STORYTELLING GUILD HISTORY: WHAT WE SAW, HEARD & REMEMBERED: 1985-1990
by Sue Robin & Meg Philp
When Sue and I set out to write this collaborative history, we brought different memories and impressions to the process. We decided to focus on the stories as much as the people. Reading back issues of Scheherazade we found events we'd entirely forgotten. We have talked to others and heard their versions. The thumbnail sketches we present here serve as a jog for our readers.
What are your memories of the beginning of the guild here in Brisbane, about how you got involved? We'd love to have your recollections in writing, but feel free to ring either of us and tell us so that we can write down it down. Next article we'll focus from 1991 on,particularly visitors , festivals, and the cafe.
SUE : "Is anyone going to tell a story? Isn't that what we're here for?"
With this plaintive cry I began my association with storytelling as a guild activity in Brisbane. A group of would be tellers had gathered at Lyn Rushby's home in August 1985. It was not the first meeting - that had been held on May 7th at the Springwood Public Library. And now, here we all were, together again, and still no-one had told a story. They were discussing logos and titles and banners and newsletters, all very necessary and important things, but not what I'd come for. What I'd come for had started about a year earlier for me, somewhere in the middle of 1984 at a full day of workshops run by Anne Pellowski, an American storyteller, and organised by the Queensland branch of the Children's Book Council. Why had I gone to that? Because I'd heard Anne interviewed on radio about what she did, and I knew that this was what I'd been moving towards at my children's birthday parties. What a revelation! Here was this perfectly ordinary woman in everyday clothes, not an actress, no specially trained voice, who could tell stories from all over the world and keep us entranced for hours.
I couldn't wait to get home and tell my children the nesting doll story. I simply had to get a piece of string and try out the one about 'The farmer and the yams' and 'The Mosquito'. And the thumb piano! How could I get my hands on a thumb piano and tell 'The lion on the path' or 'Rabbit and Hyena play sanza'? Then there was the story she told at the end, 'The Seventh Princess' by Eleanor Farjeon. The pictures and the words stayed in my head in a way that made me realise the difference between a story told and a story read. The list of reference books contained so many names that I'd never even heard of. I had to start reading them all at once.
The best thing about it was that I believed Anne Pellowski when she told us that anyone could be a storyteller. In the afternoon when individuals from the audience told stories and I heard Michele Dwyer tell 'Mr Fox', I knew that Anne Pellowski was right. Here was someone else who was completely different as a teller, but who also had me holding my breath. At lunch time, I had met a woman called Lee Finkelstein, who told me that in other Australian states there were storytelling guilds, where people got together and told stories and shared experiences. She was hoping to get one going in Brisbane and would let me know when things started happening.
So here we all were. Things had started happening, but where were the stories? Everybody there turned and looked at me, this complete stranger, who wasn't even a librarian. And then this woman called Meg Philp said, "I could tell a wee one about a bear." And she did.
MEG :There were 8 people at the 1985 Inaugural meeting of the guild. I didn't meet Sue, till the second meeting at Lyn Rushby's house. I remember how surprised I was that people told stories just for the sake of telling them! I had been asked to tell stories at a seminar because I was always entertaining everyone at morning tea break. I told a Russian folktale called 'The Little House' because it was the one I knew at the time.
Lee Finkelstein was a librarian who'd moved up from Canberra who had been in a guild there and was willing to start one here. It was May 1985. I was there at that first meeting. I remember not really knowing anyone, apart from Lyn Rushby from work who'd told me to make sure I went. It was a formal, stark meeting room and I couldn't believe what was happening. Lee told 'Epaminondas', the story about a kid who didn't have the sense he was born with. Others talked about stories for children using felt-boards and props. Jill Wellington displayed her glorious storytelling gown. Where did I fit?
We voted. The guild, Brisbane Branch of the Storytelling Guild of Australia was born. Lee was Convenor. We didn't use the term co-ordinator then. Then we started spreading the word, talking to people who might be interested in joining. We soon got to know one another. In the early days, we had meetings in people's homes. People like writer Valerie King would have us over to her place. We'd talk business and then we'd tell stories. Once you heard someone tell at one meeting, you'd be keen to hear what they'd come up with next.
SUE : Lee Finkelstein was a lively and enthusiastic organiser, very busy with her work as a librarian, the guild, her husband and their two young daughters -not to mention the extra study that she was doing at the time. She was so encouraging of stories people told. She had two daughters and a big heart. I see her still with that cherubic face and mop of brown hair, holding still for us while we all cried a tear with 'The Ugly Duckling.'
MEG : Gill Jones was also in the Public Library and volunteered to do a guild news-sheet. When our first Hallowe'en event was rained out, everyone ended up at her place. The hit of the night was a story about a dead body told in the dark while pieces of the corpse were passed around – peeled grapes for eyeballs, peanuts as teeth, spaghetti in tomato sauce as bloody veins. Gloriously gory and shriekishly scarey.
John Shield will tell you that I got him along to the guild. (At last, a man in the guild, thought Sue.) He came in to work with his latest titles from Ashton Scholastic and I badgered him over morning tea. Hard as that is to believe, I definitely kept at him, he was so shy, till he said he'd come along. He also brought along a display of books to our second seminar in ‘86. Before lunch I asked him if he had a story to tell after lunch. He did. He tells me now that that first story was based on a book he'd overheard his young daughter reading aloud the previous week. It was after that telling that he knew he wanted to be a storyteller, and he was on his way!
SUE: Jill Wellington was gentle, quiet and very modest about her many talents. She most enjoyed telling to children and for many of her stories she had created beautiful props, none of them very large, the sort of thing small children love to touch and hold. When she told 'The Little Girl and the Tiny Doll', for example, Jill would quietly bring out a matchbox. Inside the box was a tiny doll, dressed just like the doll in the story in a bonnet of red flannel, a blue velvet coat, a yellow scarf - all the elements of the story were there, even the bedside mat woven out of string. Jill had also made herself a storytelling dress, embroidered and appliqued with pictures from all the stories that she told, so that a child could request any story from the dress. Her family had obviously inherited Jill's artistic talents, because it was Jill’s daughter who designed the logo for our banner as well as the cover for Scheherazade. Jill Wellington has been made a life member of our guild.
As word spread of our existence, new people began to put in an appearance. MaryLou Simpson had been at meetings almost from the beginning (she and Sue Robin were telling together by now on a regular basis), but one new arrival from the north was Bettina Nissen. It was obvious from the first time Bettina came to a meeting at Valerie King's home at Taringa, that she was excited about storytelling and keen to make it a big part of her life. It was only gradually, over the years that followed that her interest in using stories as therapy developed and led to her becoming more of a specialist in this specific area, before moving to Melbourne in 1995.
People were attracted from further afield. Gail Robinson first put in an appearance at our second seminar, “Tellers of Tales, Weavers of Magic” in 1986. She says she was quite pleased to find that there were other people out there like her. After that date, there begins to be evidence of a Gail presence in jottings, notes and articles to Scheherazade. It was at this seminar too that John Shield leapt to his feet and told a story. What a relief! There were men telling stories too. And also at this seminar many of us first met Moses Aaron, who was one of our invited guests from the south. Little did we know that he would come to love us all so much that he would decide to move here and become one of us.
MEG : Before that second seminar, some of us saw a visiting Canadian storyteller tell and then participated in a workshop with her. I had followed up on an article in a local newspaper and arranged for Joan Bodger to come and tell stories at my workplace in the city. To cover the fee, I rang around and invited people along for $5 a head and about 20 came at short notice. The guest storyteller was grumpy, fat and sweaty. 'Since it's a hot day,' Joan said, 'I'll take you to a cold place.' She then proceeded to tell the Arthurian legend of 'Gawaine and the Loathely Damsel.' I was entranced, saw it all in glorious technicolour - Arthur's horse caparisoned all in scarlet and gold, the stark snow-decked limbs of trees above where the damsel sat 'twixt oak and holly,' armour-clad Gawaine on one knee in the cold ...and I retold that same story afterwards to anyone I could get to sit still for 40 minutes - 9 times in all over a fortnight. I could see this fabulous world in story, could feel it, hear it. The rest came later. Like some others, I couldn't afford the $150 to go to the workshop she was running that weekend at the Gestalt Institute, and ended up sharing costs and what I learned with a friend. Went along on the Sunday and was confronted with the discipline and art, the power of storytelling. Heard about the African chant for the storyteller - 'See, that we may see!' Understood that the longer stories I'd been reading, looking for one to tell were all made up of smaller stories, each with a vital link that carried the final meaning.
Joan had been telling for forty years in all sorts of places – street corners in Harlem, in prisons - and believed stories could heal; that traditional folktales needed no props. I watched her tell 'Mr Fox'with reverence and then shift into a feisty Scottish tale called 'The Lass who couldn't be Frighted.' We workshopped that one, took turns retelling what we saw most clearly, and what this meant to us in our everyday life. I decided there and then that we could have a storytelling cafe in Brisbane like the one she'd told us about in Toronto. All I had to do was convince the rest of the guild we could do it.
A suitable venue took some finding, but the Storytelling Cafe we established at the Trocadero in the basement of the Metro Arts building in Edward Street attracted monthly audiences that grew beyond our imagining. People passed the word and more storytellers appeared and took the floor. There was always an open invitation to any storyteller. Friendships were made and extended. New faces appeared every month, as well as those of regular supporters.
The committee looked forward to meeting a storytelling couple from Sydney who were going to come along one night. Karen Tunny and Darryl Bellingham regaled us with their stories. Darryl had us in fits with his spontaneous storytelling. It ended up that they were moving to Brisbane and wanted to be involved in the guild. One night, a professional teller Sue had met while performing at a Ba'hai festival came along. One hundred and twenty people turned up that night too and Greg Dwyer had to sit on the stairs.
But this is just part of the Guild's story. We hope people involved, audience and tellers, come forward with their versions for the next instalment of our storytelling guild's history from 1990 on, in the next issue of Scheherazade. Here is a list from newsletters to show the people who have contributed by being on the committees from 1985-90.
In appreciation we acknowledge –
The Brisbane Branch of the Storytelling Guild of Australia
Convenor / Secretary: Lee Finkelstein
Treasurer: Jill Wellington
Newsletter: Gill Jones
Bibliographic Officer: Meg Philp
Convenor/Newsletter: Lee Finkelstein
Secretary/Treasurer: Jill Wellington
Libraries contact: Bettina Nissen
Convenor: Lee Finkelstein
Secretary/Treasurer: Jill Wellington
Newsletter & Publicity: Meg Philp
Libraries Contact: Bettina Nissen
President/Secretary: Lee Finkelstein
Treasurer: Jill Wellington
Newsletter & Publicity: Meg Philp
Libraries Contact: Bettina Nissen
Coordinator: Meg Philp
Treasurer: Ann Hewitt
Publicity: Pat Campbell
Newsletter: Bettina Nissen
Library Contact: Lee Finkelstein
Coordinators: Bettina Nissen / Sue Robin
Treasurer: Mary Lou Simpson
Newsletter: Kerry Mallan/Meg Philp
Committee John Shield/ Gail Robinson