Storytelling as a practice of freedom

As director of Egypt’s oldest independent theater troupe Al-Warsha, established in 1987, Hassan al-Geretly began training members of the troupe in storytelling in the early 1990s. His storytelling work has moved between epics, popular sha’aby stories, and personal narrative.

After an exhausting few days in Amman for the sixth edition of the Hakaya Festival, which itself followed a week working with a group of young women from Gaza, Geretly spoke to Mada Masr about storytelling as a way to make life palatable, as a way to value life and as a practice of freedom. He discusses the importance of everyday storytelling feeding into art. It is by going back to the moment when theater emerges from storytelling, he says, that theater can remain dynamic.

Mada Masr: You previously mentioned storytelling as affirming life in the face of death and futility — what do you mean by that?

Hassan al-Geretly: Well, people transform their unpalatable lives into stories. The most important thing in life is to communicate, and the best way to communicate is by telling your own stories.

You turn this unbearable existence into material for exchange and you spend your whole live retelling your stories. And when you tell your story you often get another in exchange. There is a constant state of barter going on.

I remember training [renowned actor and storyteller] Sayyed Rageb in storytelling. He very quickly progressed because he was trying out the stories in the factory where he worked. He would come back from work every day having progressed through telling and retelling his stories to his colleagues and on the metro and he would get stories in exchange.

It’s a way of affirming, I mean it’s a way of communicating, a way of making your life palatable for you, through telling it and getting a story in exchange.

And like any form of art, I suppose it is a manner of asserting the value of life. Art is about making all this, not meaningful in terms of translating it or giving it a moral, but storytelling is a kind of celebration of life and freedom, a kind of exercise of life in giving value to it by reflecting it, telling it, I think this is a way of giving value to life. Life, being basically the only thing you have.

MM: If storytelling is something that people do anyway in their lives, what is the relationship between professional storytelling and everyday storytelling?

HG: The kind of storytelling I do in theater is very much inspired by this everyday storytelling. Egypt is storytelling galore.

I think this is the main cultural activity of the Egyptian people: more than anything else, people are telling stories. And there are many very good storytellers in life who are practicing their storytelling the whole time. It’s a basic activity in this society.

MM: Only in Egypt?

HG: I suppose everybody tells stories everywhere in the world but I think that this is a society where people are still communicating the whole time, and where they are basically involved in communication as the main exercise in their lives. People still value communication as the most valuable of human activities, and I think in other societies people think there are more important things to do.

Storytelling is a way of being able to deal with all these happenings, passing time together, and making meaning out of all this, the “global crises” we are living.

Look at Tahrir, a huge exercise in popular culture with storytelling — I mean, people would stop tell you their story, salute you and go. That in itself was a moment of exchange and communication. And communication is very physical, but it doesn’t have to lead to any long-term relation — it is a moment, a moment that is valued very highly.

I am interested not so much in conserving popular forms because I am not doing an ethnographic exercise. I am very much interested in the way these things feed into art.

But a lot of the art that is produced is banal because of the well-made play syndrome. And so by going back to the moment where theater emerges from storytelling, I am finding a very dynamic moment.

I’m focusing on going back and forth in this moment, not abandoning the storyteller for the actor, because very often the acting becomes realistic, losing touch with the spiritual forces that are still alive in storytelling. Storytelling still has a magic where the storytelling moves in and out between different characters. From suggestion — which happens with storytelling — you move into illusion, which for me is much less interesting, much less magical.

So I am very interested in storytelling as part of theatrical practice. My inspiration here comes not from any kind of artistic model or epic storytelling tradition as much as what I have seen in the way people work on telling their own stories in life.

MM: What sort of storytelling training do you do?

HG: I tend to work individually, though I’ve learnt with people who are training more generally you can work with small groups because they can learn from each other. But I think there’s a moment when you have to work on bringing out this very special storyteller within each one.

And then I work on the story as a kind of short fiction film. You are almost writing or directing your film in terms of imagining, creating all the images, rhythm and suspense, and the release and the tension. So all of this is very much like directing your own low budget film.

Then communicating it through what I call I/eye contact is absolutely fundamental. If you are looking at the audience the way a president of the republic talks to his people and you are looking with no focus at thousands, you are not really communicating with anybody. It’s really about communicating with one person and maybe slowly moving from one to another, and that creates a communion in the audience that makes everyone feel like you are actually communicating with each of them.

Stories also have to be told in a way where you are not selling. You are communicating. So it’s not about holding your audience. It’s about releasing and then kind of negotiating a moment of tension, growing like the waves of the sea, growing, growing into a wave and then breaking into foam and then the moment of calm. It’s really like breathing. It’s like the sea breathing.

If you are holding onto your story regardless, the audience tends to tire and lose concentration and leave you. It’s not at all about selling, it’s about negotiating, you keep negotiating, rather than wanting to keep the audience completely mesmerized.

There are four or five constant things that repeat — things that you notice after working with people on storytelling over the years. The eye contact, the breathing, the letting go, the not selling. It’s very much about a free relationship with the audience — it’s fantastic when you see it.

MM: What about the role of the body in storytelling? I notice that a lot of people you have trained are quite still when they tell their stories.

HG: I think there is a tendency to compensate for storytelling, but storytelling is an art on its own and does not need to be compensated for by anything else. Generally actors who start storytelling think their acting will save them as storytellers, whereas it’s actually about vulnerability. And from a zero point, moving in and out. So there are moments when you are completely neutral, and you move into characters and events and rhythms and so on but your center is zero.

It’s like driving a manual car — changing speeds and returning every time to the zero. The problem sometimes is where someone moves between third and fourth gear to fifth to third, with no respite.

Most storytellers who move about are retelling the story, once with their bodies, and once with their words. And they don’t leave any space for anyone to imagine what’s going on. It’s not about the role of the body — it’s about the role of the imagination.

Anything that stimulates the imagination, including movement, has a place. I work with actors on movement. Once you have eradicated all redundant movement you can start creating movement that adds to the story. If you switch off the sound and look at how people move, you realize that people repeat the same movement again and again, and art is about selection.

That’s the departure point, not about being still, but using the body like you use anything else. It’s about creating tension and sense from the relationship between the doing and the not doing, the object and the space, the relief and the emptiness.

Naira Antoun 

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