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The Society of Storytelling Gathering June 2019

On the 8th June 2019 I attended The Society of Storytelling (SfS) Gathering at St Gabriels Church Hall in Walthamstow.  The Gathering brings together storytellers of different backgrounds and experiences from all over the country (as the event was in London this year the South East was heavily represented).  Whilst the society AGM was a scheduled part of the day it also represents an opportunity for storytellers to discuss the state of storytelling in Britain with talks and workshops lead by society members. I don’t often go to storytelling events.  When we moved to Walthamstow in 2013 I started going to Stowtellers, the local storytelling club but in recent years a hectic work schedule and a toddler have made going to events difficult so this year’s Gathering would be some long overdue professional development as well as a chance to catch up with other storytellers.

If this event had been held at the beginning of the year it would have been a 30 minute walk from my house but having moved to East Sussex it was a slightly longer journey which meant I sadly missed Paul Jackson’s opening speech but I was present for Mike Rust’s keynote speech.  Mike has been a storyteller for over 30 years and helped to found the Society of Storytellers and The Festival at the Edge in Shropshire.  Mike set the tone for the day speaking about the evolving tradition of storytelling and how he feels storytellers can make a real difference to people’s lives and well being.

“The first tottering steps are made by us the rest is for you”.

The first workshop I chose to attend was about legacy.  Three 11 year old girls from Eastbury Community School were in attendance to show off their storytelling skills and talk to us about their experiences of storytelling with their teacher and storyteller Merrick Durling. It was wonderful to see three young people communicate a story with such confidence.  It was also very impressive and energising to hear them speak about the joy they found in being able to express themselves through storytelling.

“Storytelling isn’t just about reading books, it’s about expressing yourself”

Throughout the day there were chances to chat with other attendees.  It was a bit like meeting my Twitter account in the flesh as I got the chance to speak with Wendy Shearer and Hannah Brailsford but I also chatted with Pippa Reid, SfS representative for London, and Tony Cooper, whose book of Kentish folktales is a source of inspiration to me. It was fascinating to hear different views from different parts of the country as a range of topics were discussed from how to work with schools and build audiences, to training, peer support, friends groups and the the value of social media and websites.

“We need to be outward looking and engage everyone”

After lunch came the AGM lead by Paul Jackson reported that SfS was in a good state and the members got to hear how money was being spent on youth and research projects followed by a practical workshop in which exercises encouraging the storyteller to reconsider their story through questioning and quiet reflection.

The day ended with a talk by Andy Copps.  Although I have had some correspondence with Andy because of my work with The Roald Dahl Story Company we had never actually met so it was great to hear more about his work and his journey from the world of finance to becoming a storyteller and meet Ralph the Gorilla! What I love about Andy is that you can tell he is passionate about stories and storytelling and that passion is infectious. He had the room enthralled.

As the Gathering moved to a local bar for an evening of stories sadly I broke away and headed home. I found the whole day very thought provoking.  At times being a storyteller can be a lonely place but the Gathering demonstrated that there is an active support network and storytelling community out there.  I left feeling reenergised and can’t wait for the next time we come together to share our stories of storytelling.

John Kirk is a professional storyteller. For more information or to make a booking fill in a contact form.

Practicing what I preach: telling and exploring stories with a toddler

As a storyteller I am asked to work not just in a variety of different environments but also with all sorts of different people.  Most people come into contact with my storytelling because of my work with children and families in schools and libraries but I do also work with adults.  This includes running storytelling sessions for parents aimed at encouraging them to tell stories with their children at home.  In the sessions my key points are the importance of talking to children about their family history and identity, the value of telling stories through play and how that play can be enhanced and the long term benefits of nurturing a culture of reading at home.  These sessions are popular with parents searching for ideas to stimulate their children or just some reassurance that creating time to bond over a story is worthwhile. When my daughter Verity was born, this storyteller became a Daddy for the first time.  As you’d imagine storytelling and performance are part of the culture of our family.  Lauren and Verity have supported me at several festivals, we have done a Father-Daughter double act at early years and rhyme time storytelling sessions and earlier this year we reviewed one of our favourite books.  Watching Daddy working and unorthodox Daddy day care is undoubtedly a fun way for a toddler to pass the time but as she gets older if we want Verity to remain interested in stories I have to practice what I have been preaching to other parents for years.

Now I am the first person in the world to admit that parenting is really hard.  Whilst I might have the stamina to tell a story to an audience of 300 children, one toddler regularly leaves me exhausted.  Fortunately for me Lauren has been a super Mum since day one and has always been able to engage quite naturally with Verity.  It may seem strange considering my living but I used to find it very hard to talk to my baby.  Realising that not talking to her would be detrimental I tried to compensate by singing rhymes and make up songs to fill some of the awkward silences.   This one is a family favourite…

To the tune of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”

All the stinky babies, all the stinky babies

You put your legs up!

Just done a crappy in your nappy

Daddy’s going to change it

He’s got some wet wipes and a change mat

All you have to do is lie there.

If you like it then you should have put a nappy on it!

If you like it then you should have put a nappy on it!

Woah woah woah etc…

Fortunately for Verity conversation has become a lot easier as she has got older but this and other silly songs have got me through some very difficult moments.

We recently bought Verity a set of traditional tales including The Three Bears, The Gingerbread Man and The Billy Goats Gruff. If you have read any of my previous blogs you’ll know that Verity watches as much (if not more) TV as any toddler but books don’t read themselves and since introducing these stories they have become firm favourites. I am a self employed storyteller and I know that if I am left in sole charge of my daughter I am easily distracted with checking e-mails and taking phone calls but since purchasing this set of books John the storyteller has been unable to resist the opportunity to bake Gingerbread Men and whenever we go on a walk and there’s a bridge we’ll pretend to be either the Billy Goats trip trapping over or the Troll lurking under it. The other day the audience turned instigator as Verity suggested we make some Porridge for her Teddies.  It was a light bulb moment.  Soon we had three bears eating from three bowls of porridge, three chairs and three little beds set up in Verity’s bedroom.  An hour on a wet day flew by as we read and reread the story of The Three Bears with Verity and her dolly taking turns at being Goldilocks.

In my experience sharing and exploring stories is brilliant way to parent and I’m sure it’s having a positive effect on both of us.  There will be people reading this who don’t have access to the resources that we do but you don’t have to be a professional storyteller or have a lot of stuff to make stories a part of your family’s daily life.  To read a book, make up a silly song at bath time or play a game with a teddy bear means putting down the mobile phone, switching off the rest of the world and trying to be present for a few minutes because what children really value is time and the time spent bonding through stories will create memories that lasts forever.

My mad March: 21 days of workshops, assemblies and presentations summed up in 10 bullet points.

We’re almost at the end of March and I’m happy to report that there has been no recurrence of the tonsillitis which blighted me a year ago meaning I was able to fulfil all my World Book Week commitments as I visited Stoke, Warrington, Glasgow, Paderborn, Hertfordshire (twice), Slough, Horsham, Saltash and Knowsley.  It’d be quite a dull read if I were to recount everything that’s happened so instead here are 10 things that stood out for me during another mad March.

1. Planes, trains and automobiles – I love travelling, meeting new people and taking my stories to new audiences and over the past three weeks I have travelled thousands of miles in the name of storytelling.  I was thrilled to be invited to tell stories in Warrington and Knowsley in the North West and to visit Saltash in Cornwall for the first time and that on the way my beard flummoxed a biometric passport reader in Amsterdam – apparently I no longer look like me!

2. Audiences of all shapes and sizes – In a very short space of time I have worked with about 2000 young people through workshops, assemblies and presentations.  Everybody I met engaged in their own ways and together we were able to enjoy sharing stories.  The sizes of the audiences have varied dramatically.  At the start of the month I did two presentations at The Wee Write Festival in Glasgow to 800 children from 18 primary schools.  Four days later in Slough I told the story of Anansi the Spider to 5 children with profound learning needs.  These sessions had their challenges but both experiences left me feeling very satisfied.

3. I accidentally ended up on TV!I have been working with MOD schools in Germany for a number of years and before leaving the UK I had been aware that it was probably going to be my final visit to Paderborn.  A few years ago I had been involved in an event at RAF Wycombe during which British Forces Broadcast Service had done a nice piece for the radio and I was keen to do something like this in Germany.  When I arrived I set about recording my sessions rather like I did for the BBC during National Storytelling Week.  At the end of day one I learned that BFBS would be sending a reporter with a camera into school the next day!  The idea was terrifying but Rob Olver (the journalist) was totally unobtrusive and has produced a really lovely report.  He was even kind enough to edit my interview so that I didn’t sound completely tongue tied.

4. Question & Answer.  Question and answer sessions are an occasional part of my job.  Generally I talk about reading, resilience and my creative process but every so often the children offer a lighter moment.  Here are my favourites from the last couple of weeks.

Child wearing a silver coat: My jacket changes colour when it gets wet.

Me: Oh yes, what colour does it change to?

Child wearing a silver coat: Silver

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Child: Who is your favourite aunty?

Me: Who is your favourite aunty?

Child: Grandma Hazel

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Me (holding up a grey bobble hat): What animal do you think this could be in our story?

Child: A panda!

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5. Why would you book a storyteller who lives at the other end of the country?  Now as you read the list of places I have visited during this very small window of time please remember that I live near Brighton.  Imagine being the person who made the booking, having to explain to their colleagues that rather than getting a local storyteller in you’ve opted for somebody who lives at the other end of the country.  A few weeks back I had this exact scenario in Derby (I’m cheating a little but this is a good anecdote); when I turned up, the other staff members wanted to know why on earth I had been asked to do the job.  Since visiting that particular school despite living five hours away I have been added to the academy trust’s supplier list so that all 15 of their schools can call upon my services.

6. Old friends and new acquaintances – As I have already suggested, I get a lot of enquiries for dates in early March.  It can be depressing how many organisations are keen to work with you but lack the flexibility to host a visit on any day except World Book Day.  Traditionally I reserve WBD for schools I like working with and this year I was back in Harpenden at one of my favourite schools sharing old projects (a rare run out for Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief) and new ones (my first UK schools audience for The Enormous Crocodile).  In fact this year I only visited one new school during World Book Week and that was a large Junior School in Slough.  I ran four sessions of global folk tales.  At the end of my first session an elderly teacher stood up and addressed the room.  He told us that he had been involved in teaching for over 50 years and worked with over 250 schools.  He told us that in his career he had been at many such presentations but in his opinion mine had been fantastic.  It was an incredible and completely unexpected moment and one that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

7. If it ain’t broke… – As a professional storyteller I am often guilty of falling back on what works rather than pushing myself particularly at busy times.  This is good and bad.  Doing lots of days has meant I can quietly consolidate The Enormous Crocodile before doing a series of public events later this year but in Horsham fell back on Goldilocks and the Three Bears again.  It’s a story that I have told in the particular setting on a number of occasions and whilst the children love it and I’ve experimented with role play and imaginative play scenarios around it I fear its lost some of its freshness.  Determined to address this, next year I’ll be working with the same centre to deliver a series of sessions which will allow me to develop new material for Early Years and Foundation children starting with National Nursery Rhyme Week in November.

8. Getting resourceful – Whilst in Horsham I could be accused of resting on my laurels nothing could be further from the truth in St Albans where I walked into the setting with nothing but a photograph of the contents of their craft cupboard.  Using open resources to tell stories is something I want to write about in the coming weeks so I won’t say much more than it was a lot of fun and very creatively liberating.

9. The future is bright/keeping the wolf from the door – Away from the frontline of storytelling I have been doing a lot of office work.  It’s no great secret that moving out of London presents certain challenges to my business model but I’ve decided to take a “just work harder” approach to the problem.  I’ve already mentioned what we hope to do in Horsham but in the last two weeks I have messaged every primary school in Surrey and Sussex as well as English language colleges in Brighton about potential projects and opportunities.  I’ve been updating my website calendar and had some interesting discussions with storytellers, libraries and educators about the future.  Just last week I delivered the local history assembly I devised for the London Borough of Waltham Forest at a Borough of Culture meeting and hopefully a new project will be approved that will see me visiting as many as 60 local schools to talk about the area’s history, identity and culture.

10. Making memories – Last Friday, as I began a very long journey from Saltash back home I was standing at a bus stop and a little girl and her great grandmother walked by.  The little girl who had been one of my volunteers in a session that day stopped and introduced me.  She then proceeded to sketch out one of the stories I had told in her session to her great grandmother.  It took me back; you see you forget that as you dash around the place that you are touching people’s lives.  The reason I work so hard to get the best stories I can and the reason I badger so many people to host my work is that I bring them something different, something happy, something fun and something stays with them when I am long gone.  I made a difference to that little girl and hearing her become the storyteller she made a difference to me.

This March has been full of special memories and before you know it we’ll be planning World Book Day 2020(!) but for now I’m looking forward to a couple of days at home and to seeing what April brings…

John Kirk is a professional storyteller.  To find out more about his work or to enquire about a booking contact me.

The (Birthday) Party season

At this time of the year I have usually downed tools for the festive period but with birthday party bookings to prepare for the Christmas week this year is a little bit different.  My usual feeling of triumphant relief at reaching the end of another year sane and solvent is still there but I can’t afford to get too demob happy as there’s still work to be done.

For me it seems birthday party bookings are like buses; you do none for ages and then three come along at once.  The three parties I’ll be entertaining at couldn’t be more different.  The first is a first birthday and will consist of songs, rhymes and stories, the second is for a six year old where I’m doing a narrative version of “The Polar Express” and the final one is for a nine year old and is to take place in a Pizzeria (I hope somebody warns the other customers!).

With every passing year I become more confident within my repertoire.  I know which stories will be winners and I understand the combinations to tell them in so that a set will be successful even if this means telling the same stories again and again but every so often I get a bespoke project; a new challenge, an excuse to develop new material.  Some bespoke projects will be more work than they are worth but just recently I worked up Sleeping Beauty, Rumpelstiltskin, Beauty and the Beast and reworked the Elves and the Shoemaker for some traditional tales and Christmas storytelling sessions.  I have previously blogged about the session I ran retelling the story of the Prophet Yusuf but I also had the opportunity to work up some Russian folktales for a school in Hampshire.  Here is their feedback on what we got up to…

“The visit was brilliant. We all enjoyed the stories which were perfect for our topic. We felt that it was pitched perfectly and the participation of children made it memorable and thoroughly enjoyable. Our children went on to tell and write their own stories based on this experience.A huge thank you and assurance that we would be keen to book John again and recommend him to others schools”.

Teacher, Fareham, November 2018I 

Whenever I do a visit, whether it be to a school, a library or a literature festival the aim is to do the very best work possible and in recent years there has been a very definite correlation between the calibre of what I showcase and the plaudits I receive.  When I do a bespoke project I often only get one shot at getting it right and in the case of a birthday party there’s the added pressure of really not wanting to spoil the special day.  Making a good impression at a library may have more obvious rewards than making a good impression at a birthday party but you never know who is watching or where an encounter may lead so although it may be a private booking its as important as anything else I do (the last birthday party I did lead to two days of work at a school).  So this Christmas as I digest my turkey I’ll also be carefully chewing these projects over and thinking about how I can make them memorable, enjoyable and above all fun.

If you’re interested in a bespoke storytelling experience or are looking for a storyteller contact me.

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous new year.

Imagegate: why it matters to me and why it should matter to all artists

The following relates to a series of social media posts I made on the 6th December 2018. As the matter has been resolved I have chosen to bring the whole story together in a blog for the sake of closure and because it deals with an interesting subject.

Four years ago I was lucky enough to be involved in City Read.  City Read is an annual month long, London wide event during which readers come together to share a single book.  I told “Private Peaceful” in 22 of London’s 32 authorities.  This was huge for my career; in one month I exploded into the consciousness of London’s libraries as I went from working in North London onto a much bigger stage (in 4 years I have gone from working in Hackney, Haringey and Islington to working for over 60 authorities across England, Scotland and Wales).  The project also presented an opportunity to work at The Museum of London in the Docklands.

The booking in question was a weekend event at the Docklands Museum and meant telling Private Peaceful three times in one day to public audiences.  I was technically working for City Read at The Museum of London rather than directly for the museum this was still a huge thrill; my background to this point had been in heritage rather than libraries and I had cut my teeth as a storyteller with Hackney Museum, Bruce Castle and the Cuming Museum.  My day at the Docklands Museum came and went all too quickly.  I was part of a larger event themed around the Great War.  It was a wonderful experience and I had a great time but to be honest I hadn’t thought much more about it until what I’m now calling Imagegate broke this week.

It started when a friend of mine contacted me to say she’d seen a soldier at the Museum of London who looked exactly like me and that she was glad my work was going well.  I joked that I was pretty sure I hadn’t been around to fight the Great War but I’d be interested to see a picture of my doppelganger.  She then sent me a link which left me speechless.  You see, my friend hadn’t been to the museum, she’d been on the museum’s website.  The Museum of London had had another family activity day themed around the Great War and it was my face being used to promote the event.  I meanwhile had had no idea.

Here’s what happened.  All those years ago I signed a piece of paper which allowed the Museum of London to take pictures of my storytelling sessions.  Its not unusual for me to sign such documents and I’ll be honest I encourage libraries, galleries and museums to take pictures so they can use them in the future.  Whenever I give consent for photos or videos to be made its on the understanding that they are shared.  This is mutually beneficial as I can then use the media in my own documentation and promotion (I still haven’t worked out how to take pictures of myself).  In this instance the photo hadn’t been shared after the event but I knew it existed because some time ago in an idle moment I’d put my name into a well known internet search engine and it had popped up as being posted by CityRead in 2014.  Four years on from the CityRead event the picture was selected to promote a family day because staff felt it summed up the kind of activities that would be happening on that day.  For whatever reason I wasn’t credited in the promotion nor indeed was I contacted about participating in the event.

So why does the use of a photo matter so much?  Well…

It has taken me years to hone and develop my repertoire; I have done thousands of gigs and hundreds of thousands of miles, all in the name of building a reputation as a top quality performance storyteller.  Everything you see in this picture; the facial expression, the pose, the clothes and to a point even the words that I’m saying in the photograph, that’s all me and my work yet my contribution to the photograph is not recognised when its reposted.

I spend a lot of time and energy on getting the right permissions to tell stories.  Whenever somebody takes a picture or makes a video of me I immediately lose control of my work.  If they then choose to put their media onto the internet I have to trust that they do this with discretion so as not to compromise my work or my professional relationships.  In this instance, if this photo had been a video the people who trusted me with “Private Peaceful” (Berlin Associates acting on behalf of Michael Morpurgo) wouldn’t have been at all impressed.

The event that my image was used to promote featured a storyteller and yet I was never asked to participate and had no knowledge that the event was even happening.  So whilst there might be a perceived link between me and the event I in fact had no control over its quality as it was nothing to do with me.  The friend who alerted me to the picture didn’t know this and had got in touch to congratulate me on working for the Museum of London.  What if she or any of my followers/supporters had attended the event on the strength of the picture?  They would be disappointed to discover that they had been mislead.  Storytelling is a resurgent art form and its practitioners are as distinct as any other kind of artist.  I would like to be thought of as more than a thinking man’s party entertainer and we have to be careful about devaluing the storyteller’s art as it will inevitably have a negative impact on storytelling’s integrity.

As a result of the image being reused its probable that more people have seen this photo than saw the storytellings I did back in 2014.  Its a fantastic photograph but when my picture was taken it would have been outrageous to suggest to me it would some day be used to promote another storyteller and yet I have been powerless to prevent exactly this happening.  Yes, my complaint has been upheld but the event has already passed.  Saying this I am thankful that my image has only been reposted by a museum and it hasn’t been associated with anything stranger or more extreme.

When I told my story on social media friends and colleagues rallied around me in shared indignation, baffled at how anybody could be so thoughtless / rude / discourteous and to their credit the museum were quick to recognise that they were in the wrong.  They offered to take down the photo, they are reviewing how they use images in future and they also offered to add me to their pool of freelance storytellers.  Perhaps then this cloud does have a silver lining.

There is learning in this for me too.  I’m going to have to become much stricter about when people take photos knowing where the picture will be used in advance.  I’ll also have to look at the images I use on my website; am I correctly crediting photographers and workshop participants and is there a point at which I should really stop using even the very best pictures?

Imagegate has not been a nice episode but it has been dealt with and I can move forward.  I still admire the Museum of London for their incredible programme of educational workshops and as a place I aspire to work.  They took action as soon as they became aware of a problem and it’s my hope that not only I work with them again but that they will consider how they work with storytellers in the future.

Thanks to everyone for their support.

Jeremy Strong, Nigel Auchterlounie and me

I have been very lucky to work with some top writers who also turned out to be very decent and supportive people.  They championed me and my work without ever seeing what I had done with their stories.  So this week I decided to share video of The Hundred Mile and Hour Dog with Jeremy Strong and Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief with Nigel Auchterlounie.  This was a bit daunting because whilst I am confident in my own work the last thing you want is for somebody to say they hate what you do and you should stop.
I needn’t have worried.  They both loved what they saw:
“Don’t miss John Kirk’s genius storytelling. He’s brilliant!  John Kirk brings stories to life in an amazing way and encourages children’s reading, writing and listening skills”.

Jeremy Strong

“That was excellent John. Thanks so much for showing me and thanks so much for doing it in the first place!  You had me laughing within the first couple of minutes.  Well done! I loved it!”
Nigel Auchterlounie
It was a great thrill to have the opportunity to tell these stories but I’m even more thrilled that having shared footage of my retellings both authors took the time to watch the films and comment on it.  I’m also glad because whenever I have told the stories I have seen myself as an advocate of the author; a sort of unofficial cheerleader for the books trying to encourage young readers to engage with their titles.
As a storyteller you come to appreciate that some words go further and mean more than others and after a lot of work and a lot of miles travelled these words mean an awful lot to me.

Do Mr and Mrs Twit love each other?

After telling children Roald Dahl’s “The Twits” I enjoy posing the following question about the story:

Do Mr and Mrs Twit love each other?

The children are never in doubt; Mr and Mrs Twit do not love each other.  If you push them on this opinion they say things like “because they are nasty to each other” and “because they play tricks on each other”.  I understand the basis of this argument but happen to believe the Twits actually love each other.  Let me explain why..

In many of my most popular storytelling sessions (Roald Dahl’s The Twits, Jeremy Strong’s The Hundred Mile an Hour Dog and Nigel Auchterlounie’s  Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief) I use water pistols to spray the audience.  I don’t mean that I use them to gently flutter a few droplets of water in the vague direction of the audience I mean I use water pistols to quite literally drench the audience.  When outraged children ask me why I do this I point out (and they agree) that they enjoyed getting wet.  You see it’s all about the context of the soaking; if I walked up to a stranger in the street and threw a bucket of water over their head they’d be justifiably irked.  My audiences are rarely upset at getting wet.  This is partly because I’ll have forewarned them that water will be a part of the presentation but mostly because the soaking I dish out makes some degree of sense in the context of the story.

What’s this got to do with Mr and Mrs Twit?

Mr and Mrs Twit are vile, disgusting, revolting people.  Mr Twit has a filthy beard, Mrs Twit has a glass eye and they both have a wicked sense of humour.  In the first part of the story we learn how Mrs Twit put a glass eyeball in Mr Twit’s drink and worms and his spaghetti and that in return Mr Twit put a frog in Mrs Twit’s bed and made his wife believe that she was shrinking.  You could say that these cruel tricks demonstrate that they detest each other.  I say it shows why they are compatible.  Yes, the jokes are extreme but rather than causing the victim to run away they provoke a sort of brinksmanship as Mr and Mrs Twit try to better the previous plot.  You might say that this to do with a desire for revenge or that the Twits are trying to kill each other but I’m not convinced.  Their treatment of the monkeys and the birds show that Mr and Mrs Twit are capable of much darker, much more devious deeds and that if they wanted to kill they’d have done it already as murder is clearly within their power.  Then there’s the fact that despite their revolting trickery they are willing to work together with a common awful purpose at the drop of a hat.  Like my audiences who enjoy getting squirted with a water pistol in the context of a storytelling session I believe the Twits thoroughly enjoying playing tricks on each other.  It may seem bizarre but Mr and Mrs Twit seem prepared to be the butt of the other’s cruelty in the context of their own private game so much so that it’s difficult to say when the mark is overstepped (does Mr Twit go too far when he has his second nasty idea?).  In my view the reason the Twits keep coming back for more is that they don’t just love each other they depend on each other.  I therefore wonder if Mr and Mrs Twit find some perverse satisfaction in the fact they share the same grizzly fate?

When I approached the story I wanted to make the complexity of Mr and Mrs Twit’s twisted relationship as clear as possible.  As well as revelling in the Twit’s tricks, in my retelling composer Joseph Attenborough reflects  their shared joy of being utterly horrible by devising a series of snatches of laughter; Mr Twit, Mrs Twit and finally both the Twits laughing.  It’s the briefest of acknowledgements but it is there and now you know to look out for it hopefully you’ll hear it the next time I tell the tale.

My licence to tell Roald Dahl’s “The Twits” in primary schools, libraries and at events was recently reviewed and extended.  To find out more about this and other projects contact me.

 

The genius of Justin’s House

Since Verity was born what appears on our television has changed dramatically.  Where in the old days we might have found time to watch a drama series these days we watch Cbeebies.

Verity may only be 17 months old but she has her favourite programmes.  Her absolute favourite is In the Night Garden.  From the moment it goes on she is captivated.  She’ll talk to the characters and dance along with Upsy Daisy and Maka Paka.  We recently took her to the stage show and I’ll admit to having wept with pure joy at seeing how much she enjoyed herself.  After the show she got to meet her hero, Iggle Piggle.  She was enraptured.

She is also into Justin’s HouseJustin’s House, for those of you who aren’t seasoned watchers of children’s television is stars Justin Fletcher (aka Mr Tumble).  It’s set in a house in Justin Town where he and his friends, Robert the Robot and the Little Monster, enjoy singing and dancing and have all kinds of fun.

The two shows I have mentioned share a number of features.  Firstly they are uber colourful.  Then there’s the fact the episodes are structured so that if you watched the series you’d become familiar with the routine.  Both programmes have very catchy music with songs being used to introduce characters, deepening the sense of familiarity.  Finally episode plots tend to be very gentle, warm and simple.  They talk about feelings, friendship and fun.  They are definitely not the stuff of Albert Square!

Where Justin’s House is different to In the Night Garden is that Justin Fletcher has devised a slapstick stage show.  Slapstick is visual, physical comedy relying on well-rehearsed routines and sequences for laughs.  It’s easy to dismiss slapstick as an easy or base art form but children really enjoy watching people fall over, bump into each other or getting a pie in the face.  My earliest storytelling sessions were far more theatrical in their nature and my versions of The Unlucky Mummy and Dracula were crammed with slapstick gags which were always very popular with audiences.  Even now I use a lot of water pistols in my work because, in the end, who doesn’t think it’s a little bit funny to see someone get squirted in the ear?

The slapstick in Justin’s House is very slick and perfectly pitched but for me the genius of the show is to put it in front of a live audience.  The audience act like a character, joining in with songs, answering questions and responding to the unfolding story.  The audience’s role is recognised by the director who regularly cuts to the audience so the viewer can see facial expressions.  Justin also acknowledges the audience.  In the song Justin’s House, he sings about the audience saying “you’re funny and sunny, put a smile on my face, you’re brilliant, you really are great!”.  He’s right to be grateful because without the audience the whole programme would have a very different rhythm and feel quite flat or awkward.

So what can a storyteller learn from Justin Fletcher?

Be colourful – when selecting props and visual aids make sure they are bright and colourful.  I use a lot of wigs, hats and props in my storytellings and use voices and physical motifs to enhance my stories.

Have a structure – children find security in familiarity whether it be a daily routine or a storytelling.  If you are running regular sessions a format will help your group become more comfortable and more willing participants.  When I run a session as a one off I’ll explain the rules of the session before I start in order to hype them up and manage expectations; so sometimes when I do global tale sessions the children get to vote on the stories they’ll hear or if I want volunteers they’ll understand how they are going to be selected.

Use music and song – consider enhancing your set with sound.  If you can, find ways of getting the children involved in creating the sound (maybe a sing-a-long).  I don’t play any instrument to a particular standard but will incorporate recorded music, live sound effects and singing where it’s appropriate.  Sometimes creating a sound effect can be just as intriguing for an audience the story!

Consider your content – I do a lot of work for 6+ year olds.  Stories like Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief or The Hundred Mile an Hour Dog invariably include a lot of participation and a water pistol (see above).  My sessions for under-fives are much more gentle.

Get on with and enrapture your audience – in every storytelling session rapport and communion with the audience is crucial.  If you can create a lively positive environment then hopefully everybody will have a good time!  It’s easier to work with a crowd than against them.

Undoubtedly Justin Fletcher is an excellent professional who has developed very strong formats and material and clearly understands how to entertain children.  You can argue the rights and wrongs of watching television but it’d be an error to write children’s television off for it’s content and delivery – these are well made, clever productions that anybody who might like to work with children can learn from watching.  Besides if Iggle Piggle and Justin Fletcher offer Verity some light hearted fun and it makes her happy then that makes me happy too.

A “Twit” update

Just a quick update.

A couple of months ago I posted this – A storyteller in search of a story in which I explained that I had lost the right to tell The Twits and that October would see Mr Twit’s last outing.  Well that’s no longer true.  You see Mr Twit has been reprieved by the Roald Dahl Estate and I am taking bookings for the next academic year.  This is quite obviously fantastic and quite unexpected news.  Over the coming months I will still be shaking up my repertoire and if you are a published author, writer’s agent or international publishing house I am still very much in the market for my next challenge but for now the urgency to do so isn’t quite so great.  Thanks to everybody who sent messages of support, they were all read and appreciated.

Now back to Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief

The visual language of storytelling

In another life it was my luck to be able to work in schools in Italy and Spain as an actor and English coach.  This was an opportunity to see cities I had never visited like Granada and Venice but it also lead to an alternative way of working with an audience.  You see for most of the people we performed to English wasn’t their native tongue which was a huge disadvantage in terms of following the story.  To be understood the cast had to learn a sort of visual language.  It felt very strange to a young actor only a few years out of college to be virtually signalling the audience but it seemed to work.  As I’m writing this I remember some of the ridiculous conversations in the rehearsals about classical acting; in the breaks actors would talk about subtext and character objectives then go back to waving their lines!  I knew then as well as I know now that what we were engaged in would have Stanislavski doing backflips in his grave but we were there to serve our audience and that was all that really mattered.

Flash forward to today and my experiences on these European tours have been very useful in my storytelling work at home.  Every week I meet lots of young people for whom English is a second language and for some, they are quite new to learning it.  English is pretty complicated and we have lots of ways to say similar things that can be quite baffling.  Imagine you are not only unfamiliar with the language but the content too and one of my sessions is starting to look very alien.  If I don’t offer more clues to aid my audiences understanding a story could be overwhelming.

As I devise my flagship stories (The Twits, The Hundred Mile an Hour Dog, Dennis and the Chamber of Secrets) I consider a series of physical phrases which can be easily repeated to go with certain words and images.  Makaton or British Sign Language it isn’t but, like in Italy and Spain all those years ago, a visual language is necessary to act as a framework for my audience or all of my words and imagery will be for nothing.  An advantage of working in this way is that it’s a lot easier for me to remember a word or phrase if it’s linked to a gesture than it would be otherwise.  Sometimes when I am in the groove it can be like remembering a dance as much as a narrative.  It’s a very active way of working and popular with primary schools thanks to a scheme devised by Pie Corbett called “Talk for Writing” which encourages learners to use pictures and actions to recall and create stories.  This means that for many schools my delivery of stories seems to consolidate their literacy work.

I don’t just rely on hand gestures.  Most of my stories include lots of volunteers, participation, games, props, costumes, music and silliness.  In a Shakespeare session where even native English speakers would struggle I approach the stories in a fun and easily accessible way.  If I’m delivering traditional tales for pre-school and foundation age children I’ll use a lot of repeated language and actions, as well as rhythm and rhyme to encourage vocabulary.  When I tell more complex stories to older audiences the quality of my voice, my use of pace, pausing and power communicates almost as much as my actual words.  Big and visual works for children at home and abroad (the UAE loved The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party! because it was colourful and chaotic) and working overseas and with language schools in the UK is certainly something I’d like to do more of in the future.

There are those that would say that what I do isn’t storytelling and that telling a story should be a sedentary activity.  I would say that I serve my young audiences, offering fun, inspiring and most of all accessible sessions.  I like to think I’m taking an aural experience and making it into something visual.  If it sounds different then maybe you should come and have watch/listen.

For a list of forthcoming events please visit my calendar or if you’d like to make a further enquiry contact me.