A journey of storytelling discovery
ANGI KENNEDY The ancient tradition of storytelling is being giving new life in Norfolk with two tale-tellers who hope to give audiences a new fascination with history.
Long into the past, our ancestors gathered together to hear stories that would make them laugh, sometimes weep, often tremble at the fate that could be dealt them by the gods or other men.
Before books and way, way before TV and film, stories were the way we were entertained, informed and taught about life.
That ancient tradition of storytelling has diminished through recent times and, for many of us, the last time we were told a tale was when we were little children.
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But if we hear a story told well, it can be a riveting experience and a chance to understand a little of what our predecessors enjoyed around the fireside.
That feeling of connection is what started two Norfolk men on a journey of storytelling discovery. From realising the thrill of listening to stories being told, they have now become professional storytellers themselves with an aim to bring history to life for their listeners.
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Stewart Alexander and Dave Tonge call themselves historical tale tellers and have formed Past-Imagined, a partnership which sees them taking their art to ancient sites, old houses, castles, fairs, festivals and the countryside in search of an audience.
Those who stop to listen will be rewarded with tales of colourful characters including drunken monks, heroic outlaws, vile villains and wise women.
But as well as entertaining with such stories of legendary deeds and absurd events, Stewart and Dave also try to give their audiences a rich insight into life in the past and an understanding of the environment, lifestyle and emotions of our ancestors.
Dave, who lives in Norwich, explained: “People in the past were not greatly different to us. Most of us today see ourselves as very developed and refined compared to our ancestors, but stories allow us to see that they were the same sort of people as we are.”
Stewart agreed: “We try to find stories that are contemporary to the medieval and Tudor times, so we feel we are sharing laughter or concerns and worries with the people of our past and that brings us closer to them.
“We like to make stories accessible and funny for people but it is also good to have a bit of wonder and mystery of the past too.”
The pair are passionate about history and it was through this that they first met and started working together. Both were working with Norfolk Museums Service.
Stewart had spent many years as an educator in the fields of heritage and countryside when he went on a storytelling course and realised he could use the skills he learned to develop his work.
“It became a new way of doing things for me – telling stories and using them out in the countryside to teach other issues,” he said.
“Everyone is a storyteller, but if you want to work it into something a bit more refined you have to develop a voice and a knowledge of how to use your own body. You need to develop certain things like good eye contact with your listeners, which is absolutely fundamental in making everyone feel they are involved in the story.”
Dave, meanwhile, spent many years as a welder before returning to education. He became fascinated with history and went on to study for degrees in the subject and eventually to work with the museum service.
“I had never really heard of storytelling before I met Stewart,” he admitted. “But I started to listen to him and became really interested in the art of storytelling and how it could be used in an educational capacity.”
Together the men formed Past-Imagined. Speaking from his home on the outskirts of Cromer, Stewart explained that the partnership had given a new impetus to their storytelling.
They hunt out stories of old, using snippets of information gathered from a wealth of sources which they then adapt and develop into stories for modern-day listeners. These are woven into their Time Trail Storywalks around historical sites or interesting parts of the countryside to help interpret the history and landscape around them.
It is often said that there is no such thing as a new story. Echoes of plots and characters found in the latest stories and films can be seen in many historical tales, ancient myths and legends. It is these common threads that Stewart and Dave often pick up on.
“Once we started to look at original documents we could see that they were a perfect source of stories,” said Dave. “The same stories kept being regurgitated over the centuries.”
Stewart added: “Some of the stories we have worked on are from Chaucer, some even have Middle Eastern roots which helps us to learn about what our ancestors knew of the world.
“It is very important for us as storytellers to make the story our own,” he continued. “We take a story, rework it, make it ours and tell it in our own distinct way. So, even though it is an old story, it becomes new for the audience.”
A lot of their stories are very funny, quite bawdy, but never offensive. And they tailor their tales to fit their audience.
They have been working on an extensive education programme which they can take to primary and secondary schools. But they are keen to encourage adults into their audiences around Norfolk and further afield.
“People do think of storytelling as something for children. They can feel a little awkward about sitting down and listening to a story themselves,” said Stewart. “But once they get over that, they are almost always enthralled.
“I know that when I go to the theatre to see a play, I see actors acting but I feel removed a bit from the story, yet when I hear a storyteller I feel as if I am there with them. That is the beauty of it.”
The pair wear authentic costumes and take with them baskets of replica objects which they use alongside their storytelling.
But it is really when the words start to flow that the audience's imagination is gripped.
“We love to tell our stories in the countryside, to help people really look at things in a new way,” said Dave. “We try to enhance the historical setting and interpret historical sites through the stories.
“We want Past-Imagined to bring the audiences a mixture of history, the environment and learning about how people in the past used to feel about their world too.”
PAST-IMAGINED ON TOUR
Among the dates on their diary so far are:
t May 7 – Harleston Festival
t May 29 and August 19 – Wolterton Hall time trail storywalk
t May 30 – Roots of Norfolk Rural Life Museum at Gressenhall, Local History Day
t June 19, July 28, August 1 and September 25 – Mannington Hall, time trail storywalk.
t Stewart and Dave's stories feature in the weekly events organised for campers at Kelling Heath in North Norfolk.
t And they are also performing in Yorkshire, Birmingham, Cirencester, Coventry, Gainsborough and at Raby Castle in County Durham.
t To find out more or to book them for other venues, contact Past-Imagined at Valley Cottage, 70 Northrepps Road, Northrepps, Cromer, Norfolk NR27 0JS on 01263 519582 or 07792 921606 or visit the website www.pastimagined.co.uk.