The Family Way

MongooseOur host location the Bluecoat Arts Centre have suggested that we might as a Storytelling group contribute to their Family Programme. Of course, but what might this mean in practicality? We devoted a lot of our most recent workshop to considering that question. What follows is brief guide to our thoughts for others who might join us in the Family enterprise.

We asked, What might Family mean in the context of an Arts Centre audience? It may mean a storytelling event for children and young people with adults there in a custodial role. It might mean stories which appeal to both adults and children and young people but in different ways and for different reasons, just as Hollywood films sometimes have a double appeal. Or there may be stories which appeal almost universally and which touch the lives of young and old in a similar way. We would be the story-providers but what we provided would be different in each of these instances.

What is a family anyway – in these confusing 21st Century times? We explored the parameters of Family. There were families ranged across age, and involving several generations. There were families which felt together and those which felt divided. There were large families and nuclear families, – there were composite and extended families, including adoptees and guests and distant relations, and even social groups who just felt like a “family”. Families seemed to have moved well beyond the Victorian configuration (itself a bit of a caricature, and not always what it presented as) and the post-war idea of close dependency. One thing seemed to be true – Family was still the subject of a lot of debate and an important way of addressing the ways we live together. For that reason it seemed that creating or providing Stories for the Family would be a good challenge for a Storytelling Group.

We also speculated on some of the issues and themes which are important in defining the Modern Family.  These included ideas of Belonging, and Dependency, and Authority. There are questions about Letting Go and Sharing Spaces. Entitlement and Contribution have become important as Family issues over the last while, and in a multicultural society ideas and issues and preoccupations differ within a diversity of Cultural Traditions. There’s plenty to disagree about in Family nowadays. Even from that list a whole wealth of situations offer themselves for narrative treatment.

But what kind of story are we trying to tell? I offered for consideration three very short stories from the “Fables For Our Time” by the American writer and humourist James Thurber – “The Peacelike Mongoose”, “The Moth and the Star”, and “The Turtle Who Conquered Time”. I suggest you look out Thurber’s “Fables” for the fun of it. They are very much a seasoned middle-aged “take” on human foibles and life’s contradictions, but with a childlike inflection which is endearing. Two of the three I chose involved a family presence, and all were animal fables. They therefore might have qualified as “stories for the family” but the feeling of the group was not in favour of using them as found.

There is always the issue with written stories and especially those of a literary character that they will need adopting and adapting for live storytelling. Once you have given yourself permission to alter a piece of literature many things are possible. With the Thurbers some group members variously thought of amending the narrative, changing the moral of the story and, most saliently, changing the ending. The slightly ironic, sometimes cynical and occasionally inconclusive ending was, it was suggested, not well-suited to The Family. We speculated for a moment on what kind of ending the younger end of the Family spectrum would most appreciate, and it seemed that some kind of upbeat or heroic or hopeful conclusion was needed. In fact it was almost as if a Family Story needed to honour the structure and content of a “good old-fashioned story” more than other tellings.

The overall aim of the workshop was to stimulate some projects for “homework” when we take our August break, and I suggested that all present consider creating a telling for Family, however they wished to predicate it. We’ll see what we all come up with. And I guess we had better ask the Arts Centre what they mean by Family.

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One thought on “The Family Way”

  1. Thanks for this, Roger. Just to add some thoughts on what we discussed from what I noted down afterwards, while it was still fresh in my memory…..Roger had said that the Bluecoat wanted us to concentrate on family stories. We talked about how that might be interpreted. Roger suggested three different ways: stories for children, stories for children that appeal to adults, and stories about family – what it is, traditional and more contemporary ideas. It felt that the stories could be wide ranging and all embracing. One theme suggested was that of dependence and independence, children leaving and coming back. We also talked about the importance of endings, were they hope filled or cynical? – were they transcending endings, ‘ we can’t fix things, let’s go elsewhere’ ?
    I thought of my Blackburn stories, my family identity redefined with my sons leaving home and being given a new status as mother to the young mothers in one of my groups – their complex identities, relating to the wider community with Urdu speaking parents and family in Pakistan. Their relationship to my other reading groups. Groups as family and transformation as members learn to adapt to the unconventional – surprising, surreal and joyous moments. Our last get together before RARPA was introduced and put a stop to things, a final meal comprising a gift of dates from the mosque in Medina and bottles of Irn Bru. Feeding babies behind a curtain in Blackburn Cathedral cafe when groups came together for a celebration – risk taking on all sides.
    After the break, Roger put us in pairs to read some James Thurber animal stories – a take on Aesop’s fables – and to choose how we might tell them for the three categories. Mary read out The Peaceful Mongoose. The story appealed to both of us. It has rather a sad little moral: ashes to ashes, and clay to clay, if the enemy doesn’t get you your own folks may – I heard Philip Treacy on Desert Island Discs the day after 8.7.18. He gave a touching tribute to his dad. Philip had been very different to his six brothers and sisters. He was always going along to weddings to see the beautiful frocks. He longed for a doll to dress up. His dad took him by the hand to a local shop and let him choose one. Afterwards, when his dad was quizzed by a neighbour and asked did he not think it was a bit odd, Philip overheard him say, ‘ whatever makes him happy ‘. His family fostered an environment in which he flourished and became a world famous designer of hats – the Galway boy made good. Others nurtured him along the way. Moral: ashes to ashes and clay to clay, value your children so others may.


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