An interview with Janet Dowling

Hello and welcome to the new Surrey Storytellers blog! We’re intending on posting about all things story-related, from reviews to musings on material, and hopefully will get to introduce a few guest writers on the way.

As you probably know, we’re celebrating our tenth anniversary, and therefore I’d like to start with a look back into the past. Surrey Storytellers originated as the brainchild of Janet Dowling and, while she no longer lives in Surrey, we’re  still in contact. I was lucky enough to catch up with Janet (via the wonderful medium of technology!) and ask her a few questions. I hope you enjoy the interview.

Hi Janet! To start with can you tell us a bit about yourself? Were you born in Surrey or did you move there later?

I’d been living in Surrey since 1992, having come from the East End of London. I grew up in Barking, Essex the eldest of 5 children, and my job was to keep them quiet with a story. When I was 7, my uncle came back from “down under”. After the Second World War he had gone to Australia to try his luck as an electrician, and worked his way back home through Australia, New Zealand, the USA and Canada. He told us the tales of his journeys and some of the traditional stories too. Some people say I tell stories with a slight Australian accent, and I guess it came from modelling him as a storyteller. I moved to Devon permanently in 2015, having been there part time since 2011.

How did you discover storytelling and develop into a professional teller?

I trained as a psychiatric social worker and met a psychologist who used storytelling as part of his therapeutic work, and he showed me how to do it. I was fortunate when I started in a psychiatric hospital, that my supervisor was also interested in myth and legend and how they could be applied to the therapeutic work. I worked with therapeutic groups on the wards and in the community.

I introduced a fable and asked the group members about their responses to it. I found that as the patients discovered they had different points of view about the content of the story, they became more animated in discussing it because it was separate to their personal material. By referencing the metaphoric stuff, they had to draw on their own emotional material and in turn were learning to be more open to change. With a group of women suffering from depression, I used some of the longer tales such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, and as I found different variants, they explored how their own story could change. In family therapy, a similar discussion around a fable enabled families to understand the different ways how they communicated.

In the meantime I was a Morris dancer. I had a back injury while Morris dancing on a picket line in 1978, that meant I couldn’t always dance, and I got called upon to do the announcing. To “keep” the audience occupied between dances, I would tell some short stories while the rest of the team caught their breath back. And in all of this time I didn’t know about the wider storytelling world- all I knew was that I was working with metaphor.

In 1994 my Morris team was performing at Sidmouth Folk Festival, an event I’d been coming to since 1976. Alas, the back was very bad, so I couldn’t even make it to the Morris workshops, so I wandered into a voice workshop by Sheila Stewart teaching the “Coynach”. Dan Keding and Liz Weir were also at the festival and I saw both of them telling to adults. I recognised this was what I had been doing for years in a different way.

I went to one of Dan’s workshops on telling a personal story. I shook my head, convinced myself that I didn’t have a story, but within 5 mins of walking away, I remembered an incident in my life and another five minutes later it was a fully formed story. Somewhat arrogantly I entered the Sidmouth Storytelling competition. Didn’t win of course- but got lots of good feedback, and was encouraged by Dan, Liz and Sheila to tell the story at the story rounds. I now tell that story every year at Sidmouth folk week. (It can be found here – I wrote the article in 1999.)

I went back home, and started to attend every story round I could reach, and every course I could get on. I learned my basic skills from Fiona Collins through Storytelling in Hope – a 90 mile round trip for four weekly 2 hour classes, but worth it. From 1998 I attended the week-long storytelling workshops prior to FATE. I learned more skills from Grace Hallworth (“open mouth let words jump out”), Kelvin Hall (“tell it from the genitals”), Mary Medlicott (“what images are you drawn to”), Shonaleigh Cumbers (“five points of view”), Dan Keding (“keep tight to the frame around your head”), and Liz Weir (“ask yourself what the listener needs to hear”). Their lessons stay with me today.

In 2000 I decided to go part time from the day job. I got a part time post with the Social Services Inspectorate – and part of the role was to ask service users about their story of using the services! Once you understand the structure of a story, it’s easier to encourage people to tell their story, because then you know what is “missing”, and can ask them about it. My bosses were very impressed with the quality of my client interviews. Because of the part time nature of the job, and the need to be full time when doing inspections at times I could take six weeks’ time off in lieu, and I was able to take advantage of this to attend a six week course on “Storytelling as a Healing Art” with Nancy Mellon at what was then Emerson College in Forest Row, Sussex.

At the same time I had started to promote myself as a storyteller, and during National Storytelling Week 2003 I offered free slots to local charities. This included the Children’s Trust, in Tadworth, Surrey who worked with children recovering from acquired brain injury, and children with profound, multiple and learning disabilities (PMLD). I was so impressed by the children, and could see how they responded to the stories, I offered to tell for free on a regular basis. After six months I was asked if I could help them apply for funding for a therapeutic storyteller one day a week for a year, from the Roald Dahl Foundation. They were successful, and I worked with them for three years, one day a week, eventually being funded out of their own resources.

I learned a lot from observing the children responding to the stories, and that repeated telling of the same stories with sensory objects enabled the child to anticipate what was coming next, and become excited about it. I realised that register, recognise and remember were important part of try, try, try again, and that the transformation part of the story is where the listener has remembered, they can now anticipate, learn and now change the direction of the story- to success. Never underestimate the power of telling a story- even the slightest flicker of movement in a paraplegic child can indicate that they are responding, or even if they appear to do nothing, they may have ceased their restless or distressed movements. I later went to work with Bag Books who make sensory story books for children and adults with PMLD, and trained librarians across London how to use them.

By this time the Department of Health was trying to downsize, and were offering packages for people to leave. I decided that as I was getting a lot of storytelling work (I sometimes had to take leave from my day job to do them) I’d take the leap and use the lump sum as my cushion to become a storyteller.
My first year as a full time storyteller was challenging as I got used to working in schools, balancing it with work as a therapeutic storyteller, and working in museums. I was fortunate to be appointed one of two resident storytellers at the London Transport Museum and I did much of their outreach work across London while the museum was closed and refurbished. I also introduced myself to Jeremy Harte at the Bourne Hall museum, and over the years did numerous projects for them.

Somehow I got involved with helping with the organising of the 2001 SfS gathering at Arlington. I decided to offers my services as a director and joined the board for three years. During that time I surveyed the SfS members to develop a 5 year plan for the society which reflected the members’ needs, concerns and aspirations. There was a lot of excitement from some members who felt that the SfS now had a way forward that was transparent and responsive to the membership. Unfortunately, when I stood down for personal reasons the business plan was dropped and the SfS went in a different direction.

In the meantime I wanted to develop therapeutic storytelling as a private practice and trained as an Eriksonian hypnotherapist in 2006. This is based on the work by Milton Erikson who used storytelling as his mode of support- much as I had done. I also trained as a Cruse bereavement volunteer. I was now using storytelling and metaphor to facilitate clients make their own changes in both the private and voluntary sector on a regular basis. The same year I was awarded a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust fellowship to go to the US and Canada to look at how storytelling was used in the care of the dying and bereaved.

How did the club come into being? How did you meet the other Three Heads?

I wanted to create a community of storytellers in Surrey. In October 2000 I started the Storytelling circle in Kingston at the Douglas Centre and it ran for 18 months. A year later, I started another monthly storytelling circle in my house. At that point we called it the Surrey Storytellers Guild and were given some money by a local arts group to run some storytelling events during their Arts festival- thus necessitating the need for a bank account and a constitution! I was secretary, Jeff Ridge was treasurer and Patrick Buckingham was chair. The story circle again lasted 18 months.

For the next few years I mainly fielded questions about storytelling and put people in touch. When Alex Somerville moved into the area in 2007, I again suggested running a story club together. The Society for Storytelling had been given some money (“The Goldfish Money”) to support events during National Storytelling Week 2008 and I was able to secure some funding with the help of Jeremy Harte at Bourne Hall museum. Jeremy also put us in touch with Caroline Baldock who had contacted him about storytelling. We agreed to work together and call the storytelling club “Three Heads in a Well” to reflect that there were three of us, and a play on the name of the place where the club run- Ewell. This time the club would have an open mike session, and a featured storyteller.

For the first year we called on local storytellers in Surrey and South London, and people were happy to do an evening of storytelling for petrol money! The first meeting was in March 2008 and Alex Somerville was the featured storyteller, I did April 2008, and Caroline did May 2008. Other local storytellers who took part were Patrick Buckingham, Christine Stone, Kate Porter and John Cannon. First through the door on the opening night were Melanie and Bob Weatheral. They were enthusiastic supporters of the club, and when Bob sadly died, Melanie gave financial help to the club in Bob’s name which has contributed significantly to its continued existence.

I had meetings with local storytellers and we drew up a five year plan of what we wanted to achieve. Alex and I also met with the Surrey Arts development officer and had a Surrey Storytelling Steering Group consisting of representatives from museums, libraries, schools and adult education. This was the back bone to our successful grant to the Arts Council. It included the Surrey Serendipity Storytelling Project – where we worked with one secondary school and their three catchment primary schools. Alex Somerville worked in the secondary schools teaching storytelling skills to year 10 boys ( one of which, Charlie Goodair, went on to enter the Young Storyteller competition twice) and I worked with the three primary schools ( years 6) on storytelling skills which focused around transition between schools. It culminated in an event where the year 10 boys told stories to an audience composed of the three classes from the three primaries. The teachers reported that the impact of seeing the year 10 boys storytelling was a profound experience for the year 6 children and good role models. Alas- when the Arts officer left there was not sufficient interest to continue meeting, but the links did enable several other storytelling projects to happen. On the other hand, we did achieve 90% of what we had set out in the five year plan!

As Surrey Storytellers Guild we also developed a second story club in Surrey at Farnham Maltings.

You also set up Waxing Lyrical – do you have a particular interest in training new storytellers?

I am passionate about enabling people to find their voice as storytellers- whether they are telling personal, traditional or created stories. I had been running a successful beginners workshop at Sidmouth Folk Week for a number of years, and as part of National Storytelling Week in 2009 I ran a day workshop for beginners in Ewell. I had 20 people (including Belinda McKenna.) The night before the workshop we had had our first paid storyteller, Jamie Crawford, telling his Arthur story and moving candles around the room which had dripped wax on the new carpets! At the end of the workshop Belinda and someone else stayed behind to help me clear the wax. As we were doing so, they said they would like to have a safe place to practice their stories, and Belinda, as she was wielding the iron over the wax said, “ and you could call it ‘waxing lyrical’.”

Thus Waxing Lyrical the story coaching and practice group was born. It was always part of the ethos of the club to develop local voices and support beginners. When Melanie made her donation to the club in Bob’s memory we were able to fund a weekend from a professional storyteller in November- to mark Bob’s birthday- that included a performance on the Friday and a masterclass for local storytellers the next day. I led on running Waxing Lyrical with support from Belinda McKenna, Richard Trouncer and Alex. As part of the Arts Council bid Alex had run a beginners workshop in Farnham and in time we set up another Waxing Lyrical there which was eventually supported by Terri Howie and Belinda McKenna.

Over time we developed a Storytelling pathway for encouraging new storytellers which went from basic beginners workshops, coaching and practice group, open mike at THIW , masterclasses with invited guest storytellers, up and comers evening at THIW , local storyteller slot at THIW and then the exchange programme we developed with other clubs ( “we swap you one of our good ones for one of your good ones”).

Richard Trouncer, Terrie Howey, Belinda McKenna , Patrick Buckingham, Tricia Chilton, Paul Henry and Alastair Daniel all supported the club either by being on the committee or active on club nights. The succession planning worked, and I was able to leave the reins of the Surrey Storytellers Guild in safe hands, and they continue to run as strong as ever.

Were there any moments you found particularly challenging, or that you would change with the benefit of hindsight?

I think the most challenging part was when we had a big name storyteller booked, and we had done a lot of promoting for him with a near full house. We always asked guests to arrive by 7pm at the latest. This night the guest arrived at 8:30pm to go on at 8:45pm. That was nail biting, and I spent all the first half of the evening outside, waiting for the guest to arrive. In the end he did an hour, and left by 10 pm.

As well as forming Surrey Storytellers, you also wrote Surrey Folk Tales – how did you go about collecting these stories?

There had already been some collections of Surrey folk tales- and so I used them to look at their source material to find other stories. I haunted libraries and museums in different parts of Surrey for their local history booklets, and many churches record their local stories in their church magazine and read lots of old books on Surrey. Jeremy Harte was very helpful. He was researching Surrey Folklore and as he found a reference to a folktale he passed it on to me. But the main thing was to visit the site of where the tale was supposed to have happened, and walk the landscape so that some local detail went into the story.

I’ve just completed a collection of Devon Ghost Tales for the History Press. I did over 60 site visits and retold 20 stories. It got me out exploring the landscape! I’m also working on a novel incorporating folk tales and folklore! Its due out in Oct 2018.

You mentioned that you moved to Devon a little while ago – what are you up to down there?

I started a storytelling club in Sidmouth about two years ago, with a professional storyteller to perform and some open mike to encourage the development of local storytellers. However I didn’t have a pool of local experienced storytellers to feature just for petrol money while I was building up audience numbers, so I was paying a near professional fee. Alas just before Christmas I hit the line of the amount I was prepared to lose, so I closed it. But we ran for two years and had about 18 guests.

However, I also run an afternoon storytelling café once a month (we get 12-20 people attending of whom at least 10 tell on a regular basis- I don’t get a story in!) and I run a storytelling coaching and practice group for 5 local storytellers. Two of them are now doing regular storytelling in the local museum and library, and we all do guerrilla storytelling in local cafes during National Storytelling Week and various other community events.

When I moved here two years ago there was only one story circle in Devon, now there are 7 and three other groups also put on professional storyteller evenings so storytelling is blossoming in Devon and we all link up.

I am also now running a fortnightly Storytelling Café on Sid Valley Radio where I plan to have a mix of local people telling personal and traditional stories of the area, some local storytellers talking about their work and telling some stories, and playing tracks from storytelling CDs that I have been collecting.

If you could give one piece of advice to those running the club now, what would it be?

For anyone running a club I would say don’t expect to use the storytelling club as a place to promote yourself, but as a place to facilitate your audience to enjoy storytelling. The best nights are when so many local people are inspired to tell stories that I don’t get a look in! The rewards will flow from that!

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