Populating the landscape with characters – – Q & A with Dominic Kelly

Thu, April 18, 2019 by Albert

On Sunday 28th April at 3pm award winning storyteller Dominic Kelly and folk musicans Bridget Marsden and Leif Ottosson perform The Big Blind at The Joinery.

The story follows a boy standing on a lakeshore. Behind him is all he’s ever known. Ahead: a chance for love but a higher chance of death. He’s had a happy sheltered life. But his father gambled away that life, the debt cannot be paid in money and it won’t be his father who pays. Childhood is over.

Dominic is a performance storyteller with an international reputation for dynamic, powerful and entertaining work. Audiences will enjoy storytelling and live music from Dominic, Bridget and Leif as they re-imagine this ancient tale inspired by fairy tales from across the globe.

We’re thrilled to welcome Dominic back to Settle. We’d thought we’d catch-up with him ahead of The Big Blind.

What first inspired you to become a storyteller?

I grew up in the relative wilds of the Lake District fells and was a complete bookworm, steeping myself in stories of all kinds. On wandering the lower fells and woods as a boy I would make up stories in my head, populating the landscape around me with their characters. At the same time I had storytellers around me: my grandfather delighted in recounting tales from his life and the lives of friends, family and acquaintances, and he did it well; and I knew the renowned storyteller Taffy Thomas as a family friend from an early age, and so I knew that storytelling could be a real job at a time when there were still only a handful of professional storytellers in the whole country.

Much later, at university, I was heavily involved in campaigns about social justice issues and gave speeches to rallies and demonstrations. I was utterly bored with the endless ‘preaching-to-the-converted’ speeches that one was forced to endure at such occasions and I reasoned instead that there must be a way to actually entertain the audiences of marches who had dutifully trudged for miles through the town or city whilst putting across some insight or message or comment about the issue on which we were engaged together. This took me inevitably to storytelling. When I look back this is the first time I told stories to large audiences, though it would be some years on before I took the leap to become a professional storyteller.

What were the stories that stood out for you & captured your imagination as a child?

Alan Garner’s extraordinary children’s books – particularly The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath and The Owl Service – which remix myth and folktale, relocating them in the uplands of today’s northern England and North Wales, almost in sight of industrial modernity, with young children – ordinary children from the same modern world in which I lived and much the same age I was when I read them – as the main characters, caught up in these wild old stories playing themselves out in a contemporary era. Exciting, compelling; full of the strange, powerful and metaphorical imagery of traditional story; they had a huge impact on me. I often wonder if I would have been bitten so strongly by the storytelling bug if it hadn’t been for these. Certainly they solidified my interest in the connection between story and landscape into a lifelong fascination.

Why is this story so important to tell?

It explores how a lack of grown-up decision-making by adult generations, coupled with an avoidance of inconvenient truth, bequeaths younger generations with terrible challenges. This subject has never been more relevant than now as the existential threat of climate change becomes ever clearer, amongst other serious environmental challenges. For me the story uses the timeless metaphorical imagery of wonder tales to explore the dynamics of this fateful human pattern of behaviour. But one can also see this pattern working itself out across society in smaller ways, as patterns of dysfunction are passed down from one generation to another in families.

Tell us more about the musical collaboration intertwined with your storytelling

Bridget Marsden and Leif Ottosson are incredible musicians at the top of their game and both high profile figures in Sweden’s folk music scene. We have made one show together before, The Devil’s Purse, which we brought to Settle Stories Festival in 2013 to a great reception. This time we wanted to combine the storytelling and music more intimately, working more as an ensemble and less as a storyteller with two musicians. To this end we worked with the extraordinary French storyteller Abbi Patrix, who has for decades pioneered exciting work that brings storytelling and music together in new ways. With his help I’ve been working towards being much more tuned into the music and allowing it to influence how I tell the story, and we have woven in some exciting approaches we haven’t tried before, including combined body percussion played by all three of us together, incorporating the musicians voices into the piece and even our combined singing voices (very briefly!).

You mention that you weave an ancient fairy tale using versions from Norway, Scotland, Ireland and India. How does the fairy tale differ in each country’s version? Did you discover it had a Chinese whisper element that the story changed in the re-telling of each country?

Oh yes, absolutely – the story changes in a myriad of ways in every single version. In researching the tale I created a 12,000-word table comparing how each episode of the story manifests itself in 12 versions from 6 countries (since then I’ve discovered several more versions). It’s fascinating to explore the different versions of the story – so utterly alike and yet so different! Working in such depth with so many versions allowed me to pick and choose different episodes from different versions to create a new whole that I feel can speak to modern audiences, so the wealth of differences from country to country give a richness and new strength to this rejuvenated composition.

It’s clear that in each country’s versions, the colour of every episode with its associated imagery is influenced by the culture of the country, the landscape and even the wildlife. For instance a group of birds play a part in almost all versions at the same point in the narrative, and what species they are is clearly determined by the interaction between the culture and ecology of the country so that they appear as doves in one country, geese in other, spoonbills in a third, ducks in a fourth and so on. And that is just one aspect of just one episode. Then, for instance, whilst the Scottish versions are steeped in the imagery and metaphor of a mountain landscape, some versions from further east feature the aridness of the steppes where the need to find water drives a character to be entrapped early on in the story, a motif that doesn’t occur elsewhere. I could go on forever with examples of the endless large and small variations but I would soon be giving out spoilers…

What life lessons can we learn from the Big Blind?

The story explores the catastrophic results of avoiding brutal truth but it also gives hope I think: equally it explores what love, friendship, determination, sacrifice and working together against the odds can bring to a seemingly insurmountable situation, and at a time when the challenges we face seem overwhelming I think we need such stories.

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