Stephe Harrop is a storyteller and academic currently based in Liverpool. Originally from the North East, her stories have a core of dry humour and are rooted in an understanding of hardy, flawed humanity. Beautifully rhythmic Greek epic to fed-up local spirits hiding in bushes – Stephe is direct, full of fun, and always exploring how storytelling works and what it can do. If you want a princess who plays football, she’s your woman.
She had a Facebook chat with Alys: in advance of bringing The Wandering Bride to Story Jam on Thursday 2nd June.
Alys Torrance Good evening. Ready?
Stephe Harrop Ready! I have a sherry (in a wine glass, obvs) to hand, and I’m good to go.
Alys: A beautiful image. I’m hoping you are also wearing a silk kimono and smoking a cheroot.
Stephe: If only. Second-hand man’s shirt (oversize) and mad hair. Classic marking attire.
Alys: Gorgeous. Off we go… so, Stephe, thank you for giving up a Sunday evening for a chat. We miss you down here in London! What took you up to Liverpool?
Stephe: Riches. Fame. The weather. Actually: a full-time job that lets me pull together my academic life and my storytelling into one almost (almost!) manageable package.
Alys: Tell me more – are you teaching a storytelling course?
Stephe: Yes, that’s right. I’m now responsible for a year-long undergraduate course which takes in various genres of contemporary storytelling performance.
Alys: How’s that going? What do the students making of storytelling? Is there going to be a tsunami of eager storytellers unleashed on the country, do you think?
Stephe: A small-ish tsunami is a definite possibility! To be honest, it’s been completely terrifying and really exciting, on all sorts of levels. I’ve just spent the day marking a pile of essays from my students, and what’s really interesting about all of them is how what seems like a very simple concept (‘storytelling’) becomes impossibly complex as soon as you start trying to analyse what different artists mean when they use it, and just how many different practices it can cover. Attempting any kind of working definition is like one of those appealingly solid-looking Scottish moors which (one confident stride in) will inevitably leave you soggy to the knee and with a bootful of mud.
Alys: Ha! You know how you hear tell of purist storytellers who would be horrified that you have students writing anything down at all? I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t been a lot more realistic about our relationship with written material. Do you ever get into debates (or fisticuffs) over it? Does it matter?
Stephe: Oh lord, yes. I get in trouble from all sorts of people all of the time. A lot of people seem to be scandalised by my cheerful acknowledgement of my own ignorance, and my wilful refusal to be properly ‘traditional’.
But for me, the value of admitting that it’s all really complicated and none of us is properly ‘traditional’ anyway is that you then have to say: “OK, this is what storytelling means for me, right here and now. This is what I’m making it be, and making it do.” And that mixture of personal creative responsibility, and outright boldness, I think, is a good creative place to be.
Alys: I like that – ‘creative responsibility’ and ‘outright boldness’. That’s it right there. I think you’re one of the punkiest storytellers I know. Really cheeky and always properly in the room and talking to actual people who get on buses and eat pizza and shout at the telly.
So tell me a bit about The Wandering Bride, and why you are telling it, and what it’s about. I’m assuming there’s a bride. And that she hasn’t got a map? Too literal?
Stephe: Ah, this is a story that I’ve been dreaming on (technical term – it means sort of thinking about and not thinking about and generally having slooshing about inside my head) for ages.
It’s my take on The Black Bull of Norroway, a harrowing, wonderful old tale which I first read sitting in a caravan, in the rain, in Argyll, as a miserable lonely little girl. And it’s stayed with me ever since.
There is a bride. Definitely. But none of the usual romance. There’s loyalty, and maybe love, but also accidental hurt, and terrifyingly long roads to travel in consequence.
Alys: I was justifying the boy-gets-girl-happily-ever-after ending of many stories to a friend the other day, by talking about inner turmoil that is resolved, so that different parts of ourselves feel chaotic and at war, and then are wedded back together. But I do like a story that deals in the long journeys of life. It being a very wide and deep ocean to swim in…
Stephe: Last week my students put on two nights of storytelling, and I only heard the phrase ‘happily ever after’ once. And that was in the middle of a story. So proud of them!
Alys: We should have a proper separate session about ‘happily ever after’ – maybe with several of us. Clare Murphy is very interesting on the subject of hope, for one…
How long have you been telling it?
Stephe: Good question! I think it was one of the first stories I ever told, maybe eight years or so ago, but its world and its shape keeps changing, so it’s always like telling something new. The Wandering Bride is another new shape, really focusing on the walk, the journeying, the searching – and the way that this happens to the tale’s women, generation after generation – and the nasty habit happy endings have of turning into scary new beginnings.
Alys: Is it a story for women (spot my stirry wooden spoon)?
Stephe: It’s a story about women, I think. But it’s a story for people. Especially people who’re walking long roads right now, and who might be a bit sick of other people’s happily-ever-afters.
Alys: I want to chat more, but instead I’m going to let you get to the bottom of your heap of marking and/or glass of sherry. Story Jam is really looking forward to having you back on Thursday.
Stephe: Sherry it is then. Thanks for the chance to escape my marking pile for a bit, and I can’t wait to be back at Story Jam!
Stephe is joined by storytellers Sharon Carr (who runs the Birmingham Storytelling Café) and Nell Phoenix (who runs Story Night at Torriano) at Story Jam on Thursday 2nd June.