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.