A Write Natter: Steve Wharton and Storytelling

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A champion of the spoken word – I believe Steve’s work will prove inspirational to students wishing to deepen their understanding of the language we use and broaden their horizons in how we employ it.

Steve Wharton writes songs and stories for performance; with wide-ranging experience in live performance and media production, he often merges the conventions of song, film, radio, and theatre. Although influenced by his work in China, Finland, and the Czech Republic, Steve’s primary inspiration is the heritage of his native Cumbria.

SCAN were lucky enough to interview Steve Wharton to learn more about his work and the art of storytelling:

You’re a storyteller and a writer – can you describe what you do?

Steve: I used to be able to.

Pre-covid I was specialised in Cumbrian folk heritage. I moved back to Britain in 2015 to really indulge myself in performing but I looked around at the music industry and saw the world and its mother was working in the festival industry so that business model was shot and so I thought well – I can talk!

Do you think it’s important to write or perform what you know?

Steve: For performing, if you are a creator as well as a performer, and you have the license to adapt and change at points – you have to have a knowledge of your subject to then bounce around inside it.

Does performing come naturally to you?

Steve: Performing tends to come easy after the first 500 times.

Do you never get stage fright?

Steve: I did once when I was stashed below the stage during a performance of ‘Wind in the Willows’, I was playing Mole and was down there for ten minutes dressed as a boy scout – and I just thought, “what am I doing?”

Different people deal with nerves in different ways. I get a bit flappy, checking I’ve got things or things are where they’re meant to be. Especially when it comes to music, it’s about checking the capos are there and making sure everything is prepared.

Sometimes anxiety becomes a superpower in that situation – you seem to be able to predict everything that can go wrong and prepare for it.

A lot of people with anxiety can feel like performing or public speaking won’t come to them – how would you do get over that?

Steve: I think it’s about accepting that it’s a perfectly natural response. It’s fight or flight. Most of the time it’s about coming up with a strategy of how to get through that, be comfortable with it, and prepare for it. Preparation, preparation, preparation.

Do you think a lack of preparation is a trap people can fall into?

Steve: Yes, absolutely. But also not moving on from performances that have just happened. It’s good to reflect on it and think about what went well or what didn’t but then you need to move on to the next one. The best part about performing is the connection with the audience – when something works or doesn’t work, you can tell. Either when something works really really well or not at all, you get silence. The worst thing you can do is rush a performance, you must give them time to process it, and draw them in.

How do you decide whether your work is better as a song or a poem?

Steve: Some things speak to you only in certain ways.

What advice do you have for people trying to break into regional folklore?

Steve: You need to do your research or borrow some from others. Get out there and perform them. Give them a sense of place, culture, or the times. After a while, you’ll cultivate a greater sense of the story and know where to lead on the narrative.

What advice do you have for students trying to break into filmmaking or into the media?

Steve: In terms of filmmaking, I specialised in ultra-low-budget stuff. Growing up in Ulverston there was a sense of a ‘do-it-yourself’ culture where you start out as cheap as you can. The independent filmmaking I got involved with in Barrow taught me how to make do with less.

Most of it is about the storytelling and about what you are trying to say. You serve the story with your shots or your performance, the quality of it shines when the storytelling works.

I would like to thank Steve Wharton for an enlightening talk on narrative and for his outstanding performances of Cumbrian inspired songs and stories.

A Writer Natter runs weekly from Friday 21st January to Friday 4th March. Events are streamed online, or places can be booked now from the host library or via email – tom.ashton@cumbria.gov.uk.

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