FILM-MAKER Anna Jarrett is also a highly acclaimed storyteller, whose performances have been featured on Radio National Australia and on radio and TV shows across the United States. Anna tours internationally, presenting storytelling shows and workshops for a diverse range of communities. Her captivating tale telling has reached audiences as far ranging as Tanzanian village schools to the Kennedy Center in Washington DC.

Helen: Anna How did you become involved in storytelling?

Anna: I was working as a drama teacher with a particularly difficult bunch of kids doing drama classes at Dundas and I found that the only way to settle them down and focus them was to tell them a story using their names, some of their ideas and things I picked up about each of them. I don’t know if it was good storytelling, but it worked very well and there was no trouble after that. After that I began incorporating it into my drama teaching and continued to use it. Finally my friends said, ‘Why don’t you do storytelling for kids out in the street festivals, where anything goes?’ So I did.

My first job of that sort was out at Blacktown and I worked with a didgeridoo player just telling `Wombat Stew’. I brought the book along as I still didn’t feel confident telling without the book. I started off with kids all around me – hanging over my shoulders, sitting in my lap. A couple of minutes into the story, I put the book down and just told the story with the didge accompanying me. It just worked magic! From that moment on I wanted to learn more about storytelling.

I went along to a storytelling night at the Kirribilli Neighbourhood Centre – Kirribilli has left a mark on a lot of people’s lives. It was a very small gathering, but that night, one of the people offered to do some workshops. I thought, I won’t do anything – I’ll never be able to learn a full story – but I’ll go along and check it out. After that workshop, I decided to learn more – specifically, things I could use in kids’ theatre and television, when I went to the United States.

Once there, in the United States, I noticed that storytelling was a hugely popular activity. In the paper I read about everything that was happening in storytelling in the San Francisco Bay area – there were so many storytelling programmes listed – it’s a very active area for storytelling. I decided to attend some of the programmes so I could meet up with the tellers.

That’s how I met African-American teller Diane Ferlatte – I went along to as many of her shows as I could get to. She eventually took me on board and started to teach me what the oral tradition was all about. She was getting so much work that she couldn’t do it all and soon she began giving me some work to do. I was fortunate that I was able to work then – I didn’t have a work visa. By the end of the year I had done my first festival down in New Mexico and my career started to grow from there.

Storytelling as a career was not something I’d ever planned, or really even knew what was happening – it was just something I tried and it worked.

Helen: What sort of stories were you telling in America?

Anna: That’s an interesting question. When I was teaching drama I was just making up stories but, when people offered to pay me as a storyteller, I felt that I had to tell somebody else’s story. I certainly wasn’t going to end up as a writer at that stage. So I began using commonly-known folk tales such as: The Great Big Enormous Turnip, Aesops Fables and really easy stories like The Fisherman and His Wife, and The Magic Wish.

In the United States, storytelling was a hugely popular activity.

I first told in San Francisco. Coming from a theatre background I dressed in costume – as a gypsy, then a later as a fairy. It was the first show I’d ever done without the fourth wall and I soon realised that I didn’t need the costume. So I decided to do away with costumes and just be me. I needed to start finding the connections between the stories and look at what I was doing with them.

From that basic repertoire I started learning stories from Diane. Many people began to ask me for Australian stories and I’d take tales and adapt them, putting Australian animals in them over a period of about a year. After doing some research through the library at the Australian Consulate – there’s very little Australian material available in the libraries in the US. The Consulate had an excellent library and I collected and developed a bunch of stories that became my core repertoire, which I’m still doing.

Then I started to get people interested in older kids and adult shows. Until recently, I would be telling the traditional folk tales and a little bit of Australian material.

Stories can be inter-generational

Helen: Do you find the chidren’s material translates right through to adults?

Anna: Depends on the group. You can tell something to a bunch of kids and tell it totally differently to adults. I get a lot of big Parents and Families nights at schools where the parents come along to a school with their kids – they all come along to hear a storytelling. The kids sit up the front and the adults are at the back of the room. You know the attitude – storytelling is kid’s stuff.

By the end of the first story, the parents are leaning in, by the end of the second story, they’re moving in and by the end of the third story the adults are more attentive than the kids. That for me was a lesson that stories can be inter- generational. Now often when I do an adult show I will just tell a kid’s story as part of the evening’s program to allow the child in the adults to emerge. It helps make the connection between the fairy tales and the stories I tell them.

Berice: Your Australian accent would be very popular over there.

Anna: One of the reasons I was getting so much work there was because of my voice and the different accent. Because Americans are very image-oriented my initial work was not greatly generated by my image but by my accent. One of my friends said that when I stood up on stage I had a stronger accent than when I was off stage. Interesting, after staying in America for years my friends began saying I sounded very American – it was all the expressions I’d picked up.

When I heard that I began getting very homesick – I didn’t want to sound American, but I certainly didn’t want to lose work – so I began to look for other Aussies and I attracted about twelve Aussie families who became very good friends. We became a very close knit community and we looked out for each other.

Helen: You are doing some interesting workshops – a whole range of them. Can you tell us a bit about those.

Anna: The one’s I’m developing now I’m back in Australia are about introducing story, looking at the power of story, the essential skills that go into storytelling, so that each person can look at their own style or their own material of interest and apply those tools to working that material to be able to tell it better. Some people do want to explore storytelling for their writing.

The other thing I’m interested in looking at is working with expressive stories through multi arts. I have a friend, Nina Angelo, a visual artist who will be doing some women’s storymaking weekends jointly with me, looking at storymaking and exploring story sources for women. The idea is that you’ve got a focussed group with obviously similar interests and themes that emerge in the process.

I’ll tell some stories and Nina will cut out the images she thinks of when she hears key words coming through the stories. Then Nina will talk about why she drew the images that were related to the stories and they’ll be printed on cards and T-shirts or whatever. They represent the stories that were told that night. At the end of the workshop the stories are not just in your memory or your heart, but also in print. It takes storytelling into another dimension and helps you relax into the story so that your story can come out.

Helen: What an interesting concept. Thank you for your sharing your experiences with us.

Anna: Later this year, Nina Angelo and I will be running a further weekend for women – another storymaking journey exploring storytelling as a visual and oral craft form. Watch your newsletter for this announcement.

Helen McKay – March 1998