I was delighted when I was offered the chance to attended The National Theatre’s storytelling workshop on behalf of A Younger Theatre. It’s a three-part course inspired by Inua Ellams’s stunning new production, Black T-Shirt collection. Based at the theatre’s John Lyon Education Studio, the sessions occurred over three evenings. Being familiar with Ellams’ work, I expected the workshops to have an emphasis on beautiful and poetic words, and a strong concentration on the craft of writing. I expected to meet new and experienced writers who wanted to take their story writing to new levels.
From the first evening, I quickly realised that this would be a much richer and more dynamic experience than I had first expected. The roughly 30 people in the class were a mixed bag of males and females ranging from mid teens to those in their late 20s. I discovered that many of the younger people were taking part in work schemes with aim of equipping them with more confidence and social skills to help them find employment, and navigate the world of work. There were also those wanting to try new things, or who were already interested in arts and theatre wanting to learn more about the art of storytelling.
We started each evening by participating in really engrossing and energising warm-up exercises. As well as complicated memory games we also did trust exercises where we paired up with partners and took it in turns to be led blindly around the room with our eyes shut. One exercise was to pair up and stare into a partner’s eyes for one whole minute without saying anything. As an ice breaker, this exercise tops the lists, as afterwards the whole class shared that when we did this over and over again with different partners, it became less incredibly uncomfortable, and more pleasant and enjoyable to hold eye contact for an extended period. We also did a bit of improvisation to get our creative juices flowing.
The workshop leaders Al and Joy were immediately engaging. The ease with which they shared interesting and inspiring stories from their personal lives definitely allowed the class to be more forthcoming in telling their own stories. The first storytelling exercise was to communicate a section of any fairy tale story from our childhoods that we were familiar with. We had two minutes to prepare this in our heads, after which we would be taking turns to perform the story to the entire class. When my turn came, I told the story of one of my childhood favourites Timon and Pumbaa, who were characters from the legendary Lion King and had an offshoot mini-series made about them.
We came to realise that telling an entertaining story was innate in everyone of us. It’s about owning the story, knowing what you want to say and the point you wish to communicate. Joy summarised it by saying when you are forced to tell your story in a really short time, you tend find a way to say what needs to be said. When you are forced to tell the essence or the most important bit of a story, it comes out more formed than you would have imagined. At the end of the first day, we were taken to see Inua Ellam’s play, so we could be inspired by witnessing storytelling from a master of the art. We all left feeling impressed and with an intensified appreciation for stories.
The second evening of exercises forced us even further out of our shells. We were to draw life size outlines of ourselves and decorate it with little symbols of our loves, losses, passions and experiences from the past. We laid each drawing on the floor and then talked about each of them as a group, directing questions at the owner of each drawing. Through this exercise we learned a lot about each other. We shared funny, quirky, beautiful and sad moments of each life, from moments of falling in love to moments of family grievances.
We realised that our lives were bursting with stories, so it was easy when we were instructed to pick one of these moments and construct a story out of it. This story would become our final performance piece on the last night of the course. This time though, we would have the chance to practice it in front of multiple partners and to receive constructive criticism before the final performance. We were finding that storytelling was about finding the confidence to speak and open up, and also about “giving yourself permission to exist”, one of the many beautifully uplifting pieces of advice offered to us by Joy.
On the third and last evening of the course we were treated to a Q+A with Ellams himself, and we eagerly showered him with questions. He talked about several things, from his cultural background (Nigerian of Hausa, Edo, Isoko heritage), to his decision to stop taking part in poetry slams and focus more on his writing. We heard about how he gets started with the process of writing: “I’m struck by an image first. If it stays with me then I run with it”. However, he made it clear that it is not all about resting on your laurels, waiting for inspiration to strike. On the subject of weather you should intentionally write to suit a specific form, or just write whatever whacky thoughts may come to you, he chose form. In order to make things for so many different productions and projects, Ellams rationalised, “you need to sacrifice the way you work”.
He also had plenty of advice for aspiring writers: “read until your eyes bleed”. He listed some of his biggest inspirations as Keats, Seamus Heaney, Frank O’Hara, Jacob Sam La Rose and Saul Williams. His explanation of the finite structure of stories had many of us listening very keenly. He described how all stories are made of exactly the same building blocks, but are rearranged and presented in different ways. He mentioned some of these building blocks as being: the status quo, the inciting incident, the response, the climax and the resolution.
We asked him how he could write so personally, drawing things from his own life to put into his stories. Ellams explained that you need a certain distance of space and time before you can write about certain things. “You need to be able to close the book on it… I couldn’t have written Black T-shirt if all my immigration issues hadn’t been sorted out.” He was referring to problems he had previously with his immigration status in the UK, which had prevented him from travelling outside the country for a very long time. Finally, he told us about the next piece he is working on, set in a fictional south London, about gang culture and global warming. This 10-15mins piece set to music will be doing an outdoor tour this summer at several locations including Camden and the Southbank.
After Ellams left to get back to the National Theatre in time for another of his performances, we got back to preparing for the final performance of our stories. We did this by retelling sections of our pieces to several partners until we were sure of exactly what we wanted to say. Performance time came, and the class that I had seen growing so much in confidence over the previous two days became suddenly hesitant and nervous again. This final performance felt awkwardly high-pressure and everyone had begun to question the story-worthiness of their tales. No-one wanted to go first.
After much deliberation, I decided to bite the bullet and be the opening act, telling a story of my guitar obsession and zero musical talent. Then one by one, my course-mates stood up to tell their stories which ranged from the hilarious to the serious and solemn. I heard stories of people getting out of tricky, ridiculous situations, and stories of rekindling estranged relationships. At some points I had a hard time holding back the tears. It really surprised me how willing people were to open up and share stories that were so tied up in their emotions.
By the last story I felt like I had been on an epic journey, or for want of a better phrase, an emotional rollercoaster. As we swapped emails, phone numbers and hugged each other good bye, it was clear that this was a reluctant end. It was a brilliant course, and one I hope the National Theatre will run for a long time to come.
Many thanks to the National Theatre for inviting A Younger Theatre along to join the course and report back on the art of storytelling.
Image credit: Inua Ellams