classroom I am told of this child or that who has never before sat so still, listening; and
DIALOGIC STORYTELLING AND THE CONTEMPORARY YOUTH EXPERIENCE
6.3 Dialogic storytelling: the everyday chronotope reinvented 1 How shall we tell stories dialogically with adolescents?
Of the three metaphors I propose in Chapter 4 – the story as walk, as a theatre of actions, and as No-Man’s-Land or Spielraum − it is the third that I feel to have taken shape in response to the empathy gap, and the particular needs of contemporary young people. To honour the ethic of open-ended exploration, and to put my stories at the service of the adolescents I have encountered, I have had to develop an awareness of the dynamics and potential of the story as No-Man’s-Land, as I will now briefly attempt to justify.
Story has undoubtedly always functioned as a playground for imagination, discourse and the creation of meaning. I have always been aware that the stories I tell are created in the space between myself and the listeners, through the face-to-face or I/Thou encounter between us. In Chapter 4.3.1 I also argued that storytellers invariably embrace a degree of indeterminacy in how their stories are received. However, as my attunement to the differences between my life experiences and those of my adolescent listeners has grown, the gaps in my narratives have grown to encompass much of the landscape. This has underlined my ignorance of the shared story world, and the necessity to work with young people as ‘emancipated spectators’ (Rancière 1998). Simultaneously, however, being continually surprised by the very different resonances stories may strike for young people has reiterated my guiding role (explored in Chapter 188.8.131.52); even if we are creating something rather than discovering something already existent within a story, I cannot abdicate responsibility for bringing them home safely. Meanwhile, I have become increasingly aware of the affordances of such a relatively blank canvas. Where my own experience might not offer counsel, stories open, distant and
fantastical enough to provide a common ground for mutual exploration are particularly valuable. Their strangeness and anachronisms may provoke; their complex plots and wide landscapes may show up the boundaries of social languages and bring them into dialogue with each other (Chapter 4.4). Finally, they can be told with great dignity. Young people may choose to satirise these epic stories or bring them down from their pedestals, but just as often they choose to raise up their own experiences to the mythic plane, and use the cachet of storytelling to make a proud statement of their hard-won learning. The generational rupture in understanding between a storyteller and a group of young people no longer applies at this level of universality; these stories are vastly flexible and can dignify or ‘crown’ almost any adolescent experience (Chapter 4.4.2).
Working dialogically with young people in the territory of story, without an agenda but with an awareness of the many meanings in circulation between oneself and the listeners, bears an affinity to the everyday chronotope, with its lack of desired outcomes. Both chronotopes embrace listeners’ complex practice, the constantly shifting dynamics of the tripartite storytelling relationship, and thus what Warren Linds calls ‘(g)roundlessness, the very
condition revealed in common sense’ (2006:116) – but the choice to work in this way is made more consciously within the dialogic chronotope.
However, given the increasing impermeability of mainstream secondary schools to the initiatives of artists (Ryan 2008, Walcon 2012), and the difficulty of carving out interstices which might accommodate a storytelling practice (Chapter 5.3.4), on what ground can we work in this ‘groundless’ way?
6.3.2 Where shall we build a storytelling practice with adolescents?
We might be guided by seeking to enrich the dialogic possibilities of the formal and informal settings that are shared by young people and adults – to regenerate a common lifeworld through storytelling activities. In practice, storytellers working with adolescents may spend much of their time either grappling for a foothold in mainstream institutions, or contained within the more hospitable, but insular, environments of protected settings (Chapter 5.3.1 and Fig. 5.2). However, these very difficulties suggest the purpose of this work.
Once more, we may need to hold a conscious orientation towards establishing or expanding fora for storytelling and dialogue, in both kinds of setting. Within the mainstream institution of City School, my greatest asset was the peculiar ‘everydayness’ and unthreatening
subjectivity’ (1995:132) between rarefied artistic activity and mainstream culture. The invisible boundary between storytelling and other forms of communication more usual in the school setting (lessons, drama) allowed my practice, for a time, to permeate areas of the institution and briefly propose alternatives to some of the roles, relations and divisions that pertained there. That is, while storytellers may be engaged to work on short-term projects motivated by institutional goals, which we may or may not recognise as worthy, Chapter 5 explored how we can render ourselves of service to adolescents by never letting these goals overcome the pull towards singularity: the singular experience expressed in story rather than the ostensibly desired ‘learning outcome’; the singular and capricious practices of a nascent vernacular rather than the defined roles of the institution; the singular relationship of
friendship rather than the binary one of facilitator and participant. Singularity may ultimately arise wherever we respect the authority of the I/Thou relation over the I/It. It is likely to be continually in retreat, but nonetheless worth pursuing.
Meanwhile, my work in protected settings has suggested the value of seeking not to seal storytelling activities or groups off, but to enhance the permeability between them and other elements of the society within which they occur (Chapter 5.6). An analogy is offered by Kathleen Gallagher and Anne Wessels’ (2013) research into a theatre company who chose to develop their practice with homeless young people ‘between the frames’ of the formal theatre environment and the homeless shelter, allowing the former to be troubled and reshaped by the latter. Beyond the boundaries of either mainstream or protected settings, the (perhaps often hypothetical) role of storyteller-as-friend stands as a call to remain committed to nourishing the lifeworld of young people, and to continually seek opportunities for them to become storytellers in dialogue with the world around them.