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Hooked on stories: Interview with Amy Sutton

August 01, 2019 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

We have all met inspiring storytellers who can hold the attention of their audience and make listening to a story an exciting and memorable event. They may be family members, or teachers or professional storytellers. One such storyteller is Amy Sutton. You can listen to some of her stories in our resource book for teachers, Story-Based Language Teaching written by Jeremy Harmer and Herbert Puchta.

Amy graduated from the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in 2012 and has since worked in Theatre In Education tours across the South, won an Argus Angel in the Brighton Fringe 2013, and led summer workshops at Wakehurst Place Kew Gardens. She is a published and performed playwright. Amy has founded the Bard & Troubadour company with her partner, Joshua Crisp. They create shows for children transforming the world of fairy tales into theatrical events and introducing children to the magical world of the theatre. Currently she lives in Brighton and works on various performances across Southern England.

Read more about Bard & Troubadour on their website, and then read our interview with Amy about storytelling. She has shared lots of great ideas about the world of storytelling. Then, watch a storytelling session in which she tells the story 'The Wiseman'.

Hooked on stories: Interview with Amy Sutton - Amy Sutton
Amy Sutton

Interview with Amy Sutton

Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): Tell us about yourself. Where does your love of stories come from?

Amy Sutton: Who doesn’t love a good story?! I’ve always been a fan of a great tale – I devoured books as a kid, I watched movies so many times I could quote you every line, and growing up I trained as an actress and even wrote my own scripts because I loved being involved in the process of telling stories so much. I love the magic of a story – and sometimes I mean that quite literally, I once reviewed a contemporary book for a book club and my only comment was, "Not enough dragons". I love how a story can transport us, and give us space to dream and wonder. But I also love how stories bring us together, how the best stories tap into something universal to being human and can teach us lessons about life in ways that we carry with us for years to come.

HRB: How did you become a storyteller?

Amy Sutton: I remember so clearly the first time I saw traditional storytelling done for adults. It was at a fundraiser for a local gallery. I’d done little bits and pieces of storytelling in children’s shows, and I had it pretty firmly fixed in my mind that storytelling – traditional oral storytelling – was basically for kids. I’d come to the fundraiser as an actor to read some entries for a writing competition, and one of the acts that evening was a storyteller – which seemed odd to me, because there were no children at this event. She got up, this lady with a tangle of brown hair and a red scarf, and she stood in front of the crowd – no props, no costume, no lights, no scenery, just a simple story to tell – and in her first few words she commanded the attention of the room. She held us in the palm of her hand, in a way that I had never seen outside of a theatre. I was captivated, blown away by the performance, by the effect of it on me and everyone else there. And a little voice inside of me said, "I could do that…"

That lady was Abbie Simmonds, and I am lucky to say that I now know her very well and she is one of my best friends. From that first story I saw her tell, I joined the Brighton Storytellers, which was a group she founded, and a few months later I had my first chance to tell in front of an audience – not as an actor, not as a character, but as myself. It was an amazing experience, liberating, exhilarating. I think I’d spent so much of my life speaking other people’s lines that I’d not realised how powerful it is to be able to speak for yourself, and share a story in your own voice, with your own words. From there, there was no going back. I kept telling at more and more events, honing my craft and learning from others, and incorporating it much more into my work as an actor for children’s theatre. And I hope I’ll continue to do so for many years to come.

HRB: Do you have favourite stories to tell?

Amy Sutton: Absolutely! There is a story that can be found in Greek, Irish, and central Asian mythology about a ruler with the ears of a donkey. Each version of the story is a little different, with different details and endings, but often the ruler ends up killed at the end, and when I learned these stories, I felt a little bad for the ruler – after all, he can’t change the fact he has donkey ears! So I tell a version with a slightly different ending again, where with a little help, the ruler realises that he can either hide and be ashamed of his donkey ears forever – or he can celebrate them. It’s one of my longer stories, but it’s worth it for the pay-off at the end!

When I tell for teenagers I like to tell an Egyptian tale called The Black Prince, which starts, "Once there was a boy who was lazy and stupid and good for nothing. And he knew that this was true, because his mother told him so every day." It’s a cautionary tale about believing the stories others make up about you, not realizing your true worth and your gifts, and trying to change everything about yourself because you think the world won’t accept you otherwise. I think for teenagers going through turbulent times and feeling self-doubt, it can be a very reassuring story.

And for very young kids? You can’t go wrong with The Enormous Turnip! I think this was a Russian tale originally, and the best thing about it is that you need a whole village to help pull up the turnip, so you can get the children involved with actions and repeated phrases and make them characters in the story.

Hooked on stories: Interview with Amy Sutton - Story Telling
Amy Sutton in one of her storytelling sessions with young children.

HRB: Can you give our teacher-readers some tips on using storytelling in the classroom?

Amy Sutton: Making time to introduce a story can make a big difference to how the class engages. As a storyteller, I might say something like, "Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin," and I know some storytellers who introduce their stories with drumming or songs to get everyone in the right mood. But even something simple like, "Put your pens down. I’m going to tell you a story," means that students are given permission to relax from work mode for a moment and just focus on listening to what you have to say.

HRB: Do you use any images or sounds during your storytelling events?

Amy Sutton: One of the things I admire most in other storytellers is inventive sound effects! I recently saw a storyteller who could make this amazing sound effect with his mouth which sounded like dripping water echoing in a huge cave, I was very jealous. I’ve been trying to recreate it for weeks, but at the moment I just sound like Darth Vader!

If I have a story with several characters I try and given them each a distinctive voice to help make the story more clear, and with the right audience it can sometimes be fun to get the group to make sound effects like ‘ooh’s and ‘ahh’s. I don’t use images as such, but there’s a lot you can do with gesture and where you look to make people imagine something that isn’t there. Looking up can show the height of a tower. A hand placed at different heights can show how tall someone is, or mark out where different characters are standing. A sweeping hand out in front of you can show people how hilly or flat the landscape is, and even turning your head from one side to the other can show two sides of a conversation.

HRB: How do children and teens respond to your storytelling events?

Amy Sutton: Well, I think! A lot of the tales that I tell to children involve call-and-response motifs, which is a really good indicator, because if children aren’t interested in the story, they won’t play the call-and-response games with you. And I haven’t had a group of kids yet who haven’t wanted to help me pull up the Enormous Turnip! When I tell to teens, I usually get a few who want to come and talk to me after the story – to ask questions or clarify things. And that for me is the biggest compliment, because if they are asking questions about the story, it means they care about it. And at the end of the day, that’s what I want to do as a storyteller – to tell stories that stay with people, stories that they remember and stories that they care about.

HRB: Thank you for the interview, Amy!

Watch a storytelling video with Amy

Watch a sample video from Story-Based Language Teaching, our resource book for teachers written by Jeremy Harmer and Herbert Puchta.


Learn more about the resource book here:

Story-Based Language Teaching Cover