When a word is worth a thousand pictures | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 23.04.2014
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When a word is worth a thousand pictures

When was the last time you listened to a bedtime story? The International Day of the Book would be a good time to open your ears and listen to a gripping tale - whether read from a book or told by a storyteller.

"Tell me a story!"

Most likely, each of us, at some point early on in our lives, has demanded this small favor of mom, dad, or perhaps grandpa or an older sibling. Telling stories and fairytales doesn't only induce sleep and sweet dreams, but also communicates experiences and values, and establishes relationships between people.

Matias Martinez, founder of the Center for Storytelling Research in Wuppertal, said every culture can trace its beginnings back to storytelling, "All human societies have a kind of founding myth and these myths are stories in and of themselves."

In some cases, people all over the world came to know the same stories via word of mouth. Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey" were passed on orally for hundreds of years until they were finally written down in the eighth century. In the Middle Ages, the art of telling tales was widespread. The medieval bards elaborated their stories with poetry and music.

Lost but not gone

It wasn't until the 18th century that written texts began to take the place of remembered stories and the oral tradition more or less came to an end. In Germany, World War II was a turning point. Old tales and legends with a nationalistic undertone had been misused by the Nazis and, after the war, people stopped passing them on.

Michel Zirk, Copyright: Achim Gress

For Michel Zirk, storytelling is an art for all the senses

The advent of radio, television and Internet cast oral storytelling even further into the shadows. Nevertheless, the art has not entirely disappeared. Michel Zirk is a modern-day storyteller who has been maintaining the tradition and entertaining live audiences for the past 15 years.

"The greatest art is getting people's attention in the first place," he said. "For many, telling stories and fairytales is something for children." Zirk said members of his audiences are often astonished after his performances and tell him they'd never thought that telling stories could be so entertaining.

Taking time to listen

In stark contrast to our fast-paced daily lives, storytelling is a slow art. The setting and atmosphere first have to be established. Listeners have to open up to the storyteller and free up their imaginations before taking in and appreciating the tales.

It's different from reading out of a book, because the storyteller is liberated from any text and connects with the listener through gestures, expressive intonation and an inviting atmosphere. The result is much livelier and more interactive than a reading.

"People are convoluted when they write and quite simple when they speak," said Zirk, who "translates" old stories, like the Brothers Grimm fairytales, into modern German language.

Modern listening

More recently, audio dramas, in some respects, took over the role of storytellers. In the 1930s, radio was very popular but has been practically forgotten by the early 21st century. However, a new audio version of "The Three Investigators," popular crime stories made for children, rejuvenated the medium by continuing the US series with German productions in 1993. Now, audio dramas have become quite varied, some coupled with music, others made for radio or performed live.

"Unlike a book-on-tape, an audio drama uses multiple voices, personalities and sounds and with so many ingredients, there are very many possibilities," explained Paul Conrad, co-founder of Leipziger Hörspielsommer, an audio drama festival in Leipzig.

Spectators at the Hörspielsommer in Leipzig 2013, Copyright: Hörspielsommer e.V.

Listeners at last year's Leipzig festival let their imaginations run free

The 10-day festival, taking place this year for the 12th time, is free and offers a diverse program for all ages. "With the listening component and by leaving out the watching part, imagination is inspired and you can find a more direct path into people's world of make-believe. It's like a movie theater in your head," said Conrad.

Genre bending

Conrad, however, added that most people today would choose to buy a book-on-tape rather than an audio drama because the latter has not yet been fully recognized by society as an art form.

But that could change soon, according to Martinez from the Center for Storytelling Research.

"The boundary between high culture and pop culture is slowly disintegrating," he said, adding that literature was now adopting genres like the comic and the graphic novel.

Even the storytelling researchers look at non-literary forms of narration, such as journalistic or legal texts, or simply everyday communication situations. "Narration is a phenomenon that reaches far beyond literature and represents an elementary form of communication," said Martinez.

In whatever form - on paper, digitally or orally - we all have a basic need to communicate, and that isn't likely to change any time soon.

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