An Interview with Storyteller Beth Webb

11th January - 14th February

Ahead of the upcoming storytelling event ‘Beloved - Tales of Love Gone Right’ here at The Bishop’s Palace on 14th February, we put a few questions to storyteller Beth Webb.

Beth is the author of numerous titles for children and teenagers, and she is also an illustrator and workshop leader. She has run workshops and events for the British Council in Cameroon, and has told stories in Orkney, Cork, and, as she puts it, ‘knee-deep in Glastonbury Festival mud!’.

She tells us about her passion for storytelling, her love of the acoustics in the medieval Undercroft, and the places she’ll be travelling to in the tales she’ll be telling in February!

What first drew you to storytelling?
My dad used to pull bedtime stories out of his head for my sister and me when we were little, so storytelling is a bit like breathing. I believe stories are a way of stepping back from reality so we can look at the hard, painful truths of life and consider them from a ‘safe’ distance. Stories and storytelling are vital, they provide a way of re-evaluating the world - or they can just be a way to have a good laugh through the magic of simile and metaphor!

You write as well – but do you prefer the spoken word?
I do write. I’ve had 15 books for children and teenagers published and I’m currently working on a novella for adults based on some rather questionable events at Glastonbury Abbey in 1408, using the PhD researches of Rev Dr Mark Hutchinson. I’m also preparing two books of short stories for adults.

I love both art forms, but they are very different. Writing is painstaking, and wonderful when I get it right, but storytelling is more exciting and intense - there’s no going back or editing if you get anything wrong on the night!

Do you create your own original stories - or do you most enjoy retellings?
When I’m storytelling, I usually use traditional tales (I seem to be doing a lot of medieval standards lately, the Arthurian cycle, Tristan and Iseult, etc). I do sometimes tell my own stories, or adapt a traditional tale if, for example, I’ve been asked to tackle a particular subject, e.g. ecology. Even the traditional stories often need some updating or re-interpretation, they simply wouldn’t be understood or accepted by a modern audience if I told them without adaptation - our cultures have changed so much.

I really struggle to remember my own tales! I know that sounds daft, but it’s quite true!

Singer-songwriter Dora Darling. Photo: Andy Webb

I particularly love the fact that 800 years ago, when the Palace was first built, some of the very same stories would have been told.

You tell stories for children here at The Bishop’s Palace during the school holidays  - what do you enjoy most about storytelling at the Palace?
I adore telling stories to children and their families in The Dragon’s Lair, it’s a magical setting, and the kids love doing dragon roars, and acting out being the dragon munching up their grown ups! There’s plenty of room for running around and acting out the tales with the children. They have so much fun, and that feeds my own ‘big kid’ mentality!

But doing a serious adult performance in the Undercroft is an extraordinary experience. I usually have a musician with me for these (the stunning singer-songwriter Dora Bella Darling will be performing with me for ‘Beloved’). The acoustics in the Undercroft are simply breathtaking. It’s the perfect setting for medieval storytelling, I find I really get carried away to another time and place in my head – and the audience comes with me.

I particularly love the fact that 800 years ago, when the Palace was first built, some of the very same stories would have been told. What an extraordinary thing to be a part of – a ‘living chain’ of tales.

Can you give us a sneak preview of the tales you’ll be telling on 14th February?
They will all be tales of ‘Love Gone Right’ because I really believe happy endings ARE possible. But, all the stories will have a joyful (and hopefully) unexpected twist. Dora Darling’s lovely songs will follow the same theme.

I’m not going to give too much away, but during the evening, we’ll travel to the northwest coast of Canada in the company of ‘Mouse Woman,’ a benign ‘nanauk’ or spirit animal, then to Norway, and we’ll end with the story of Baucis and Philemon from ancient Greece. Oh, and amongst other things, Dora will be doing my favourite, Tam Linn, a stunning ancient Border tale.

If you had to choose just one story to tell, which would it be?
From the ‘Beloved’ set? Definitely the Greek story, Baucis and Philemon. It’s a ‘Flood’ story, with biblical echoes, so it crosses between ancient thought and Christianity, and it has so much compassion, hope and humanity that it speaks to all people in all times and places. It’s wise, angry and beautiful - it always makes me tearful.

And of course, it has a happy ending. 

‘Beloved - Tales of Love Gone Right’ takes place on 14th February. More info and tickets HERE