What is Storytelling?

Last weekend I was invited for a meeting day by the Dutch Storytelling Foundation. About fifty people met at a neighbourhood activity center in Utrecht to listen to stories, discuss their meaning, call out the storyteller of the year and inspire the people on the scene to grow and develop this crazy art form we feel passionate about.I had not attended any of the previous meetings, but I was informed by mail I was one of the five nominated to be storyteller of the year, and it would be appreciated if I was present for the ceremony.

Though I feel honoured to be invited and nominated, I am also worried about how storytelling is seen and experienced in the Netherlands, especially after visiting the meeting day. Almost all of the participants were over fifty years old and almost all were white native Dutch. It did not help that the international storytelling theme of the year is “the Brothers Grimm” to commemorate the 200th year of the first printing of their stories. What I experienced is the type of storytelling that I’m developing an allergy to: audience members sitting on chairs in a row, and a storyteller sitting in a chair in front of them telling a children’s story in a slow… well pronounced… way. It is no wonder young people are not drawn to these type of stories, they think it’s childish (and that’s exactly the reason why this particular over fifty crowd is drawn to it, it reminds them of their childhood in a simpler more romantic time).

I’m not opposed to this type of storytelling, if it’s considered one of the many types of stories and ways that we can share our stories, but if it’s considered the main type of storytelling I have to protest. 250 visitors a month visiting the our storytelling nights alone shows there is an interest in different types of stories: Personal stories and confessions improvised on the spot, stories that are depicted on stage by a team of improvisers, stories that switch language mid-sentence, leap from teller to listener, inform us about political and social struggles. The list of possibilities is endless. In 8 years of experimenting with the format visitors have time and again surprised me with their contributions and I’m yet to reach the stage where I can say I’ve seen it all.

When we started our storytelling nights I was sad there wasn’t much of a storytelling scene in the Netherlands. However, it also felt exciting to be a pioneer, with a small band of dedicated die-hards, creating intuitively what we felt would inspire a storytelling audience. Now that there is a scene, represented by the Storytelling Foundation, I feel I can’t relate to it.

So the question is, dear storytellers and storylisteners, do we join the Dutch scene and try to teach them a thing or two, or do we stay away from them and create our own scene? I would be very curious about what you think.

19 thoughts on “What is Storytelling?

  1. Hello,
    I was in Utrecht, too, only in the afternoon, by the way. The “white” and “grey” of the participants surprised me and I think we have to be concerned about that. I regret you don’t tell that this particular day was filled in by a team of antroposofical fairy tale tellers, and as you light know, Steiner adepts alays tend to a certain dogmatic rigidity.
    Anyhow, thanks for your comment,
    Rob Vanderwildt, Antwerp, Belgium

  2. Hi Sahand! I can understand and even endorse much of your criticism that rose up after visiting a meeting of Dutch Storytelling Foundation. Yes, most visitors were in their fifties and older. Yes, there were only WND (white native Dutch) people present. And yes, most stories were told in a slow not very dynamic way – fitting most storytellers’ age. It is also true that only “old-fashioned” fairytales from the Grimm brothers repertoire were told. But try to be careful and reasonable with your judgement, based on just one visit. There is much more to it.
    The Dutch Storytelling Foundation (DSF) does much more than just organizing these meetings. We are constantly trying to reach out to as many storytellers in the Netherlands as possible: native and foreign, young and old, with modern and old ways of storytelling. But it’s long practice that only a certain (older, native) type of storytellers visit these DSF meetings in Utrecht thrice a year. It’s hard to find a wider range of storytellers – young and foreign for instant – who are willing to contribute. Alas, there’s no easy method or solution. Help us out if you know one or two!
    You are very succesfull in Amsterdam because: a) you have a different, more open concept for your storytelling nights; b) you attract younger people because you are young yourself; c) you attract WND and foreigners because you have roots in more than one culture and d) you like experiments with stories and different kinds of storytelling. This will probably be the basis of your success and we wish you joy with it.
    Renewal and rejuvenation is absolutely necessary for DSF, but it’s a struggle for the board to reach these goals. We try to co-operate with other groups and foundations (e.g. storytelling festivals and education organisations) as much a possible, but it’s a long way to Tipperary. We are busy making new plans and have many wishes for the near future but we must acknowledge our limits. Rome wasn’t built in one day.
    We hope that you will contribute with your fresh ideas and experience with Mezrab to DSF. We may invite you in the future to organize one of the DSF meetings in Utrecht. We will give you and your fellow Mezrab storytellers a one day’s playground for others (yes, all those WND, 50+ you saw) to learn from. Do we have a deal?

    Gottfrid van Eck
    boardmember Dutch Storytelling Foundation

    1. Dear Sahand and Gottfrid,
      I agree with Gottfrid. As a former boardmember I know it is the strong wish om DSF to connect all kinds of Storytelling and yes this is a long way to go. MAZRAB is a wonderfull concept and, although reasons for nominations were not mentioned I believe the way you and MAZRAB connect people,music, stories and cultures is one of them.
      I myself would like to see a stonger participations of proffesional storytellers who are more focused on theatre. They too experiment with different forms, music etc. As in all the arts (and people) there are many ways of telling your ” story” .
      So lets join.

      Eric Borrias Storyteller
      (yes ofer 50, but it’s not the years, but the hart that counts)

    2. What an interesting topic….
      I also attended one of the events organised by the Dutch Storytelling Foundation, and I see your point Sahand. The event I attended was very well organised and I met some very interesting and exciting people. However, it did lack the spontaneity of the nights at Mezrab, and felt a little less welcoming. The unique beauty of the nights at Mezrab is that they draw a huge variety of ages, cultures, backgrounds and stories. Also, at least a quarter of those who attend every night are completely new to storytelling, which means you must be doing something right.
      That said, the DSF have an already established place of sorts in storytelling in the Netherlands. Coming from Scotland, where we now have the Scottish Storytelling centre, I can see the advantages of having one well known professional organisation overseeing things. As the poster from the board points out, there is still a long way to go with this in their organisation. I think teaching them a thing or two/cooperating is key, as this will lead to a stronger storytelling scene in the Netherlands as a whole.
      On a professional level, I imagine having a central organisation will certainly help in terms of funding and grant applications. In Scotland, we are lucky to have a diverse network of professional storytellers and an established mentoring system for up and coming professional storytellers. This has set the standard for professional storytelling in Scotland, and enhanced the profile and number of bookings for storytellers across the country. Though it must be pointed out, that not all storytelling need be of a professional level/standard.
      This is of course aside from the amateur clubs and nights similar to Mezrab in Scotland, which I believe also have an important (if not far more important!) role to play in developing storytelling and storytellers. One of the main things that put me off the Dutch event I attended was the idea that all the listeners were invited to give critical feedback for the tellers at the end. While this has a place, I think I would have been petrified to take the stage there for that very reason, something I have rarely experienced at the Mezrab nights where the audience is of equal or larger size.
      It might be good to get all of us regular ‘Mezrabians’ together to determine how we would like a storytelling scene to look, and to combine all of our ideas and resources? One thing I do miss as a storyteller here in the Netherlands is the opportunity for professional development as a storyteller, and the opportunity to develop and share ideas in workshops, courses etc. This is in my opinion a unique opportunity to look at what the possibilities for a storytelling scene could/should? be, and where we want the ‘Mezrab Scene’ to go from here…??! This might then give some concrete suggestions for the development of the existing dutch scene, or lead to the conclusion that we really are all too far removed from the dutch scene as it stands….. (personally I am in favour of the former, and think you/we should all take them up on the offer of organising a development day!!)
      Apologies for the long post…Either way, I am more than happy to help out with whatever you need (assuming I am not in the middle of having a new born!)

      1. Dear Cara,
        Thank you for your contribution to the DSF/Mezrab discussion. In all the comments I read there is a common goal: putting storytelling on a higher/widder level. It would be great if the DSF had a centre as I ones vistited in Edinburgh. And there is a growing number of proffesional storytelling working/training together, although on a small scale. Yep, a long way to go.
        I attend most of the meetingdays of DFS, organized them as well and I have to make a small comment where you write ” One of the main things that put me off the Dutch event I attended was the idea that all the listeners were invited to give critical feedback for the tellers at the end. While this has a place, I think I would have been petrified to take the stage there. ”
        This feedback issue was an idea born from the storytellers on stage; they asked for feedback in order to improve their storytelling. Since this was done in a safe and friendly place, they were not afraid to enter the stage. Had you been there more then ones you mabye would have felt the safty.
        Having sad that I shere your wish to connect and work together with all who love telling and listening to stories.
        Eric Borrias

      2. Hi Cara and all others,

        Thanks for your comments about storytelling in the Netherlands. Great to hear about your experiences and insights. We share the idea of enhancing the development of many different storytelling styles, cultures and target groups. And I also agree with your wish for a stronger storytelling scene in NL where (professional) training and feedback is possible. The Dutch Storytelling Foundation supports all these goals strongly, but is not able to realize them all by itself. Why?
        DSF is not a professional organization, the boardmembers are all volunteers. DSF is a foundation for all storytellers, supporting professionals and amateurs alike. DSF has many wishes and goals, but very few funds. That limits our range tremendously. Changes are slowly made, wishes fulfilled in due time.
        By the way: our meetings in Utrecht thrice a year are not an open stage like Mezrab, but a mixture of information, education, performing, conversation and exchange of ideas. We welcome many types of storytellers and -telling, but amateurs are the majority visting. Many professionals in NL do not find time to attend DSF meetings or are simply not interested. That’s a thing we all regret, it even worries us, but we can’t change this instantly.
        However, I’d like to share your wishes – and that of Sahand – with the other boardmembers of DSF. In particular your ideas about education/ workshops and meetings for (upcoming) professional storytellers. Allthough there are many short storytelling courses in NL and some very nice storytelling educations like the Vertelacademie and Nationale Vertelschool, there are very few trainings/ workshops for (starting or experienced) professionals. We will surely discuss this in the near future.

        All the best,

        Gottfrid van Eck
        boardmember Dutch Storytelling Foundation

  3. Interestingly, the Dutch foundation is reaching out to you and your community Sahand. From an organizational point of view, I think it’s interesting to reach back. As you know, I am a huge Mezrab storytelling fan, and it’s gotten better and better as it’s gotten more and more personal. At the same time, when I do hear the (thankfully) rare traditional story now, I am drawn to it and more interested than I was when traditional stories were more dominant. The DSF clearly needs you and Mezrab, and if they are serious about including more diversity, it would be great to try and help. The last think I want, however, is an event solely devoted to classic stories. Sorry….

  4. YESS I’m old and gray, and proud of both.
    The amount of smiles attracted by the stories I’ve told.. innumerable. That’s what keeps my storytelling ticking. I wish every storyteller that many or more smiles. Some of us like this style, some of us an other. But being different doesn’t have anything to do with being “better”.
    When Sahand is ready for a change in Stichting Vertellen. Join them.Lots of work tot do.
    Hug, Hermine van Helden

  5. Dear Eric, Cara, Tori, Lora, Rob, Gottfrid, Saar and Hok,

    Thanks for your insightful comments and replies. I’ve also received a few mails in my personal inbox. You’ve given me lots of food for thought, I’ll write an answer tonight about it! In the mean time, let me also thank you for your unwavering commitment to the story!


  6. Ik voel een onbedwingbare drang om te reageren, en in het Nederlands.Wie het wil vertalen, gaat zijn/haar gang maar.
    Een oordeel vellen op basis van een eerste bezoek over de hele Nederlandse vertelwereld, kan niet anders dan de plank misslaan.

    Ik krijg een etiket opgeplakt, van buitenaf, op grond van een enkele ontmoeting, en eerlijk gezegd, dat soort gedrag maakt me woest!
    Ik ben zo vrij om op met name die etikettenplakkerij in te gaan.

    Als meisje van 6 mocht ik niet meer meedoen met het voetballen met de jongetjes uit de buurt. Ik was immers een meisje? En meisjes kunnnen niet voetballen, toch?
    Als kind stond ik er altijd een beetje buiten, buiten de kennissen en vrienden en lotgenogen van mijm vader. Ik was immers in Nederland geboren, blank, had niet in een kamp gezeten en was van na de oorlog? Het hoofd van de lagere school vond dat ik later wel een luie huisvrouw zou worden. Als meisje werd je immers huisvrouw?
    Als dochter van een behanger ging ik toch niet studeren? En ik zou zo nog wel even door kunnen gaan…

    En nu word ik weer geclassificeerd als 50+, White Native Dutch.En dan vertel je kennelijk op één bepaalde manier. En je zult daar maar allergisch voor zijn!
    Even gemakkelijk zou ik jou, Sahand, van buitenaf het etiket 50-,white native dutch op kunnen plakken.

    Ik voor mij heb in het verhalen vertellen de grootst denkbare vorm van vrijheid gevonden. Ik begon met vertellen toen ik 15 was. En stapte in de ‘Dutch story scene’,die toen nog veel kleiner was, toen ik 27 was. Kijk, als je maar lang genoeg gezond bent en maar blijft vertellen, word je vanzelf 50+.

    Ik wil iedereen altijd graag aanmoedigen om iedereen te ontmoeten,niet eenmalig, maar herhaaldelijk, om elkaar echt te leren kennen. Ik ben dol op bruggen slaan.

    Maar laat dan alstjeblieft je etiketten thuis.

    Vertellers kunnen over allerlei grenzen heen stappen, als mens en als verteller.

    Ik kan je/jullie verzekeren dat de Nederlandse vertelwereld veel groter en rijker is dan je op grond van die ene dag kunt weten.

    Desirée van Keulen

    1. Too bad I missed the DSF event for an equally NWD Cultural happening: iceskating. Nevertheless I admire you, Sahand, for braving the settled bravado, for infusing some of your spirit of youth, savoir vivre and internationality to the DSF. In this light, your sweep-of-arm judgment may be readily forgiven because your outspoken point sings not just of youth but of truth.
      Having said that, as Desiree quite rightly points out, being an over 50 NWD woman does not necessarily make one a knitting granny. When we do knit – and its all the current thing – more stories than socks come off the needles.
      Knitting is a weaving together of differences, turning longwinding yarn into useful or beautiful creations. To do this meaningfully, we need sharp needles like the cultural stimulants you offer, we need these clashes in the field, even if they are sharp, for each fresh approach brings in new slants, new riches of the mind and community. Some ideas may be embraced, some meekly accepted, some abhorred. We all need a Taliesin sometimes, someone very different, someone like you, or me, to make us realise the blrp blrp drooling from our set and senile thinking – and make us reconsider. We are all in a sense, Sir Gawain, shocked by the Lady Ragnel whose glory lies hidden behind a veil of infamiliarity; prejudice and disgust doing the rest of their destructive work. Its an old, old tale all over again.
      See, this is where old tales come in useful.
      For knitting, we don’t just need needles. We need yarn.
      The Grimm tales are simply some of the many dresses of the One Tale. In Grimm’s case, the dress may be unflatteringly draped over the sturdy, stuffy, corseted, overly romanticised framework of the 19th century, when Grimm Brothers wrote them all down, ready for the Adepts of Fear to freeze them into canon and kill the life out of them. Fair enough. Still, the stories use what they can to survive. In a time when knowledge of the One tale was life-endangering, the nursery and knitting needles were the one safe haven to hide the jewelled brilliance and the beautiful sorrow of the One Tale. Stories can’t help what we do to them, just like we can’t help aging, or being white, or female, or foreign.
      Should we dump the sorry Grimm tales, in exchange for the self-exposures readily found at any open podium or tv show worldwide, with loud boisterous young males of all ages and genders displaying their brilliant verbal feathers for all to admire?
      Think again.
      Perhaps, we might find value in the sturdy, time-tested lock, stock and barrel stuff of old classic tales, that provide such a strong basis for storytelling.
      The only thing we can and must do, is keep lively minds and hearts. Especially our hearts, (body too, occasionally choosing iceskating over stories ). As storytellers, we must forever continue the embracing and chasing and telling the One Story on and on and on in its myriad beautiful, mind-baffling, irritating and illuminating forms to all who want to listen.
      And perhaps, occasionally, to some, who don’t. Tell me about it.

      Debora Zachariasse, De Magische Bongerd

  7. What is a good place for storytelling?

    I was in Utrecht, and left early to tell stories in the Hammam in Dordrecht. Audience in Dordrecht: twelve women in their underwear. Storytellers: two young actresses who have their roots in Turkey and Marocco and me – 50/white/Indonesian roots, but no one can see that. Also in our underwear (Sorry Sahand: no men allowed in)
    It is one of those other kinds of storytelling called ‘Hammamverhalen.’ A bit of storytelling, a bit of theatre, a lot of soap and steam.
    Stories told: our own and those we found in interviews with other women. I love working together with these two women, who would never call themselves storytellers. At the end of the evening we asked the women for their stories. Stories came. One women in the audience suggested that we collect all the e-mail adresses, and come back soon.
    Two kind of stories told on one day, since I also told a fairy tale in Utrecht.
    Because I love that particular fairy tale.
    And I loved to tell it to so many people who love storytelling.

    I don’t think there should be such a thing as scenes in storytelling.
    Yet I recognize your observation and share some of your worries.
    Let’s make and keep storytelling worthwhile & meaningfull.
    Let’s make it fun & sexy, serious fun
    Let’s make it inviting.
    let’s make it for everybody: young, old, trendy and old fashioned.

    You’re right: Let’s not make one kind of storytelling better than others
    Let’s keep on trying, developing, sharing stories in many places.
    For children, and for adults and for both.
    The only thing I would like to ban is to call it: ‘verhaaltjes vertellen’.
    Even if the story lasts only one minute, let’s treasure it as a story worth telling.
    And let’s spend our energy to fight those people who wonder what storytellers do for a living.



  8. This is what I wrote to email-group of the dutch Storytellers foundation and the magazine “Er was eens”

    Hallo allemaal

    Hi everyone

    Ik schrijf hier met enige schroom, want ik ben een nieuweling in de vertellers wereld.

    It is with some doubt that I write this, for I am pretty new in the world of storytellers.

    Ik volg een leerroute aan de Vertelacademie en heb tijdens de laatste ontmoetingsdag de eer gehad om een sprookje te mogen vertellen.

    I skill myself in the art of storytelling at The Vertel academie and was one of the people that had the honor to be alowed to tell a story during the last meeting day of the dutch storytellers Foundation.

    De eerste plek waar ik ooit heb mogen/durven vertellen was Mezrab; op een podium dat geen podium wil zijn, maar een ontmoetingsplek van mensen, die van verhalen vertellen/luisteren houden.

    The 1st space that I ever was alowed/dared to tell a story was at Mezrab, on a stage that doesn’t wanna be a stage, but more a meetingplace for people who love stories as well as listening/telling.

    Ook mij is geregeld ter ore gekomen, dat vertellen iets is voor en door ouderen, ik kon dit nooit zo goed plaatsen, want hoewel ik bij het vertelfestifal in Maastricht of Amsterdam wel zag dat ik (50) niet de jongste bezoeker was, valt het me in Mezrab regelmatig op dat ik daar één van de ouderen ben. Zo vertelde ik daar afgelopen Vrijdag op de engelstalige verhalenavond voor ruim 120 mensen, waarvan het gros onder de 30 was. Niet alleen dat ze er waren, maar een flink aantal zat daar als een kind letterlijk met open mond te luisteren naar de meest uiteenlopende soorten vertelsels te luisteren. Ook in de pauzes werd er druk nagepraat. toen Sahand er uiteindelijk rond middernacht een punt achter zette, was nog niet iedereen die wilde aan bod geweest.

    I am told by several people too that storytelling is something for old and grey people, but I could never really understand what that was about. True, when I was at the storytelling Festival in Maastricht and Amsterdam I noticed that I (50) was absolutely not one of the youngest listener there. However, last Friday I told a story at the English story-night at Mezrab. There were over the 120 people, mostly under the age of 30. And not only they were there, many of them listened to a wide range of stories, like little kids with open mouths. Even in the breaks people were still talking about what they heared and about Mezrab itself. When Sahand ended the evening, around midnight, there were still people willing to tell a story as well as volunteers to listen.

    Zo gaat het daar 3 avonden per maand. De entree is weleenswaar gratis, de pot voor de vrijwillige bijdrage levert de huur van een complete gallerie op.

    At Mezrab, it goes like that for 3 nights every month. There is no charge at the entry, but the jar where people can donate seems to bring in enough to pay the rent of a complete gallery.

    Zelf ben ik, als ik maar even kan, op die avonden en telkens zitten ze vol, met telkens weer nieuwe mensen. Er wordt inmiddels al druk gezocht naar een groter pand, omdat (met name op de engelstalige avonden) mensen letterlijk met hun rug tegen de muur of direct binnen de deur moeten blijven staan vanwege het ruimtegebrek. Je zou toch zeggen dat er in Amsterdam en met name op de vrijdagavonden genoeg te doen is op het gebied van uitgaan en cultuur, maar kennelijk is Mezrab hot, nu al een aantal jaren op rij.

    Whenever I can, I attend the evenings there, and every time they are filled up, with many new people too. I was told that they are already on the lookout for a new bigger building, for (especially on the English story nights) people have to stand with their backs against the wall, or they can enter, but have to stay just behind the door, for there just isn’t more space inside. I would say there is enough entertainment and culture on an average Friday night in Amsterdam, But I assume Mezrab is just HOT and that for several years in a row now.

    Desalniettemin, ben ik zelf ook een verteller die erg van sprookjes houdt, en als mensen graag op een podium willen staan is er voor mij niets mis mee. Een mooie goed in elkaar gezette vertel voorstelling kun je mij ook voor wakker maken, maar ik ben met Sahand eens dat er meer is dan dat. Ook onder jongeren is een enorme behoefte aan plekken waar waar ze (laagdrempelig of zelfs drempelloos) hun verhalen (onder leiding van een boeiende verteller)met elkaar kunnen delen. Ik zou me inderdaad kunnen voorstellen dat Stichting vertellen en “Er was eens” Sahands jonge honden feedback ter harte zou kunnen nemen want er liggen ook volgens mij kansen.

    However, I am a storyteller who loves to tell and listen (to) fairy tales myself and if people like to stand on a stage, I don’t think there is anything wrong with it. For a good and prepared story, you can wake me up at night, but I agree with Sahand, when he says that storytelling is more then that. There is a definite need for (young) people (too) for space without any kind of threshold, where they can share their stories with a skilled storyteller as host. I would say that the dutch Storytellers Foundation and the Magazine could benefit from the feedback’s that the young dog Sahand came up with.
    I think that here are chances.

    Vriendelijk groet, van een vriend van Raymond den Boesterd (mijn leraar) en Sahand Sahebdivani (mijn mentor)

    A friendly greeting, from a friend of Raymond den Boesterd (my teatcher) and Sahand Sahebdivani (my mentor)

    Marin Millenaar

  9. Thanks for further comments Desiree, Hermine, Nancy, Marin and Debora. I’ve written a short post on the blog to continue our discussion. For some reason it came out as a big chunk of text, but I’ll try to fix it soon.i

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