Fascinated by storytelling

2008-05-01 00:00

As a small child in the Bulwer district, Ntokozo Madlala would sit and listen as her grandmother told her the old folk tales. Then they were spellbinding stories, but now, back in her home province as a lecturer in the drama studies department on the local university campus where she started work at the beginning of the year, they are more.

It is not so much the content of the stories that fascinates Madlala these days, but the oral tradition of storytelling and the way in which the tales are told. “With changes in society and the types of communities we have now, it’s difficult to preserve the tradition in its authenticity, so we have to find ways of adapting it. It would be exciting, for example, to develop from one person telling the story to having multiple storytellers,” said Madlala.

“You could have one story, but at various points different individuals would tell the narrative. And, with more than one performer, you could have some of the action enacted while the story is being told.” It could make for exciting theatre.

Two weeks ago, the drama department was contacted for help by a group of youngsters in Ixopo. Madlala went to meet them and found two of the plays they had put together were based on folk tales, and adapted to group performance. She remembered the stories and found the retelling a very nostalgic moment. “And that’s what makes it so exciting — the stories are still being used and adapted.”

Madlala knows if the traditional stories and customs of storytelling are to be saved, that is what must happen. She has never heard her own mother — now a grandmother three times over — tell stories. “TV has reduced immediate human contact — and it’s powerful. Children will tell you about Takalane Sesame, not about folk tales they have been told.”

Stories change in another way. Once they are collected and written down, something is lost. “A storyteller might change the plot a bit — surprise the listeners. Or make it more complicated as the children become more familiar with it. In collections of stories I’ve found ones I recognise, but I think: ‘That’s not how my grandmother told it’.” It is inevitable — the loss of some of that old flexibility.

Madlala’s immediate interest is to use the style and approach of the folk tales to look at contemporary concerns. She talks about telling the story of middle-aged black women, with families and full-time teaching jobs, who go back to studying to further their own education. “I would love to create a play that celebrates these women, acknowledges their courage, in a style of performance that could weave in the storytelling techniques and physical images, song and dance.” It is a long way from those days at her grandmother’s knee, but also close to them in that it would articulate particular concerns of a particular time.

Madlala’s fascination with drama and its possibilities began suddenly, when she was in Grade 11 at Polela High School. Career counsellors from Pietermaritzburg brought a presentation to the class, and that was it.

I remember it vividly — the screen went black and then there were white words, in a bold font, that said ‘drama’. It was just like that — I knew.” And so she went off to the University of Cape Town to study — a culture shock that is a story in itself. On her first day, she says she had never seen so many white people in one space. Of course, at the beginning, she wanted to be a star — the next Leleti Khumalo. But she was not accepted for the Performer’s Diploma and so did a BA majoring in drama and came to realise that there is a whole lot more to the subject than performance.

Madlala was in Cape Town for 12 years — as a student, a lecturer, a freelance actor, working with the Magnet Theatre’s community development programmes and on an HIV/Aids project for schools. She even had a spell in market research. But ultimately, the pull of KwaZulu-Natal was too strong, and she is now back home, and back in a field where storytelling of one kind or another is what it is all about.

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