‘When the heart overflows it comes out of the mouth.’ Ethiopian proverb
Stories can build bridges, and allow us to enter worlds beyond our own. Speaking, imagining, listening and remembering can be transformative acts. I have been privileged to be part of a unique storytelling project – 575 Stories. The project is a collaboration between Omnibus Theatre, Iqra Primary School and the National Trust. It introduces mothers from Iqra to the culturally-rich and little-known National Trust property – 575 Wandsworth Road.
Omnibus Theatre have worked with Iqra for the last two years, providing drama workshops for students across all years. Together, they wanted to expand their partnership to include the incredibly hardworking mothers of Iqra, to give them a bit of time for themselves. 575 Wandsworth Road has been the perfect place for this to happen.
The house is filled with stories. Its magical interior is a work of art created by Khadambi Asalache (1935 – 2006). For five weeks this summer, a group of six women met early in the morning, around 575’s kitchen table. Tiny lamps with delicate cut-out designs glimmered, and in their warm, intimate glow the group felt safe. We were surrounded by lustre-ware cups and plates that had been specially chosen by Khadambi Asalache because of their golden gleam. Throughout the house glass inkwells, engraved wine glasses, gilded teapots, shimmer and refract light. This is a seductive environment, that embraces you, and calls you to tell stories! In each session, the house became the inspiration for exploring, sharing, making friends, and developing stories. In this participatory storytelling project we wanted to help give the women a voice, develop their confidence and skills in storytelling, valuing and sharing their diverse heritages.
The sessions have been led by me, supported by Lucinda McLean Bibby, producer of the project, and with wonderful support from National Trust curators of the house Lisa Carruthers and Laura Hussey. Each week we explore a different theme, such as: food; celebration; clothes and textiles; families; personal and social histories. The curators open secret doors and cupboards. They show us embroidered slippers, unopened jars of food, glorious ties, handwritten notes hidden inside books. We discover the stories buried within the house and its objects. The curators inspire us to look more deeply, and to discover more. Each week the group become tour guides themselves, and choose a favourite object to talk about to the whole group. They gain confidence doing this, learning that eye contact and posture help a group gather, listen, and keep their attention. The women gain confidence in speaking and begin to believe they have something valuable to say, that needs to be heard. We look at patterns on the carpets, at the intricate animals, gods and characters carved into the wooden fretwork on the walls, doors, and ceiling. Who could they be? Over the weeks, the group share their own stories of: growing up; memories of stories about ghosts and mysterious jinn; tales of ancestors; favourite recipes; beloved items of clothing;
childhood memories of games; the importance of talk and listening. We explore how structuring a story makes it stronger. That not rushing, taking time with details, makes a story richer and more engrossing. We discover that finding the right ending for a story, that might not always be obvious or clear, is part of the task of being a storyteller.
At the end of the five weeks none of us wanted to stop. Being inside the house has been magical for all of us, like entering another time. The group loved it so much they were full of ideas for the future, about sharing stories with mothers from other schools, building wider bridges across the community, between cultures and languages. But this is not the end of the project. We will repeat the five weeks in the autumn with six more women. Then both groups will come together in November at Omnibus to work on their stories some more. Then we will have a ‘story party’, where the twelve women can share their tales with family and friends around another kitchen table – in Omnibus’s brand new cafe!
‘Drop by drop an ocean is formed’ Iranian proverb