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.”
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.