Storytelling is the original form of magic. When the tale, teller, audience and environment are right, you can conjure another world, storyteller Jo Blake Cave tells Sravasti Datta
Jo Blake Cave is tired after conducting a storytelling workshop with teachers, students and theatre practitioners, yet an hour before her performance Edgelands, in which she presented a collection of stories at the British Council, Jo readily agrees to an interview. The lyrical cadence of her voice, elegant hand movements and poise is that of a born storyteller. She mesmerises the listener into travelling with her through space and time, transporting them to a different world.
Jo’s love for storytelling began when, as an 18-year-old, she watched a storyteller perform for the first time. “It was so magical,” Jo says, her eyes growing wider. “I felt a spell had been cast. By the end of the story, I felt as though I had really been in this other place. It was such a powerful experience that I decided that this is what I would do. I always had an interest in books and writing, but what attracted me to storytelling is that it is a media of a live experience.”
Jo’s work ranges from performance storytelling for theatres, art centres and festivals, site specific events that explore stories of place and belonging to informal storytelling sessions in libraries, museums and schools and experimenting with re-telling of stories. She draws from a vast repertoire of fairytales, myths and epics to weave captivating stories. She, however, doesn’t plan ahead of a performance, as storytelling is all about spontaneity. “The analogy with jazz is good,” she explains and continues, “a jazz musician needs to know the scales in order to be able to improvise. That’s so with storytelling too; you know the structure of the story and you know what happens, but depending on who your audience are, how you are feeling, the atmosphere in the room, you can change the way you tell the story. So the action of the story stays the same, but the words and gestures you use, the rhythm and the emphasis you put on different moments are variable.”
An ancient tradition
At a recent performance, Jo realised that storytelling is so ancient that it makes it “deeply human”. There’s a place in the South-West of England, an experimental archaeology space, where they do a lot of work with how people would have made tools and houses in pre-historic times. One thing they did was build this enormous round house, with a fire pit in the middle and a smoke hall at the top, wooden benches all the way around, and the trunks of five massive trees as pillars, supporting the roof. It seats 300 people. And it is beautiful. I was invited to tell a story there, and I worked with two musicians, they played music and I told stories. It was dark outside and there was a fire in the middle, and the environment was truly magical.”
In that moment, she realised that storytelling “is the most ancient situations that every human in every part of the world, engaged in; sitting by the fire, hearing a story, telling a story.”
A Storyteller-in-Residence at the Northampton Royal and Derngate Theatre since 2010, Jo says that storytelling continues to be relevant as it is “a direct counter point to the mass technology that we spend a lot of our time engaging with.” Jo says that there has been a revival of storytelling over the last 20 years. “In the UK, we don’t have much in the way of everyday tradition anymore. A lot has crumbled, so there’s a hunger for something that’s old and has had a life before that individual.”
Storytelling plays an important role in education too. “The fact we live in such a literal society, with so much emphasis on the written word, there’s a fear sometimes that we can’t tell a story without having a piece of paper in front of us. The biggest joy teachers and children get out of storytelling is that they can trust their own words and imagination.”
Some of the elements Jo is conscious of while performing are how she uses space, gestural language, pace and speed of telling, rhythm and recitation, and of course contact with the audience. Each of the elements, at times, becomes embodied in the moment.
Jo believes that storytelling continues to be relevant. “The pace of life is becoming so busy these days. There’s something about storytelling that takes people to a place of silence and stillness and I think that is much craved by people: to have that rest, to encounter their own imagination. The content of traditional stories has gone through thousands of mouths from way back. When you hear these stories, you hear the product of generations of telling and there’s something about that which really connects people to their past. And it also connects them to their futures. They’d think ‘I will be the last one to hear this version of the story before they are passed down to the next generation.”