Storytelling the noblest art for tour guides at Abbey school of theatre
Guides trained to eschew stuffy history and focus on human stories that can enrapture
Barbara Cafferty, a tour guide at Kilruddery House and Gardens, displaying her talents at the Abbey Theatre as part of a Fáilte Ireland initiative to develop world-class visitor experiences at tourist attractions. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Beckett, Yeats, Synge – many luminaries have graced the Abbey Theatre, but few have exited stage left to escort tourists around the city.
Yet tour guides are storytellers too, and they have been honing their skills in the seat of Irish stagecraft.
As an initiative of Fáilte Ireland, senior guides from 17 historic homes and gardens are being trained to eschew stuffy history and renew their focus on human stories that can enrapture an audience. Then there is the small task of delivering them like a pro.
“[They said] we want our tour guides to become storytellers; that was the ask, and we said yes we can help with that,” explained Phil Kingston, who runs acting classes for private clients at the Abbey.
Learning how to wield dramatic tools is one thing; to do it under the bright lights of this fabled stage with its vertiginous rows of velvet seats is quite another. But acting classes for the corporate world – isn’t it all a bit gimmicky?
“It depends what impression of Ireland you want visitors to get,” Kingston replies without a beat. “Actually, many of them were pretty good storytellers anyway. And in the work I do with businesses, generally people are – but they get stuck in registers and modes of address.”
In the lobby outside, Brian Conlon appears ebullient, having secured the unofficial “gold star” of Tuesday morning’s workshop. Kingston felt he had captured the essence of Patty Butler, the last maid at Fota House in Cork, which left private family ownership in 1975 and whose story Conlon now plans to use as the centrepiece of his tours.
“Why didn’t I do it when I was 20?” he asks, regarding the stage with an appropriate theatrical flourish. His newly acquired taste for the dramatic arts will help captivate future audiences as he casts aside old tendencies toward facts and figures in favour of a human touch.
“Patty is a perfect character because she was not one of the gentry, but she was very loyal to the family. What I learned is: it’s okay to tell a story.”
Fáilte Ireland does not directly employ the hundreds of tour guides dotted around the country, but it is financing this pilot project. It is aimed specifically at Ireland’s Ancient East, the three-year-old marketing campaign that focuses on areas east of the River Shannon.
Its head, Jenny DeSaulles, said they sought out the theatre’s help in the hope that stronger storytelling would spur word-of-mouth among the millions of potential visitors.
The move was partly inspired by a research trip to Edinburgh and a tour of the old city. Venturing out, reluctantly, into the cold night air, the delegates were captivated by their guide.
“He held us in the palm of his hand for an hour and a half,” recalls DeSaulles. “He had nothing. He had a cape and he told us the history.”
The tourism body found that visitors to Ireland too might benefit from the magic of narration. “Because it’s not a history lesson for them,” says DeSaulles, “it’s a human story.”