Storyteller Michael / by Daniel Maissan

Michael Driebeek van der Ven (48) is a storyteller. A craft he uses to create space for the audience to participate. He creates a context, stimulates the senses and he builds a reality we all experience, but not literally see. He lets you feel the essence of humanity and dares you to allow that feeling. His career developed organically - after a study in law, he started a career as an actor / performer - finally Michael came ‘home’ when he discovered the craft of storytelling. 

Delightful and slightly nervous, we enter Michaels street in The Hague. I notice the door is already open and it feels welcome immediately. Before we even enter, Michael tells us he’s got the wholeafternoon reserved for us. Coffee and tea are already prepared when he invites us into his living-room; a big room, with a high ceiling. He tells us everything in the room has a story and he startstalking about one of the paintings he takes care off. 

“There was this damaged painting with a hole in it in my parents attic. The paint flaking off and there was a greasy layer of dust all over it. It was a dreary thing. Every time I had to be in the attic for my skis, I saw that forlorn thing. It pictured a waterfall and every now and again I would pick it up, thinking: “Do I think it’s appalling or do I like it?” till I couldn’t make up my mind, so I put it back. Year after year this went on, until this year. I had to be in the attic once again and I saw the painting… Again. I decided to take it downstairs with me to ask my father what kind of painting it was. Somehow it kept fascinating me and I don’t know why. My dad told me the painting came from Indië, it used to belong to my grandparents. “So, that’s why it keeps fascinating me”, I thought.”

“With the painting under my arm, I went to Marjan de Visser. A great and skilled renovator. I gave her my filthy, damaged painting and asked her: “What do you think?” Do you see a cheap ‘pretty Indië’ or do you think it’s a good piece?” She put on her white gloves and handled it as if it was a Rembrandt. She insists on everything in her care being treated with respect. At a certain point she leaned over the painting and waved slowly with her hands to get a whiff of air to her nose. She kept repeating this until she could interpreted some history by the sent of the painting. Also the expanding or contraction of the canvas, showed her wether the painting moved from a hot to a cold climate or vice versa. She wanted to get to know the painting thoroughly, before even starting with the actual renovation.”

We look at the painting and Michael tells us the painter must have been a good painter.

“During renovation Marjan took a few tests from the frame, the canvas, the varnish and the paint. All four appeared to be the absolute best quality! Also she noticed the painter used confident strikes while creating his work. A good painter has 50 to 60 percent confident strikes on average. Marjan could’t find any insecurity in this painting. So it had to be one of the best painters. Unfortunately she couldn’t find a signature, but the quality and the feel of the painting guided her tothe conclusion it could be a work of Raden Saleh, made in the second half of the Nineteenth century.”

While Daniel, in complete stealth mode, moves around Michael while taking pictures, we loose ourselves in Michaels story. Marjan de Visser comes to life more and more while Michael is telling us his story. Everything becomes clear and vivid; the way she works with the paintings, her workshop. She’s there with us and I suddenly realise that this is Michael at his best. He tells stories. 

Because you’re human, you are a storyteller. Us humans are narrative beings. Our system, mostly our brain, is designed to receive and send everything via stories.

After a study in law, Michael worked as an actor - performer. After this he decided to develop his skills as a storyteller. This decision came about approximately ten years ago when he went to aCharles Dickens show with Caja van der Poel, a good friend and colleague performer. ‘A Christmas Carol’. A show which changed both Michael and Caja’s life completely. 

“We were blown away! The hall was well lit, with only one man and one chair on stage. Yet everything was there. A bed, a table and all the characters. But at the same time, he stood there as himself. Wow! A huge contrast compared to acting. When you’re acting, you’re not yourself. You are the role that you play. After the show Caja went to the man on stage. His name was Ashley Ramsden, founder and director of the ‘International School of Storytelling’, in England. Everything fell into place and I finally came home.” 

“Caja expressed herself quite well: “It makes me sick that the audience enters the main entrance, walking on marble stairs, looking at doors and chandeliers made of gold and then continue their way to a hall with red velvet seats and the stage. All that while I - as an actrice - have to walk through an ugly smelly alley, at the back of the building, passing backstage in crowded hallways filled with costumes, to get to that same stage. After the show, I have to leave through the same smelly alley.” 

Michael dislikes this separation as well - the wings of the stage, the curtains, the bright light in his face and the invisible audience in the dark for whom you perform. “It’s different with storytelling”, he says. “You all entre through the same entrance and I can be on stage as Michael!”

At the International School of Storytelling, I’ve mostly learned to work around my left part of the brain. The part that wants to reason and defend everything.

Michael starts explaining how a story is build. Something he does as well when giving workshops under the name DISC (Dutch International Storytelling Centre). Its located in an old monastery - the Willibrordus home from the brothers from Sint Jan - in the centre of The Hague. 

“Storytelling is about a balans between the left and right side of the brain and I think this balance isthe same in life. When do you allow your ratio to speak (left hemisphere) and when do you listen to your intuition (right hemisphere)? And how can those two cooperate properly?”

“An important part of storytelling is to let go of any preparation. I am - same as my audience - a spectator of the story that unfolds. To be able to do that, I need to do some homework. I have to build up all these images one by one. From my own past experiences, I can connectthese images with personal emotions. Working that way, I can speak from memory. So I don’t have to hold on to a script, but I tell a story from memory.” 

“To do all this, I have to build trust. Gain experience. I have to listen and watch and I can do that by taking a step back. Creating space so I can discover which story wants to be told. That’s what I call: working around my left hemisphere. I don’t need to reason, understand, declare or defend anything. I don’t need to deliver or persuade. I need to ‘allow’ it to happen. I don’t want to tell just a good story, I want to trigger the audience to feel something from their own history and background.”

A beautiful silence fills the room. A silence which tells us we were captured by Michaels story. His wave. His mission. His believes. We look at each other and no words can fill the comforting silence. Therefore Michael invites us into the dining room, where he already prepared lunch. The same room were Michael will tell a story, the way he does as a professional storyteller. Watch. 



* This film is shot with a 360º camera. For a good view, you can watch it in Google Chrome or Firefox. For the real experience, you have to watch it on your phone, in Cardboard Glasses. 

Text: Maartje Grond
Photo/Video: Daniel Maissan