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Lao, British storytellers share their love of folktales

A professional Lao storyteller, Siphai Thammavong, and his British partner Polly Tisdall have been taking to the stage to give animated renditions of traditional Lao and British folk tales.
The pair began by entertaining rapt audiences in Luang Prabang, Laos, followed by the duo’s first ever stage appearance in the United Kingdom, at a venue in Birmingham.
Polly has been telling stories professionally since being named Young Storyteller of the Year 2011 in a UK national competition.
She has since told stories at festivals, theatres, schools, museums and art galleries and uses storytelling and folk practice to inform her theatre work too (she also works as a theatre director and actor).
Polly tells traditional folktales from around the world and chooses stories which she feels a connection to and often stories with strong female protagonists.

Polly joins in activities with Lao storytellers.

She particularly enjoys telling stories about flight and journeys into the night sky - like the Akha story that Siphai and she tell, called ‘Frog Eats Moon’.
Siphai first developed an interest in the art of storytelling back in 2014 at the Garavek Storytelling Theatre in Luang Prabang.
He tells stories in English, so most of the people who turn up to his shows are tourists, but all of the stories are taken from traditional Lao folktales and evoke times past in Luang Prabang.
Siphai very much enjoys his work and loves sharing characterful Lao insights with visitors.
Polly first travelled to Laos in 2016. While she was walking up the steps of Mount Phousi, she saw a flier advertising the Garavek storytelling show a day before her last day in Luang Prabang.
Then her credit card got swallowed in a cash machine so she had to sort everything out and was worried that she would have no access to money for the rest of her trip.
But she was determined to see the show that evening and borrowed some money from a friend so she could buy a ticket.
“I was so pleased that I went,” she enthused. “The Garavek show was the only storytelling event that I came across in my travels in South-East Asia. I was fascinated by the stories and their similarities and differences to European stories.”
She particularly loved the tale about the giant and the heart beating under the palace and was interested to find that the riddle that Siphai tells at the beginning of the Garavek show is very similar to a Welsh story she knows.
Polly decided to take the contact details of the show’s performer in case she was able to organise a project in the future.
A few months later Polly came across a funding opportunity - the Artists’ International Development Fund offered by Arts Council England and the British Council - and thought this might be a good fund to apply to for an international project.
She immediately thought of the Garavek Storytelling Theatre and emailed another storyteller there named Mike and also messaged Nick, the director, on Facebook.
Mike and Nick put her in touch with Siphai and she then put together a funding application, with the help of Garavek and the two British storytelling clubs: Beeston Tales, run by Tim Ralphs, and the Birmingham Storytelling Cafe, run by Sharon Carr-Wu.
“Even though Siphai and I had never met, I understood from Nick that he was the most experienced storyteller at Garavek and I was excited to get to know him and work with him,” Polly said.
“I thought it would be fascinating to learn from a storyteller in another culture and to share our stories and our approaches to performance.”
In December 2016 Polly was given US$5,000 to fund a short project to develop international-facing artists; there was no expectation to make a show! But she felt that the best way to practice storytelling was in front of an audience and she was keen to share her work with audiences in both the UK and Laos.
Polly came back to Luang Prabang in April 2017 and worked with Siphai for two weeks. They spent several days sharing and researching stories with one another; Polly would tell a story from Europe and then Siphai would tell one from Laos.
They met with Tara at the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre and also Gabriel from the Luang Prabang Film Festival, who were very helpful in putting them in contact with local village heads.
Siphai took Polly to villages outside of Luang Prabang to talk to local storytellers.
In each village they managed to find some storytellers who welcomed them into their homes.
After listening to their stories Polly also told a story in English, which Siphai translated.
Then they asked the tellers about their stories: where did they first hear them?; where and when did they tell their stories now?; who were their audiences?
The tellers all said they had heard the stories mostly when they were children, either out in the rice fields or sometimes while giving their parents a massage.
But now the children and young people in their villages were not very interested in hearing their stories and were more interested in technology.
One storyteller said “When I die, my stories will die with me.”
“This is a common thread all over the world; these amazing stories are being lost. Hearing this made Siphai and I even more passionate about our project,” Polly said.
At the end of two weeks in Laos they chose some of the stories they had shared with each other and collected from the villages and rehearsed them to make an hour-long show.
They invited local people to come to see the show at the Garavek Theatre.
“We made use of both Lao and English throughout the show so that everybody could learn and understand, and I had a go at speaking some Lao as well. In the end we had about 20 people come and they were able to give us some feedback. It was a great end to the first half of the exchange,” Polly said.
The second half of the exchange took place in September when Siphai went to Bristol in the UK for two weeks.
They did two performances-in Nottingham at Beeston Tales and in Birmingham at the Birmingham Storytelling Cafe.
It was a great pleasure for both of them because the audience really enjoyed the mix of European and Asian tales and the combination of languages.
There was lots of laughter!
They also worked with a local community walking group for the over 50s which is coordinated by St. Monica’s Trust and the people in the group shared their stories of the local landscape.
They also went to an informal storytelling night in Bath where they shared some stories and Siphai could see more of the British storytelling culture.
At the end of the project Siphai and Polly discussed what they had learnt from one another.
Polly said she learnt culture, new stories and new story structures. Lao and Asian stories often have a different shape and different sorts of endings compared to European stories and they can be surprising.
She was fascinated to learn that the oral tradition still exists in Laos but that it is dying out. She was amazed by the local storytellers she met.
“I have a different style of storytelling from Siphai; my storytelling is more dramatic - I stand up and use lots of gestures but Siphai is still and makes smaller movements.”
Siphai said his time with Polly had been useful, both in Laos and the UK, because they learnt a lot of things from each other and this was the first time he had explored European storytelling.
“It was also my first step in working with a foreign storyteller. It showed me that I could do well so I intend to work with more people and go to other countries to show people the Lao tradition of storytelling and learn more from them,” Siphai said.
Siphai and Polly’s joint storytelling has come to an end for now but both of them are proud of what they achieved and hope they can do something similar in the future, both in Laos and the UK, and possibly somewhere else in Asia.
They are determined to preserve Lao stories and encourage the telling of them.

By Patithin Phetmeuangphuan
(Latest Update November 16, 2017)


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