In the first project of its kind, a group of people with learning difficulties are studying for a qualification in storytelling while improving their communication skills. Alex Klaushofer reports
Ian Matthews flexes his biceps dramatically as he delivers the last line of his tale, King Arthur's words on finding Excalibur: "I will be the first knight in the land and I've got all the strength in the world," he tells his audience triumphantly.
Ian is one of a dozen members of the Unlimited Company, the first project of its kind to train people with learning difficulties to become community storytellers. Over the past two years, this group of people more accustomed to doing the listening than the talking have pioneered with their tutors a collaborative form of storytelling. On this, the final day of the course, friends and relatives gather in a tithe barn in rural Somerset to hear each company member perform a story of his choice.
Working for their certificate in Inclusive Storytelling accredited by the National Open College Network (NOCN) has involved performing in schools and at community events - and has taken them to conferences and into mainstream storytelling circles. In the autumn, the company moves into a new phase, with members selling their services as professional storytellers.
Power of stories
Project director Nicola Grove knew she was charting new territory when she launched the scheme two years ago. "Nobody's tried to do this before, because storytelling is a verbal art form and most people with learning difficulties have trouble with verbal skills," she says. "But even people with severe learning difficulties will pick up something about the atmosphere and meaning of the story."
A speech therapist of 30 years' standing, she was convinced that the emotional power of stories and their ability to give meaning to personal struggles could be harnessed for the benefit of people with learning difficulties. With help from the NOCN, she identified the competences needed for the qualification and secured funding from the Big Lottery Fund and Arts Council England, with support from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and Mendip Council. The British Institute of Learning Disabilities agreed to administer the project. Then she did the rounds of day centres in the Mendip area, recruiting students with a taster workshop.
The Frome-based project was immediately attractive to Ian, a group member with a high level of communication skills. "I've always been very good at telling stories," he says. "I've told stories in the past to my niece and nephew when they were young." But it also drew in those with more limiting disabilities, such as Heather Dickinson (who is pictured on the this week's cover), who has Down's syndrome and is profoundly deaf. She had no difficulty choosing her story for the afternoon's performance: that of the frog prince, told with the aid of her witchy glove puppet, Hercate Spellgood. "I like the kissing. I like the spiders in the cauldron," she says, giving a mock witch's cackle.
The stories, told mostly in pairs with the help of a tutor, range from the traditional and local, like the tale of King Alfred burning the cakes, to the personal and improvised such as Catherine's Fortune, a poignant account of a seven-year spate of bad luck that dogged the heroine until she found wealth and happiness.
Key to success
Despite their variety, a common theme of coming through adversity strengthened and renewed runs through all of the stories. Paul Dickens, who at 21 is one of the youngest members of the group, recounts how his childhood hero, Thomas the Tank Engine - despite delays at a station and railway crossing - triumphs over Bertie the Bus in a race: "It's a story about a train and a bus running together, and the train won at the end of the day," he explains with evident pleasure.
The key to successful storytelling for people with learning difficulties, according to project tutor Jem Dick, is that each person chooses a story that is meaningful to them. This can mean adapting a traditional tale by, for example, telling the story of the goddess Ceridwen's disabled son, Avagddu, a character generally overlooked in Welsh mythology. "What we say is 'what about Avagddu?' He's like so many people with learning disabilities - he's what's left," says Dick. "We've put a different emphasis on the story because we've put the emphasis on the person with disability."
The process can have a transformational effect, Grove says. "In terms of our emotional development, we need to feel we're actors in a drama which other people have shared," she says. "It's about getting people to talk to each other and share their experiences and see how they are heroes in their own lives." The repeated telling of the stories is part of that process.
The project staff acknowledge that the past two years have had their challenges. Project worker Jane Harwood says that at times it's been an emotional experience. "We've looked at a lot of different types of story, and some of them have struck home. Some of the things are quite painful."
The benefits have been surprising. For Dick, hearing people's personal stories was a revelation. "I've worked with people with learning disabilities for years, but I've never heard things like this before," he says.
And for some of the Unlimited Company's members, taking part is influencing the course of their lives. In the autumn, Paul, of Thomas Tank Engine fame, is going to study performing arts and computing at Norton Radstock College. "It's made him make up his mind that that's what he wants to do," says his mother, Gillian Harrison, having just heard him tell a story in public for the first time. "It's made him more confident."
Fresh challenges ahead
Hazel Elder, who at 77 is the oldest member of the group, has also found that the project has invigorated her life. "I'm much happier now. I couldn't do anything like that before," she says. She is developing her own storytelling niche running sessions at homes for older people, a specialism she envisages continuing when the company reconvenes in September.
The autumn will bring fresh challenges as the project takes its first steps to becoming a viable storytelling company. In a move intended to give the storytellers full ownership of their project, four members of the group will work as directors on work experience contracts. "In September, Nicola has asked me whether I'll help supervise running it," says Brian Marshall, who will become co-director. "It's a big step."
As well as running a monthly storytelling circle and giving workshops at schools and conferences, there are plans to offer training courses to social care staff. Grove hopes that they will help service providers take greater account of the needs of people with learning difficulties by teaching them better ways of communicating with them. "The staff talk to each other about them, but they tend to shepherd the service users out of the room," she says. This tendency can be changed, she adds, through some of the key techniques used in the storytelling project: "They're very much to do with collaborative telling and repetition."
The staff are aware that this move into the professional world will bring pressures as well as opportunities for the latest entrants on the storytelling scene. "There's a lot of responsibility on their shoulders," says Harwood. "We're asking them to do some big things."
The Unlimited Company is one of four projects shortlisted in the South West to go through to the finale of the National Lottery Awards 2006. To vote for it, go to www.lotterygoodcauses.org.uk