Image 20160808 18030 12nw1wi.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

How retro storytelling can help boost imaginative capacity

A magical dreamscape: Knighton Wood, Epping Forest, London. Still taken from the Imaginative Storytelling Experiences Documentary

How retro storytelling can help boost imaginative capacity

Everyone loves a good story. It’s a vital part of human experience. There’s an element of story in just about every form of popular culture, and also in the sciences and arts. Stories began as the earliest form of oral folklore shared around the campfire and have evolved into interactive e-books.

There is now renewed appreciation of the importance of honing young people’s imaginative capacities – and storytelling is an important part of this process. Creative and analytical abilities will prepare them for a future where imaginative and innovative minds will separate humans from robots.

A performative storyteller goes beyond merely reading a story aloud by acting out their own interpretation of it using voice, speech, language and physical movement. But are children in today’s digital world still experiencing the many benefits of this kind of storytelling? What are the unique experiences of performative storytelling that can help nurture lifelong creativity and imagination?

The making of a documentary case study

The Imaginative Storytelling Experiences project emerged from discussions around themes such as lifelong imagination and creativity development; absurdist/surrealist satirical creative arts; and finding new ways of communicating science, social science and humanities research.

To begin a conversation around these issues, I brought together a group of people across England and Australia who fondly remember watching the classic British children’s show from the 1980s Tales from Fat Tulip’s Garden. The narrator, performer and co-writer of this program was Sir Tony Robinson - an actor and storyteller who has presented countless historical, scientific and cultural documentaries.

Tales from Fat Tulip’s Garden was a curious hidden gem. First broadcast on ITV in 1985, it ran for two series until late 1987. In Australia, it was broadcast between 1986-1988 on the ABC.

The program attracted a cult following of both primary school children and parents. Other viewers, including film/drama students and educators, were amused and inspired by the program’s ironic and satirical humour and countercultural vibes.

The show was conceptualised by drama teacher and writer Debbie Gates, who invited Robinson, her friend from drama school, to collaborate with her as its co-writer and sole presenter.

Fat Tulip was unusual at the time (and remains unique by today’s standards) as each of the many characters featured in these stories – such as Fat Tulip, Dorian the Dog, Ernie and Sylv the Frogs, and Fred the Baddy – were energetically and comically portrayed by Robinson, who simply switched personas. As such, the characters were not “visible” on screen. In most children’s programs of that time, characters were either animated, puppet-based or clearly visible in other ways. As one fan of the show put it:

I think it’s quite telling that when I watch the DVD for the first time after not seeing it for a few years I was surprised that it was just Tony Robinson running around because in my memory the stories were so vivid I thought there must have been some little frogs in it or other people in it. But it was just Tony telling the stories and I think that really captured my imagination.

Tony Robinson after his 2013 knighthood. Reuters

This encouraged the viewer to imagine the characters and their (mis)adventures. The key to doing this was Robinson’s semi-improvised delivery; his choice of wording, gestures and random absurdist sequencing and the added sound effects and quirky music.

Both storyteller and audience shared the dreamscape of an English Tudor-style cottage house encircled by a charming, overgrown garden and the murky, enchanting woods and lakes in Epping Forest across the road. This surrealist mix of personas and the beautiful setting is best described by Robinson while talking about his inspirations for creating it:

I had this notion… that the whole story was just like a reflection in a lake, that when you tell the story, you’re showing the audience that reflection and they can take back from it the story as reflected through them.

Today, Fat Tulip’s original viewers are either adults in their 30s, or older. People interviewed for our film felt the show had helped foster their imaginative capacities from early childhood. Said Richard, a musician, photographer and writer:

I now have two nieces and now my young daughter who is now 9 months old, so any time I read bedtime stories or I tell them stories around the house I try and act them out… And even as adults, sometimes we need to go back and have that kind of mystery and intrigue and excitement that we had as young children.

Said, Robert, a solicitor:

I think it [Fat Tulip] was something that really got me interested in stories and creativity. I’ve always tried to write stories. One of the things I did just before my grandparents sold [their] house was go up on my own one night and wander around the garden and [I] wrote a blog about it.

Observed Faye, a lecturer, researcher and filmmaker:

…this style of surrealist and absurdist storytelling was probably my earliest exposure to developing more logical thinking skills to piece unstructured information together in original ways, which I now use in my profession to develop theories in social science research.

It seems performative storytelling is no longer in fashion commercially. And the concept of Fat Tulip reflected the analog generation, who were fortunate to have a wide variety of outlets in which to hone their performative storytelling capacities at home in family life, through travel experiences, in the classroom and activities such as outdoor learning, creative and performing arts.

Children today can still experience this style of imaginative storytelling through live theatre or sharing stories at home. But it is questionable whether the digital environments increasingly dominating their lives act as a springboard or limit to the imagination.