Who owns a story? A discussion between Sally Pomme Clayton and Laura Simms

I have been working on my new show The Magician’s Apprentice and will be performing it again at a private party in a couple of weeks. Within it is long Russian fairytale ‘Elena the Wise’. I’ve been working on this story for the last year, and it turns out that my good friend, and wonderful storyteller, Laura Simms, from New York, has been working on a new piece containing the exact same story! We have not thankfully heard each other telling this story. And it was only when she started describing the images of a story she was working on, that I asked,
“Is that Elena the Wise?”
“Yes – Helena,” she said in her Nu York accent!

It made me think about if, and how, each storyteller can own the same story. Of course fairytales don’t belong to their tellers. They are eternal, they existed before us, created by anon, and pass through us, continuing on. But still, I feel I own the story – my version of it. I have to feel like that in order to tell it, and have invested a huge amount of creative work and imagination in it. And Laura feels the same.

Perhaps it is natural we should both want to tell this story, Laura says,
“Of course ‘Helena The All Wise’ is the great fairytale.”

'Magic Circle' by John  William Waterhouse

‘Magic Circle’  –  John William Waterhouse

The tale is full of strong feminine and female imagery. I am drawn to the magical elements, to the wild and often crazy female magicians and their tricks. Laura says,
“I personally was drawn, and am drawn, to the opening of this story: ‘A soldier guarded a stone tower every night on top of a hill. He walked back and forth from sunset to sunrise. The tower was sealed with a bronze lock chained to the door. The soldier had no idea what was in the tower….’ Perhaps one of the reasons it so attracts me is that I feel simultaneously as if myself (and others) are guarding or even ignoring, staving off, what is inside of us, as if it is fearful and dangerous to confront our natural brilliant unconditional energy… the magic of the world. That which could be seen as demonic. The potent feminine. Trained and armoured, letting it remain sealed, as if in a dream of denial…. There is so much that is imprisoned in the world, by convention, and religion, beliefs that we have assumed, evil, and even provoked into horrendous reaction, that could heal us and repair the world.”

In Central Asia there is a notion that the storyteller (called zyrau or aşik among other titles) embroiders their name into their version of the story, this protects it, and gives the teller ownership of their version. Because epics are vitally important to Central Asian identity, tellers often tell the same material because it’s so popular. However the audience are educated in listening, they are sensitive to each teller’s version, they appreciate and recognize the work done to create a version, and also know which version they like best. Tellers would never tell someone else’s version. But instead are inspired by the famous versions, and set out on the long process of making their own. When a teller dies their version enters the collective pool, with their name always embroidered inside as a mark of respect.

In the stand-up comedy world there is this respect for material created, and a taboo against performing someone else’s jokes. Because the oral tradition is kept alive through re-telling, there are no rules about telling someone else’s material. I’ve found it painful when a story I’ve worked on for years has been lifted almost word for word, and performed by someone else. The flip side of this, is a couple of stories I’ve created have become part of the current repertoire of storytellers material, no one knows I made them, but the material lives on.

I do think we need to understand and recognize the invisible work of creating a version. It is not nothing. And it should not be something that can so easily be appropriated. One teller was performing a story they’d never told before. First performances are always delicate, as you test things out, at the end, someone came up and said, “I’ll have that!” The teller was so shocked, they were unable to speak. This reflects a wider attitude towards storytelling itself, a lack of understanding about the work a teller is doing. An assumption that telling a story is easy, and that re-telling old tales does not involve a deep and demanding creative practice.

Laura Simms has a special answer when someone wants to tell her tale, “Please find the story first, then make your own version.” While Hugh Lupton says, “Respect the thieves you thieve from!” And Helen East has developed a very clear set of rules, “I don’t mind grandparents, parents, teachers, nurses… telling my stories. But I do mind if a professional storyteller takes my material and then makes money by performing it.”

Laura has been an inspirational person and storyteller in my life, and I love it that we are both on our own journeys with Elena/Helena in different parts of the world, making our own very different versions to keep her alive. For Laura there is no choice but to create our own versions, it is about expressing ourselves as artists. Laura says,
“Of course we want to own our versions. We open so vulnerably into her (Helena’s) presence in the story, coming from that place in ourselves. That is the place where personal poetry arises as we bring her to life for others. It is a gift. It is also deeply unique for each person breathing life into each story.”

And so in the moment of our performances we will both own the story.




  • Thank you Pomme, lovely article and I hope I hear both your versions one day. Now of course I’m dying to know which stories you created that people are telling as traditional…

  • Sally-Pomme Clayton wrote:

    Hi Katy, thanks so much for reading it, and your thoughts, you really are one of those storytellers who makes totally unique versions.

  • […] acclaimed British storyteller Sally Pommes Clayton has written a good and touching post here  about the creative energy and work a storyteller use in her work and about how difficult it may […]

  • Sally-Pomme Clayton wrote:

    Thanks Heidi for your very interesting and pertinent take on all these issues – do read her response

  • Excellently thoughtfully put. Thx Pomme for illuminating this dilemma and bringing clarity. I so enjoyed your sharing of the Magician’s Apprentice show when it was in development it would be lovely to see how it’s progressed.

  • Sally-Pomme Clayton wrote:

    Thank you Stacia, good word dilemma, with many sides. Thanks for your support

  • Heidi’s comments are so interesting and pertinent. Sometimes I can be working on a story, not necessarily one I’ve heard anyone else tell and if its early on in the process I can hear Hugh’s voice in my head, I can hear Daniel, I can hear Katrice! Eventually once I’ve made the story my ‘own’ it disappears but the influences are all around us and I guess what happens can be both conscious and unconscious. It can be annoying too!

  • Sally-Pomme Clayton wrote:

    Well you must have listened really well Dawn! Thanks for reading and commenting so honestly, it is good to open up a dialogue about these things

  • Lovely post! 🙂 I completely agree with Laura here: Find the original story (or other versions of it) and make your own. I don’t always say it to protect my own version (depends on how dear the tale is to me), but I do it myself all the time. I think it is an essential part of a storyteller’s work not to take a single version of a tale without knowing its background or origins. Maybe I’m just a research nut, but I like sharing it with others. I usually suggest asking the storyteller for their source(s), instead of their version.

  • Sally-Pomme Clayton wrote:

    Thanks so much Tarkabarka! For your thoughts on the storytelling process.

  • It’s a difficult one. I have some stories inside of me that I never tell out loud because I am scared that people are protective of ‘their’ stories, that I don’t have permission to tell them. So I can just tell them to myself, in silence, that’s OK. But also very sad, for me and those stories.

    If you can breathe life into a story so well that it wants to travel from person to person, through your skill, it is a beautiful gift to those that get to hear them. I’m not sure you can take it back, even if you’d like to in some contexts!

  • Sally-Pomme Clayton wrote:

    Hi Claire, thanks so much for your heartfelt message. I hope I am suggesting that you CAN tell the story – but I am encouraging tellers to do the work to make the story theirs – to make their own unique version.
    Telling it to yourself is a good way of finding it, here are some links to other posts I have written which give some other ideas that might help you develop your own version, ranging from: research; to work on the structure; to seeing the images in detail; to thinking about how to use gesture in the performance …. by engaging in this work you will gradually put yourself into the story and it will become yours. Very good luck!

  • Hi there – interesting post and I do so agree with what you say. Each storyteller must find their own voice, and that isn’t just about style or choice of material but how they choose to interpret and play with the story – so the necessary research must be augmented by trial and error in telling and retelling till that “voice” emerges – and hearing other tellers’ “voices” working on the same story can be both distracting and intriguing. I too have heard my own take on a very hard worked story told back to me and then credited to a different storyteller, which was galling, but then I also took it as a complement. I can forgive beginners, but an experienced storyteller should be really careful and only tell their own version – as you say the work you do on a story is very much the creative energy and raison d’etre of the storyteller’s art. There’s no getting round that if someone then comes along and “nicks” the story without stripping it back and re-working it, is nicking your work too… I’ve seen this happen a few times. I now resist the temptation to tell new or in progress stories at clubs where other tellers are with that fear in mind – which is such a shame – am I being paranoid?

  • Sally-Pomme Clayton wrote:

    Ah Sophie, thanks for joining the dialogue with all your thoughts, bravely put. I really understand and it is a shame that this happens. Trying to create a more critical debate about our work might help? By widening and deepening the understanding of what the storyteller is actually doing, might create more awareness, sensitivity, respect,… and more sense of what work the storyteller needs to do. In the meantime good luck with letting your own versions ring out.

  • I’m so glad you’ve offered guidance on this. You clarify a lot of instincts I’ve had but could not express so eloquently.

    As a young teller you naturally want to capture and digest the words of your elders and betters but also honour their work and also protect their profession.

    I’m so glad you talk about the preciousness of the storyteller’s work and the soul gold they weave into it. When this work has been done – when the story is seen and experienced from the inside – it can only be original. And the perfumes of previous masters and tellers still live within it.

    It is a shame that appropriation without inner work goes on, and I know from experience it is odd and painful. But the loser is the appropriater. If they are unable to engage in the creativity and the immense reward of having a story work from within you, they won’t last long as a teller, but become a continual parasite.

    The point is that anyone stealing line by line has missed the point. The words used in a story are its last point of expression. The insights and realisations, as well as its being lived, are the real journey that come to fruition in the actual tellings. But aping the form and not intent removes from the story from the telling. It may as well be a reading.

    The danger may also come from storytelling being poached by other professions and arts. A writer, for example, basing a play on a story they heard orally. I would hope in such a case they would approach the storyteller for explicit collaboration.

  • Sally-Pomme Clayton wrote:

    Thank you so much Simon for adding your thoughts, so beautifully expressed.

  • Thanks for great article and discussion. The Sorcerers apprentice, do you remember I used to tell it? Ah, the old adage – imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And it is, when the story has taken on a new life. When someone takes your story and its reborn. That’s an honour indeed. Whats annoying is when it’s botched. The air taken out of the balloon. A good story spoiled. And then you dont know whether to be annoyed or pleased that you are sitting there in the front row, you told them the story the week before and they don’t mention that. Yes a few dangers of copying and stealing.
    But when two storytellers work together as we did long ago, they will and must mirror one another. As in every relationship its got to be give and take. Oh it can be annoying, I pick up that pointing habit she (my dear talented Norwegian colleague) has. I don’t like it but my body has adopted it nonetheless. So then that’s work to shake it off again. Getting down to work. Getting out of the left brain and into the nitty gritty.
    I think what’s important to me is what we are doing now. Sharing our dilemmas about what belongs. Opening it up. Thanks!

  • Sally-Pomme Clayton wrote:

    Thank you Georgiana, for all you have passed on, to me and others. And for truly remaking versions of my stories, told so many years ago, and now they really do have a new life that belongs to you. I hope I have managed to do the same with those tales from so long ago you shared with me. X

  • Ros Earthy wrote:

    Thanks for that. It has answered a number of questions I have been thinking about. And -strange to say- I found the discussion because I was at a workshop last weekend where Laura Simms used that story. I was Googling to try and find the original source.

  • […] that’s a question which Sally Pomme Clayton will be asking when she performs The Magician’s Apprentice at my chapel on May 21.   If you […]

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