Back to school (and how that was possible in a lockdown – artists and teachers take note)

On Thursday 25th June 2020 I went back to school in the capacity of a storyteller for the first time since March.  For 40 glorious minutes we shared Roald Dahl’s “The Twits”, we threw water and we laughed.  It all seemed quite normal but in the current national circumstances nothing about it was.  In was in fact an extraordinary, encouraging and important moment for all arts practitioners who like me hope to be back working with schools as soon as possible.  This is the story of how it all came about.

It is well documented that at the end of March the world changed as the country went into lockdown.  As schools and venues closed and festivals and events began to postpone or cancel their programmes, I and many like me had our livelihoods placed on hold.  Fortunately I was able to secure employment as a check out assistant with a local supermarket.  It’s been just over a year since we moved from east London to East Sussex and there has been a lot for me to get used to after living in a city for twenty years.  Lewes is such a small town I find that you bump into the same people ALL THE TIME particularly when you work in a supermarket.  In just three months I began to see familiar faces, hear their stories and anecdotes, and watch life played out.  As a storyteller this was pure gold and I would look forward to my shifts.  Then one day a young lady came to my till who was up for a chat.  In the course of our conversation she divulged that she was a teacher at a local primary school.  When I told her about my storytelling work she invited me to email her with the details.  So it was that an impromptu speed networking event over her weekly shop, lead to my return to working in schools.

It’s tricky to explain what this booking after so long has meant.  For the school my visit represented a treat for children some of whom have been to school everyday since March and a slice of the life we once took for granted but for me it was even more significant. In my life I have three roles; I am a father, a husband and a storyteller and without any one of them I am lost.  For 98 days I have been in limbo, my working life stopped, my diary savaged, my confidence knocked and like so many other people I have been forced to wait helplessly, unable to do something which for 11 years has given me identity – I have felt lost.  As I have said when writing about video conferencing and prerecording stories, telling stories on a computer offers an alternative platform to storytellers but there is nothing, nothing that compares to being with people and sharing something live.  Live performance is like surfing; an audience gives you energy and you ride the wave – it’s often as euphoric as it is humbling.  It may sound selfish but I love what I do and getting back into a school at the earliest opportunity mattered.

Unfortunately it was never going to be as simple as starting where we left off in March.  Schools are restricted by Government guidelines relating to social distancing.  It is still very unclear just how easy it will be for an external contractor to visit a school when they do reopen fully and I doubt if the sort of visits I would regularly do pre-lockdown will be possible much before Spring 2021 without some serious compromises (but then, what use is a storyteller who wears a face mask?).  Fortunately the host school were well organised and put a great plan in place for my visit. The practicalities are noteworthy to anybody hoping to work on a school site during the current academic year and possibly into the autumn.

  1. I never went into the school (they even brought the signing in book out to the field to sign me in).  The storytelling took place under a tree on the school field.  This meant I couldn’t use any electricity, staff fetched the water I would use in jugs and I didn’t have access to a toilet.  Being outside meant that perhaps I had to do a bit of extra work vocally but it was no more difficult than telling a story in a hall with a high ceiling.
  2. I kept 2m from the audience.  My usual style of presentation would be to wade into a crowd and ask volunteers to join me at the front.  Instead I promenaded in front of the audience and at the points when I would normally ask for a volunteer everybody got involved from where they were sitting.  There were a couple of moments when the more lively children crossed the into my area but this was not overly concerning.
  3. The audience was made up of two bubbles of about 20 children.  I loosely divided the audience area in two with each bubble allocated a side as the bubbles couldn’t mix.  I don’t mind working with small groups but if I had been booked to present to the whole school the number of sessions required would have been very demanding.

The session I delivered was a success.  The children and staff enjoyed the experience and everybody felt safe (except maybe when I was throwing water around!). I am incredibly grateful to the school for facilitating the visit and feel this demonstrates that with a bit of planning any school with outdoor space could be hosting events and, to a point, workshops again. The weather was on our side and I’ll except that we could have been scuppered if it had been raining but perhaps using tarpaulins to cover the ground or gazebos to cover the audience in wet weather might mean the show could still go on.

There is still a long road back to normal and whilst my presentation never felt compromised it was adapted for the circumstances.  I don’t know when I’ll get another opportunity to work with a live audience but for now, a chance encounter in a supermarket that lead to work with a local school has been encouraging to me both as a person and a professional.  It has boosted my confidence and esteem and in an uncertain world pointed toward a future beyond the lockdown.  I’ll take that because at the moment “every little helps”.

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.