The breath of life
The magic within the story that we tell ourselves.
The storyteller moves slowly to the chair. He wears a t-shirt with a dragon
on it and carries a floppy hat in his hand. Having seated himself, he pauses
a moment, gathers attention and waits for silence. A hundred pairs of ears are
alert to the story about to begin and that already seems to hang in the electrified
atmosphere of the room. There is a moment of suspense. Carefully he puts on
the hat and bends towards a table to ring a little bell.
The setting is a centre for refugees in a small town in the Netherlands. Almost
all the children in the centre and many adults have turned up for the performance
by storytellers from the storytelling network - The Ring of Turquoise.
Old or young, western or eastern, girl or boy, our fascination for stories
and storytelling has always been as widespread as the very air we breath. Topaz
asked the storytelling couple Mike and Marlies Woudstra why this might be?
‘There may be many reasons for this. Fundamentally you could say that
each human life is a story in itself and that we all are on earth to develop
and tell our own story. Why are some people so diligent in keeping diaries?
Is this not the story that they tell themselves about their lives. The question
is - what stories do we seek? Inside the Ring of Turquoise, stories are an attempt
to capture the exceptional in the ordinary. Eventually it leads to the realisation
that human life is one ongoing set of exceptional experiences - if we have the
eyes to see them.’
Mike: ‘Another reason for the love of stories can be found in the way
the human systems work. The emotions get nourishment from timeless stories about
human qualities such as courage, justice and faith. I believe that the human
brain loves continuity, which in these rushing times of start-stop gets severely
underfed. Stories promote continuity, stillness and inner reflection –
they can allow us to feel ourselves. And not to forget the imaginary part of
the mind that loves to hear stories about the future, what is yet to be, what
In most cultures throughout the world the art of storytelling was an integral
part of life. In times past, family visits lasted perhaps three days instead
of three hours and stories were an essential part of the natural exchange between
people. Today, television has tended to replace this art, although interestingly
there is a gradual resurgence of storytelling in many countries.’
“Tell me the weight of a snowflake,” a hawk asked a wild
“Nothing more than nothing,” was the answer.
“In that case I must tell you a marvellous story,” said
the hawk. “I sat on the branch of a fir, close to its trunk.
It began to snow - not heavily, not a raging blizzard, no, just like
in a dream, without any violence. And since I had nothing better to
do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of
Their number was exactly 3,741,952 when the next snowflake dropped
onto the branch.
‘Nothing more than nothing’ as you
say and the branch broke off.” Having said that the hawk flew
The dove, since Noah’s time an authority on peace, thought about
the story for a while and finally said with resolve, “Perhaps
only one persons’s voice is lacking for peace to come about
in the world.”
Mike and Marlies are members of the international storytelling network “The
Ring of Turquoise” (the colour turquoise refers to wisdom from ancient
times), which was established by Ifat and Rami Zor in Israel in 1995. Since
then, it has grown into an international network of storytellers active in Europe,
Israel, America and New Zealand. Together with Ian Philips, Marlies and Mike
lead The Ring of Turquoise in the Netherlands.
‘The core mission of The Ring of Turquoise is to promote and stimulate
natural communication via the art of storytelling, which we do through performances
and workshops. A broad range of people come to these workshops, some simply
want to improve their freedom in human interaction and others come for reasons
linked to their professions - like teachers and child carers or those working
with elderly people. The magic of storytelling is that it liberates you into
new ways of perceiving and expressing life.’
What is the main training of a storyteller?
Mike: ‘An important starting point is to rediscover language.
A love of language is an essential quality for the storyteller. Language is
such a wonderful gift for us to compose with. The storyteller is a master of
analogy, description, composition, imagery and rhetoric. Then there are the
arts of gesture, speeds, timing and humour - arts that can soften, disarm, charm,
still, uplift and liberate. The storyteller is a master of states and atmospheres,
who can take people on a magic carpet to other times and distant lands. We also
introduce specific practices and technologies, such as the use of props, ceremonies,
ecologies, a bell and hats - all to enhance the storyteller’s art.
The training is a lot of fun, with a great amount of spontaneous humour and
laughter. The Irish, who are natural storytellers, have a marvellous saying,
‘If you laugh and the tears roll down your cheeks, the aging process will
What kind of performances do you do?
Marlies: ‘The performances of the Ring of Turquoise are created according
to need. Performances for children will often have stories that promote qualities
that will help children in their natural growth patterns. Performances in a
refugee centre might have a unifying theme or one that promotes stature and
confidence. We collect or write stories that express qualities that our time
and generation may be short of, dispensing them rather like vitamins into the
storyteller in The Ring of Turquoise is on a personal development journey. Telling
stories is like planting seeds (qualities and perceptions) into the fertile
soil of human consciousness. Think of the well-known story about the steadfast
‘Tin Soldier’ and other universal favourites - the storyteller must
work to understand and embody the qualities within the stories to be able to
successfully bring others into the experience.’
Mike: ‘This is why we are so interested in people’s own stories.
We have trained ourselves to be good listeners. Elderly people often have remarkable
stories that contain qualities such as decency and courtesy that were much more
a feature in their generation than now. Different nationalities champion different
qualities and characteristics. Like the storytellers of the past, we try to
champion parts of the human story that are in danger of being forgotten or becoming
extinct. In a fast changing world it is important to preserve our great heritage,
while we also look forward to the stories yet to be told.
In August, members of the international network met together in Holland and
toured the country, visiting and performing at various events, in retirement
homes, a children’s hospital, theatres, refugee centres and in a special
storytelling tent in the marketplace in Gouda.’
religions have their oral traditions, and likewise all nations have their epics
and sagas that pass from generation to generation. What do you see the function
of the storyteller to be?
Mike: ‘You could say that the storyteller is a historian who draws from
the best of the collective bank of human experience, preserving these vitamins
and passing them on to the next generation so that they may have the best inheritance
for their own futures. From another perspective, the storyteller is the mediator
between what is and what has not happened yet, other than in the imagination
of the human mind.
When I look at people in a workshop or during a performance, I often see a
glow appearing on their faces, young and old alike, as if at that moment something
in the atmosphere causes a great wellbeing. These are moments of a special grace
when it feels that people are listening with more of themselves than just their
ears. These moments are precious and timeless and no one wants the story to
end. But then the storyteller rings the bell...’
Interview by Lotten Kärre