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How do you sensualise Shakespeare?

This Halloween I was booked to provide entertainment at a birthday party for an 11 year old.  I selected some of my favourite spooky stories giving some of them a modern twist for the young audience (a Tudor mansion became a three bed semi).  I also decided to complement the more traditional storytelling with a sensory exercise based upon William Shakespeare’s spell from “Macbeth”, beginning “Double, double toil and trouble”.

On the night I was located away from the rest of the party.  This not only allowed me to work with the minimum of interruption but gave me the time and space to set up a series of bowls with the different elements of the spell in each.  The elements were inspired by Shakespeare’s famous verse which reads almost like a shopping list for making a really noxious potion.  Even though it is famous the language is 500 years old, some of the things on the list are unfamiliar and some could be texturally similar so it took me a lot of time to think of what to use and how to differentiate between them.  In the end I sourced a lot of the elements from the pic and mix at the supermarket (the Adder’s fork and blindworm’s sting became a jelly snake which had been covered in strawberry jelly).  For wool of bat I used wool, for howlett’s wing I used feathers and for baboon’s blood I used strawberry jam.  As this was about feeling the elements all the participants were blindfolded before the bowls were revealed and the children only saw what they’d been feeling at the end.

The effect was quite something.  Even working in small groups the children were able to terrify themselves (and each other) into overthinking what they were touching with several children unable to complete the exercise.  I had to continually remind the participants to trust me and not to talk as any discussion could spoil the experience for the next person.

The material was well received and the sensory exploration was a fun way of enhancing the storytelling.  This is definitely something I would repeat with a similar age group even if everything did end up smelling like a strawberry jelly!

John Kirk is a professional storyteller telling stories in schools and libraries and at events and festivals.  For more information or to make an enquiry, complete a contact form.

Horsham: Where reading rocked at #RR_South!

On Saturday 5th October 2019 I took part in the #RR_South Conference hosted by Kingslea Primary School in Horsham and organised by Where Reading Rocks!

Having moved out of London to Sussex and having very few contacts in Sussex, Kent, Surrey or Hampshire I have been looking for ways to promote my storytelling work to local schools.  Where Reading Rocks! have been on my radar since their 2018 conferences.  They exist with the mission statement to make reading rock for every reader, a message that teachers, authors and storytellers can easily get behind and I have upon occasion contributed to their group discussions about children’s books and reading on social media.  Well if you don’t ask you don’t get and I decided to see if I could get involved.  To my continued amazement my approach was met warmly and it was agreed that I would run a workshop at #RR_South and possibly #RR_North.  So it was that I packed my bag and an array of tried and tested games and exercises and headed to Horsham.

#RR_South was incredible.  I was struck by the passion (and number considering it was the weekend) of the delegates who seemed to represent towns all across the south east of England.  There was a positive buzz throughout the day with a series of key note speakers addressing the delegates about reading and books, workshops on reading and in the breaks the halls were filled with people buying books at a multitude of different stands and talking to each other about how they promoted reading in their schools.  With the focus squarely on reading and books you would forgive me if I felt a little awkward.  I listened as organiser Heather Wright give a really inspiring opening address followed by the passionate force of nature that was Jane ConsidineJosua Seigal’s poetry made me laugh and cry and Vashti Hardy’s presentation about how her books are used within the curriculum by different schools made me long to be 10 years old again.  The more I heard the more I felt like I an intruder amongst all these incredible people.  I knew I should fit in but I was questioning how until educational writer Bob Cox shared a quote by Sir Michael Morpurgo.

“give them the love of story first, the rest will follow.”

Read that again.  That is one of the UK’s most reputed authors of children’s fiction placing importance on storytelling. Books are incredible life enhancing, life altering things; they teach us about ourselves, our world and those we share it with, they can be windows into other worlds and they can challenge us with the possibilities of our future but at the heart of all good fiction is a good story.  If we can inspire and enthuse children with stories then maybe they’ll become readers or writers but a love of story must come first and storytellers have a massive role to play in that awakening.

Being allowed to present a workshop at #RR_South was an invaluable opportunity to talk about storytelling with people in the frontline of education.  Money, time and prioritising other things are just some of the reasons a school might choose not to engage a professional storyteller (if you can only have one visit per year, a storyteller might guarantee fun but a visit from a published author will have more wow factor) and teachers must fend for themselves when it comes to enhancing stories.  I therefore wanted to use my workshop to share some ideas that I think could be simply and effectively applied by a class teacher working in a primary environment when introducing or exploring a story.

We started the workshop with some statement games which are not only great ice breakers but immediately stress how human beings thrive when asked to share stories about themselves and the skill of bringing a story out of somebody else.  I also addressed how statement games can get children thinking about moments in their own lives which might help them to empathise with a character in a story (a carefully worded question about fear might be used as a lead into suspense stories).

Next I introduced the group to some narrative games in which we told The Three Little Pigs whilst sat in a circle.  First each person had a sentence of the story, then just a word, then I randomly selected the narrators.  By gradually removing control of the story the group were unable to pre-empt or predict the direction of the narrative making them more adaptive and spontaneous.  I also showed the group two structuring games for building stories with more and less able participants which in application allowed everybody the opportunity to contribute to the story.

In my storytelling work I use a lot of simple props sometimes repurposing them imaginatively (Mrs Twit’s walking stick becomes Mr Twit’s gun).  Working in pairs the teachers chose every day and unusual objects and tried to reimagine their use.  I then demonstrated how a blue cloth and a water pistol might become the ocean and how a pair of gloves might become flying birds; building an imaginative vocabulary through play.  I am very keen on open resource storytelling and therefore challenged the group to create the world of the Billy Goats Gruff as they might challenge their children using cloths, lollipop sticks, cardboard tubes, egg boxes and yoghurt pots.  We took this further as we tried to use these resources to create Trolls!  I do the majority of my work with young people and it goes without saying that adults and children are different but there was no mistaking the excitement caused amongst the participants by these exercises.

We then ran out of time.  I would have liked to talk more about sensory stories because I think they are a great way of telling a story with small groups (maybe I should propose this for 2020?) but as I say, the delegates were very positive and I have had some lovely feedback and a couple of bookings as a result of the session.

In the days after the conference I was asked if I could share any resources from the workshop.  I said I’d write a blog (this blog) and touch on this.  I have thought a great deal about the resources I could signpost to a teacher and the truth is that if you are visiting my website then that’s a great start.  Storytellers are top quality resources.  When I turn up to deliver a session I bring 20 years of experience performing to children, 10 years of storytelling experience and hundreds if not thousands of hours of experience as a workshop facilitator.  Many of my favourite exercises I use I have magpied from other actors, storytellers and drama facilitators, some I made up and refined in time.  If you wanted to do more storytelling in the classroom you could do worse than finding out about the professional storytellers working in your area and checking out their websites, blogs and dates (we’re all quite friendly if you ever want to discuss ideas for lessons).  To encourage conversation I created a Twitter list of some of the best storytellers in the UK under the hashtag – #followastoryteller – but The Society for Storytelling website also hosts an extensive database of storytellers if you don’t use social media.  I’ll also recommend “1001 Drama Games and Activities” by David Farmer.  It really is what it says on the tin and I delve into it when planning a session and looking for inspiration but there are loads like it on the market.

I can’t be at #RR_North in November but I hope I’ll be able to be involved again in the future.  The people I met in Horsham energised me and my work and reminded me that I can make a difference because their goal is worth striving for and should be shared by all of us. As a storyteller I can be an important resource to any primary school in the country who place value in the mission to make reading rock.

John Kirk is a professional storyteller based in Lewes, East Sussex. To find out more about his work or make an enquiry about a booking visit the contact form.

Storytelling south of the M25

In February 2019 we gave up east London for East Sussex and in doing so I opened a new chapter in my working life. To this point most of the storytelling and workshop work I have been doing has been in my diary since before the big move but now my focus has shifted to trying to get more work in Sussex, Kent, Surrey and Hampshire.

In a couple of weeks time I will be telling Roald Dahl’s “The Twits” in Uckfield, Hastings and Bexhill as I celebrate National Libraries Week with East Sussex Libraries and in National Nursery Rhyme Week I’m thrilled to be returning to Horsham. In between times the enquiries have begun to trickle in from across the South East from schools looking for a storyteller and in the week of World Book Day (5th March 2020) I’ll be visiting Eastbourne (Pevensey), Pulborough and Arundel but it all starts next week with my first school visit of the year in Ardingly where I will be telling 11 children(!) the story of The Three Little Pigs and with an appearance at Reading Rocks! Horsham conference where I will be talking to delegates about storytelling in the classroom. Whilst I am thinking more local I am still excited to be receiving invitations to work all over the country and will be in the North West in November and Yorkshire next March.

In the meantime September has been a quiet month (if you take out Roald Dahl week). I have very much enjoyed reading through stories about fire, diversity and things that go bump in the night for later in the autumn. Now back to finding people south of the M25 to share them with…

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside! (Birthday party storytelling in Leyton)

Working as a storyteller I am always looking to the future. I have been busy telling stories (Simon James’ Boy from Mars, Jonathan Emmett’s Bringing Down the Moon and Dom Conlon’s Why the Cow Jumped Over the Moon) but having recently reviewed the patterns of my work I know that the autumn and winter could be quiet. I am also aware that having moved out of London to Sussex I am only just beginning to build up the storytelling work I do for organisations in Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire. I therefore find that there is a varied feel to my ongoing commitments. There’s my usual school and library visits but I’m also doing more and more nursery and early years sessions, sessions for older audiences in residential settings and I’m continuing to offer birthday parties. My latest being a mermaid themed birthday storytelling for three and four year olds in a park.

At present my approach to birthday party storytelling is to treat each as a bespoke presentation, tailoring my content to suit each occasion rather than the tried and tested packages I offer schools. Birthdays are the ultimate one shot deal because getting it wrong means spoiling a child’s special day. This particular party was one of my biggest challenges yet. As we were outdoors I had no power and I couldn’t rely on having any other kind of amenities (so no water for my water pistols) so everything had to be pre-prepped – if I couldn’t carry it then I couldn’t use it. The party guests were also relatively young. Whilst I have done a lot of work in nurseries and with little children generally this has been in formal settings rather than parks with all their distractions. Getting and then holding the children’s attention would be hard work if my content missed the mark.

The party was inspired by Maudie Smith’s book “Milly and the Mermaids” a story about a young girl who dreams of meeting a mermaid on a trip to the seaside. We began by creating the setting for our session using a beach towel, some golden sparkly fabric for the sand and colourful cut outs of fish, shells, crabs and starfish. We then used what was on the beach to make sandcastle hat bands (pictured). We used tape rather than glue to hold the hats together and glitter pens to decorate them. When I run birthday parties I like to play party games so I ran some parachute games and we used a picnic basket to play parcel the parcel (instead of prizes the children chose objects that led to rhymes and songs). We used a beautiful blue fabric held up by the parents and bubbles to make a sea that the children could swim through and with a little imagination, some rainbow coloured cloth and a wedge shaped leaf grabber I transformed one of the parents into a mermaid for us to meet! It was all very visual, very colourful and very low tech with a real range of things for the children to do.

I really enjoyed preparing for and delivering this birthday party. It wasn’t storytelling in the manner I’d perhaps normally offer it but my audience had a great time and I got to eat cake! In the last 12 months birthday parties  have lead me to create a restaurant murder mystery, a Christmas train adventure and now the seaside in a park; I can’t wait to see where my next party invitation takes me.

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.