Once you've heard your aged Jewish grandmother - who survived the Holocaust - tell a tale that can make you believe there's still
magic, there's no going back."
For Shonaleigh, there could never be any going back. Storytelling is in her blood. A dyslexic, she's a drut'syla, a storyteller in the Jewish tradition, and she sees that tradition as very much alive.
"You hear people talking about the storytelling revival, but in Jewish culture it never died" she explains.
Passover is based around the telling of a story, and we still tell stories. Out of the Holocaust came the most incredible stories. It's a way of making the unbearable bearable, it's a way of dealing with life, and it's something we've always done. For example, the story that's always handed down is that when the community was threatened, the people went to the rabbi and told him to protect the community. He went to the sacred place in the forest, lit the sacred fire and said the special blessing and it protected the community. And when that rabbi died, he died so quickly that he didn't have time to tell the new rabbi how to light the sacred fire. But when the community was threatened again, that rabbi went to the place in the woods and that was enough. Then when that community was scattered across the face of the earth in the Diaspora, nobody could go back to the forest. But they could say the prayer and that was enough. But finally, when that rabbi died, and they had no rabbi to turn to, the people could tell each other the story of the place in the woods and that was enough to hold the community together. For me, that's what makes storytelling within the Jewish point of view so special. It can be all things, and it loses none of its power, potency or passion."
Trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, she graduated as the Best Interpretative Student, a talent that's been put to excellent use throughout her storytelling career.
But while she harnesses the power of words, Shonaleigh was also one of the first to fuse story and music.
"Just as a good story speaks to your heart and your emotions, music plucks at your soul. Within music there's an unwritten empathy with the words - a ballad is a story with music. Sometimes music underlines and supports the narrative. Music to a story is the way pictures are to a book. It gives it that depth and extra dimension."
Her first real experiment with the media came with Tashbain in 1998, a group she put together.
"Nobody was doing anything like it, putting music and story together. They've gone together in the synagogue and Yiddish theatre for a long time. It was a long search for musicians who valued storytelling. But the chemistry was awesome. It worked, it took storytelling to the next level, and lasted until 2003. It was time by then, we'd done what we wanted to do. One of the reasons for the band had been to get storytelling into big theatre venues that wouldn't normally contemplate it, and we fooled them into booking one-woman shows with music."
One of the fruits of Tashbain was The Tower of Bagel, an epic story that was performed throughout the U.K. Like all of Shonaleigh's stories, it arrived in a dream, a creative method she attributes to her dyslexia.
"Maybe it's my brain sorting out desparate images and ideas that have bombarded it during the day. Or maybe, as a small part of me believes, it's filtering through from somewhere else. Sometimes I think it's my Gran telling me all the stories she didn't have the time to tell. But I dream in whole chunks. I'll often ask myself a question before I go to sleep if I've hit an impasse, and I'll have the answer played out like a video. I dream in colour, I smell and taste in my dreams. I move through them in a very real sense."
In addition to storytelling and music, Shonaleigh has achieved some renown as a visual artist, a secondary career that began as she
says by complete accident.
"I was asked to do a soundscape of story for a gallery in Oldham. You had to work with three different community groups. It was right after the riots there, and I found myself working with many groups, and you could cut the tension with a knife. To get these kids to vocalise it was easier for them to physicalise first, like they put their ideas down on lightbulbs and we created an illuminated path with words. It kept bleeding into my story, to the point where the two became intertwined and grew - they ended up giving me the whole of the top of the gallery! Then I did a crystal tree in Sheffield, and a twenty five foot spider web in a tunnel in Liverpool, and they both employed words, too. So the installations I do are still powered by story, and they're usually powered by the story I get from a community I work with".
With a repertoire of over three thousand stories which can be adapted as appropriate for the theme and audience with whom she is working, Shonaleigh is a dedicated and committed storyteller who's expanding her tradition. She's performed in venues as varied as church halls and London's Albert Hall, the Barbican and forests, and at festivals around the U.K. (such as Hay-on-Wye, Whitby Folk Week, and Festival at the Edge, among many others) and throughout Europe. She also does a great deal of work in schools and among community groups, helping people - teenagers and the immigrant community - find their voices.
Currently she's working on her most ambitious projects to date, Voiceless and Elijah's Violin, both of which will be premiered during
2005/2006. She's begun working with a new band, Javalaka, named for an ancient guild of merchants who worked across cultures, helping
to protect each other, weaving their maps into story webs, offering friendship, accommodation and trust to their members. No records
of the Javalaka remain, for nothing was ever written down ...everything was held orally, only the wisps of stories and the notes of a
few tunes remain.
Like breath in the air.