Introduction: "Once Upon a Time"
"Once upon a time" is a well-known phrase that virtually always guarantees attention from children. Personally, what does it make you think of? Whom does it take you back to? Habitually, this phrase refers to emotionally charged childhood memories. Coincidently, when children hear "Once upon a time," their attention is grabbed almost immediately. A moment of suspense is created, and most children become attentive to what is to come. This succession of words could be considered like an open door into the world of make-believe, a world of dreams, of fabulous characters, of animals, etc. Storytelling, like every other work of art, as Cecily O'Neill says, "gives access to a self-contained imaginative universe, a dramatic 'elsewhere'" (45).
Through the art of storytelling a research project was developed for children between the ages of six and seven within the auspices of an Art Education university program. Twenty-five students who were signed up for a three-credit university class met the elementary children in order to tell them stories. The experiment was carried out in a primary school located in the same region as the Visual Arts Department of Laval University where I am currently teaching. More precisely, it is a working-class area of Quebec City in full cultural and artistic expansion. This project, from the initiation stage through development and right up to the presentations in class, helped me discover the power that storytelling had on everyone. As a privileged witness of this project, I was therefore able to observe how storytelling was not only a trigger for learning but also a tool to promote self-disclosure of the participants involved in this adventure.
This storytelling project started midway through the fall semester and ended with the presentation of tales in front of young children. The project extended over a period of six weeks during which there were weekly class presentations plus discussions and analysis of the material to encourage the progression of the creative work. The principle objectives of this experience for the university students was to 1) entertain a group of first-year primary school children by offering them one hour of storytelling, 2) offer the opportunity to discover local and international tales, 3) work in collaboration (in dyad), 4) integrate knowledge from the dramatic arts discipline (dramatic language, acting techniques, the world of theatricality, etc.), and 5) realize an artistic project intended for students in the same neighbourhood as the university.
Using the University Students' Childhood Experience as a Starting Point
The starting point of the project involved an exercise in sensory and affective memory purposefully used to draw out a story and its context from a childhood memory. This activity was rooted in the private lives of each student and was self-reflexive in nature. In other words, they tried to remember stories they had been told during their childhood. The activity enabled the participating university students to reminisce about a story from their childhood. This exercise also permitted them to retain certain aspects of storytelling they wished to preserve and ultimately develop in their own way. Thus, they became aware of what they wished to improve in their role as the storyteller: this character that "describes an on-going action" (Renoux 19; trans. by Chaine). However, even though the exercise had an autobiographical component, a certain aesthetic distance was created by way of the storytelling itself. In this regard, Madeleine R. Grumet rightly affirms the notion of "fidelity rather than truth" (66). Grumet suggests that the academic context (dramatic and theatrical) does not require students to tell the whole truth; rather, it encourages them to remain true to themselves. To this we could add the fictional nature of the situation proposed by the drama context, for each individual has to play a character, i. …