"A sure sign of madness is doing the same thing and expecting the same outcome."
- Seanfhocal nua.
There may be good reasons to follow a tradition:
- Traditional tales may promote and perpetuate worthy values and workable ways of life, and these stories may be particularly attractive if we feel that our perfectly good values and way of life are under threat.
- It may be that we learn well-tested and workable ways of performing from those who have gone before us. If the way we have always done things works well, then there may be no need to do anything differently.
- Audiences may be familiar with certain stories and certain ways of telling stories, and they may find it reassuring and enjoyable to experience the same good story again.
But there may also be good reasons to depart from tradition:
- It may be necessary to depart from one tradition in order to celebrate another. For example, there are differences between the Gaelic and Norse versions of the story of how the King Brian Boru died at the Battle of Clontarf, and, since we cannot tell both versions at the same time, we must depart from one tradition to observe the other. If we tell a story that mixes details from the two traditions, we depart from both.
- Some stories may have fallen out of our tradition and deserve to be revived. For example, we might find a forgotten version of the romance of Tristan and Isolde in a Hiberno-Norman French manuscript and, if we develop it for a storytelling performance, we are likely to end up bringing something new into our work.
- Some traditional stories may promote undesirable values or unworkable ways of life. For example, some old stories in the Irish, Nordic and Greenlandic traditions tell of battles of honour and quests for revenge, and we might decide to ignore these in order to work with other stories that promote the values of peace and reconciliation.
- We may want to work with delightfully entertaining stories from other traditions, such as the Arabian Nights or the Tibetan epic, Gesar of Ling.
- And we may be inspired to create new stories in response to the concerns of our own times, when the traditional stories leave us somehow dissatisfied.
So much for matters of content. And matters of context may also have an influence:
- Some storytellers devise new ways of performing, bringing techniques from other arts, such as acting, clowning and modern dance.
- We might introduce new narrative devices, inspired by other media. For example, we might take inspiration from television series to mount to a cliffhanger before declaring an interval in a live storytelling show. Or we might adopt the kind of non-linear sequencing that we sometimes see in the movies.
- We may discover or develop new and untraditional venues in which to perform - e.g. hotels, cafes, festivals and nightclubs where we are invited to entertain.
- Above all, new audiences often have new and different expectations. Storytelling must now compete to gain the attention of audiences whose expectations have been raised, for example, by the diversity of films and music of very good quality that are available to us in our towns and cities every night of the week.
But, while most Irish musicians and filmmakers are constantly striving to make and distribute something NEW, many professional storytellers are still selling what is OLD. An excessive concern for tradition may be a powerful factor standing in the way of the development of the art of storytelling.
There is of course a market for old art, as sales of big hits and classic films from previous decades prove. But if storytellers did not exercise our creativity, then the art of storytelling might struggle to compete with the other arts.
Like the other arts, storytelling must address new ways of life, promote new values and evolve in response to changing tastes.
So, while the Narrative Arts Club provides a space for the performance of old and sometimes very ancient tales, it also encourages innovation and creativity. New stories may evolve out of the archetypal characters and dramaturgical structures of old folktales, and sometimes new stories of exceptional power and enduring appeal may arise from the experiences of our own times.
If tradition is the ground we stand on, innovation is the house we build upon it.