Interviews with Storytellers - Shonaleigh Cumbers

Shonaleigh Cumbers
 Shonaleigh’s grandmother was a Yiddish oral storyteller, a drut'syla,   and Shonaleigh is probably one of the last drut'sylas to have been trained in the traditional family style. She begins by telling us about her traditional storytelling background.  

My grandmother was a drut'syla, that is, a Yiddish oral storyteller in a tradition passed down through the female line. She spent the war telling stories in the camps and believed that this was one of the things that saved her life. From the age of four I was trained in creative thinking and storytelling in the Jewish traditional style,  which is to literally walk though a story. By the age of 14 I had to know the Rabbinical cycles, the Babylonian cycles, early Israeli and Palestinian oral tradition. I thought this was quite normal and that all storytellers had this background ... It was quite normal for me to fall asleep at night listening to songs and stories in English, Yiddish, Hebrew, Dutch and Turkish - a wonderful colourful mix. I didn't think anything of it. I thought everyone had this background. I told stories within Jewish circles, and it was only in my early twenties that I realised - via Simon Heywood and another storyteller called Alison Ross - that people actually told stories in the non-Jewish world. I was introduced to it via a storytelling club in Sheffield. I genuinely thought that people would already know my stories, and would have no interest in hearing them, but I quickly realised that these stories were just not told in the non-Jewish world - and on the few occasions they were told, it was with little understanding of the reasons, the occasions, and the backgrounds. 

Where in the world are you and where do you perform? 

I'm now based in a market town called Dronfield on the edge of the Peak District in Derbyshire. I've been telling stories since I was ten, but as a storyteller that the non-Jewish world would be aware of, I've been telling since 1998, when I first formed the band Tashbain. I perform globally - America, Europe, Scandinavia. I perform in venues as diverse as the National Theatre, schools, community projects, festivals, and tonight, as I'm filling this in, it's the first night of Chanukah I have just told the Chanukah night story to my family - which is equally as important to me as any large venue. 

Why did you become a storyteller? 

With the background I have had, the bubba (grandmother) that I had ... how could I not have? It was infectious - magical and wonderful. It never occurred to me to become a storyteller - I just told stories. It's still strange to get paid - although I'm not complaining! Bubba would have been paid with food, an interesting stone, a piece of cloth. It was a place I held within my community. I suppose if I was going to be very analytical about it, being dyslexic has probably played its part, as I have a memory my son would die for - and is very irritating to my partner! Maybe I would have been a writer but walking through a story is the most wonderful thing in the world. I recently discovered that I am probably one of the last drut'sylas to have been trained in the traditional family style, and so I feel I'm holding a tradition. And that is something that I don't take lightly. Anymore. 

Where do you get your stories from? 

I suppose, to begin with, the bulk of my stories were from the traditional Rabbinical cycles. There was a time when these were only available through Talmudic and Midrashic texts, oral Hebrew narratives, Rabbinical study, and word of mouth, but with the help of a wonderful man called Dov Noy who founded the Israel Folktale Archives, many of these are available in English. I talk a lot with rebbis (rebbis being historians and teachers rather than rabbis), but, also, as I have lived in England since I was seven, and English is my primary language these days, I have become interested in European and English folktales. I suppose the stories that I like to tell are the ones that tell themselves - that don't need to be performed with bells and whistles, swirling silks and dancing light shows, but simply are what they are, with a purity, simplicity and honesty that cuts to the heart, that will have you laughing one minute and crying the next, that are full of humour, and the warmth of the human spirit - the sort of stories that, when you have heard them, live on like old friends. 

How do collect stories? 

If I was going to define it any further than I have already, I have talked to a lot of the generation for whom Yiddish was a first language. Sadly those opportunities are becoming fewer, so I grasp every one. I recently missed out on funding to study with Dov Noy and a whole generation of storytellers that sadly won't be with us forever. It's a shame. 

What makes a good story and why? 

It's not about the length but the depth. A good joke can be a good story. It's about whether the audience can relate to it, and whether you, the storyteller, can be a good bridge for it. But I think a good story for me doesn't moralise, doesn't thump its point home; it's a subtle thing that entertains on one level, but if people have the ears to hear it, goes so much deeper - but even if they can't see it at that deeper level, still the story loses none of its entertainment value. There are stories that I have learnt as a drut'syla that I needed to learn to hone my craft, that I would never tell in public, because they're teaching stories. They're stories for workshops, for classrooms, for pupils. But I value them nonetheless.  

What is your favourite story? 

My favourite story is Solomon and Ashmedai, for two reasons. Firstly, it poses the question What is the difference between truth and illusion? and answers it quite beautifully. Secondly, it's timeless.  While sitting with my son one day watching an epsiode of (I'm ashamed to admit) Star Trek, he turned to me and said, "Isn't that that Solomon and Ashmedai story?" And, do you know, it was.  

Who is your favourite storyteller? 

I would have to say my grandmother. These days the storytellers I would dig through snow to hear are Sef Townsend, Pete Chand, and (although I'm biased!) Simon Heywood. 

What are your three tips for aspiring storytellers? 

First, want to tell the story. Performance should be the last thing on your mind. It's the thing we often end up doing, but it should be a by-product of loving the stories. Secondly, learn your craft. The day you think you know everything is the day you should be worried. Thirdly: often, less is more. See, and tell what you see.  

What are you reading at the moment?  

I've started a book that really scared me called Dark Matter. It's a ghost story set in the Arctic and it scared me so much last night I had to sleep with the light on. It's a very good piece of storytelling. But also I am being read to of an evening round the fire! We've just finished Nicholas Nickleby and I had forgotten how amazing a storyteller Dickens is.  

What's your favourite piece of music? 

Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber. And anything by Linkin Park! Also the theme for Assassin's Creed that my son is continually playing. I really love the chord changes on it.  

How do you relax? 

As I spend so much time on the road I love spending an evening at home with my family. We have a lovely large garden full of twinkly lights and it's lovely to sit there with a glass of wine, several good storytellers, and some music. The other ways I relax are not really printable!