CHENNAI: Sarah Rundle fits the quintessential definition of a storyteller — her voice modulates between soft conversation to a sudden jovial guffaw as she cracks a joke; her hands are not still for a moment, perpetually enacting what her words describe; her eyes brim with warmth and have an impish glint. A professional storyteller and theatre performer based in west London, Sarah was in the city on Tuesday as a part of the British Council’s ‘The Art of Storytelling India’ tour, when CE caught up with her.
Her story has an interesting premise, for before she took to storytelling, she was...a scientist. “Many years ago...”she quips, her voice assuming the high-pitched tone of a grandmother. “...I was working as a scientist in the fields of microbiology, cell biology and electron microscopy,” she chuckles, corroborating her outlandish beginning.
“But I suppose it wasn’t really my calling, though I came from a girl’s school that encouraged us to become mathematicians, engineers, doctors and computer programmers,” she exclaims, her arms flailing with each description. “But while I was working, I also did side courses in amateur dramatics and storytelling, and I became a regular at monthly adult storytelling session at a nearby restaurant.”
Though she did follow contemporary theatre for a while, Sarah says that most of all what attracted her to storytelling was the warmth and intimacy she could share with her audience. “Also, in theatre you’re taking somebody else’s work and interpreting it, in a story you take a whole story and interpret it your way.” Since then, Sarah has moved on with stories more attuned for adult audiences.
“With children, the story path is quite simple — setup, conflict and resolution. For adults, it’s a whole convoluted and complex process to the story with setup, conflict, partial resolution leading to escalation, more conflict, and final resolution!” she says, describing each rise and fall as a conductor would music.
So where does she draw her stories from and how intensive is her work? “Oh it’s hard work. Imagine... I lie on my sofa all day, eating chocolates and reading storybooks. Hard, hard work. It’s ghastly!” she chuckles.
But she draws inspiration from the stories from across the Silk Road — Japan, China, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, and also from Scandinavian countries like Iceland and Finland. “I get most of my references from the British Library in London, which is very well-stocked,” she explains. “I read 3-4 versions of a story before I perform it, because I don’t want to cut corners from a story, or bowdlerize it in any way. I like tales with an unexpected twist or a kink in them.”
Sarah has performed in Sweden, Poland, Italy, Wales and Greece. She often performs tales from the other end of the world, because people like listening to stories from other lands. “But being an English storyteller, I sometimes work with a translator to bridge the linguistic divide. The trick is to rehearse beforehand, but that doesn’t always happen.”
As for Indian tales, she says that she knows a few from the Panchatantra, and even once took part in a group performance of The Ramayana in London. She counts among her favourites Iraqi and Palestinian tales as well as Japanese stories on yokai -supernatural monsters with weird fetishes. “Especially the Italian folktales —
both medieval and modern- for their raunchiness. The Italians are quite naughty!” she laughs.