BLOG Kittie Belltree

NWR Issue 102

Aberystwyth Storytelling Festival, 6-8 December 2013

Friday evening, gazing out over Aberystwyth from the Arts Centre café, a violet and primrose sunset filled the sky. It was a near-perfect match for the poster-image promoting the Aberystwyth Storytelling Festival held at various Arts Centre venues across the weekend. The event, organised by local storyteller, writer, illustrator, and performer Peter Stevenson, and in its third year, was billed as ’three days of folk tales, music, puppetry, dance, discussions, film, song, art, exhibitions and cake,’ and featured artists and performers from Wales and the world.

The festival opened with a collaborative piece from Stevenson, local musicians Ceri Owen Jones and Elsa Davies, and illustrator Valeriane Leblond. Together, in the cosy acoustic of the ‘Roundy Room’, they explored a tapestry of folk tales and songs collected by Myra Evans of New Quay, Ceredigion in the 1850’s.

Stevenson drew a comparison between storytelling and stories in books, likening the latter to a songbird in a cage that, although it could still sing, would pull all its feathers from its tail. And with that, he lifted the cover from the tiny birdcage at his feet and opened the door….

So began Sigl di Gwt (Shake your Tail), a ‘pied wag-tail’ of a story, rich with visual imagery, that began in a farmhouse high on the hill above New Quay and then twisted and tramped along old pathways, past ivy-covered ruins, into ancient woodlands and on, through the ‘misty memories’ of people long gone. I knew we were in for a treat when we met an old ‘crone’ ‘who licked her thumb with a raspberry tongue’ to seal the deal on a Rumpelstiltskin-style wager for a young woman's child.

As the story meandered, we encountered a feast of quirky characters, from Crooked Betty Crocker to Sgilti the Fiddler. Enchanting language, haunting melody and beguiling image entwined, bringing these characters and their ancient lands to life. Sudden switches of scene reiterated this experience, as we learned that many of the friends and relatives who passed these stories to Myra, had once lived in the cottages, and sang in the chapels in which they are set.

In Myra’s day, we learned that people like her Aunt Nell, ‘a fearsome pocket battleship of a woman who beat her with a broomstick’, knew all about the Tylwyth Teg, who figured in so many of these tales, dancing and joking and disappearing without trace. Their wild red hair was familiar to people whose children had to ‘catch starlings for the cawl’, and was affectionately illustrated in the watercolours that accompanied the storytelling. The colour red was woven throughout, so that, despite their wild twists and turns, the stories remained rooted in a tradition of red Ceredigion quilts and shawls.

Fact and fiction combined, as we wondered through the worlds of Gracie of Allt y Cefn, the vengeful Mermaid of Llanina and the Lady of Felin Wern Millpond. The integrating figure of the mother – nearing the end of her journey – reached Shani Pob Man’s ruined hovel on the beach at Cae Bach, where, in real life, canny Shani charged a penny to tell visitors’ fortunes.

The moving blend of music, song and narrative drew together the loose threads of this looped and twisted yarn, as Shani spun a story, and the mother returned to her farmhouse, where the tale began, carrying the name of the old crone, Sigl di Gwt.

Saturday’s festival highlights included a showing of the oldest surviving animated film, made in 1926, by Lotte Reininger, accompanied by music from Mackerel Sky. While on Sunday, musicians, storytellers and artists performed for audiences young and old, finishing with a cake-fest in the café and a dazzling display of spur-of-the-moment storytelling inspired by works from the exhibition, Shani Pob Man and Other Tales from Wales, by artists including Ruth Jên Evans, Dorrie Spires and Valeriane Leblond. This impromptu event vividly demonstrated the festival’s theme that pictures give rise to stories as much as stories give rise to pictures, and perfectly underscored the informal, intimate magic of storytelling, and of the festival as a whole.


previous blog: Al Lewis – A Child’s Christmas in Wales
next blog: Philip Gross launches 'Later' at Aberystwyth Arts Centre


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