South London Storytelling

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Gingerbread and Stories

I feel very fortunate to have a wonderful group of storytellers who I meet with regularly to tell stories, rehearse and perform together.  We’ve put on a few events over the last year, initially as part of the Furzedown Festival and now under our own steam as a South London Storytelling group.

Our latest evening of stories was themed ‘tales to tickle your fancy’ where we each chose stories to evoke a variety of emotions in our audience.

Storyteller June Peters performing The Veil

June Peters telling ‘The Veil’.

Hosted by the Storyteller of Southfields, Hannah Need, we began the evening with a tale from one of the Arabian Nights collection ‘The Veil’.  Beautifully told by June Peters, it is a story which begins with the promise of love and freedom before swiftly revealing oppression and deceit.

My story ‘The Little Hunchback’, is also from the Arabian Nights.  I love this tale as it is filled with murder and mayhem, interwoven with dark humour.

Alison Royce intrigued everyone with her seductive tale of the ‘The Woman Who Had Two’.  Also beginning with the promise of love and freedom, this tale revealed the ingenuity of a woman who could teach a man to be happy with what he already has.

Storyteller Alison Royce

Alison Royce telling ‘The Woman Who Had Two’

Eileen Egerton told a familiar tale with an unusual twist – The Gingerbread Man.  Inspired by Margaret Atwood’s version, Eileen’s characters came to life with a swing of her hips and a twinkle in her eye.  Beginning with a woman in search of love or lust, Eileen gave new meaning to the chant ‘run, run as fast as you can… you can’t catch me I’m the Gingerbread Man’.  She even provided delicious home baked gingerbread men, colourfully iced by Hannah’s children.

Storyteller Eileen Egerton

Eileen Egerton telling ‘The Gingerbread Man’

Hannah ended our evening with the tale of ‘The Dragon Stoorwarm and a boy called Assipatle’.  Hannah expertly led us through a tale filled with death and destruction, before wits overcame might and true love conquered all.

South London Storytelling - Gingerbread men

One of the enjoyable parts of these intimate evenings, is the opportunity to mingle with everyone during our break and afterwards.  It’s a time to share what drew us to our selection of stories and hear what everyone takes away from them.  I do hope you can join us for the next one.  I’ll keep you posted!

 

 

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Connection with stories

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Storytelling at Torriano Story Night

Wendy Shearer storytelling at Torriano Story NightI was absolutely delighted to be invited by Nell Phoenix to tell stories for her monthly Story Night at Torriano. It’s a wonderful storytelling club in Kentish Town, that was in fact celebrating it’s 9th year this month. This post is about how I found my connection with the stories I told that night.

As a performance storyteller, sometimes I’m given a brief or a theme to guide me with my choice of stories but for Story Night I could choose whatever traditional stories I liked.  I’d been working on a story from Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola.  It’s about two girls and called ‘Don’t Pay Bad for Bad’.  Which can be interpreted as ‘don’t repay spite with more spite.’ For some reason I was drawn to the close relationship of these girls who grew up like sisters.  They played, protected and sometimes hurt each other as siblings know how.

The other story I told was about the death of the Egyptian God Osiris.  My version of this story focuses on the  relationship between Osiris and his envious brother Seth.  I’ve told this story at the British Museum and thought it would be enjoyed by the story loving folks at Torriano.

Connection with stories

It occurred to me that both of my stories for that evening were about sibling relationships and I knew that my connection with the stories would not only be from their culture and countries of origin, but from the relationships between the characters.  I’m the eldest of three children but my sister recently died last year in horrid 2016.

I didn’t share that news with everyone listening, but I did share some of the scenes of our childhood.  Scenes from a Guyanese household in South East London during the 80s. I felt sure that others could relate to these scenes and for some reason these short stories were bursting to be told.

For instance, it didn’t matter where I wanted to go in my early teens – the park, shops, cinema. I was often made to take my sister with me no matter how much I protested and so we were practically joined at the hip. A little bit reminiscent of the girls in my story. They did everything together and so were very close.

It was a bit of a gamble sharing my connection with the stories because I had no idea how I’d feel when it came to talking about my sister who is no longer with me. But in the intimate setting of a storytelling club, I knew that my own personal experience was going to be right there with me and somehow I had to share it.  So I decided to embrace the memories and share the emotions which is what perhaps drew me to these stories in the first place.

I’m wondering if that’s what makes storytelling so powerful and alive – if you can somehow find your connection with the stories you tell.  Do you ever get drawn to stories? Are there times when you just have to tell a particular story?  I’d love to know.

 

 

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Caribbean stories at the Museum of London

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Hello London, Hello Barbados

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of independence for Barbados and other Caribbean islands.  I was asked to tell Caribbean stories at the Museum of London, Docklands as part of their celebrations for their wonderful festival ‘Hello London, Hello Barbados‘.

The  Caribbean festival took place over the weekend of 13th and 14th August.  It was a vibrant, colourful weekend of Caribbean culture including steel pan workshops, Calypso entertainers, a choir, Bajan food, arts & crafts and me storytelling with tales from the Caribbean.

Calypso dancers & Wendy Shearer, Hello London, Hello Barbados festival

Carnival parade with Wendy Shearer

 

Telling Caribbean stories

I was located on the 3rd floor in Warehouse no 1, overlooking the river Thames.  The perfect backdrop to stories which have sailed from West Africa to the Caribbean and eventually here.

I’ve told stories of Anansi the spider and his friends, many times in schools and at family festivals.  For this festival, it was different.  There were sometimes 3 generations of families and friends listening to me – Grandparents, parents, uncles, aunties and children.  It was such a remarkable atmosphere to be a part of.  As people entered the room, I listened in as parents and elders looked at one of my paintings and asked children “Can you name that character?  Do you know who that is?” Quite often, they’d reply before waiting for an answer: “It’s Anansi the spider!  I grew up hearing those tales”. This often led to a chat with me about the stories and the memories it invoked about hearing them as children.

Wendy Shearer telling Caribbean stories at Museum of London

Telling Caribbean stories to a room full of different generations was an amazing experience for me.  The eyes of youngsters and elders lit up in amusement as they began to understand the trick of the trickster.  A father with his young daughter, echoed my repetitive call and response in his strong Bajan accent “Eh eh, you are as silly as a long legged giraffe..” To introduce the trickster character I began by describing some of his traits and led on to checking if anyone knew someone like that in their family.  You’d be surprised how many sons, daughters and partners quickly raised their hands or pointed to someone in jest.  The laughter ensued as it was agreed that there were a few lazy, greedy tricksters among us!

In one of my sessions, I noticed that a few children were reluctant to come forward and act out some of the story with me (I get them to wear masks and become one of the characters).  I thought perhaps they were a very shy crowd but it turns out that they were so engrossed with the story, they just wanted to listen!

Barbadian culture

I had the most wonderful time telling Caribbean stories at the Museum of London.  The festival was electrifying and I even got time to explore and join in with a few activities myself.  There were Caribbean Quadrille Dancers who did a fantastic performance, a stunning array of costumes to try on, a family carnival parade, traditional Barbadian sweet making and my favourite was taking part in a steel pan workshop lead by the Steel Pan Trust.  I’m definitely hooked! Aside from the brilliant festival, the Museum of London Docklands, has so much to see and explore for all ages.  It’s a truly interactive experience – a gem in the east of London.

Wendy Shearer playing Stellpan - Museum of London

Steel pan workshop with The Steel pan Trust

 

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Storytelling techniques in the classroom

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Innovate My School ideas

I found out about ‘Innovate My School’ on Twitter.  They share and inspire innovative ideas in the education sector with their huge online community and events.  I’m really passionate about inspiring the next generation of readers, writers and storytellers in creative and collaborative ways.

As I spend quite a bit of time storytelling in schools and have done lots of research around supporting literacy in the UK, I offered to do a guest online post on some of my ideas which could help teachers and educators in the classroom.

We exchanged a few ideas about what would be inspiring and helpful to Innovate My School readers and I wrote about 5 storytelling techniques to support literacy in the classroom.  You can read the article on the Innovate My School website.

Storytelling techniques in the classroom

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Greek myths

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Bringing ancient Greece to life

There’s a fantastic exhibition on at the British Museum until November 2016.  It’s called: The ‘Sunken Cities’ Egypt’s Lost Worlds.  The exhibition reveals myths and political stories of ancient Greece, and part of my storytelling at the British Museum included breathing life into Greek myths about the adventures of Greek hero Odysseus.

As a child and for my first degree at University, I studied Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey as part of Classical Civilisation studies. So it was an absolute pleasure for me to share my version of the Homeric literature along with the Greek myths of the vengeful Olympian gods.

Greek Myths - Wendy Shearer storytelling at Briths Museum

The curse of the Cyclops

I told the story of Odysseus’ time on the floating island of Aeolia, after escaping the land of the lotus eaters and the murderous cyclops Polyphemus. Once again, my story began with a vengeful curse as Polyphemus, recently blinded by Odysseus, appeals to his father Poseidon, God of the Sea:

“Grant me revenge! Let Odysseus never reach his home in Ithaca. If he must reach home, let his journey be long and perilous. Make him arrive home like a wretch and find everything in turmoil.”

My story then recounted how the curse was unfolding. Along the way, the audience met the powerful Lord of the Winds Aeolus, who gave Odysseus a large leather bag for safe-keeping, containing all of the tumultous winds; they met his fool-hardy men who gave in to curiousity and opened the bag, causing them to sail off course, the seductive enchantress Circe who drugged them and changed them in to grunting pigs, joyous scenes of traditional feasting and finally, passionate love-making before Odysseus headed off into the underworld to consult with the prophet Teiresias about how to get back to his homeland Ithaca.

Myths and real emotions

These stories are wonderful for grown-ups (and children) not only because they include mythological creatures, super heroes and gods, but also because they reveal powerful emotions which we can all relate to.  It was really important for me to bring out the feelings of despair, envy, lust and anger when speaking for the characters.  I noticed quite a few eyes in the audience twinking with agreement when I asked them “have you ever ignored one simple piece of advice?”

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Storytelling at The British Museum

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Telling ancient Egyptian and Greek myths

Storytellig at the British Museum - Wendy Shearer

Photography by Benedict Johnson

I recently had the pleasure of storytelling at The British Museum during an exciting evening of events for their members.  The evening was part of a celebration following the launch of the exhibition ‘Sunken Cities, Egypt’s Lost Worlds‘.  Two lost ancient Egyptian cities ‘Thonis-Heracleion’ and ‘Canopus’ had been submerged under the sea for over a thousand years.  Their remarkable discovery at the mouth of the Nile River has brought to life a deeper understanding and connection between the ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece.

Stories of love, envy and betrayal

My task was to bring to life some of the legends and myths from these ancient civilisations.  These tories  have captivated me since childhood, but my storytelling at the British Museum was for grown-ups. So I prepared two stories which would engage experts and those new to the tales, with emphasis on the themes of ‘love, envy and betrayl’.

Storytelling at the British Museum - Wendy Shearer

Photography by Benedict Johnson

I told the story of the Death of Osiris, god of the underworld and focused on the relationship between him and his brother Seth the God of desert and chaos.  As with any intricate myah, it’s a good idea to give your audience a bit of background to set the scene. I asked everyone to suspend their disbelief for a moment and go right back to the beginning of time when the ancient Egyptian God Ra pronounced a curse to prevent the birth of Osiris and his siblings. It’s quite a horrendous curse to his grand-daughter Nut and I think I managed to get that across to everyone watching:

“As light turns to darkness and darkness to turns to light, Nut you will NEVER ever bear any children on any day in any year”

In my story, Seth lives in his brother’s shadow, watching Osiris have everything and be everything he ever wanted – a beautiful, devoted wife, a kingdom and popularity.  I tried to paint a picture of why brotherly betrayl happened.  There were a few knowing nods when I broke out of the story to ask the audience “have you ever wanted someone you shouldn’t have or couldn’t have?”  There were even a few uncomfortable moments when I asked them if they’d “ever had a wicked thought?”

Storytelling for grown-ups

I’ve done lots of storytelling with children and they often want to hear the guts and gore of a story, enjoying what could happen to someone else.  When storytelling for grown-ups, I’ve noticed that they love capturing that forbidden moment in the story they can relate to – the moment no-one else really knows about themselves.

At the end of the evening, after three wonderful storytelling sessions, people came and chatted with me about their own work which drew on some of the themes in my stories and the exhibition – the transformation and power of the sea and representation of cities.  We discussed their most loved aspects of classical literature and a few questions on the symbolism created from the ancient gods of the sea and the underworld.  Joe Hambrook told me about some of the amazing objects he’d acquired from archaeological digs many decades ago.  He recommended I read the story of Homer’s daughter ‘Nausicaa’.

Storytelling at the British Museum - Wendy Shearer

Photography by Benedict Johnson

The British Museum team that hired me, also enjoyed my performances and gave some really lovely feedback:

Your performance was captivating and dynamic. It was a pleasure to see you breathing life into the legends of Osiris and Odysseus, which fitted so well with our theme for the evening – British Museum

If you haven’t gone to see the Sunken Cities exhibition as yet, try and get along to it.  It’s such a wonderful exhibition.  If you’d like to ask me about storytelling at your event, museum, visitor attraction or London school just send me a message and let me know the details. I’ll get back to you with my rates and availability.

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Multilingual Creativity Event

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Free Word

The Free Word Centre is the only international centre for literature, literacy and free expression.  In collaboration with the Culture Institute at King’s College London they held a Multilingual Creativity Lab, looking at creative approaches to engaging with and promoting multilingual skills.

Free Word invited me to speak at one of their events in the Multilingual Creativity Series: ‘Print and multimedia texts’.  It was a wonderful afternoon sharing experiences, resources and creative ideas about how print and multimedia texts (including oral) can be used to support multilingual creativity. We met in the grand space of the Anatomy Museum at King’s College London.

Wendy Shearer Professional Storyteller - Multilingual Creativity event

Celebrating Diversity

Sophie Wardell from Free Word had found out about me from my storytelling workshops with the Southbank Centre for the Imagine Festival.  She was interested in the audio book we created and the creative methods I use when storytelling with multilingual children.

Rachel Gilmore, Senior Lecture in the English Department at Queen Mary University of London shared her ideas and a case study from one of her projects with multilingual students. Rachel Williams, publisher from Wide Eyed Editions, gave us a sneak peak preview at their new children’s book ‘Hello World’ – a beautifully illustrated book with an accompanying digital app, showing over 100 children greeting us in their own language.

Hello World Atlas - Multilingual Creativity

Ann Lazim from Centre for Literacy in Primary Education shared her insight into the multilingual classroom when using printed texts in primary education.  She had a wonderful array of illustrated folktales and children’s stories in other languages.  She shared books written in their original language, some translated into English from French, vice versa and some dual language books. Many of us marvelled at how wonderful it would have been if we’d had these colourful, children’s stories when we were learning other languages at school (rather than two dimensional characters in the heavy text books!)

Ann Lazim - LIterature and Library Development Manager - Multilingual Creativity

Oral storytelling with multilingual children

My presentation focused on the creative methods I use to get children involved when I’m storytelling.  Sound effects, instruments, masks, mime, drama and a few props are often in my large Mary Poppins bag to weave into my storytelling workshops. Children gravitate to what makes them feel comfortable and the creative elements enable them to join in, regardless of their language skills, age or physical abilities.

Wendy Shearer Professional Storyteller - storytelling at Campsbourne School

Language mash-up

One common thread throughout the afternoon, was how we experienced children using their languages in different ways when communicating with each other.  They share knowledge, slip in and out of languages, teach each other, mix and fuse languages together in a seamless way without a hint of self-consciousness.  It’s natural and creative and wonderfully diverse. The Multilingual Creativity Initiative is a collaboration between a number of partner organisations running projects and conducting research into what happens when people use more than one language at once in a creative project.

During the afternoon, we had an engaging workshop around what more could be done with other organisations, which enabled me to meet teachers, translators, curators, publishers, to name a few.  It was a really inspiring event and I’m looking forward to attending the next event in the series Multilingual Creativity Speed Dating – a networking evening with people from schools, universities, museums, libraries, publishers and arts, cultural and community organisations also interested in this area.

Come along if you can, it’s on Wednesday 25th May at 6pm in the Free Word Lecture Theatre.

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The Theatre of Storytelling

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The range of theatre

As with theatre performances of plays, there are many different aspects of storytelling. I’m exploring in this post the theatre of storytelling and how the lines of theatre and storytelling cross each other, blur and stand apart.

I’ve always loved the theatre – visiting it and being a part of it. For me, it’s so thrilling to see a live performance of a story unfold before your very eyes. My dad used to take us to theatres regularly and as part of my Drama degree, it was compulsive to see as many theatre performances as possible.

Another love for me, is the range of theatre available to us here in London and across the UK – I could quite happily watch new talent within the intimate setting and minimal set design of a fringe theatre like The King’s Head Theatre, set above a pub;  or a large scale production, perhaps set in the round with lavish backdrops and technical apparatus at somewhere like The National Theatre.

Storytelling styles

Wendy Shearer Storytelling at Art House Crouch End

Wendy Shearer storytelling at Art House Crouch End

Storytellers are increasingly becoming part of the theatre offering which is wonderful. So what sets storytelling apart from acting out a play on a stage?

My style of storytelling is traditional oral storytelling where I tell a tale from memory, using cultural references and opportunities for the audience to participate like ‘call and response’. With children I sometimes use drama and invite them to take on the role of a character whilst I tell the story. Other times, I’ll use small props for symbolism, visual aid or for someone to participate with in the tale.

Wendy Shearer storytelling at Campsbourne School

This for me is where there can be blurred lines with theatre and storytelling. I tell stories in theatres, art houses and cultural venues mostly for family fun days and events. The props, music and instruments can enhance the performance of storytelling or as I like to say the ‘theatre of storytelling’. Some brilliant storytellers incorporate amazing masks like Pyn Stockman, costumes like Xanthe Gresham Knight, instruments like Vanessa Woolf and Sally Pomme Clayton.

The theatre of storytelling

When storytelling, rather than tell the tale to a silent, observing audience, we storytellers encourage you to react.  It’s not like watching a play. The audience can become part of the story, even shape and illustrate it at times. During a workshop led by renowned storyteller and performer Jan Blake, she told us that the storyteller is the ‘narrator’. We are letting the audience in on what we have witnessed.

This for me is the magic of storytelling and where it stands apart from theatre. Storytellers invite you into the tale where you can physically inhabit the space through the storyteller’s eyes.  During an intensive week’s workshop with Peter Fruhmann from Story Bag, he guided us to think about what role the listener plays during our storytelling.  It was fascinating exploration, the notion that in the theatre of storytelling, both the storyteller and the audience play a role.

 

 

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Telling Ancient Greek Myths at the British Museum

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Ancient Greek VaseI very nearly became an archaeologist.  My love for uncovering stories found me studying classical civilisation at University, alongside English Literature and Drama.  By day I was interpreting Hellenistic architecture or Ancient Greek myths and by night I was rehearsing on stage  or getting to grips with Charles Dickens.

By my final year I had to choose a direction. It was a close call: head off for my first unaccompanied ‘dig’ in Israel or direct my own play.  Well the theatre and TV production won but I still occasionally wonder “what if…?”

So here I am now as a storyteller, bringing Ancient Greek Myths to life wherever I can!

Storytelling at the British Museum

I was thrilled when the British Museum asked me to prepare a series of stories for one of their evening events coming up in May. They have a new exhibition opening on 19th May: Sunken Cities – Egypt’s Lost Worlds. Two cities have been recently discovered beneath the waters of the Mediterranean which reveal previously unknown connections between the civilizations of Ancient Greece and Egypt. Exciting stuff!

Tales from the Odyssey

The theme of the British Museum event is underwater archaeology and so I’m taking that theme and preparing to tell both ancient Egyptian and ancient Greek myths.  I’ll be telling tales from The Odyssey of Odysseus meeting Aeolus Lord of the Winds, Circe the Enchantress and the wrath of Poseidon who punishes him at sea.  I’ll also be telling the Egyptian tale of The Death of Osirus, betrayed by the trickery of his brother Seth before his body was dispersed across the Nile.

It’s going to be a wonderful night for adults and I hope you can join me.  Watch this space for when tickets become available.  Here are a few of the Ancient Greek Myths I perform for adults and children.

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Storytelling moments – what can go wrong

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Storytelling Moments - Wendy Shearer - Professional StorytellerStorytelling involves telling a story live to an audience.  Your performance is not memorised word by word, but you’ve worked out or practiced the direction and main plot of the story. When I can picture it in my mind, the words follow on like stepping stones and a detailed image is created for everyone listening.

At best it’s magical, but that does not mean every performance goes to plan.  I’m sometimes asked what do you do if…? These are usually questions about how to respond when things go wrong or not how you envisaged.  So here’s a few storytelling moments I’ve encountered and how I’ve dealt with them.

Interruptions

Sometimes you might have people coming and going where you’re storytelling and this can be a bit off-putting or someone may come in with a message for someone.  Once I had someone try to pass me a microphone that they’d forgotten to give me.   I had to break out of the story and accept it.  Not a great moment.  Another time, someone took a call inside a small Yurt.  She was really quiet but it was very distracting. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was storytelling at The Royal Festival Hall and the room I was in had a speaker positioned in the ceiling. In the middle of a moment of suspense, an announcement bellowed out of the speaker to advertise the next show.  If I lose my thread, I take a breath, a short pause to get back into the moment.

Word loss

I’ve never forgotten a story but I’ve definitely said the wrong name or mixed something up.  The awkward thing is that everyone has heard you.  And Children can be brutal!  They may laugh or even correct you but the best thing to do is to correct yourself and swiftly move on. Bring it right back to the moment.

I think of it like having a conversation with every single person in the room.  That’s what Jamie Crawford taught me in one of his storytelling workshops. “Try and use your breakfast voice Wendy”.  It’s natural.

It’s also good to have a a few ways to say the same thing.  This gives me time to think of what’s coming next and adds layers to the image.  That’s what Jan Blake taught me in one of her storytelling workshops.  “All storytellers need to have a wide vocabulary”

Storytelling moments - Wendy Shearer

Distractions

Sometimes I’m storytelling in a public place without any closed doors.  Or there may be other activities going on quietly in the same room.  This is a challenge but I just zone out and take everyone with me on the same journey.  I’ve had loud noises coming from another room or an interactive whiteboard suddenly going on behind me.  Once, in a school, a fight broke out in the corridor between two pupils.  The door was kicked in! I can still see all the eyes drifting away from me…  In those situations you can either carry on until the distraction has gone, or change your tone or style to bring the attention right back to you.

Audience reactions

This has taken me quite a while to get used to.  At first I used to absorb everyone’s expressions and get quite nervous if someone looked very serious, annoyed or even unhappy.  I’d think ‘what’s wrong? Are you not enjoying it?’ The answer to that question could be yes, but sometimes people just aren’t aware of their expressions when they are watching you.  It’s best to have confidence in what you are performing and carry that positive energy right through to till the end.  I’ve had people come and say wonderful compliments to me afterwards even though they may have looked very serious during the tale.

Nerves

I often get asked about this.  I do get a few nerves before I begin performing.  I think it’s a healthy fear of the unexpected!  Once I start, I take ownership of the space.  It’s my job to create a spellbinding moment.  That’s the excitement.  I have to enjoy what I’m doing and then I forget about being nervous.  Of course, if any of the above happens during your storytelling then the nerves might kick in so I find that good breathing and pacing of delivery is really helpful.

If you’ve got some other ideas or questions about what goes wrong when you’re storytelling, please do let me know.  It’s good to share!

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