National Storytelling Week: Interview with Professor Joseph Sobol

Professor Joseph Sobol

To mark National Storytelling Week (30 January – 6 February), we speak to Professor Joseph Sobol, Director of the George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling.

Joseph’s recent book, Liars, Damn Liars, and Storytellers: Essays on Traditional and Contemporary Storytelling, has received a Storytelling World Award for Outstanding Storytelling Resource 2020-21.

Tell us about the George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling at USW

The GEECS is the first academic research centre in the UK that is devoted to the study of storytelling and its applications. We believe storytelling creates better understanding between individuals and communities across society. Our expertise includes digital storytelling, applied and community arts, folkloric studies, performance, oral history and storytelling in health and social care.

Tell us about your career up until joining USW

For 17 years I was the director of a Storytelling Masters programme at East Tennessee State University, in the US. I was both teaching and coordinating that programme, which was divided between Performance and Applied Storytelling. The job at USW was too good an opportunity to pass up. It was a culmination of a long immersion in the theoretical as well as the practical aspects of storytelling in higher education. I'm also the co-editor of an international journal of Storytelling studies, called Storytelling, Self, Society; this position is also a good platform for that.

How did your work in the US differ to storytelling here in the UK?

In the US, there’s a much greater focus on personal stories; autobiographical tales, and here in the UK that’s almost unknown, except in the outposts of the new performance art storytelling called “The Moth,” which has made its way over here recently.

But the storytelling scene here is much more involved with mythology, folklore; local legends and ancient myths. That’s where the professional performing storytellers are at, and they do it extremely well. They’ve cultivated a great fluency and depth of knowledge and repertoire. When the storytelling revival in the US began in the 1970s, things started out with folklore, but very quickly – because Americans can't stop talking about themselves – it morphed into more personal stories.

Storytelling here, at least in the applied side of things, is very strongly identified with digital storytelling – with the kind of moderately medium tech of digital storytelling, where you get a very simple camcorder rig and editing tools to shape your own audio-visual stories around a given theme, and then post that on the web, which connects it to what's happening with social media. That was a huge initiative that first came about through BBC Wales, and the Centre was very involved with that in the early days with a project called Capture Wales. That was a big part of the foundation of the Centre.

What changes in storytelling have you seen since the Covid-19 pandemic?

The onlining of storytelling was happening before the pandemic. The movement of cultural activities toward online and social media platforms was well advanced. But the pandemic put that way over the top, when all of a sudden all live venues and interactive activities shut down and we were forced online. And that has been both the fulfilment of a promise that was simmering there, and also it's a great loss. So there's a certain amount of grief as well as a tentative excitement. Working with the grief of the loss of the personal, co-present environments, is mingled in equal measure with the adventure of going online and the technological developments that support it—like Zoom, Facetime Live, YouTube, Vimeo, all that. It's a scary and highly fraught time, and you can see that in the politics – in the division in society over vaccines, over masks, over social policy, over almost everything you can name.

What are the Centre’s plans for the future?

I think the Centre has a lot to offer to Wales and to the world. Storytelling is a very appealing, entrancing, kind of a seductive word to describe the links between subjects and the expression of the subject. At the same time, it has this set of trivial associations – reading stories to children and so forth. Everybody loves reading a good story to children – so it has a very down-to-earth, childlike, innocent connotation, but not very sophisticated— except when you starting digging around beneath the surfaces of storytelling practices and find how rich and multi-layered they actually are. It's also prone to manipulation and has a dangerous, Luciferian aspect; seducing people into simplified narratives of the world, conspiracy theories and such. So we have to be very careful. Storytelling is exciting, it’s powerful and it’s dangerous. Becoming aware of that, working to help educate people about both the powers and the use and the misuse of stories – that’s where we want to be on the front lines.

What makes Wales so good at storytelling?

There's a great community of storytellers here. When I first got here I was just blown away by the quality and the depth of the storytellers, their friendliness and their openness. There's also a very distinctive repertoire centring around the Mabinogi – the really ancient mythological stories of Wales – and there is a coterie of people who have studied and really immersed themselves in that repertoire, and they do it awfully well. There's an important storytelling festival organisation called Beyond the Border, located here in South Wales, which has held a festival since the early 1990s. The mythological repertoire lends itself to telling stories in ancient castles, of which we have plenty here, so that’s where you’re likely to find the storytelling festivals and performances.

Wales is lovely country, and the people are particularly lovely – friendly, open, smart but not cynical. It's a lovely place to work and a lovely place to be—pandemic or no.

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