Let’s face it: storytellers I hear at public gatherings in the islands these days aren’t very good. They’d put the stones to sleep. Hold on, I’d like to explain. I’m not blaming the performers. The majority of these, young and old, who try to please their audiences, are well prepared and willing to share sweet-sounding Gaelic in public.
No, what gets up my nose are the stories themselves. The favourite subject matter seems to be ‘a walk on the moor’ or ‘by the shore’ or ’in the city’. Personally, I rejected that swill about seventy years ago. Okay, now you know where I stand. Pick one of these lame subjects, and you’re putting yourself in a straight-jacket. You can only relate, at one step removed from your environment, what you say, heard or felt. Unless your descriptive powers are right up there with those of Jonathan Franzen or John Updike, you are unlikely to grab the listeners. Of course, if you come across a camel, a mermaid or Justin Bieber, and tell us about it, you’ll have nailed it, won’t you?
It’s been a lifelong mission of mine to create drama, sometimes where it has no business to be. It’s a genetic thing. My maternal granduncle, Seumas Mòr mac Aonghais ‘ic Iain Mhòir, Big James Macdonald, of Old Mill, Benbecula, could spin a drama out of something as mundane as feeding the hens. I have a similar weakness. If I give an account of a shopping trip to MacLennan’s Supermarket in Balivanich, you can be sure I’ll try to jazz it up a little.
Whoops! I’ve wandered off at some kind of nostalgic tangent here, and I don’t really want to pursue it right now.
How would I improve the anaemic tales we are offered in the oral section of festival competitions, for example? Well, instead of the method adopted by present day storytellers – this is me, Donald or Mary, and my aim is to get you to like the way I portray myself. Yes, I’m a pleasant enough little person who has obediently memorised a boring piece of prose for your delectation.
Smash them! I should like to offer monodrama as a substitute for ‘traditional folk tales.’ Most of the authors of these bland narratives wouldn’t know a ‘traditional folk tale’ if it bit them on the leg in the Dark Island Bar.
In a monodrama there has to be a story, right? I’d prefer Donald and Mary to forget about themselves and pretend to be different characters. They ought to be acting parts: crabby old woman, repentant church member, tipsy dinner guest, shy suitor, and ignorant school pupil . . . whatever.
I want the performer to make a frontal assault on the audience. The character will be free, without restraint but with propriety, to become a spinner of dreams. The content, the form and the performer are inseparable; they are all one.
He or she can stand motionless or be seated. He or she has permission to go walk-about among his audience, and, if he or she fancies it, he or she can stop and chat with anybody during the course of his or her stroll. The performer can mime and mimic with feet, hands and face. He or she can, and must, adopt the accents and physical mannerisms of each person who appears in the story. That’s my vision of monodrama.
I hope to have published later this year a bilingual collection of monodramas. They may encourage folk: not only to have a go at acting solo but also to create their own monodramas. There could be ‘poppy’ in this, folks – low overheads and a chance to sell tickets at the door yourself!