Posted August 21, 2015

Children’s author Sally Rippin believes we’re all storytellers

We are excited to introduce a new regular column to the Fed Square News Blog today called Melbourne Makers, profiling the lives of the creators, producers and doers who collaborate artistically with Fed Square.

It begins with a thoughtful conversation with award-winning children’s author Sally Rippin, who is one half of the storytelling duo called the Story Peddlers. Operating out of a mini-performance space that pops up out of a bike, they are bringing back the art of the roving storyteller to Australian audiences.

As the Story Peddlers prepare to make Fed Square home for the 30th anniversary of the Melbourne Writers Festival, Sally discusses the increasing need for the low-fi intimacy of traditional storytelling in an increasingly digital world.

“A story told face to face creates connection and allows us to be open and vulnerable, in a way that communicating via technology can’t replace.”

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Fed Square: The Story Peddlers was originally inspired by the roaming Kamishibai performers in Japan, who rode from village to village on a bicycle equipped with a small tent. Why did you choose to adapt this into something contemporary?

Sally Rippin: We are definitely inspired by different storytellers from across the world and throughout history, but the original idea for Story Peddlers came from a conversation Patrick and I had when we first met. Patrick’s background is in sculpture, theatre and television and more recently, he began a business building and running a café on a bike, called Coffee Peddlers. He told me his dream was to build an entire travelling festival on bikes, with pop-up performance spaces and food venues. I work with a lot of authors, artists and storytellers, as well as performing myself, so we decided the first step towards building his roaming city would be to create Story Peddlers. Patrick set about designing and sewing a beautiful hand-made tent that packs away into a custom-made box-bike, which was ready to launch at Playfest last year. Since then, we have branched out into programming mini festivals within bigger festivals and the tent itself has expanded to include a stage, lighting, sound and a twinkling star curtain backdrop made from black velvet and fairy lights. So, you could say Story Peddlers has now become a mix of the simple Kamishibai storyteller with the glamour and spectacle of the Spiegletent.

You’re an award-winning author and also present at schools and literary festivals here in Australia and overseas. Has The Story Peddlers broadened or changed you as a narrator?

Even though I worked in the tent on a couple of occasions early on, most notably with author and storyteller Valanga Khoza, my role in Story Peddlers is more co-producer and programming director, alongside Patrick, which I really enjoy. We both feel very passionately about creating a forum where people can tell stories of all kinds; personal, political, invented or true, and, in particular, our long term goal is to create a space where the voices of people who may normally go unheard can be listened to with openness and empathy.

What is the your favourite part of The Story Peddlers, and has there been a particularly memorable moment you’ve had with an audience member?

It is still such early days for us, but I think my favourite part so far has been sharing the excitement we feel about the future of Story Peddlers with other people who totally get where we are coming from and are happy to jump on board. Melbourne Writers Festival director, Lisa Dempster, for example, is someone visionary enough to have taken a chance on our mash-up of crazy ideas and trust us enough to give us an enormous amount of freedom to program two full days at this year’s festival, with all her support. Since then, we have been blown away by the enthusiasm and support shown by other like-minded people, which we find incredibly encouraging.

Do you think that we’ve lost the traditional art of storytelling?

I think the more our lives become digitalised and the more we read text in snatches from screens, the more we need the low-fi intimacy of traditional storytelling. We are essentially all innate storytellers, from the child that comes home from school and recounts their day, to the entertaining larrikin at the barbeque. A story told face to face creates connection and allows us to be open and vulnerable, in a way that communicating via technology can’t replace. In a way, true storytelling is different even to the reading of books or reading aloud in the sense that the words once written down are polished and considered, not spontaneous and humanly clumsy. Writer and artist, Antoni Jach, sent me this great quote from Jacques Derrida, that sums up this idea: “The traditional statement about language is that it is in itself living, and that writing is the dead part of language.”

Children’s stories are often filled with a magical quality as they develop their view of the world. How do you encourage this in your storytelling and how can we encourage this with the children in our lives?

Listen. We spend so much of our time as adults, carers of children, telling them what to think, do and feel. Children are natural storytellers and they remind us daily to be in awe of everything around us. As artists, our aim is to rekindle that sense of awe as we look at the world, so we have as much to learn from children as they do from us.

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You often perform as your alter egos, Madame Mystique and Monsieur Obscure . What impact does this have on the stories that you tell?

Madame Mystique is an alter-ego I invented to differentiate my connection to Story Peddlers with my identity as a children’s author. We were finding, in the beginning, people assumed if they booked the Story Peddlers’ tent ‘Sally Rippin – children’s author’ would come with it, which is completely the opposite of what we wanted to achieve! Story Peddlers is initially Patrick’s invention, and I’m so excited to be a part of its growth, but we are very careful to avoid it ever being seen as the ‘Sally Rippin’ tent. I feel uncomfortable even at the thought! Our vision has been, and will always be, to create a warm and inviting place where people can share stories of all kinds, not only for children, but also for adults. Madame Mystique and Monsieur Obscure are merely the masters of ceremonies. Sometimes this will be Patrick and I, but in the future it may be other people, and we will stand in the background, happy observers of the story-telling alchemy we hope to create, like proud parents.

What does participating and performing at the 30th anniversary of the Melbourne Writers Festival mean to you?

Obviously, this is an incredible opportunity – it doesn’t really get much better than this! To have our brightly coloured tent up against the backdrop of Fed Square is already all our dreams come true. It’s going to be a hard act to follow. On top of being able to program a wonderful line-up of children’s authors and shows, we are launching our first ever adult event, the 5 minute Story Slam: Collecting 100 Stories for 100 Story Building, which we hope will be the beginning of our involvement in many festivals to come.

As an ambassador for the 100 Story Building, I have been looking for ways that Story Peddlers can work alongside the centre to raise funds and awareness around the work they do to engage marginalised children in Melbourne’s inner-west in literacy learning. Our aim is to pitch these story slam events to all the main writers festivals in Australia and thereby have Story Peddlers travel around the country, collecting stories, while raising funds from ticket sales for the 100 Story Building. We couldn’t think of a more ideal place to launch this campaign than at the Melbourne Writers Festival’s 30th Anniversary.

And lastly, what does the future hold in store for The Story Peddlers?

Later this year we hope to launch a kickstarter campaign to help us continue to grow. Patrick is keen to build a bigger tent, or several tents, so we can increase our audience size, as currently the tent only fits around 40 – 50 people. We want to be able to entice top storytellers and performers and pay them well to tell stories and debate issues that might not otherwise get mainstream media attention. We would love to pay researchers to collect stories from people who may not otherwise be heard and engage actors to tell those stories in our tent. We need videographers, film editors, design people and website managers to promote the 100 Stories for 100 Story Building campaign. This is a new and exciting venture for us that we hope will eventually become part of the fabric of Melbourne’s cultural life. The way we see it is New York has the Moth, Melbourne has Story Peddlers!

The Story Peddlers will be unfolding their colourful tent at Fed Square on 29 + 30 August. Drop by and be entertained with storytelling workshops and performances for kids and families.