By Annamaria Dall’Anese • PhD Anthropology
Courtesy of Giles Abbott’s Facebook
As anthropology students, we are often taught the benefits of ‘thick description’. Writing down all the minute occurrences of life in the field, we are told, is the key to noticing social patterns, and to gaining an insight into a different community. Regardless of whether those minutiae make it to the final text, they are the soul of ethnographic notes, the foundational details without which no sound anthropology can be constructed.
The realm of storytelling, though, has a completely different approach to ‘thick description’. It uses it sparingly, to avoid smothering the listeners’ creativity and making of their mind a dense, Mimmo Rotella-style décollage rather than a blank canvas. A storyteller prepares his story as Michelangelo sculpted his statues: removing all superfluous matter so as to reveal only the essential form inherent in the material. The listener’s imagination should begin where the storyteller’s words end. The most beautiful woman in the world should be presented simply as ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’, because depicting the colour of her hair would restrain the audience’s creative power, and describing her voice would muffle the one conjured in their mind’s ear.
You can learn all this from professional storyteller Giles Abbott, who regularly performs for the Last Tuesday Society in the Victor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, located in Hackney, London. It is difficult to tell what the walls of these cramped rooms regurgitate, until after one’s eyes have slowly pierced the darkness. All available surfaces are upholstered in the macabre, the funny and the erotic, in the shape of shrunken heads, medical curiosities and other objects collected by the museum’s eponymous founder. In the basement, away from the noise of the upstairs bar, this grotto of material culture houses Giles’s performances, art at its most ethereal, reduced to its bare bones by lack of any accoutrements. His essential narrative style is in stark contrasts with the richness of the setting. Nevertheless, each story accompanies the listener through a range of emotions that are as diverse as the objects on the walls are disparate. Besides, his stories are ethereal because they are conveyed only through his magnetic voice, but not ephemeral: they are hundreds if not thousands of years old. Still, they continue to powerfully resonate with his 21st century London audience.
Seven or eight people, mostly young couples, gather around a transparent surface that reveals a skeleton underneath. Communal table or coffin? In the intimate atmosphere of the show, the stories echo the diversity of the objects on the walls, and can in turn encourage a different interpretation of these eccentric memorabilia. Giles’s repertoire draws on a variety of traditions, ranging from classic mythology to Nordic sagas, and is rich enough to cover the different themes that he presents each month, such as tainted love or rebirth.
While everyone sits still, each story unfolds within the mutual listening occurring between storyteller and audience. The words should not be set in stone, but respond to the mood of those present. However, their facial expressions, which are softened by the candle light, are ungraspable by Giles. As a visually impaired person, he has learnt to pick up clues from held breaths, gasps, as well as the sound of body movement. His visual impairment is also what led him to develop a career in storytelling in the first place. In his personal life, imagination has played as crucial a role as it does today in his relationship with his audience. In fact, deprived of the pleasure of reading when he lost his sight at the age of 25, he cultivated that of revisiting in his mind the books that had nourished him the most in his childhood and youth. Coupled with thorough voice training, this allowed him to start his career as a storyteller and voice teacher, which has brought him to perform regularly all over the UK at clubs, libraries, arts centres and festivals. He has also worked at residencies and consultancies in national museums and galleries, and appeared in Holland, Germany and India, among other countries. While developing his career, Giles encountered stories resonating with his personal history, which gave him the strength to overcome his diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. This same palpable strength he now transmits to his audiences in London, where he performs regularly, as well as across Britain and overseas.
If you attend one of his shows, you will realise that his stories feel attractively anthropological: in spite of their contrasting approaches to ‘thick description’, anthropology and storytelling share a keen interest in the human. Emotions, norms, encounters, spells, sanctions, feasts… Inescapable index entries for anthropologists, the ‘stuff that things are made of’ for storytellers.
For info on gigs and workshops follow Giles on Facebook