Translated from Sovenian by I. D.
The article was originally written for symposium Language on the Crossroads between Science and Art. Symposium was organised by Academy for Theatrical Arts in Ljubljana. The original article in Slovenian language is published in the book Govor med znanostjo in umetnostjo (Ljubljana: Aristej, 2014).
I would like to state at the very beginning that I am writing this based on my practical experience, as a storyteller and not as a linguist, which I lack proper theoretical background for. I would also like to add that I have no intention of dealing with folk storytellers, as folkloristics explores this field from a scientific perspective. I will be talking about storytellers as performers, I being one of them. Personally, I find conections between stage storyteling and those theatre genres which appear most similar to storytelling much more interesting. I am talking mainly about certain form of theatrical expression (more on this later), stand-up comedy, and certain musical forms which are at least partly based on a strong story, a good example of this being singers-songwriters. Although an in-depth comparison among genres mentioned would be more than interesting, there is sadly not enough space for it here; because of this, I would like to focus only on the similarities which I think make the comparison sensible. The first of those is the ontological status of the performer, who represents none other than himself when on stage, the second is the performer’s relation to the content which is being narrated/sung and which contains a certain amount of distancing – the performer acts as a medium who passes the story on to the audience without actually participating in the story (at least in the time of narration). All three step on stage carrying the same (artistic) name each time and pass on pre-prepared stories to the audience. The word is by far their most powerful tool, coupled with music in case of singers-songwriters. As Špela Frlic finds in her paper Contemporary Storytelling – the question of definition, the differentia specifica of the duo stand-up artist – storyteller is not the humour used by the stand-up artist, as the desire to achieve comic effect is one of the main building blocks of many stage storytellers, judging by Slovenian experience. Regardless of the fact that both stand-up artist and storyteller can use humorous ideas, personal comments and reflexions on current social events to build on their performance, the storyteller is fundamentally dependent on the story-line structure, while the stand-up artist’s narrative usually consists of a string of different content parts, often linked only through association, and going after a strong punch-line instead of a complex plot. Desite the stated differences a stand-up artist and a storyteller have another thing in common, and this one is crucial for the present consideration: both address their audience directly and adjust their performance according to specific audiences, which require a performer to incorporate a certain amount of improvisation. And to be able to improvise on stage, one must first have full command of the language he is addressing the audience with. But before I move on to the question of the performer’s language, I must first take some time for that which makes a storyteller what he is – his story.
The storyteller and her story
Stage storytellers tell either folk stories (European tradition) or autobiographical stories (American tradition). There are usually no stories written by other authors on their repertoires. The reasons for this are of a practical nature: apart from the one concerning copyrights, which I will not go into here, there is a difference in the structure of folk stories and stories by writers. Let’s brush up on what a typical folk story looks like: the plot is usually presented in a linear fashion while the characters portrayed resemble not real people but rather types with just one character trait. This trait is usually very strong, to the point where the fictional person becomes no more than a manifestation of this trait (the evil character is he, the Evil one, the courageous character is he, the Courageous one, etc.) Folk stories often end with a very clear and unambiguous message, leaving no room for doubt or debate. Things just are, what they are, is the message of folk stories, although they fail to explain why things are as they are. I believe the missing element to the why question is what separates a folk story from an authored one – at the same time, this is also what makes folk stories interesting for further development. Or, as I wrote once on a different occasion: a folk story is nothing more than a skeleton, a string of motifs and events, which is only brought to life by the storyteller who makes it into a fullblooded narrative. The storyteller weaves the meat through the bones with her words until the story is complete. The magic of storytelling is in the search for the answer to the why question; if a storyteller decides to tell a story written by someone else, she gives up this search in advance, as the author of the story already did that for her. Looking from this standpoint, a storyteller is no less an author than a writer who based her literary work on an existing folk story, what is different is their input as authors: while writing is a solitary chore for which the author takes as much time as she needs and hands in, when finished, a completed and irrevocably sealed product with perfected structure and language, well thought through to the last word, the storyteller builds her (more or less thought-through) story again and again, for each new audience, which means she can narrate the same string of motifs and events to very different audiences, yet the story will always fit perfectly. When trying to find similarities between storytelling and theatre, in my opinion, the qualities mentioned would make improvisational theatre a much better genre to look at than monodrama (which often comes as first association because of its apparently similar form). Like storytelling, improvisational theatre is, especially in its longer and more complex forms, based on the possibility of an ad hoc construction of a story, possibly even much more than storytelling. We find an even more obvious comparison in the now almost forgotten form of comedia dell’arte, where actors knew precisely which story they are telling and where the plot leads, yet built each performance anew based on the canovaccio. The better they were, the more spontaneity and improvisation thair acting involved – and the better the storyteller, the less she has to stick to the learned linguistic paths of a story she brings on stage. Supposedly, actors doing comedia dell’arte played the same character their entire life, whether it was Arlecchino, Dottore, Signora or Amante; their character was their stage identity, their basic tool with which they built each performance. It is therefore understandable that they wanted to master it completely. The storyteller’s basic toll and at the same time the elemntary building block of her stage identity is her language. Considering s storyteller always comes on stage as herself, as I already discussed, it seems logical thar she should choose for her performance whichever language is closest to her.
On the beauty and ‘correctness’ of language
Anyone who has ever dealt with the question of public or artistic speaking in any way knows that the literary language, which is supposed to be the most relevant one, is actually an artificial construct and has little to do with spoken languages of our territory. Out of all the people I know, only one chose the literary language as her most intimate language; I never really understood how she managed that, since people build their personal languages from the real world we live in and not from books. What we read is of course a part of our world, but an absolutely minor one compared to all the spoken realities of our daily routines; in the best case scenario the literary language distances us from our rural or urban dialects, our true mother tongues, and replace them with conversational literary language. Leaving aside the fact that a deviation from set practices of this magnitute puts the speaker in a position where she is considered ‘a geek’ because of her unrelenting observation of the literary norm, this is actually a manifestation of an unbelievable resistance of spirit. What is interesting in this case is the reaction of her conversational partners, especially those who share a dialogue with her for the first time. The spoken literary form confuses them at best or makes them panic at worst. This is often followed by an intuitive attempt to bring their own language closer to hers, making them leave the field of their personal language with all its imperfections, tiny tics, lexical and syntactic peculiarities, excursuses and excesses – in other words, they renounce everything which gives their language colour and texture and agree to produce nothing but mere information, which is usually grammatically incorrect. It is sad to have to listen to someone stagger through wrong word orders instead of smoothly sliding through his narrative, to listen to him trip over infinitives and frantically search for differences between less and more literary expressions and choosing the latter because he hardly ever uses them otherwise, meaning they simply have to belong to the other, ‘correct’ language, or look like a gaping fish because he is trying to remember the alternative offered by this second language for a sentence, which has been on the tip of his tongue for the entire conversation: This is just too fucking hard for me.
A similar thing often happens to storytellers at the begining of their performing journey. At least in Slovenia, there is no educational programme, no official curriculum which would allow them to acquire all the knowledge and skills needed. If such a programme existed, linguistic education would have to be a priority – not only to teach storytellers the ‘correct’ use of language, but also to build their linguistic confidence and realise that their language is ‘correct’ in itself, because it cannot be anything but, at least if we agree with the thesis that theory is defined by practice and not the other way around. Or, as writer, translator and linguist Andrej Skubic puts it in the final chapter of his book Faces of Language:
The diversity of language we encounter in our immediate or outer surroundings is by no means a manifestation of decaying standards of language; it is a reflection of a diverse and rich culture. The language is our human home and we need to feel comfortable in it. It is worth tayloring it to our own taste because we will reside in it till the day we die; but it is also worth knowing the homes of others. It is worth appreciating their studies, comfortable living areas and hidden private corners; it is worth admiring their self-evident beauty and power. (Skubic 2005 : 249)
Most stage storytellers, at least from the younger generation, find stories in books; the closest we get to the source of the story, i.e. the folk storyteller, are rough records with little or no interventions which can be found in some folklore-prone books or in archives of scientific institutions like the Institute of the Slovenian Language at ZRC SAZU, if we are willing to put in the extra effort. On rare occasions we also take stories from our colleagues; usually stories from foreign storytellers which have not yet found their way to our country for some reason. Personally I have nothing against finding your material in this way, by summarizing texts which were already written; after all, one of the best national collections among European nations in my opinion, Fiabe Italiane, was written by Italian writer Italo Calvino in the begining of the second half of the 20th century. Calvino never met an oral source but instead spent a lot of time in libraries. And yet summarizing written texts does hide a trap: written stories often underwent a significant amount of treatment in language and sometimes even content, courtesy of the person who adapted them for general use. Insisting on the sacredness of the written version therefore shows no respect for authentic folk expression (whatever this should mean), but blind acceptance of the version set by a specific recorder or translator. Such stories usually contain no information on which version of the spoken language gave rise to its more or less literary recording, which the story reached in its printed manifestation in a book form. It is therefore not the right but the duty of each storyteller to ‘peel’ the adapter off the story and make his own stage version of it – one of the reasons being that the editions available contain only a minority of texts where authors seemed to engage in serious language considerations. Among Slovenian authors, Anja Štefan is certainly an exception to this, and her books are heavily influenced by the fact that she is herself a storyteller. In her book Once Upon a Time she writes:
We are not aware of the fact that spoken language has its own artistic level, which is just one of its qualities able to enrich the literary language. Without denying literary language its importance and role, we must acknowledge the qualities of the spoken language, which are naturally lacking from the literary language because of its written nature. For this reason, I didn’t want to give up certain peculiarities of the spoken language in the process of writing these stories down, because they make language lush, finely tuned and natural-sounding, altough they are not accepted by literary norm. (Štefan 2010 : 224)
The quotation makes it clear that the author, who is also an expert on Slovenian language, is aware of the importance of spoken language not only for the quality of storytelling, but also for the development of Slovenian language in general. But most storytellers (yet) lacking Mrs. Štefan’s linguistic confidence, at least at first tackle their stories on stage by trying to follow the written version of the story, which usually ends in linguistic disaster. As mentioned before, storytelling does not equal uttering a text learned by heart and it is downright unusual that newcomers mostly need less time to accept responsibility for inserting authorial content elements than to accept their personal language. They do so out of their unawarness of what every good creator of texts, written or told, already knows: that language is the essential part of your authorial expression.
On the curse of the child audience …
To be honest, we need to admit that the fear a storyteller faces because of the inappropriateness of her language is not entirely unfounded: as is often the case, a part of the audience expects her to use her narration to edicuate at least in the linguistic sense, if not more. The people carrying such expectations are often in the business of passing the language onto younger generations; librarians and teachers. At the same time the name ‘storyteller’ brings to many a somewhat fuzzy and, at least for me, hard to grasp feeling of romantic nostalgia, which is supposed to lurk beneath what a storyteller does and behind folk stories in general. It seems to me that such understanding is in part the product of a far too common reduction of the entire corpus of folk stories to a much more narrow field of stories for children. This was much helped by several very important collectors and recorders of folk stories, who purposefully adapted their material to suit children; of course this had a big influence on language of the recorded stories, which they attempted to alter in order to suit the expected audience. The consequences of such actions are mostly apparent in the simplified syntax and at the lexical level. The most obvious example of this kind of collectors are the brothers Grimm, who actually gave us the definition of a fairytale as we understand it today in their collection of stories Kinder- und Hausmärchen, but also their English ‘equivalent’ Joseph Jacobs or the already mentioned Slovenian writer, poet and storyteller Anja Štefan. I would hate to be misunderstood: the above statement is not ment as a criticism, as all authors mentioned play an invaluable part in the development of the broader storytelling field. There is also noone among Slovenian storytellers at the moment who would posess such thorough knoledge and understanding of this field as Mrs. Štefan. It is actually her that I acknowledge as a leading figure among the currently practising Slovenian stage storytellers for adults, the only regret I have is that she doesn’t focus on adult audience in her writing also. Due to systematic adaptation of folk stories for child audience, different motifs and language variations which remain interesting for adults to this day are lost from general consciousness surpassing the small audiences of each storytelling event. Anja Štefan thus writes in the preface to her collection of folk stories Once Upon a Time that she softens the original texts by eliminating anything the children might find too cruel (e.g. quartering of the stepmother) or which could reinforce bigotry, by consciously eliminating political incorectness (e.g. swaping gipsy for crook). Hans Hagen, a Dutch youth author, expresses a similar view in his essay The Power of Language, when he finds that the use of the term little nigger is unacceptable in contemporary children’s literature. Audiences who still equate the work of a storyteller with the work of an author of children’s literary stories thus expect the storyteller to approach the text in a similar fashion during live performances, adding the level of language to their demand for correct content. The job of both is to educate while at the same time preserve and pass on to future generations some sort of elusive beauty of Slovenian language which is suposedly hidden in its most artificial forms, the literary and the common conversational languages. As said once before, there are far too few teachers who, like the writer and storyteller I quoted, realise the importance, power and beauty of the spoken versions of Slovenian language.
… and the pickle of nostalgia
I find the second reason for the above mentioned ‘romantic nostalgia’, which often clings to the concept of ‘storyteller’, is in the lack of knowledge of the field or equating stage storytellers with folk storytellers. This often causes different rural dialects to be recognised as legitimate on stage, while urban dialogues are not treated in this way – especially the dialect of Ljubljana, which I am also a speaker of, must often be defended fiercly by storytellers from protectors of the ‘real’ Slovenian language. If rural dialects are appreciated on a storytelling stage as those who are best able to capture the spirit of a folk story, the urban dialects are still perceived as being too ‘deformed’ to be allowed on this same stage. As already mentioned: I believe the reason for this approach is the mistaken belief that a stage storyteller must somehow be the propagator of folk tradition and not (as I see him) an author who finds a new way of verbalising subjects and motifs stemming out of this tradition. I would like to once again lean on Andrej Skubic, who concludes the final chapter of Faces of Language by finding the following: ‘/…/ but that is just language. Untameable. Arbitrary. Which is exactly what makes it beautiful, even when it is ugly.’ (Skubic 20005 : 250)