Dr Barbara Poston-Anderson is Associate Professor of Information Services at the University of Technology, Sydney, as well as folklorist, playwright, songwriter and storyteller. Her musical play Aloft was produced in the Riverside Theatre, Parramatta in November 1997.
When asked what took her into storytelling, Barbara replied: My interest was in history. I always felt that mainstream history left out the best stories, so I went on a crusade to uncover lost stories of Australian history for later generations.
Of course, as an immigrant from America, I have always felt that it was the stories that helped me come to terms with my new homeland.
I search for many of the old stories and find those that relate to people today.
I was teacher-librarian at Blacktown South primary school and it was the playground games, stories and songs that helped me learn about my new country. I quickly realised the importance of stories for children and set about getting the children to tell their personal stories. They were encouraged to discover stories relating to the development of this country to help them understand more about themselves.
Helen: Where do you get your inspiration for stories?
Barbara: Some people tell original stories; I have chosen not to make up stories, but to tell traditional and historical ones. I search for many of the old stories and find those that relate to people today. They may be historical tales with positive messages and I work with them as they fit together like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.
It’s great to relive and capture the excitement of human essence from the past. I like to take a story that speaks to me and recreate it in context of time and environment.
Stories convey universal themes, such as those dealing with environmental and social issues. I tell mainly to children – traditional stories – with permission to share. It’s great to see kids get excited about the actions of early pioneers.
Helen: You started off telling stories and are now successfully writing stories for musical shows. How did this come about?
Barbara: Storytelling is an all-encompassing medium. A story is a conversational way to get a message across – intimate interaction. Words written down on a page tend to distance people from the action. Whether I am doing oral storytelling or working as part of a group performance, the style is a direct human interaction with the audience to get a story and its messages across.
Writing a piece of musical theatre is a logical extension of storytelling. Song and dance are natural ways to tell a story.
The script of Aloft is like a folk story. My aim was for Captain Penfold to become a popular folk hero. Speaking of traditional sources of stories – I have also written a King Arthur crime novel based on the Arthurian legends.
Helen: Do some stories speak to you – touch you deeply?
Barbara: Yes! Captain Penfold’s story challenged my stereotypical views of Australian heroes – anti-authoritarian, bushies, camp fires, mateship, etc. I like to show that people we wouldn’t normally consider for stories make great heroes. People possessing individuality and positive views, challenge the perception of mateship, which allows them to succeed. They may be people from the bush, the underdog, strong women – those with positive attitudes and a sense of humour – who believe they can do anything.
Captain Penfold’s story shows a positive focus and belief in self. This attitude that anything is possible leads to his success.
Modern society is very cynical and negatively focussed on the frightful things that have occurred in the past and still continue to occur in our daily lives. Telling positive stories helps people refocus in a positive direction to help us move ahead.
Helen: Do you have another work in progress?
Barbara: Yes. The story is called The Mandarin of The Crystal Button and is about Quang Tart, a famous Chinese migrant business man in Sydney who arrived in Australia with nothing and made a fortune by opening up the Tea trade. He was honoured by the Chinese Government with the Mandarin of the Crystal Button (equivalent of a knighthood).
Quong Tart won the respect of the Chinese community in Sydney and became the unofficial Chinese ambassador in NSW, helping develop respect for the Chinese community. He constantly fought hard against the illegal importation of heroin to Australia. Quong Tart really challenged the stereotype of our Australian perceptions of the Asian migrant.
Helen: What other storytelling area are you interested in?
Barbara: I am interested discovering in lost stories – stories of pioneer women – such as Granny Smith, often believed to be of American origin. Australian people don’t expect to see Australian women as folk heroes. I would like to get more of these positive stories out into the mainstream of popular culture rather than the more negatively-focussed bushranger types of tales.
Barbara hopes to reach a wide audience with a variety of folk-type stories in musical theatre so our perceptions of Australian life will be changed to a more positive focus.
Helen McKay – February 1998