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Is Storytelling the Best Form of Theatre?

The Guardian (London, UK) , November 23, 2011


Last week I listened as Inua Ellams stood on a bare stage and told a fragment from his newest piece. The story was bumpy and chaotic, a ride in the dark down an unsurfaced road, jolting through countries, skipping over years and then lurching back again. Two boys on a wild journey, with death and politics in the shadows. It was only half an hour long but it was one of the most captivating 30 minutes of theatre I've encountered for months.

There is some great storytelling happening in this country. From the luscious spectacle of 1927's The Animals and the Children Took to the Streets to the simplicity of Chris Thorpe's absurd sketches (delivered using only a chair and a microphone), artists are finding ways of weaving yarns that are as daring as they are imaginative.

For me, it's not just the love of a good story that makes these pieces so interesting. A well-constructed story, in its apparent simplicity, achieves what more elaborate forms of theatre have tried to for years, which is to seamlessly fold the audience's reality into theatrical fictions.

On the simplest level a story is a group of people gathered at a particular time in a particular place. This kind of theatre is spun in the intimate space between one person speaking and the rest of us listening.

And this is where it can become frightening, because there's nowhere to hide in this space, no barrier we can erect between ourselves and the fiction we are imagining. In the story, we are responsible we build the sets, cast the characters, add details between the words we hear. We even skip ahead, leaping to conclusions and anticipating what's around the corner. Sometimes this can lead us to uncomfortable places, where our preconceptions come back to haunt us.

Crouch's theatrework is hauntingly powerful, not only because of the stories he tells but because of our complicity in producing them. A good story told well may be an old form of theatre, but it still presents audiences with a unique and thrillingly radical challenge.

Subjects Covered: storytelling festivals

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