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Meet the Storytellers (4): Mara Menzies

Updated on March 11, 2014

In this article you are invited to watch and listen to a professional storyteller Mara Menzies in action, enjoy her story, and to look at her in performance.

Mara (pictured here) will tell you a story from Ethiopia: 'The Lion's Whisker', and we can look the different elements of Mara's delivery.

Here at Settle Stories we try and encourage everyone to tell stories and the aim of this article is to help you become more confident and accomplished yourself as a storyteller in your own family, community, or perhaps as a first step to become a professional storyteller yourself. Why not?

But even if you don't have such aspirations, you can simply sit back, relax, and just enjoy the story.

Click on to the link below to see Mara and listen to the story.

'The Lion's Whisker'

'The Lion's Whisker' - Commentary


This is a story about a stepmother, Zahara, trying to win over her young stepson, who initially rejects her overtures of love. The little boy is still grieving the death of his birth mother, so cannot accept Zahara - who he sees as an intruder in his life. This ageless situation is very familiar to us, no matter where we live.

The story overturns stereotypical ideas of stepmothers who, in some fairy stories, are depicted as evil and conniving. But here - and more typical of most step-mothering situations - is a young woman trying to do her best and to show love to the child. It is a bewildering situation for her, as she has no children of her own yet and does not know how to respond to his hostility. At first she over-responds by trying to buy the child's affection, but when her gift is rejected she resorts to seeking help from the local wise man.

The story builds a parallel between the lion and the boy's wariness. But Zahara, with patience, builds trust between herself and the lion, to a point where she can pluck a whisker from it, which she thinks can be turned into a love potion to woo the child. But the moral of the story is that love, patience and trust is the best potion of all.

The story contained traditional storytelling elements: an issue to be resolved; conflict between characters; action to resolve the conflict; and a resolution. It had a happy ending too, which can leave an audience feeling satisfied.

With any engaging oral story (as with an effective written story), the words used are active, connect with our senses and emotions, and are delivered in short, crystal clear sentences. You may have noticed that only one person - Zahara - was named in the story. The other characters were referred to by their title, e.g. 'the little boy'. This was done to keep our focus on the feelings and actions of Zahara. And it can be confusing in an oral story to introduce the names of too many characters, as this can confuse the audience. Keep it simple.


Mara starts quietly, addressing the listener directly, straight to camera, as if she is making eye contact with us all. As the story progresses, Mara becomes more animated, and uses hand gestures to emphasise points. She builds variety into her delivery by changing position, by for example imitating walking. She exaggerates listening, and accompanies some gestures with relevant sound (she makes a twanging sound of the lion's whisker being pulled out). Her manner is friendly, engaged, interested; her delivery is confident and polished. This does not happen by accident - it takes practice, practice, practice.


Performance style and visual/verbal communication are intertwined activities. Mara's delivery is very clear and smooth. Each word is carefully enunciated. Her tone of voice and facial expressions mimic the changing story and the emotions of the main character: sad when Zahara is sad; happy when Zahara is happy. I had a sense that this was a story that Mara knew well - and liked - as her enthusiasm for it came across to me. Mara sings to us at one point too, which builds variety into the delivery, gives emphasis to the story at that point, and demonstrate the range of her skills. Mara is also dressed in traditional African costume - which communicates with us too, in that it builds her credibility as a storyteller of a traditional African story.

Photo: Settle Stories Festival 2013
Photo: Settle Stories Festival 2013 | Source

Meet Mara Menzies

A Q & A with Mara Menzies.

Why storytelling?

"It's the most wonderful job in the world! Storytellers meet all kinds of interesting people and our world is jam packed with stories. They are in everything we see, hear, do and say. The greatest thing about being a storytellers is that we understand how to read people. We have genuine empathy with the audience and have ways of making them feel all kinds of emotions. So whether we are telling to 3 year old children, prison inmates or rowdy teenagers, we somehow manage to sneak into their world and it is a gift that they allow us in."

In a world full of instant visual entertainment, do you think storytelling has a future?

"Absolutely. I think more and more people are realising the importance of going back to basics and how it is often the simplest of things that work best. Storytellers are becoming more in demand, in schools, at work, in hospitals, etc. I am hoping that requests for stories happens more at home too! Storytelling provides space for complete imagination. Imagine hearing a story about an elephant but never having seen a picture of it! How extraordinary an image we would all have. All completely different! Wonderful!"

What makes a good story, and why?

"Difficult question. For me a good story depends on the tellers ability to read the audience. If you can get that right, then any story can be brilliant! I have told the complex Greek story of Persephone to pre-school children and they loved it! I have told fabulous fairytales to grown ups and they too were thrilled! As long as you adapt your story to suit then you will have them in the palm of your hand. We all love strong characters - brave and daring, beautiful and haughty, angry and rebellious."

" A characteristic that creates an emotional connection - perhaps one we ourselves possess or aspire to. We love the mystery of where a story is going and some wonderful stories leave the audience hanging, free to create their own end. As long as the narrative is clear and we understand what is happening then we all identify in part with the characters and the goings on."

You tell tales largely inspired by and derived from your African heritage. Do you find common elements amongst these tales, if so what are they?

"I think the common elements found in the African stories are the same as in stories from around the world. All stories have the same intention regardless of origin - to entertain, inspire and inform. Certain ideas will have a commonality such as the tricksters: Anansi the spider in Ghana and the Caribbean, Sungura (hare) in East Africa, Loki in the Norse legends, Elegwa in Yoruba culture. The stories themselves will all vary naturally according to geography, language, religious beliefs and other cultural and physical differences."

"What is interesting is how the folktales from a particular region determine the behaviour and mind-set of the people who come from that culture. e.g. cultures where folktales celebrate nature will normally have a particularly strong 'eco-focus', etc. In Scotland many of our legends feature proud and stubborn individuals who fight tooth and nail for 'the cause' and generally speaking, the Scots are known worldwide to be a fiercely proud race."

What can the audience gain from storytelling? What do you gain from the audience?

"Storytelling is very much a mutual sharing. If the audience is open then that impacts tremendously on the teller's telling. Storytelling is an escape. It allows us to forget our current situation and venture elsewhere for just a few moments. In that new world our minds explore alternative ways of living and being and creating that magic for someone else, is a real pleasure and joy. To see the audience enter that new world makes it all worthwhile."

"For the audiences, some will never have had the opportunity to step into someone else's shoes before. Life can be very difficult, and stories create emotions, genuine feelings of empathy that give us a strength when we come back into the real world. Audiences will all get something different - some will be truly moved and affected by a story that for someone else was just lovely entertainment. Our own stories and experiences make us interpret stories in different ways from each other."

Have you a favourite story, or type of story? Why is it your favourite?

"I love all kinds of stories and go through phases. Currently I love the 'Discuss and Argue' stories where the story is shared but the ending is left to be 'discussed and argued' over. There is never a right or wrong answer, just whatever decision you make must be justified and backed up. This is perfect for all ages. I have experienced these as evening entertainment and oh...the fun! Raised voices, food and drink, laughter, strong willed individuals determined to prove they are right. It is a wonderful, wonderful way to end the day....and might even change your mind on some things!"

What advice would you give to people who aspire to be storytellers, either professionally, or within their own family or community circles?

"Listen to storytellers...lots of them. Seek them everywhere. Find the ones you like and learn from them. Find the ones you don't like and learn what not to do. Find the style that suits you and above all practice, practice, practice."

What do you think?

Did you like Mara's telling of 'The Lion's Whisker'?

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