In January 2016 I reached my decade anniversary as a storyteller. Ten years as an artist. There is something about turning that corner, turning to face into a new decade that gives me some strength and belief that I can do this, and perhaps continue to do this work for the rest of my life.
This year is a huge celebration for me. It as if I have been running an internal marathon for ten years and I have just crossed some sort of line. It is not a finishing line, nowhere near it, but a line that says: you can take a breath. My internal struggle of the last decade has been one of doubt and of questions…can I make a living at this? And why would I choose to do that? For me it has been and continues to be a journey of the self.
I have spent ten years learning as quickly as I can about storytelling as I do it, ad hoc. I have learned from everyone around me, those inside my profession and those outside of it. I have learned from those who do incredibly well and those who do it badly. I have learned from business mentors, theatre practitioners, family members, friends, other artists, academics and strangers.
When I began my work in 2006 it was born out of a deep compulsion to tell stories. I had volunteered at Cape Clear Storytelling Festival and watched storytellers on and off stage. I had met storyteller Liz Weir who introduced me to storytelling. She has worked tirelessly as a storyteller for 30 years in Antrim and around the world. She is a very generous soul who shares her passion with anyone who is interested. I saw John Moriarty, Kerry born philosopher and storyteller, bring Irish mythology alive in the halls of NUI Galway, inspiring me to do the same.
When I started telling stories in Galway in 2006 I had a huge amount of local support. There was a sea of librarians, teachers, students, friends, fellow artists who encouraged me. I founded a community storytelling event “Story Night” in June 2006. Story Night began at the Town Hall Theatre Studio (..thank you & RIP Mike Diskin) and we had nearly 50 people that attended (just on word of mouth!) We soon migrated to the Spirit Centre (thank you Gwen McHale) on Nun’s Island. Every month, come rain, sleet and howling winds, we crammed as many people as was legally possible into that room. With the help of a small dedicated crew of volunteers (thank you the Gunning brothers Jon and Paddy, Elena Toniato, Kathy Murphy, MariaLaura, Alicja and many more) we fed people tea and cake and we listened to stories.
Story Night ran for 5 years. 70 to 120 people attended every month; people from every walk of life. Due to increased numbers we migrated once more to Blue Teapot Theatre Company (thank you Teapots and Cups!) Every month we had first time storytellers, veteran storytellers and also a plethora of talented musicians who would play a tune.
I learned so much in those five years about telling stories, respecting one’s audience, holding space and building community.
As Story Night took root in the Galway Community I was invited further afield. From the beaches of Portugal to the hills of Tenerife. Thanks to English promoters like Graham Langley of Trad Arts and Ben Haggarty of the Crick Crack Club I began to tour the UK circuit of festivals and theatres. As I toured I learned a lot about the different ways each culture approaches the art of storytelling. I watched in fascination at the English storyteller’s typical “storytelling piece” compared to the Irish “repertoire of short tales”. The English would often have a piece that was 1-2 hours and set to a theme or an ancient epic/saga. This would take the audience on a sustained journey through caverns of mythology and ideology. This wasn’t standard at all in Ireland at the time, at least not what I had seen. Though the English often commented on their admiration for the Irish tellers’ ability to tell in any situation, and also to tell a tale of any length.
I began touring in America and Canada where I learned about their fascination with true stories and the importance they attach to their family history stories. There is a shortage of telling traditional folktales and mythology in North America. Many North American tellers and producers took me aside and declared that there was an absolute hunger there for folktales and the “traditional” tales that we find so easy to tell. I have also noticed a new-found and developing respect for stories of the Native American and First Nation Peoples of that continent.
I was awarded the Social Entrepreneurship grant in 2007 which allowed me to run intergenerational projects in Galway with Scottish storyteller and writer Rab Fulton, and international projects with Galway’s New Irish communities coming in from Ghana, Nigeria, Somalia and beyond.
Everywhere I have gone I have met amazing people who have dedicated their lives to learning stories, sharing stories, performing stories, running festivals and developing this artform.
After 5 years of working in Galway I felt a deep sense of loneliness. I worked alone, performed alone, studied alone, managed my gigs alone. I wanted to find others to work with, and to find ways to improve my work. As my friends will tell you I worked constantly and travelled constantly from 2006 -2011. I frequently worked 12 hours a day researching stories and planning work and then jumped on a bus the next morning for some far flung school or art centre. There was no balance in my life, it was all work and nothing else. Because of this imbalance my work began to suffer.
In 2011 I decided to move to London, in part to develop my artform and in part to travel less as there would be more work in a city that size. Another big reason for moving was that I had found two storytellers I wanted to work with; two other storytellers who were seeking to improve and develop. With Jo Blake Cave and Dominic Kelly I found two kindred souls, two fellow tellers who wanted to find teachers and to develop ongoing training. They were as possessed by story as I was, they were as determined to improve and as keen on learning. We formed our collective in January 2012 and named it The Talking Skull Collective. We invited the fantastic Mikel Murfi (Lecoq trained actor, clown, writer, director, and generally brilliant human) to be our first teacher. We have been working and training together ever since.
Since moving to London I have been training regularly. I work on developing the voice, the body, movement on stage, composition of stories and understanding performance. I have performed all over England and worked with some amazing institutions and organisations including Royal Shakespeare Company, National Theatre, Radio 4, Tricycle Theatre and the National Trust. I continue to work around the world in North and South America, around Europe and often back home in Ireland. I have been lucky enough to be featured twice at Cape Clear Island Storytelling Festival, Ireland’s biggest storytelling festival. This was a massive honour for me.
It has been an incredibly interesting and rigorous ten years. What I have come to realise is that I would not be here without you, all of you. All my mentors, friends, supporters, advocates, audiences and teachers.
Without your support, your encouragement, your offer of gigs, your spreading the word, your emails, the book you sent me, the quote you gave me, the time you told me not to give up, the story you shared, the tea you made…all of it helped. All of it. I am stunned to think I have reached ten years. But there is no way on this Earth I could have done it alone. A rising tide lifts all boats, goes the old Irish saying. So thank you for everything you have done that helped me to get here.
To celebrate this anniversary I am delighted to announce that I have been invited to some really beautiful places to tell stories this year. My website is being updated so I will be able to keep you apprised of upcoming festivals and events.
I will be performing at the UK’s two biggest storytelling events in July 2016: Beyond The Border and Festival at the Edge. In April 2016 I will return to my homeplace of Galway to perform at Cúirt; the big literary festival in the West of Ireland.
In October I am invited back to play the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee USA and to do their Storyteller–in–Residence at the International Storytelling Centre. That will all be part of a larger US Autumn tour. I have also been invited back to Kansas State University to give a keynote speech in April 2016.
I will continue to collaborate and develop with my amazing Talking Skull Collective. And I continue to work with the UK promoter The Crick Crack Club who is my fantastic provocateur who encourages and supports my new storytelling work.
Who knows what else 2016 will bring. Watch this space…
As for the next ten years I look forward to more of the journey. I imagine that there will be plenty more questions & more doubt. There will be ongoing training. I look forward to more collaborations with my fellow storytellers (the Skulls and others) as well as collaborating with those outside of my artform. I look forward to publishing my work, both the stories I tell and the other ones that I write. I look forward to creating more audio of my work. And I hope to find ways to use my work to be of assistance to organisations like Avaaz, 350.org and UNICEF that are doing incredible work in the world.
Here’s to another ten years. See you on down the road.