Telling it like her

U.K.-based Emily Parrish weaves together Norse mythology, Indian tales and fantasies from across the world. She tells Esther Elias what drew her to the craft and why storytelling matters in modern times

Published - February 05, 2015 09:46 pm IST

Emily Parrish at the British Council. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam

Emily Parrish at the British Council. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam

Emily Parrish speaks in stories. Ask her why she became a storyteller and she’ll sit you down, and take you a decade back, to a classroom in the University of Kent, Canterbury, where she pursued a Masters Degree in Drama, trying to become an actor, but searching for the “integrity behind her craft”. “I didn’t want to be a puppet in the hands of a director,” she sighs. That quiet, inner struggle waged until, one morning, she walked into a storytelling class by Vayu Naidu, an Indian raconteur based in the U.K.

“I can still remember the story she told... the white peacocks, the golden temples, the painted elephants... I felt like I was within that story. And to think she had no singers, no dancers, no props beside her! She created that world with just her voice, her facial expressions and some movement. I instantly knew this was a craft I wanted to explore.”

Standing at the British Council’s launch of the Chennai Storytelling Festival 2015, on the very stage that Naidu once performed, Emily has come a full circle. With the sun still up in the sky, Emily pulls off her socks, runs on to stage in a red kurta and black kameez, and shouts “Are you ready for a story!” “Yes, yes” answers back a courtyard full of adults. She takes us first to the fantasyland of an English king playing games with his three sons, then whisks us away into the dark, wintry world of Norse mythology, swoops us next into the heat, magic and wonder of Lord Shiva and Parvati’s tale, and finally takes us to the banks of a riverside in Europe, into the simple life of a wise fisherman. In the hour that she’s held us spellbound, the moon has risen and mosquitoes abound, but no one seems to want to leave, so they stall around and ask her questions about the beginnings of her craft.

After Kent, Emily went on to apprentice with Naidu, study at the Kattaikkuttu school of theatre near Kanchipuram, and trained under Ritu Verma of the pandavani tradition from Chhattisgarh, besides learn from numerous European teachers. From each, she draws a different skill. For instance, from India’s mythology, Emily inherits the vivid physicality in her performances, from Naidu, she took the technique of gleaning the heart of a story by mapping its trajectory along the different universal rasas, and from Hugh Langston, a storyteller who uses little movement but relies on his wordsmithery, Emily draws her penchant for improvised poetry. “At any point in a storytelling performance, you need to be within the world of the story itself, be a step ahead of it, be your own director, watch your body, voice and language that gives you action, description and emotion; keep cognisant of the audience’s reaction and be respectful of your performance space,” says Emily.

If that sounds like a lot to juggle, Emily says it helps to think of a story as a series of images embedded in her mind, which become words and actions on stage, and reconvert into images in the audience’s mind. “Once you break a story down to its milestone moments, it’s like the human body with its skeleton and connecting bones. As the story grows within you, you add the flesh, sinews and skin. It’s still a dead body though. That’s when you breathe some heart into it with your performance, and no two tellings of the story are ever the same,” she says.  She likens the performance of storytelling to jazz too — “you know the form, the bars, and you have the broad structure; now improvise within!”

The world over, there’s undeniably a rise in storytelling (there are over 70 storytelling clubs for adults in the U.K. alone, notes Emily) and she attributes that to our modern times that brim with technology, which can give us instant communication and instant stories, “but yet can’t nourish our souls; it can’t nourish our desire for shared experience and human relationships, which is what performance storytelling can do”. Emily considers herself a “collector of stories from cultures” all across the globe too, drawn most to those that question through their metaphors. Emily also conducts workshops at schools and colleges, using storytelling for education, besides working with corporates that are looking to open communication lines among their employees, as well as tell their company’s own story through brand-building exercises.

As the evening draws to a close, a final question from the audience asks if Emily’s ever struggled with the nature of her job as one that thrives on making up untruths. To answer that, Emily harks back to a line that one of her tutors Ben Haggarty, had told her: “Sometimes, you need to tell lies in order to tell the truth.”

( The Chennai Storytelling Festival 2015 organised by the city-based World Storytelling Institute has workshops, performances, contests and seminars until February 15. For details look up

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