Storytelling 2.0, enRoute

The traditional tale gets a digital makeover in Wales, where techies – and grannies – are transforming the life story.
By Craille Maguire Gillies
Published in the March 2007 issue of enRoute

Daniel Meadows, a lanky middle-aged man with a boyish face, greets me at the door of the Blaenavon Workmen’s Hall in this former mining town about an hour north of Cardiff, Wales. Meadows is more than a little wound up. He got here a few minutes earlier to find a man with cases of vodka and beer wandering around the hall looking for someone to sign for the delivery. An empty storage room and a concession booth with rows of candy are locked, but the conference room where Meadows has set up more than $100,000 of equipment – 10 computers, two digital cameras, two scanners and a printer – has been unlocked all night.

Photo-illustration by Dave Girard

Photo-illustration by Dave Girard

Meadows, a digital storyteller and photographer who teaches journalism and new media at Cardiff University, has installed the equipment for a BBC Capture Wales digital storytelling workshop. It’s something he calls “scrapbook television.” Digital stories tell personal narratives not just through sound, but with photography, music and film thrown into the mix. These two-minute videos take storytelling back to its democratic roots, and I’m not surprised that it has caught on in Wales. After all, this is the place that produced poet Dylan Thomas and children’s author Roald Dahl. Wedged between England and Ireland, Wales preserves tradition while embracing a tech-friendly future.

The movement began in California in the early 1990s, when theatre artists started using the digital media coming out of Silicon Valley to tell the stories of regular people. Now digital storytelling has become a cultural phe­nomenon. Everyone from vloggers to Welsh grandmothers wants to tell their life stories. And the technology to do that is cheaper and easier to use than ever before.

Joe Lambert, one of the founders of the movement, says digital stories let average people get past the “cultural gatekeepers” of mass media. Lambert is with the California-based Center for Digital Storytelling, which trained the BBC group. Digital stories are captivating, he suggests, because they engage all of the senses, the way a good film does. “If you could write in the same form that you dream, in Technicolor, then you would,” he says. “When people play with digital media, with video or Photoshop or Premiere [software], it’s like they’re playing with their dreams, and it’s spooky-powerful.”

As we become more removed from traditional social circles, we want to tell our stories. (Lambert calls it “re-storification” – “like reforestation.”) “Digital storytelling is a provocative wing of a story revolution, but it wouldn’t matter without this other need to resocialize.”

Lambert, Meadows and others echo a universal cliché that happens to be true: Everybody has a story to tell. “Stories help define who we are,” Meadows says, describing the digital yarns that his workshop participants make as “pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, a gaggle of invisible histories, which, when viewed together, tell a bigger story of our time.” During its three- to five-day workshops, BBC Capture Wales trains participants on the equipment so they can then start digital story circles in their own communities. It also broadcasts on television some of the two-minute stories and posts them on its website. Would digital storytelling be as popular if it weren’t for reality TV? Probably not. But this sort of digitized oral storytelling is more democratic than any cleverly edited reality show.

At the Workmen’s Hall, we gather for biscuits and another cup of tar-black tea, then retreat to the second floor for a story circle. When everyone realizes what a big task they have – condensing their life stories into two-minute audio snapshots – and how little time they have to do it in, they get a bit “ratty,” says one instructor.

Each of the seven participants reads the 250-word scripts they wrote the night before. Mary, a woman in her 70s who has never used a computer and who almost dropped out of the workshop from a misplaced sense of unimportance, describes her feisty grandmother. In 1912, after her 30-year-old husband was killed in the mines and delivered home in a sack along with a 10-shilling note, Mary’s grandmother chained herself to a rail outside the mining company to successfully demand a job. While she talks, Mary remembers forgotten details, like the clay pipe her grandmother smoked. Murmurs of approval ripple through the room.

Later everyone records their voice-overs in a modest auditorium with red velvet chairs, a small screen and a sign over the door marked Cinema. Olwyn, a silver-haired woman, describes her father getting lost in a blizzard on his way home one night; Chloë, a student, talks about her favourite cat. “I sound like a 12-year-old boy,” says Chloë when she hears the playback. “Everybody hates their own voice,” Meadows assures her. “But everyone likes other peoples’ voices.”

He weaves “atmos” or ambient sound into the pauses between sentences to give the audio track warmth. Tomorrow they will stitch it together with a selection of photos. If it all sounds a little low-tech, that’s because it is. “We want the technology to serve the story, not the other way around,” Gilly Adams, who helps participants write their scripts, tells me.

By the last day, everyone is excited. The difficult part of sharing their memories with strangers for the first time is over. During lunch, we sit on the front steps of the Workmen’s Hall, basking in a rare bit of sunshine. Up the street, for some strange reason, an instructor is photographing Mary in a long black dress in the doorway of one of the village houses.

Everyone spends the rest of the afternoon toiling away on their projects, each oblivious to what the others are doing. At 4 p.m., we gather in front of a projection screen. Someone hands out paper cups filled with popcorn and turns off the lights. Everyone’s story is interesting; their singsong Welsh voices are hypnotic. By creating these visual diary entries, they’ve joined a storytelling tradition that goes way back before the Digital Age.

But one stands out. Mary tells the story of her grandmother, the screen panning across a black-and-white photo of an old woman leaning in a stone doorway. Then the video zooms out, and the woman in the picture morphs into a sepia-toned picture of 70-something Mary leaning in a doorway. Everyone gasps. We see Mary’s grandmother, brought to life.