Interview: Michael Kossew, Tellit Festival

This Sunday sees the launch of Tellit, the UK’s first ever festival of true-life storytelling. It’s the brainchild of Michael Kossew, and will feature a week of shows across London including spoken word, theatre, comedy and movement, workshops and open mic events.

“I love listening to people’s stories and being transported into their lives for an hour or even a few minutes, and wanted to share my favourites with as many people as possible,” explains Michael. “There are loads of storytelling festivals but, in this country, no festival had ever focused solely on true-life storytelling and I wanted to change that.

“Then I had to make a decision about whether to focus on truth or storytelling. I chose truth as it allows artists more freedom to create performances in whatever style they feel comfortable performing and can allow the festival to grow in so many interesting ways. 

“Once I started telling people my vision, I ended up putting a great team together to help me curate the festival. Kate Walton, a storyteller I’d met at my storytelling nights, Jacob Wagen, an old friend and theatre producer and Tim, an audience member who loves stories. We started working together and this festival has grown to what it is through our collective visions.”

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Michael runs true storytelling events around London and at festivals, and wanted to combine his two passions into something greater. “Sharing stories goes back thousands of years. It’s not something I’ve created. But it’s something that, in this world driven by shorter and shorter forms of communication and concentration spans, is being lost and I want to help bring it back.

“We’re all natural born storytellers and we have an innate ability to tell amazing stories to each other. We all have at least one story from our own life that we love telling our friends. It could be one that you’ve told a million times because it always makes people laugh or cry or reminisce about lost youth or loved ones and, being this captivating, makes you an artist. We are all artists and telling stories is one of the easiest ways to unlock this creativity inside you because you already have the tools, the material, the experience of life to be able to tell your own stories.”

The packed programme includes Tellit Poeticallya night of autobiographical poetical storytelling; a clowning double bill from Holli Dillon and Charmaine Wombwell; and a lyrical rapping style of storytelling in Paul Cree’s Bedsit Show. The Survivors Collective are creating an empowering night of poetry speaking as survivors of childhood sexual abuse, and Hikayenta, a group of Syrian refugees, create poetry and music from their own stories.

“We’ve made sure that all our shows are of an incredibly high standard for this year, but I would say that The Quest is a major highlight,” says Michael. “I would love to, one day, gather together in one room the greatest storytellers from around the world and hear tales from their own lives –  giving a wonderful insight into the lives of people on this planet. This year The Quest gathers together storytellers from major true-life storytelling clubs around the country for the final event of Tellit. It’s going to be a great celebration of stories at Hoxton Hall, one of the most beautiful venues of the festival, on the 22nd October.

“The ultimate aim of The Quest is to find stories from around the UK and eventually the world, bring those storytellers together to celebrate the stories that we tell. We want to inspire people to share their stories, whether they’re grand adventures or a beautiful slice of their lives. We’re not aiming to find the ‘best’, because all stories are beautiful in their own way, but we want to find a snapshot of a place and time reflected in the stories we tell each other and we’d love for people to think of their life events in terms of a story, to frame it, to own it and to tell it.”

Michael wants people to feel inspired to share their own stories and experiences. “We’d love for them to realise that they do have a story to tell, and I hope audiences will leave feeling enriched by the stories they’ve been told as well as their own memories that the stories re-ignited. Maybe some will start their own storytelling night, or club or circle and come and join The Quest next year. 

“I think people will take away many lessons from the stories they’ve heard as well. Stories are great teachers and they will stay in your mind long after the festival is over, and I hope they continue to be passed on from teller to listener to teller.”

And what about people who feel they have a story, but are worried nobody will be interested in hearing it? “I’ve found this to be the single biggest thing that holds people back from sharing their stories. My advice would be to listen to other people’s stories and see what draws you in. You’ll often find it’s the little things, like the way someone folds their clothes, or makes a cup of tea or relates to a parent and it’s these shared experiences that are often the most captivating. The story that you think isn’t interesting will trigger more memories and thoughts in your listener than you could ever imagine, and they will truly be interested in what you have to say. The trick to making people listen, is belief and presence. You have to believe that what you’re saying is interesting and, rather than simply remembering what happened, you have to re-live the experience as you’re telling it. 

“Finally – I would say just get on stage and share it. It gets easier every time and the audiences or listeners you tell your story to are so supportive, free of judgement and want to hear a great story. You’ll feed off this, relax, thoroughly enjoy it and will be desperate to do it again.”

Check out the programme for Tellit (16th-22nd October) at tellitfestival.com.

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