A Story? Really? A blog about managing innocence in storytelling

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.As a storyteller I rely upon two presentation models: narrating events and being the character.  My relationship with the audience will change depending how I present the story.  If I am narrating events I inform the audience of our relationship.  I allow them to understand that the story and its events are a fiction and that they are watching a presentation.  I do this by introducing myself, talking about the story and clearly demonstrating different characters.  When I become a character my audience must do much more of the work themselves.

“So what?”, I hear you cry.  Well, when I present a session as a Victorian School Teacher the participants are briefly starring in a drama devised to expose them to the way education might have been in the 19th Century.  If the participants don’t respect the threat of caning then the session is less effective.  Equally, when I present a Detective investigating a crime the participants must be convinced that the scenario is credible.  A lack of investment in the world of the story can be a session’s undoing.

John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.Cynicism can bedevil creativity as we grow up and the examples above relate to characters and sessions devised for pre-teens but what about when we are very young?  What are the dangers of investing too heavily in stories?  Can there be any harm in believing that you just met the Gruffalo?  I suppose that very much depends on the experience.  For a young child, meeting a creature with terrible tusks, terrible claws and terrible teeth in terrible jaws etc. will either be the best or worst day of their life.

Clearly telling a very young participant that what is happening (or about to happen) isn’t real can impact their experience.  You could go as far as to say that intentionally breaking the illusion robs them of an innocent experience.  There is unquestionable security in the truth and I think it is the storyteller’s responsibility to offer that security through the narrative by ensuring audiences see that the wicked get there just desserts.  If the participant absolutely believes is this more memorable or just confusing?  Is Miss Trunchbull scary if you know its an act or is the Mad Hatter as wonderful if you know its in some way false?  How a situation is managed will hinge on lots of factors including the sensitivity of the participant and the circumstances and legacy of the meeting.

From my point of view it isn’t easy to maintain the reality of being a character rather than a person for an extended period of time.  It can involve a lot of planning with a school or organisation ahead of the day.  Trying to think like a character at all times and allowing everybody to believe you are a character can be exhausting (once I spent an entire day in a Headteacher’s study in role pretending to work at her desk!).  I have however found that the legacy of this approach is huge and the feedback on such sessions is generally very positive.

John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.“When you came in to work with the children during world book week, they were completely gripped!  The story narrative you came up with to engage the children was phenomenal, the children completely believed the 3 Little Pigs had been eaten!  You stayed in role all day and as a result the children played along too, the quality of writing and language we got from them was fantastic.   I have no doubt in my mind that we would use you again… as we are still talking about it a year later!!” (Teacher, St Wulstans and St Edmunds Primary School, Fleetwood)

I suppose that to some extent the purpose of the story will determine whether the participants are allowed to believe in the character.  After presenting the Victorian Classroom I will appear to participants as myself and discuss their experiences.  This is partly to assure groups that the monstrous school master is imaginary but also so that the group can articulate how my lesson and their lessons compare.

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.The real world can be a hard place and sometimes we grow up too fast.  Its a sad day when a child becomes inhibited by doubt.  I was recently at a school and a little girl took me to one side and asked whether I really was Willy Wonka.  I told her that in life we can choose to believe or we can choose not to believe but that decision was ultimately hers.  She skipped away satisfied with my answer, having just chatted with the world’s greatest chocolate maker!

There are times when I wish I was a little more innocent.  As an adult and a storyteller I have an important role to play in maintaining the innocence of my youngest audiences for as long as possible.