David Ambrose is both a storyteller and the director of Wales’ international storytelling festival, Beyond the Border. We meet for a coffee and a chat in the Welsh Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay.
Middle-aged and disarming, he insists on buying me a coffee. As we settle down, a children’s orchestra strikes up from the Glanfa Stage in the foyer. Raising my voice above a lively rendition of Hark the herald, I ask him to tell me something about how Beyond the Border came into being.
Eager to oblige, he sets his flat white down and leans forward. “I first came across storytelling about 25 years ago,” he tells me. “I really didn’t know what it was but I recognised it immediately as something that had been in the background of my life since childhood.”
He was so taken with the idea of storytelling that he began promoting it for an adult audience. It grew until it could eventually be called a festival – and the first Beyond the Border was held in St. Donats in 1993.
A few years ago, support from the Welsh government and the Arts Council of Wales meant that it was added to the roster of major events in Wales. But it is not limited to a bi-annual festival – Beyond the Border also promotes storytelling events all year round (see below).
What is storytelling?
The backing track to our conversation has changed to the mellower tune of Away in a Manger. Taking a sip of coffee, I ask if he could explain what exactly constitutes storytelling as an art form.
He nods enthusiastically: “That’s a really interesting question …”
It is clearly something he has already thought about in great detail. Firstly, he tells me, it is not just reading aloud from a book and, furthermore, it is far more than simply reciting.
“Storytelling is basic human need,” he says. “It’s a need to communicate experience – and every human being indulges in it and has a need for it. By and large, we’re talking about the performance of traditional stories – but not necessarily a faithful or rigid retelling.”
And for anyone who thinks of storytelling as a cosy, comfortable pastime where the status quo never changes, they need to think again. “Stories can be quite subversive,” David insists. “It’s about creating a world where Jack can become King – the best stories involve change and transformation.”
I know storytelling is something that David not only promotes but also engages in. I ask why he started doing it.
Nodding thoughtfully, he tells me that he has always loved literature and once harboured dreamy notions of making a living through becoming a poet. He also has a background in performance; he ran away from university to join a theatre company and spent three years touring up and down the country.
“In many ways, I think I’ve started very late – I went into storytelling in my 40s,” he says.
And where does he find inspiration? Sometimes in books, he concedes, but the best inspiration is always listening to another storyteller. The greatest storytellers don’t just repeat stories; they create stories.
As O Come All Ye Faithful strikes up – loudly – I ask what advice would he give to an aspiring storyteller.
This time, he is very succinct. “Go to see as many storytellers as possible, cultivate your memory and – lastly – tell. Tell as much as you can. Tell a story every day.”
The next Beyond the Border festival will be held on 4 – 6 July 2014.
Also, watch out for the monthly Saturday storytelling events on the Glanfa Stage in the Welsh Millennium Centre, storytelling in Milgi on the third Tuesday of every month and also regular sessions in Chapter Arts Centre.
Follow @BTBStorytelling on Twitter.