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Meet the Storytellers (5): Ursula Holden-Gill
Meet Ursula Holden-Gill
I'd like to introduce you to Ursula Holden-Gill, professional storyteller and musician, and invite you to listen to one of Ursula's songs: 'Dorothy', read the lyrics, and think about the story behind the song.
As with our other 'Meet the Storyteller' articles, the aim of this one is to help you become a better storyteller. This can be within your own family circle and community, or even as a first step to you becoming a professional storyteller yourself.
Ursula Holden-Gill is an award-winning professional storyteller, singer, musician, dancer and actress, who has appeared on British television. She also works as a speech and drama tutor and leads workshops for children, teenagers and adults.
Ursula has a Masters degree, is a qualified teacher with a Licentiate in Speech and Drama Education, and was awarded an Advanced Certificate in Singing from the Royal School of Music.
She was honoured with a UK TV Choice Award of Best Actress for her portrayal of 'Alice Dingle' in the long-running British relevision 'Emmerdale' series - for which she was further shortlisted for a National Television Award. In 2012 she was voted Best Newcomer at the British Awards for Storytelling Excellence.
I asked Ursula why she was drawn to professional storytelling, rather than continue with her television career.
"Although I enjoyed my early career as a television and theatre actress, I found as the years went on I increasingly missed the sense of community and personal creative input that had once inspired my student days and fulfilled me as a person. Also, I missed being able to work in environments where I felt at home or useful. My decision to step away from the screen, back in 2007, prompted me to explore exactly what was going on within the arts in my immediate area. I soon came across 'The Shaggy Dog Storytellers', went along to a club night - and never looked back."
What type of story does she like to tell?
"Well, my background is in comedy so I'm naturally drawn to funny stories but they have to be inclusive and able to make people think. I like writing and telling personal tales - as long as they're socially meaningful and am also fascinated in the relationship between traditional stories and place."
A storyteller needs an audience. I wondered about the relationship Ursula built with them. And did she ever get nervous on stage?
"When I started out as a storyteller I used to get terribly nervous. I found the thought of looking my audience in the eye totally excruciating. Technique and experience have eradicated those jitters, but I still shake before trying out new material or telling in music settings. Storytelling to a live audience is about communication - it's about reading faces, how to improvise and about bonding with them."
How does Ursula develop her skills and repertoire?
"I read, sing, tell and listen to stories every single day and what I'm naturally drawn to tends to just stick. Themes, issues or history I'm keen to explore resurfaces in my dreams or crops up here and there. I've also just joined my local forest school and agreed to drop in and tell a different tale to the children on a weekly basis. That's my commitment to sourcing tales that feed my other interests."
People who read this article may be interested in becoming more skilled in storytelling. What advice would Ursula give them?
"To find out where their local story club is. To visit the club for a few months and listen and assess what stories they like best and why. Then to choose a story that is of personal significance, but that is likely to prove meaningful to most listeners. They need to consider exactly who the listeners will be, then jot down the key points of the beginning, middle and end."
" It's important to practice telling the story aloud at home, in an authentic voice and in sections, and then timing it in its entirety until it can be told within twelve minutes. It is a good idea to break any story sets up with songs, poems or music to maintain audience interest."
Ursula in Action
You can listen to Ursula singing a track from her album, 'The Handless Maidens Daughter'.
I suggest you first listen first to track 6, titled 'Dorothy', as I will give my own response on this track later in this article. You can read the lyrics below as you listen. What mood is expressed in the song?
Click on the link below to take you to the album.
The Handless Maidens Daughter
Ursula wrote that:
"Most of these songs were written to accompany my stories - some traditional, some my own, but all very close to my heart. They were inspired by my immediate landscape, then and now, by the people I call to mind there and the wild call of home."
This remembrance of home is particularly strong in 'Dorothy'; see the lyrics below.
"She's away with the fairies and over the rainbow.
A sunflower mid tulips passed which you can't tiptoe,
A storm in a tea cup, a discordant key
But never was any as lovely as she.
And through her eyes the world is still gingham and cup - cakes,
Where love saves the day and laughter is commonplace.
Where living is wholesome, upstanding and free
O never was any as lovely as she.
When I think of her now as I brush with the rat race,
Soulless and underhand - how my poor heartbreaks.
Take me back to her where I long to be
For never was any as lovely as she."
There is a pattern in each of the three verses of the song of half-rhymes (first two lines) and full-rhymes (last two lines.) The mood is nostalgic, with a strong sense of longing for home and a particular remembrance of 'Dorothy'.
Dorothy is remembered for her loud, exuberant personality: a 'sunflower mid tulips', who you can't ignore (or 'tiptoe' past). I liked the comparison of the sunflower that bursts forth in its bright colour amidst the straighter tulips. Dorothy is in a world of her own ('away with the fairies'), but is a loving person, and the singer compares Dorothy's honesty and joie de vivre to the 'soulless and underhand' world of the rat-race.
It is interesting to read what Ursula wrote about this song:
"I wrote this song to accompany the third story in my "There are Fairies in the Gutter" set, way back in 2009. It's about a dear old lady from Blackburn who literally lived out loud and in doing so was an inspiration to everyone she met."
The song reminds us that the best stories can often be found in the world around us and in our memories. As we listen to Ursula sing, and read the lyrics, we connect with the experience; it is likely that we remember from childhood our own 'Dorothy' - I certainly do.
The lyrics form a picture of a recognisable human being. We can empathize with the values expressed in the song, particularly of life-affirming moments and memories. So instead of a 'her and us' performance, there is a unity and satisfaction gained from the closer relationship between singer and audience.