Det här är  Jo Henwood’s svar på en lång lista med frågor:

What is the story of your own journey into storytelling?

Always a lover of stories – books, films, plays –but I grew up in a non reading family where sports and cars  and owning things were valued but not stories, knowledge or imagination. (…five brothers, no sisters)

I first heard about the Storytelling Guild when I was doing my Library Science degree but it was not until I attended National Folk Festivals that I really saw a Storyteller ensnare an audience of adults.  So when my boss at the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales asked me in 1999 for any suggestions for professional development as a Guide I chose to be taught by Yuri the Storyteller.  Before the first hour I was alight with the creative possibilities far beyond anything in work.

When I joined the NSW Storytelling Guild I entered a new world.  Since then I have pulled together so many of these reading, writing, talking strands in my life that I  feel it is only now that am truly myself.

Within the Storytelling Guild in NSW I have been a committee member, Accreditation Officer, President and Vice President.

Because my other paid work is as a Guide and Education Officer in heritage sites, I have created a niche in telling historical stories and storytelling in heritage sites and am involved in the museum theatre community.

I conduct workshops in basic storytelling skills at community colleges and for staff at libraries and heritage sites and occasionally at conference.  I tell stories to preschoolers, primary school students, seniors and people with disabilities, (though my preference is for adults) at libraries, schools, festivals, art galleries and museums.

I don’t want to be one of those people who says “I’ve been doing x for thirty years,” but they’ve been doing exactly the same thing repeatedly all that time.  Every year I want to stretch myself further, broaden my repertoire of genres and techniques. So two years ago I started telling mysteries, and this year I’ve learnt (am learning!) how to perform drawings while telling as well as beginning to tell science fiction stories.  Next year I hope to learn more about science fiction and satire which would help me tell to teenagers.  I’d also like to do more research in telling stories to people with visual and hearing impairments.

What are Australian storytellers doing at the moment?

For about 10 or 12 years we had a National Confest (combination conference and festival) every two years, with a different state Guild hosting it each time.  I went to Brisbane in 2003 when I’d just become President of the NSW Guild, and then to Perth in 2005.  The next one was to be in Melbourne but it became one person’s responsibility and then she got the opportunity to tour South America so it didn’t happen.  But we all really yearned for the chance to get together.

Then a group of non storytellers put on the Tasmanian International Storytelling Festival in 2008.  Guild members who were performing there got together to share notes, and some professional storytellers joined us. From that came the National Gathering in Sydney last year with little storytelling and no workshops, just to share our knowledge and aspirations and plans for the future of storytelling in Australia under headings like Networking, Finding your niche, Promotions etc.  There was another one this year in Darwin which I didn’t attend.

But then what happened after the talkfest?  Well we all returned to our far flung communities.  A listserv was set up but few people contribute – mostly the professionals promoting themselves, with occasional discussions (the best was the difference between storytelling and theatre) and Shirley Way, the incredibly hard working Queensland president and coordinator of these national gatherings,  putting up links to workshops, sponsorships, events by related performers etc.  As Shirley says, it’s rather ironic how appalling storytellers are at communication.

There is an elephant in the room that no one is acknowledging:  the different goals of the professionals and Guilds.  The full time professional storytellers (maybe about a dozen in the country, though there would be about twenty to forty others storytellers who do paid gigs occasionally and are Guild members) are focussed on their career path.  They want to know what the Guilds are doing to improve storytelling so that they will get more work.

Within the Guilds you’ll find the whole range of tellers from experienced professionals to people who just want to be an audience. The Guilds are there to nurture storytellers through workshops, story circles, storytelling cafes and other public performance opportunities, as well as publishing newsletters to help anyone who wants to tell stories, whether it be for money or to the grandchildren, to grow within a safe community.

As a generalisation, the professionals are more assertive and better at self promotion and they often dominate discussions.  This makes contributions by the Guild members less likely.  So the dynamic that happens in any group, what I think of as the poached egg effect, where there is a yolk of people doing everything and a white surrounding them just watching to see what happens, is intensifying.

New South Wales had a fantastic confest this year but it looked like there would be just two people doing the work for next year so they’re going to leave it till 2012.  Which gives you plenty of time to plan your visit!

What would you recommend for a storyteller visiting Australia?

Connect with local Storytellers through the Guilds, and Facebook (the Victorian Guild have a page and so do several individual Storytellers including me) but don’t be limited by what we do.  We have extremely low status and pulling power. However, you should make contact with us because we are your community!  We’ll love and honour you and talk to you and you can join us for a storytelling cafe or just a meal.  You just won’t make any money through us because we can’t even promote our own storytellers well enough.  You might well have a fresh approach which could be much more successful.

Visitors have enormously more status than locals.  You could get in the top end with arts festivals or writers festivals, or theatre tours if it was marketed and planned properly.  For example Jan Andrews from Canada is performing in a Melbourne arts festival in January. (I’ve noticed a similar thing with folk music: at any Folk Federation gig or club you’ll get 20 to 50 people attending but at the Sydney Festival an Irish traditional music band filled the Opera House.)

As well as arts festivals (rather elite) think of folk festivals particularly Nordfest, the annual Nordic Folkloric Festival, and the National Folk Festival held in Canberra every Easter.  I don’t know is if there are arts councils in your own countries, or groups supported by your consulates or embassies here which might offer advice or support.

You might make contact with Regional Arts  Check with the Arts Council though I’m not sure what they can offer you.  You might also think about creating a theatrical performance on the Sagas or something similar, giving it a catchy title and organising a tour through theatres, schools and/or museums  – maybe getting an agent would be worthwhile if you chose that path.  The only one I’m aware of is Nora Goodridge who does school bookings – that’s not a recommendation because I’ve never worked with her and don’t know what she could do for you.

The ABC (Australian Broadcasting Company) is the public television and radio broadcaster.  They might be interested in interviewing you, even doing a documentary on your tour – I have no idea but you never know till you try.  SBS (Special Broadcasting Service) the public television station that handles multicultural and multilingual broadcasting and is extremely interested in any cultures within Australia or internationally.  Anything like that would have to be organised well in advance.

A personal request: if you’re visiting please tell your own stories.  Don’t try to do so-called Aussie accents, cute koalas, boxing kangaroos or Dreamtime stories.  And please, never say Gidday. It’s like fingernails down a blackboard.

Is there something you could call «Australian» about storytelling in your country?

In many ways non Australians would be better able to answer this than me.

It is not true to say that, in accordance with national stereotypes, we are more informal, or focus on humorous stories or yarns.

Exposure to more Storytellers from around the world could change my view on this, but I think that, as with a lot of things, we are influenced partly by the Americans and partly by the British.

Like the Yanks we practise performance or platform storytelling in contrast to the more informal and participative style of the British whose storytelling evolved in pub settings (as I gather from reading Storytelling and Theatre by Michael Wilson).   Of course this will vary with audiences, venues and individual Storytellers but for the most part we don’t interrupt a performer and we applaud their performance – protocols of the theatre. Welsh Storyteller Phil Thomas told me recently that me performing a literary story with acknowledgement of the source material would be classified in Britain as theatre rather than storytelling.

However, the accepted length of stories in our concerts is 10 minutes or less.  Visiting American storytellers seem to have no hesitation in telling 20 minute stories which can have us crawling the walls.  As a generalisation, they also like teaching morals in stories whereas we are content to entertain and to trust our audiences to draw their own conclusions.

I think we have a greater range of genres that we tell, although the favourites would be folktales and personal stories, and to a lesser degree myths and legends, fairy tales, literary, wisdom, spooky, humorous and some original stories.  Some of us will also tell other types of tales such as mysteries, yarns, satires, historical, romantic and improvised stories. My understanding is that the British focus on folktales and myths and Americans are more interested in folktales, myths, historical and personal stories.

Oddly enough, other than personal stories, there is not much emphasis on Australiana in the stories that are told. Possibly this reflects not just that we are a multicultural society but that 98% of us are descended from immigrants and are not drawing from a continuous tradition. Most of the published collections of traditional stories we draw from are international so there needs to be a conscious decision to seek out Australian material or create original stories.

Because of this lack of continual folk tradition of storytelling in Australia, post Revival (since the 1970s) storytelling has two parents: children’s librarians, influenced by Augusta Baker of the New York Public Library who visited Australia in 1973; and bush poets and yarn spinners, originally part of the folk tradition of travelling swagmen, and now a strong element in the folk community.

Australian Storytellers are not interested in doing some kind of battle against a technological age by “preserving” a folk art.  The motivation is to expand individual performance skills and reach a wider audience without turning storytelling into a completely different art form.

I can’t really see Australian storytelling as a general style, so much as an aggregate of individual storytellers each forming a niche with their own style.  Every time a new storyteller joins our ranks, Australian storytelling is changed.

What is the role of Aboriginal storytellers and stories?

No current members of the NSW Guild are Aboriginal and I don’t think there are any in any other state Guild, although formerly Francis Firebrace, currently living in London and the late Pauline McLeod were part of our ranks.

This is not any manifestation of racism but simply a reflection of the fact that the Guilds are very middle class (and tend to be pretty middle aged).  What’s attractive to indigenous storytellers in that?  Will they learn their craft? Will they forge useful connections? No there’s nothing Aboriginal Storytellers need from us whereas we would be very keen to learn from them.

The community wants Aboriginal storytellers and we frequently receive requests for an indigenous Storyteller to perform at some community event. This adds pressure to a long standing dilemma of who can tell Dreamtime stories.

Middle class white women say it’s ok – the stories need to be told or they’ll be forgotten and lost, and people want to hear them.  If we don’t tell them then everybody loses.

But I’ve heard Aboriginal Education Officers say they won’t tell stories not from their country.  How much less right do non indigenous people have?

To find out the right thing to do I have started asking Aboriginal Education Officers though I haven’t spoken to any Storytellers yet.  This is my current understanding:

What has been published is usually public domain, particularly anything recent from the 1970s on like the picture books by Percy Tresize and Dick Roughsey.  The people who have written and published these books have made the choice about what stories need to be known.  Now that they’re out in the public domain the sacred power of these stories has been dissipated.

The major exception to using published works are the earlier collections by anthropologists such as A. W. Reed, where the indigenous people who provided the stories didn’t know how they would be used and then the collector rewrote those stories to suit their own cultural sense of what was appropriate.  So this means that a lot of stories which were sacred, or belonged specifically to women’s knowledge or to men’s knowledge have been published:  a cultural violation.  These stories should not be touched.

When we hear Dreamtime stories told to us by members of a particular tribal group we must ask permission from tribal elder before retelling them.  Some Storytellers may be giving permission for the story to be handed on but there are many stories and songs which can be heard but can’t be repeated.

American tellers say they tell stories of all the cultures of the world, Dreamtime stories are no different. But it is different and the people who decide it is different are the Aboriginal people from whom too much has already been taken. If they are the only people in the world who have rules about who can tell their stories (and I find that hard to believe) then so be it.  It is their right to have those prohibitions.

There is a risk that by avoiding telling Dreamtime stories we could make Aboriginal culture invisible which is another form of cultural violation. My solution is to tell historical stories of Aboriginal heroes, celebrating something positive about Aboriginal people and often their interactions with the broader community, in a way that is easily accessible to non indigenous audiences, without risking changing the original stories.

How do you connect?

The New South Wales Guild meets every month in Sydney: every second month is a storytelling cafe and the intervening month we meet for a workshop. Workshop mornings are spent sharing stories, giving priority to new tellers who want to try out stories and get feedback in a safe environment.  In the afternoon an expert, from within or outside the Guild, trains us in new skills eg puppetry or vocal techniques.

Every month an e bulletin goes out to members and anyone who has put the name on a list to receive updates on upcoming storytelling events.

Four times a year we publish a journal (we call it a magazine but it’s not shiny) called The Storyteller, formerly known as Telling Tales, with reports on events, and articles on various aspects of storytelling, including a Telling Tips liftout.  Many libraries are members of the Guild simply to get the journal.

There used to be a national periodical called Swag of Yarns but only one person was responsible and when she got burnt out it folded.

There are Guilds in Queensland, Victoria, the Australian Capital Territory (Canberra), South Australia and Western Australia, but nothing at this time in Tasmania or the Northern Territory.  Many of them focus more on story circles, often in each others’ homes.  Each Guild has a newsletter, and Queensland and Victoria also have blogs.  Victoria has a Facebook page too.

For many years we had a national website was voluntarily created by a former president’s husband.  As with so many “free” things, it wasn’t good value: he rarely updated it and we had to be pathetically grateful all the time.  Consequently most states developed their own websites.

One of the few things to come out of the National Gathering of 2009 was the establishment of a new national website – I can’t say that’s been maintained with a lot of speed either …but I have hopes!  If you get on to the website you can register with the National Email list.

Unfortunately people rarely use it except for the professionals who promote themselves and Shirley Way of Queensland putting up links and notices.  There is an appalling silence most of the time.  And yet we talk about how difficult it is for Storytellers outside the capital cities to make contact, we complain about having no consensus and not progressing as a community, we say we want to discuss issues relevant to Australia and not just American views.  But when we have this e-list available almost everybody chooses to just lurk. Including me.

What do you think are the most important challenges for a storytelling organization?

  • Communication! (Are you surprised after my last answer?)

With each other locally – to perform, to chat, to support each other as we grow artistically

With each other nationally and regionally – to save time duplicating effort, to utilise the range of skills and specialisations available, to have more impact for grants and promotions, to energise each other, to foster a sense of identity and purpose

With the broader community – so they know we exist, and can come to us with their own talents or need for ours, so we can talk to like minded people in parallel groups and create something more than the sum of our parts

  • Promotion

Overcoming the idea that storytelling is just for children

Connecting with youth and empowering them to tell their own stories their own way so that the tradition continues to evolve

Connecting with all the individuals and groups who actually are storytelling but in slightly different ways to us.

Exciting people with the possibilities and rewarding them with the treasures we hold

Creating festivals and other events

Not being just for middle aged, middle class, white women.

  • Creativity

Overcoming the idea within the storytelling community about the ancient-ness of the art.  So is music and art but singers and painters don’t keep harping on about it. Storytelling is a contemporary art form!

Having new ideas – of stories, genres, programs, techniques, audiences, promotions, celebrations and events.

Revisiting old ideas so we don’t have to keep starting from the beginning

Outreach – reaching out to all sorts of groups in fresh new exciting ways that connect with their needs

  • Maintaining the organisation

Being a safe place for a new storyteller: training, nurturing, mentoring, accrediting new storytellers so they can grow in their skills and confidence

Having professional standards

–       of performance – NSW has Accreditations of Guild members who have met established standards so that they can represent the Guild

–       and of organisation  – especially with financial accountability and Working With Children checks

Balancing the needs of stars, novices and group solidarity

Creating resources which can be used by group members eg book collections, costumes, and archiving story performances and memorabilia.

Initiating research to establish intellectual rigour in the field

Not leaving it to one person to do all the work

Do you have any ideas about how you or northern tellers could reach more people?

These are general possibilities relevant to Australia generated from a position of complete ignorance of the Scandinavian situation – (I may well be, as we say, “teaching my grandmother to suck eggs”)

Audiences and venues

Schools, Preschools, Out of School Hours centres, School of the Air-

Including: establishing Storytelling Clubs, school or regional storytelling festivals, Parents & Friends fundraising dinners.

Libraries – As well as children: Seniors, young adults, adult book clubs and English conversation classes.

Heritage sites

Aged care facilities



Young adults/adolescents – secondary schools, youth centres, universities

Theatres and drama societies

Guides and scouts

ESL (English as a Second Language)

Special needs: people with intellectual and sensory disabilities

Tourist accommodation: hotels, hostels, camping grounds

Clubs, thematic restaurants


Not for profit: Hospitals, prisons, youth detention centres, immigrant detention centres, homeless shelters

Promotional activities and events

In Canada they don’t advertise an event as “Storytelling” (you don’t advertise “play” or “ballet” do you?) Instead they advertise “The Odyssey” or “The High Tales of Finn MacCool” and then subtitle it “stories from Homer”.  Adults then go for a night at the theatre and watch storytelling as a theatrical performance without any storytelling-is-for-children barriers.  I would really like to do that here.

Storyteller In Residence – schools, libraries, heritage sites

Trivia nights, parties, fundraising dinners, auctioning your performance as a prize

TaleTours (mobile story concerts of a site) and Star Story Strolls (constellation stories from different cultures)

Murder Mysteries dinners – different person’s story before each course. “Detective” to facilitate solution.

Training staff, students, at community colleges– linking storytelling with professional skills

Festivals – arts, writers, medieval, folk, community, pageants

Story Slams

Poetry Slams are youth oriented pub events where competitors perform for so many minutes with x conditions then get voted on by the audience in a round robin contest.  Adapt for storytelling.


When we moved our storytelling cafe (we changed the name to a Tellers Tea) to a “literary” hotel (it’s owned by an author, hangs picture book art on the walls, and lots of actors and writers stay there) we ended up getting a lot of interest from related groups.  People staying at the hotel would frequently go to the concerts.  Concert announcements were on the hotel newsletter which went to other groups such as crime writers who also met there.

Something we haven’t done yet is contact other Guilds (eg embroiderers, costumers, jewellers) to see if we could have a joint event to showcase our talents in a joint celebration.

Slipstreaming on existing events so we don’t have to do the promotions eg community festivals

NSW Guild Story Quilt


The NSW Guild created a quilt – every member made a quilting square illustrating their signature story and the president sewed them together to make a quilt which we hang as a backdrop at every concert as well as in art galleries and quilting expos.

Publications – Calendars, cook books, diaries

Creating publications which include photos of storytellers or illustrations of stories plus a version of the stories can make some money as well as getting the word out. Then we took photos of each square in the quilt to illustrate three years of calendars or diaries.

We’ve also created a cookbook based on stories with a food theme.  Each teller wrote an abridged version of the story and submitted a recipe to go with it. From this a cookbook was created which made a good Mothers’ Day present.


Yes I agree it shouldn’t be competitive and it means most people are losers but schools and newspapers love competitions.  It gives them the chance to take a photo of the winner and in small towns they get interviewed by local radio or regional television which provides plenty of opportunities to promote storytelling.

Using the media


Newsletters with lots of informative articles that libraries and writers groups as well as Guild members will subscribe to.

Newspapers, Magazines – but you have to have something to say which is interesting to other people – that’s why the competitions, quilts etc can be useful.  Might also get a regular column in a small newspaper.

Radio, TV – segments of story performances, discussions on the nature of storytelling, upcoming events

CDs, DVDs – to sell, as a record of Storytellers, to upload from sites.  Ongoing promotion through libraries

Websites – promotional or educational.  Hyperlinks to connect to any other groups with parallel interests.

Youtube, flickr, blogs, podcasts, vodcasts –  what we do

Facebook, Twitter, SMS texting –  what’s coming up

How did you get the idea to visit the northern countries?

Doesn’t everyone long to go?  Stunningly beautiful, thrilling Viking history and intriguing royal history, great models of social democracy.  As I write this I’m wondering how I stayed away so long.  It’s certainly been a hope to visit since I first got my passport twenty years ago. (No, it has nothing to do with Mary Donaldson.)

Planning to re read my Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings by Peter Sawyer and get started on a reprint of a 1909 book called Myths of the Norsemen From the Eddas and the Sagas by H.A. Guerber.  What else should I be reading?

There’s a poem in the Oxford book which just snares my heart

That mentioned my mother,
My ship they should buy me,
A fleet one, fair-oared one,
To fare out with Vikings;
Stand up in the stern there,
Steer the dear sea-steed,
Hold on to her haven,
Hew this man and that man.

There is also a charming Australian children’s trilogy called Viking Magic by Anna Ciddor which was very engaging.  And of course the Moomintrolls! The Australian National Maritime Museum had a fantastic exhibition a few years ago called Vikings. Gosh, there does seem to be a theme here, doesn’t there?  Does it get tiresome when people keep harking to the Vikings when your culture and history have so much more to offer?

Oh, I also have a personal query – someone once told me that the slanting eyebrow bone was peculiar to Holland.  But I have it and my heritage is English, Irish, Welsh – so the only connection I could think of was the Vikings.  I will be observing eyebrows closely on my travels to watch for signs of my ancestry

What do you hope to do here?

Definitely: Fjords, Viking heritage, castles, museums, historic houses, ruins, folk performances, boat trips and of course any chance to connect with storytellers. Maybe some theatre (not the miserable ones), more likely something with music like an opera or ballet. Very early stages of planning, haven’t done any research yet – what do you recommend?

How can we get in contact with you?

Email:                jo7hanna [här lägger du till ett sånt där a]
Facebook:          My personal page is Jo Henwood.  My business page is Jo Henwood Storyteller.
I doubt you’d be phoning me but if you wanted to text me: 040 88 75 137

Any other good questions you would like to answer?

I think I’ve talked more than enough.

Ulfs kommentar:

Även om Jo menar att hon har sagt sitt för ögonblicket  finns det massor att kommentera om detta. Inte minst därför att man har chansen att fördjupa samtalen när hon kommer hit. Så vad är dina spontana reaktioner? Något speciellt du tycker att vi ska diskutera mer här på cafet? Och var inte rädd för att använda mer eller mindre «hemmagjord» engelska i dina svar 😉 Det ökar chansen för att Jo kan delta i samtalet.

3 responses to “Australia

  1. Tilbaketråkk: Där svanar är svarta och korpar är vita « Cafe Ratatosk

  2. har stavet mig igennem. Forstået det meste. Har haft en opgave hvor jeg ved at google faktisk fik en rigtig god historie fra Australien. Den er sammnsat af mange små bidder ( fordi der i overleveringer tit mistes noget), mine forsøg på oversættelser. Jeg har den på dansk. Hvis nogen vil have den så mail til mig

  3. Bjørn Bensby

    Pragtfuldt! Det var fantastisk velargumenterede og godt uddybende svar på dine gode spørgsmål. Fyldt med gode iddeer og overvejelser som vi i Norden kan lade os inspirere af, plukke af, og skabe nyt liv i vore egne aktivitetsområder.

    Thankyou! Jo Henwood, for a personal and very , really very carefull way of answering. Your answering really gives me lots of good ideas which can inspire to a development of own stories, as well as gives me some new posibilities in how to reach more people. May all interviews be met by such carefullness.

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