On a rainy night, in London and Wolverhampton, Story Jam’s Alys Torrance had a facebook chat with John Edgar about what goes on in Wolves, and why John tells the stories he tells, and why he tells stories at all. Grotowski, the state of journalism and the implacable lure of the forbidden – all covered before the Chinese takeaway arrived…
John tells There And Sometimes Back Again on Thurs 4th Feb at Story Jam.
Alys Torrance: Hello there. Got your cuppa?
John Edgar: Yup. Ready and set.
AT: So, Story Jam is delighted that you’re coming back, and starting off our Stories Road season. I’ve known you for ages. Were you telling stories already back in the nineties when I worked with you in Birmingham on an acting job?
JE: I started telling stories to audiences in February 1990. I’d sort of told stories as part of a musical performance I’d been giving for several years beforehand but 1990 was the year I told tales as a standalone show.
AT: So you’re a bit like Billy Connolly – you started off as a musician and the bits inbetween got longer?
JE: I think I was less of a musician than Billy Connolly. I think I believed the audience deserved more than my wailings and limited strummings. But, yes, I got more interested in the stories, which always felt more direct and spontaneous than the songs.
AT: Where were you telling your stories? Were people expecting you? Were there other people doing anything similar? Because there was plenty of comedy happening in the pubs and so on, and plenty of live music, but stories?
JE: There were a few patter merchants around the folk scene at the time. I was also writing and singing a lot of ballads at the time – still a feature of my telling – so it was a natural progression. I also thought the interaction was better, and far more exciting, with storytelling. My first storytelling was mainly in schools – where I still do most of my work – but wider audiences came shortly after.
AT: You have a quite incantatory voice when you’re telling stories. I’ve not heard anyone else do it in quite that way. Are you aware of it?
JE: It’s a legacy of drama days and I do tweak it a bit now and then. I think if I’ve got to do a whole evening (which I do in theatres and arts centres) I owe it to the audience to be as diverse and surprising as I can – both in content and style.
AT: you tell these fantastic atmospheric stories from Brittany and Cornwall and Wales – and Egypt this time round. (Does Egypt have a coast?) Why you tell the coastal stories. You’re from the Midlands, for heavens sake. Why would you tell stuff which is all about edges? What do you know of edges rather than middles, sir?
JE: I lived in Plymouth for a few years, and spent quite a bit of time in Cornwall and Brittany (still a regular haunt). I like the harshness of the stories – most of all, they stick with me. Also, storytellers usually have the privilege of only telling stories that they like. By chance, but not exclusively, a lot of the tales I tell are from the coast. Only about half of the Breton tales I tell have a sea theme and I only do a couple of Cornish ones (so far). The Egyptian element is from my urban myths show, Tales From A friend Of A Friend, and there’s quite a lot about travel in that. After all, it’s only when we go out of our comfort zone that adventures, sometimes bad ones, befall us.
AT: That’s why in stories people leave home, or their step mother’s sent them away. Being put somewhere Other is exciting.
JE: It’s when we stray off the path and treat warnings like some great wet paint notice. We know we’re going to touch it. We know we’re going to open the door. Good job too, or the stories wouldn’t be half so much fun.
AT: Talking of comfort zones, can I ask you a question I’ve asked other people? Often when I’m telling people about storytelling, usually waving a flyer at them, they say things like ‘Right, so there’ll be someone reading from, what?, something they’ve written themself, or is it another book?’. The idea of storytelling has disappeared over their horizon. Do you have that experience?
JE: Oh, yes. The other one I sometimes get is,”Which story are you going to be telling?” It’s less so than it used to be. I think, particularly up here, there’s a greater awareness of oral literature, although it does sometimes all get bracketed together under the banner of Spoken Word. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, in my opinion.
AT: I had a chat with Nick Hennessey, and he thought that sometimes the actual story you tell is less important than the act of telling it and hearing it, in a room together. The act of meeting up.
JE: I would agree with that. For me, my job is to tell people – and show them – amazing things. A good tale well told is a pretty unbeatable experience. It’s a sharing with the most important people in any story – the people it’s being told to.
AT: Quite. I often end Story Jam by reminding the audience that there are no stories without them.
JE: Well, quite. I sometimes talk to 6th formers about Grotowski, who believed, apparently, that you could have theatre without an audience, you could make theatre on your own. I tell them it’s like you can make love on your own. And, in my humble opinion, the same word applies to both.
AT: Ah Grotowski. Spent a lot of time plumbing his shallows in former days.
JE: I’m afraid my “living masks” in my storytelling are straight from Grotowski.
AT: I have two more questions… One: Story Jam’s Stories Road season is all about making links between different parts of the country and us here in SE23 – different clubs and tellers who aren’t part of our regular London line-ups. What’s it like where you tell? Buzzy? Mainstream? Small but perfectly formed? Where’s your chief stomping ground?
JE: There’s a lot going on; we’ve got lots of “live literature” around here, plus a couple of established storytelling clubs nearby. And, of course, FatE happens just up the road from Wolverhampton. When I moved here, nearly 32 years ago, I’d never lived anywhere that was so proud of its folk heritage. For example, there are lots of dialect performers around the Black Country. But, back to storytelling again, someone I know is currently in the process of setting up a new storytelling night for later in the year in Wolverhampton. And, for some reason, the city’s awash with storytellers, poets, songwriters and all sorts. Must be something in the canal water. Did you know that [well-known storyteller] Peter Chand comes from Wolverhampton as well?
AT: I didn’t know that about Peter Chand, no. Are you involved in the new night?
JE: I’ve been asked to support, which I’ll be delighted to do. It all comes together, hopefully, in September.
AT: Last question: If you hadn’t been a storyteller and musician and actor, what would you have been?
JE: I’d probably have stayed indoors and written things, which, hopefully, other people would have read. Or a polite and caring journalist. A rare breed indeed.
AT: A polite and caring journalist. Like an anti [name of journalist removed, out of politeness and caring ]. Oh, please, do it and save us all.
JE: I’m too old now to be polite. Though I’m often mistaken for [name of journalist removed again, politely and caringly].
AT: I sat opposite [name of journalist politely and carefully expunged] on a tube once. Extraordinary earlobes. Bloody massive.
JE: I shall watch Newsnight with fresh eyes.
AT: If only they would present it with fresh ears. Have a nice evening. Don’t get washed away in the rain.