The traditional storytellers of Turkey, called meddah, have a long history of entrancing audiences, weaving oral tales using epic narrative, humor and improvisation. Interestingly, one of the most famous meddah today is French. Over the course of her decade in Turkey, Judith Liberman has trained hundreds of Turkish storytellers, given TED talks, written the book Masal Terapi (Fairytale Therapy), and acted in the 2015 film Bir Varmış Bir Yokmuş (Once Upon a Time).
But, as she told The Guide Istanbul, the road to success began with doubt. “When I started doing this eight years ago, people said, ‘Storytelling? That isn’t a profession.’ People are still surprised that I do make money from this, and that I tell stories to adults not children.”
Behind Liberman’s varied skills is a belief that Anatolian tales are not an extinct art to be preserved in books. For her, they live on in many versions and interpretations by storytellers from generation to generation. These stories are also an antidote to the alienating forces of modern urban living.
“The most valuable thing we can bring to this society now is not just creating new artists. If some of my students never do this professionally, but they create a space in their homes and neighborhoods where people gather without technology, look into each other’s eyes and share a piece of imagination in the most amateurish way, that makes a difference. I have one student who invites the kids of the neighborhood to her grandfather’s home once a week, making bubbles and balloons as she tells stories for them,” she says.
In her workshops, Liberman covers both theory and practice, from story structures to improvisation and how to integrate the body into performance. Rather than criticizing students, she asks them to prepare a story as a group and then learn from other students’ performances.
After her own performances, accompanied by live music, Liberman encourages audience members to take the stage and tell any story they like. The only condition is that the teller must speak from memory. This license to speak among strangers is often liberating, as Liberman explains. “I had one moment with a very shy child who has a bit of a speech problem. He came up very randomly and started telling this story that he had made up. His mother was just shocked and started crying. She said that he would never speak in class or in public, so for her it was like a miracle. After that his behavior changed, all because he really liked the storytelling. It unlocked something in him.”
Liberman will take the stage at Zorlu PSM on April 11 along with Ayşe Arman, Azra Kohen, Şebnem Burcuoğlu, and Duygu Kayaman as a part of Rewriting The Rules event sponsored by Orkid and P&G. The event is free with registration on www.kurallaribastanyaz.com. Find out more about Judith Liberman’s workshops at www.judithliberman.com.