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The Green Room Theatre Books

Thursday 16th October 2008

Four storytellers have been short listed for the Arts Foundation Fellowship worth £10,000 to the winning applicant. Catherine Aran, Katy Cawkwell, Peter Chand and Shonaleigh Cumbers are to perform to an audience and a judging panel at the Barbican Pit's on Monday 27 October. Poet Philip Wells is to host the evening, The Contenders.

For the first time The Arts Foundation, an independent trust, recognizes the achievements of storytellers within its fellowship scheme, awarding the fellowship to a committed artist who is innovative and shows a real talent in his/her artform.

The judging panel selected the four contenders from a long list of national nominations. On the panel are storyteller and artistic director Vayu Naidu, the Barbican’s head of education Jillian Barker and storyteller and producer Kat Quatermass.

Vayu Naidu comments: “What a great delight, and responsibility, for a storyteller to return to the treasure house of memory and a world of stories to signify the present. More importantly, the Arts Foundation Fellowship 2009, by creating an award for storytelling as an artform in its own right, helps restore humanity to the arts.”

The Shortlist can only be described as diverse. Catherine Aran tells stories from Wales whilst weaving seamlessly between the two languages. Shonaleigh Cumbers is a Drut’syla, or storyteller, with Yiddish descent and over 3,000 stories in her repertoire. Wolverhampton-based Peter Chand is of Punjabi descent and likes to encourage his audience to dance while Katy Cawkwell, a classics graduate, likes to visit the sites of old stories in her research. (full biographies in notes to editors further below.)

Since 1993 The Arts Foundation Fellowship programme has awarded over £1,000,000 to individual artists from the fields of performing and visual arts, crafts, literature, new media, film and design.

The Contenders is the first evening in the Barbican’s week-long programme of spoken word and performance storytelling. Also featuring throughout the week are poet Ian McMillan performing his life story in poems on Tuesday 28 October and the Barbican’s 17th Performance Storytelling Series presenting four captivating storytellers from Wednesday 29 October.

Storytelling today thrives with a bustling scene of over 400 professional storytellers, 65 monthly storytelling clubs and several well-established storytelling festivals in England and Wales. The revival of this rich tradition into an artform growing in popularity, took shape in the early 1980s, but has burgeoned in the last 10 years.

In response, the Barbican Centre, in collaboration with the Crick Crack Club, has integrated performance storytelling into its artistic programme. Many of the world’s leading professional storytellers have featured in sold-out Barbican Pit events in the last five years, earning the Barbican its title as the London home of performance storytelling.

Catherine Aran

Heralding from the wind beaten mountains of Snowdonia comes Catherine Aran, a teller of tales from Wales. Having been an actor in Wales for over ten years she applied for and got the job of Storyteller for Gwynedd Council having never seen a professional storyteller at work.

Through various courses and learning ‘on the job’ firstly at primary schools then later in hospital wards, cultural organisations and universities, she honed her art while increasing her repertoire of stories. Her ability to include within a short time and a small space the huge span of human emotions with only her facial expressions, voice and physical movements as props has often been described as impressive.

Catherine’s storytelling is energetic yet sensitive drawing on a range of traditional tales and folk traditions moving seamlessly from Welsh to English and back again when required. Now self-employed for five years Catherine has performed at many more venues and festivals mainly across Wales and Ireland including the Urdd Eisteddfod of Wales, Kilkenny Arts Festival, and Mythstories in Wem.

She is the author of five books for children published in Welsh and would spend the fellowship extending her field of work and purchasing a tent as a venue which would enable longer bookings at festivals and allow her to perform with more flexibility.

Katy Cawkwell

Spending your gap year travelling and filming storytellers in South America must reveal an early passion for the art form, which is precisely what Katy had after completing a degree in Classics at Oxford University. She was initially inspired by the idea of being one in a chain of tellers to pass on material with a long tradition behind it and cites The Company of Storytellers’ Hugh Lupton, who she saw perform as a teenager, as her greatest influence.

Katy is particularly interested in researching, unravelling and finding a way to retell densely plotted legends such as Rhiannon, a story that follows a woman’s journey from another world to ours for the sake of love. She enjoys working on stories where the written sources are often confusing, conflicting or fragmentary and which require a great deal of reconstruction and reaching back.

She often reads around the primary source of the story, and even visits the places mentioned with the aim of visualising the people within the landscape of the story. Her two most successful performances to date, Lancelot and Rhiannon, have drawn heavily on Welsh and English mythology resulting in powerful, action-packed narratives that untangle some of the richest material in the British and Norse traditions.

Katy has performed in a host of different venues across the British Isles, from telling a tale of Loki in a burial chamber on Anglesey to condensing Wagner’s entire Ring Cycle to 20 minutes in London’s Barbican Centre.

Should she win the fellowship she would like to develop her stage technique and research new stories, one of which would be developed into a new full-length performance.

Peter Chand

Before becoming a full-time storyteller in 2006 Peter spent almost five years learning the craft and honing his performance skills. His major influence in his work is India, specifically the Punjab region where his parents left to come to Britain in the 1950s. He returns to this region regularly where he records various Indian fold tales and translates them for the Western audiences.

Working half his time in school and community settings he often uses Punjabi in his storytelling. ‘Storytelling is an instant way of communicating the differences and similarities that exist between cultures.’ This, he finds, encourages ownership and pride for one’s culture and background particularly for those who speak a language other than English. In 2006 he won the solo commission at the Festival at the Edge with Mangoes on the Beach, a 70-minute storytelling piece created around his family’s journey to the UK and their integration and development within the community.

In his work he manages to use Folk stories to create a living landscape through story. In Lost in Translation, a recent piece devised with Shonaleigh Cumbers, Indian and Jewish traditions were used focusing on destiny, love and two cultures walking side by side. With the finale involving the audience bhangra dancing at the said wedding, a living landscape was most definitely achieved.

Shonaleigh Cumbers

Shonaleigh is a Drut’syla, a storyteller from the Yiddish tradition. She is from a Dutch-Jewish family with a strong tradition of storytelling and one of the foremost tellers of stories on the British scene. ‘Once you’ve heard your aged Jewish grandmother who survived the Holocaust – tell a tale that can make you believe there’s still magic, there’s no going back’. In fact through her Shonaleigh learnt a series of techniques in how to memorise a story and visualise it from different viewpoints.

Trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama she worked as a professional actress and vocalist before returning to storytelling full time in 1996. She has now a repertoire of over 3,000 stories which change for each telling.

The Golem, a one-person show set in England and Prague was based on her grandmother’s memoirs and toured internationally. Following the riots in 2005 in Oldham she was commissioned to work with diverse communities which led to the creation of a youth group the Peacemakers, who are still going today.

Her ability to weave real life experiences with traditional stories and music has pushed her own traditional material into new areas as was seen in the Fool of the Warsaw Ghetto where experiences from within the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII were interwoven with a series of traditional Jewish stories and was premiered at the Hay on Wye Festival.

Should she win the fellowship she would like to study with Dov Noy, Professor of Folklore and Yiddish Studies at the Hebrew University in Israel. She adds that the fellowship would allow her to employ a translator to verbalise the stories for her, thereby overcoming the barrier of her dyslexia which prevents her easily accessing written material.

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