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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.

Bring on the mischief #dennis2018

Its been a crazy week in which Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief has moved on a bit.  As discussed, months of sitting on a laptop, thinking a story is now transistioning into presenting said story in libraries and that process has not been plain sailing.

My first stop was in Northampton where I worked through the material with Dan McGarry.  We did this last year with The Hundred Mile an Hour Dog but this year we’ve both been so busy the get together is happening in the same week as the test event.  While last year I had told the story at home prior to seeing Dan, this was more or less the first time through Dennis in front of anybody else.  It feels clunky and clumsy and it lacks the dynamism I crave but that I know will come in time.  It is full of stops and starts but we get through the whole thing.  Dan has a few pointers and then has a go himself.  Watching him go through the story lets me think about how I would do it if I were asked to the story.

The second hurdle of the week is the test audience.  I head to Woolwich Library to tell the story to a proper audience and at the end they offer their feedback.  This criticism is generally invaluable and will help me to shape the piece.  Yesterday’s rehearsal was ropey but I am not worried.  Storytelling is about finding a balance between an agreed structure and instinctively responding to the live scenario.  Besides previous test audiences have been very positive about my projects.  What can possibly go wrong?  Well, the Woolwich test audience don’t hate the story but they don’t love it either.  They make valid points about the clarity of the delivery, the opportunity to participate and the music.  As awkward as it maybe for me to hear this I must take on board very quickly because I have presentations the following day.

24 hours later.

The day after the underwhelming test event I am scheduled to do two presentations in Islington.  After the first one I asked the audience their thoughts on the story and half the audience love it.  Phew, what a turnaround.  So what’s changed in 24 hours?  Well, on the advice of the test audience I have made further edits to simplify the story.  I have tinkered with the soundtrack, built in more audience participation and I have pared back the use of props and hats.  The truth is that many of the things the test audience said I thought already I just needed to hear them.  Another useful by-product of doing two presentations on the same day is that I am getting to grips with the material and starting to search for the pace of the story (ie finding a way through the telling that doesn’t slow me down or tie me in knots).  The clunkiness of two days ago is already giving way to a more edgy, creativeness which in time will make way for the slick fluidity of practice and confidence.

My week ends in Hull at the Big Malarkey Festival 2018.  The Big Malarkey is a colourful mix of music and stories and circus and joyful innocence.  The sun is out and the people of Hull have smiles on their faces.  I have done a few festivals this summer already and although this is a fleeting visit it’s obviously a belter.  The positive atmosphere coupled with seeing familiar faces from Hull’s library service inspires me to give a very energetic delivery of the story.  There’s laughter and it’s playful.  When I finish I want to do it again because it was fun.

As I leave The Big Malarkey and head south again a very important week in the life of the project is over.  By October these early bumps in the road will be a footnote in the project’s history.  From the pilot I gained the necessary perspective to move things forward constructively and then the handful of presentations I have already done have allowed me to begin a process of consolidation.  This is an exciting time and I am looking forward to the summer.

Preparing for mischief #dennis2018

This week sees me pilot (put in front of a test audience) Nigel Auchterlounie’s Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief.  I thought I’d use my blog to reflect on the process of how I prepare to tell stories (ie how I get from nothing to the first presentation).  Sometimes storytelling is about stepping in front of a crowd and telling tales from memory and the heart but when I’m presenting a living author’s work I have a duty to represent their book.  This means having to prepare what I will say in order to guarantee coherence and quality.  Its this process that oral storytellers would point to as the reason why I’m a turn rather than a teller.  It’s unglamorous but essential work that I hope will interest would-be storytellers.  Please be warned that this blog may contain some plot spoilers.

To begin at the beginning I first contacted Beano Studios 12 months ago about the viability of a summer project for 2018.  After a lot of correspondence between myself, Beano Studios, Templar Books and The Reading Agency a project was eventually agreed.  This moment is always a moment of great relief because it means that I’ll be working over the next summer and that my work has legitimacy.  There is however one small problem; after 6 months of discussion I find out that Nigel hasn’t actually finished writing the book I’m supposed to be telling.  it’s a frustrating revelation because I like to do my preparation in the winter when work is quiet.  Instead I enjoy a relaxed Christmas and a trip to the Caribbean with no source material to read or begin working with.

To my great relief the manuscript arrives at the end of February and tonsillitis gives me the opportunity to read it in the second week of March.  Nigel Auchterlounie is a regular contributor to The Beano and as I read I can’t help thinking of a cartoon strip.  You see, whilst Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief is a basically a classic quest/adventure it’s packed with huge ideas which appear and disappear in the turn of a page.  There are lots of characters and the action takes place across time and space.  My first thoughts are that it will be a challenge to turn the book into a storytelling for a library.

When I edit I always work backwards through a book.   In 2014 editing Private Peaceful into a 40 minute storytelling was relatively straightforward because Morpurgo has a habit of describing everything 2 or 3 times.  I would pick one and ditch the others.  The Hundred Mile an Hour Dog was trickier because it’s a situation comedy and each episode has to be fully described for the audience to understand why what’s happening might be funny.  Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief is a whopper of a tale weighing in at almost 250 pages.  It’s comfortably the longest source story I have ever attempted to adapt.

Deep breath.

Working on and off between other commitments my edit lasts three weeks and sees the story reduced from 31500 words to 3500 words.  It’s savage but necessary.  Authors have the luxury of time in their presentation of a tale that I don’t.  Saying this, my editing process doesn’t end when I finally step away from the lap top.  I’ll continue to edit during the life of the project and over time I will naturally adapt and adjust phrasing.  I’ll also reinstate material once it’s clear how long my delivery is going to be.

SPOILER ALERT: In my retelling I have decided to centre on Dennis’ pursuit of the Golden Pea Shooter of Everlasting Fun into the Chamber of Mischief and out again.  Into this I have to set up unfamiliar concepts for the audience including the character of Dennis, Beanotown, the Chamber of Mischief, and the various magical objects the story hangs around.  In order for an audience to understand how we reach the end of the story I have to make my narrative arc as clear as possible.  This means that a lot of clever sub plots are excluded (rather than Dennis tackling 9 challenges in the Chamber of Mischief, my version contains just four).  Whenever I prepare a story I must bear in mind that whilst a book might be aimed at child aged 6+ there will be children aged 4+ and possibly younger who come to watch and listen to me and they don’t have very long concentration spans.  In short: I have to serve my audience and they are different to the audience of the book.

The next major task is thinking about the props, hats and wigs I’ll need in my presentation.  My style of storytelling is to narrate and when a character speaks become the character by wearing something or changing my voice or physicality.  It means what I am doing is incredibly clear to the audience.  Working on Roald Dahl’s The Twits was a gift as it suited my style to a tee because there are very few characters.  A story like A Christmas Carol in which I introduce a multitude of characters in a short period and we don’t ever get to know them is harder for everybody.  Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief has a lot of characters but not just people; SPOILER ALERT: there are dogs (obviously), giant squid, talking paintings and medieval knights.  I used to source my props in London’s numerous costume shops but these days I do it all online.  Trying to find one prop, voice, hat or wig to define a character really gets you thinking about and helps to consolidate the story.

By now it’s Easter.  The diary is almost full and my June deadline is looming.  I have about 6 weeks to learn the whole thing.  My savage editing serves for two purposes; it reduces the text but it also helps me to remember it.  These days this is crucial.  I have loads of dormant words floating around my head from almost a decade of storytelling and with a very young child in the house and other work commitments finding time to cram more in is sometimes terrifies me.  As I say though, the words I took from the book and the words I use in the storytelling will evolve in time but this is about having a framework at the beginning.  This year, with two other storytellers involved in delivering the project a solid framework has never been more important.

All that remains now is for me to tell the story.  There’s just enough days in the week to go through it with Dan McGarry.  I’ll then put it up in front of an audience and as the fun starts the hard work begins.  Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief is set to be presented 86 times and I guarantee that what we start with and finish with will be poles apart.

To this point the process has been very insular; sitting with a lap top in front of the TV, on a train or in hotel rooms.  For the 30-50 minute delivery hours have been spent pouring over the words to the point I think I sometimes dream about Dennis’ adventures.  The next stage will be far more instinctive and far more to do with my communion with a live audience.  Will the story have the momentum I need to take everybody on this wacky adventure?  Time will tell but if it does then all the preparation I’ve done to this point will be time well spent.

Working with Rebecca Hutchins #dennis2018

You’ll remember from a very similarly titled blog about my relationship with Dan McGarry, that I met Dan through his wife Gemma, a friend from a past theatre production.  Well to explain how I know Rebecca Hutchins I must first take you back to Bromley and the summer of 2008.

In those days I was still a council temp moonlighting as a drama facilitator.  Through an organisation called Bromley Mytime I became involved in a secondary school transition project in which I ran drama workshops on a double decker bus.  Every day I would work with different groups of 11 year olds and we’d play games around the idea of using public transport safely.  There were a lot of people involved; the Police, the Bus Company and some young volunteers.  One of them was Paul Valentine, then an enthusiastic twenty something.  Paul and I stayed loosely in touch and he assisted me on some workshops before he went off to drama college.  Spin forward a decade and the producer of the same production of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland I met Gemma through recommends me and Mr Barry Evans to stage Wind in the Willows for a Cambridge University.  Its quite an undertaking with both Barry and me calling in favours from old friends to make up the cast.  Remembering Paul I rope him in as Badger and he recommends Rebecca.

Rebecca Hutchins is one half of Cat and Hutch, a children’s theatre company that use fantastic puppets to tell stories.  Watching her during the Wind in the Willows project, I was struck by her ability to work with the very youngest children (not all actors can do this so naturally) and also by her enthusiasm.  I asked her to get involved in delivering storytelling sessions for me and it turns out she is great and has had some really positive feedback from schools.  Up to this point I had only ever approached Rebecca about term time projects but due to unprecedented demand she has agreed to deliver Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief during the summer.

When I first set out to present a Beano story I had an ambitious dream that I would create a presentation which would be toured by three people; Dennis, Minnie and Gnasher if you like.  Bringing Rebecca on board we are indeed triumvirate of storytellers and we are working with some 34 library authorities between June (next week – eek!) and October – as well as libraries I’ve been visiting for five years there are a number of new ones on the list and in some instances it’ll be Dan or Rebecca who have to impress the new authority rather than me.  I am utterly thrilled that this year particularly we have a lady as part of the team and a very talented one at that who’ll no doubt bring a different dynamic to the story.  I am also pleased to be able to continue to offer younger storytellers a platform to hone their skill.

Rebecca Hutchins will be presenting Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief

@ Weymouth Library on 10th August 2018

@ Camden Libraries on 16th August 2018

@ Luton Libraries on 23rd August 2018

(Check the calendar for other dates)