rarely get voted popularity awards.
I am predominantly a folktale and myth lover, plus I occasionally write the odd story, poem or song. My favourite tales are stories of adventure, trickster tales, funny tales, puzzle stories, stories with magical transformations and stories that make my heat sing!
If you could be one character in a story who would you be and why?
An all powerful Goddess. Perhaps the Goddess of Love. I would make my world and the world at large into a happy, love-filled Garden of Eden! However perhaps that would be dull! No interesting stories can come of everyone living happily ever after at the beginning- unless there is a fall from grace- or can they???!!!
If you could have coffee with one famous storyteller who would it be and why?
Joseph Campbell. He had such a profound, deep and broad understanding of the layers of meaning and metaphor embedded in myth and folklore. He had a superb knowledge of the mythology of almost very culture in the world! I have read several of his books and listened to some of his conversations with Bill Moyers. His way of talking about myth, though sometimes filled with rather loooong words, I find completely inspiring!
I’m sure he would be fascinating and he also seemed like a lovely person. I would spend ages framing my questions before meeting him to make the most of the time. (I recently ordered the CD set of his conversations with Bill Moyers from the US and expect them to arrive next week, which I will listen to with great pleasure, even though I have read the book of those interveiws!)
My next choice would be Starhawk.
What inspires you as a storyteller?
When I see how much storytelling can make people’s faces shine! When I hear adults say how surprised they were at how much they enjoy listening to stories. When I feel an audience is with me in that magic imaginal landscape of story- we are all crossing the river, facing the giant, finding the treasure… together! It is a great sense of communion (though I am spiritual rather than religious)! When I see the great healing power storytelling can have on people- it can soothe, empower, evoke memories, teach, excite, inspire, energise. Great theatre and literature can do this, but storytelling does it in it’s own unique way and this has to be experienced to be fully understood.
I feel that in this fast-paced technological age, we are in desperate need of slowing down. To sit still and listen to a story requires a certain entrainment of concentration- or a one-pointedness that is like the stillness one can get in meditation. Your mind is completely engaged in the inner realm of imagination. This in itself is soothing and healing.
I recently did some training with Nancy Mellon who visited us from the US. She spoke of the way different rythms and different tones of voice will physically affect the listener. She describes in her book, Storytelling and the Art of Imagination: “The basic story rythm has a deep connection to our human heartbeat …the tempo of a tale may be discovered and controlled by the teller as a piece of music is discovered and interpreted by a musician.”
Storytelling has such limitless applications and we are still discovering them all!!!
What advice would you give a storyteller faced with writer’s block?
I rarely write original tales so I find it hard to give much advice on this. If you want to write in the genre or style of folktale, read a lot of folktales. Nancy Mellon’s book Storytelling and the Art of Imagination has some really wonderful ways in to writing a folktale of your own. My partner has an incredible genius for making up pirate stories- it seems effortless to him. He just makes them up off the top of his head and they are brilliant first go! He seems to tap into something deep inside himself and as an English teacher he has a strong understanding of plot. Joseph Campbell said “Writers block results from too much head. Pegasus, poetry was born of Medusa when her head was cut off. You have to be reckless when writing. Be as crazy as your conscience allows.”
In other words give yourself permission to write very badly for a long time before the gems emerge.
However, not all storytellers write their own stories. Most of the tales in my repertoire are traditional stories and only a few are original. An experienced storyteller can interpret or re-interpret a traditional story skilfully- that is they will put it into their own words and update it slightly. Writing and interpreting tales are distinct skills. We live in a culture that tends to worship individuality and original creativity. However folklore and folktales are collectively created, then improved and worked on as they are passed down from person to person through the generations.
Good interpretation means being able to dust off ancient tales, cut out some of the bits modern listeners don’t relate to and reweave them so that modern listeners can make sense of them. To do this without losing the original magic of the tales, you really have to understand what you are working with or you can easily make them dry and dull.
For a storyteller wanting to interpret a tale who is feeling ‘writers block’ or ‘tellers block’, I would recommend going to listen to other storytellers, or listening to recordings of storytellers telling stories or reading tales written or interpreted by storytellers. Sites like Storyteller Net are excellent for this.
For adults read about the meanings of tales also so you know what you are doing. Bruno Bettleheim’s The Uses of Enchantment is fantastic and Jack Zipes poses some alternate views.
What stories are you working on presently?
I am working on the story of The Weaving Maiden from the Star Festival of Japan and the Chinese tale of the Magic Fish. After that I am interested in working on my version of the myth of the Celtic Goddess Brigit, who was the Goddess of Spring. I will draw on the beautiful version by Adrian Beckingham in Stories that Crafted the Earth.
Finally, what advice would you give kids who wish to pursue a career in storytelling?
Go to storytelling concerts, festivals and workshops, check out storytelling websites, listen to storytelling CD’s and read books written by storytellers. Find yourself a mentor, preferably one who lives nearby. Wishing or asking for divine assistance can be helpful when it comes to manifesting a mentor. Or finding a carpark! Whenever I remember to ask the parking fairy for a good park, I get one!
Give yourself the chance to make baby steps and remember, “Rome wasn’t built in day”!
I have a links page on my website which may also be helpful.
Where can kids and parents find out more about your work?
At my website: www.jennicargill.com.au There you can hear sound bytes from my CD “Wonder Tales of Earth and Sea” or at Storyteller Net you can hear all of my original story Goldenheart, which I tell in verse accompanied by a lyre.
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