My next Stories on Stage guest is Clare Testoni from the Singing Bones podcast. This delightful podcast explores the histories of folktales and has more than 30,000 listeners worldwide. I came across it on Facebook via a recommendation Kate Forsyth made, and I’m delighted that in May, Clare will perform a “live podcast” at an in-conversation with me.
Clare is a writer, actor, and puppeteer with a strong interest in oral storytelling and the mythic in everyday life. She is a keen collector of folk tales, ghost stories, and urban legends … and when it comes to fairy tales, she thinks the stranger the better.
Monique: Where did your love for fairy tales and folklore come from? Is there a defining moment?
Clare: I’ve always loved folk tales and fairy tales. My father ran ghost tours and was very interested in folklore and my mother grew up on the Ruth Manning Sanders fairy tale collections (that I borrowed from the library and pored over). But I think you would have to blame the experience of seeing Into the Woods at The Sydney Theatre Company when I was six. That was the moment. I wanted to be Jack from “Jack and the Beanstalk” and I read every story about giants I could get my hands on.
Monique: What’s your favourite tale and why? Has this changed over time?
Clare: Oh yes. When I was young I loved the Ashlad stories from Scandinavia (see previous answer about giants) – I was all about the adventure stories. Then as a teenager I discovered Angela Carter and it was all the bloody and sexy ones, like “Bluebeard” and “Sleeping Beauty”. These days, my favourite is a tale I collected myself (I have yet to find another recording, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist) called “The Gingerbread Prince”.
Monique: What made you decide to start a podcast about fairy tales? Where did the name come from?
Clare: Well, the name comes from the Grimms’ story “The Singing Bone”, which is a variant of a very old story that is found all over the world of the bones of someone wronged speaking the truth. I often think of fairy tales as the bare bones of a bigger story and they certainly reach across time. I think it also speaks to the oral tradition of the stories. And of course what I do is oral! Podcast, radio – I felt this was such a good fit to talk about these stories. I love podcasts, but I found the mythology ones out there were very dismissive of fairytales, not as well researched as I like, and really quite sexist some of them. So I made something I wanted to hear. There are a few really good fairy tale podcasters now that I chat to who are doing great work.
Monique: What kind of research do you do for your podcast? How long does it take to prepare, record and upload an episode?
Clare: Oh ages. To record takes a day, to edit normally another day, but the research takes as long as it takes. Sometimes weeks. Some stories I’m much more familiar with or there is a lot of writing in English about it. Some stories I find myself picking through Hungarian or Russian (with help) or reading Charles Perrault’s memoir (it’s very boring). Often it’s more about finding the best way to talk about a tale’s history, finding the way in, finding what it says now. That’s the hard part.
Monique: Which podcast episode has been the most popular?
Clare: I think people really love “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” story. It’s a nice balance between well known and obscure and it’s a lot of people’s favourite. The two-part episode on mermaids was also very popular, and I think mermaid tails (pun intended) are very special because so many cultures have them.
Monique: You’ve woven your love for fairy tales into other aspects of your career such as shadow puppetry. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
Clare: My work as a writer and performer has always been about folklore. I came to shadow puppetry really because it’s a form that suits storytelling so well. There is a long tradition of fairy tales and puppetry, shadow puppetry, and silhouette art. I think the traditions speak to each other and it’s always been a natural fit. Fairy tales rarely work in realism, but with animation, puppetry, and illustration, they soar.
Monique: You’re also a writer. Any plans to write an original or reimagine a fairy tale?
Clare: I already have. Last year a wrote a play for children called “West of The Moon” which drew from Scandinavian fairytales; at the beginning of this year I wrote and performed a play that looked at five different variations of “The Beauty and The Beast”, and in May I am opening a new show that tells reimagined version of the classic Italian stories – “The Tale of Tales” – as a way of talking about Italian/Australian history.
I’ve also written short fiction adaptations or Angela Carter-like stories, some of which have been published and won awards.
Monique: What do you think people can learn from fairy tales?
Clare: I think everyone takes away a different story from a fairy tale. To me that is a fairy tale’s power, much like a work of visual art many people can have a different response or reaction to the same tale. I think it’s empowering to control narrative like that.
In fairy tales everything has meaning, everyone is potentially magic – there is so much that is useful in that.
I love going back and looking at tales and seeing how easily they can be read as queer and feminist and progressive … that when you take away the Victorian influence, and the 1950s Disney touches, these stories are not about sweet pretty princesses at all.
Monique: Which fairy tale characters do you admire most?
Clare: I love the men that trick Death. I love the girls that cross-dress. And I love The Loathly Lady, she’s my hero.
Monique: What’s the strangest fairy tale you’ve come across?
Clare: Oh, but I love the strange ones! They are my favourite, and I think strangeness is a very important part of fairy tales. The uncanny is key. That said, the cow-elfs maidens in Finnish folklore are very odd. Finnish folklore certainly has some of the strangest stories (but I love them).
Monique: What would you say to people who tell you fairy tales are only for children?
Clare: That they have not read a fairy tale but a picture book. Some fairy tales are for children, but not many. Fairy tales are meant to be adapted to the listener – you can tell a child one story and adult another version. I tell them to read an original version of “Sleeping Beauty”, any version, and then dare them to explain it to their children.
Monique: If someone wanted to learn more about fairy tales, where you recommend they start?
Clare: Jack Zipes is my favourite folklorist. His writing is clever, insightful, and he is best translator of German out there. I think Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales is the book most people have read, but it’s so out of date, and so sexist it hurts. Zipes and Angela Carter’s short stories are where you should begin if you want to see what folklore can offer a modern reader.
To find out some more of Clare’s favourites, click here.