Let me shout from the rooftops “I do school visits!”

I have been working as a performance storyteller for almost ten years but before that I was an actor.  I did a few bits and pieces in theatres and went to Edinburgh a couple of times but generally speaking my work was doing Theatre in Education and Children’s Theatre in schools.  Theatre in Education wasn’t quite what I’d anticipated during my classical drama training but perhaps I went to my first TIE audition thinking of it as a way of getting paid for what I’d trained to do whilst waiting for my “big break”.  The way it worked was that after an intense rehearsal period the cast piled into a van and toured the schools of Britain with either an agenda lead piece of theatre or something more light hearted (ie a panto).  The shows were generally pretty short to fit into the school timetable and were often followed up by workshops lead by the actor-facilitators.  Now, you must remember that at this point I am not a lot older than the “children” I am working with, I have no formal teacher training and I can be an impulsive hothead so facilitating felt like being thrown in at the deep end.  It was steep learning curve.  Sometimes we were offering children their first theatrical experience, sometimes we were enhancing their curriculum.  Sometimes the children liked you, sometimes it was very intimidating.  The production values could vary from a enormous rotating sets to a bit of curtain hanged on some plumbing pipe but the creative energy of some of the companies I was fortunate enough to work with is incredible.  I learned a huge amount about working with young people from Chris Geelan at The Young Shakespeare Company, Bill Davies at Blunderbus and Adrian New at Stopwatch Theatre to name a few and 6 days a week on the road soon became a way of life that I am still passionate about today.

After I met Lauren my life had to change and I stopped the acting but I continued to pick up facilitation work with people like Bromley Mytime and Eastside Educational Arts Trust and I continued to learn from people like Naomi Cortes at Almeida Projects and the brilliant Alison Banham at Act on Info.  16 years later I am a far more confident drama facilitator and have developed my own style of workshop which incorporates storytelling, drama games and role play.  The themes of the sessions have varied from the Aztecs and Evolution to Shakespeare and School Transition but I try to approach every session the same way; enthusiasm, loads of games and fun.

Why am I telling you this?  Well, it turns out that when you do 100-150 library presentations a year people forget that you offer school visits.  What once represented 80% of my work now accounts for 35% and in spite of the fact I advertise on websites like findaschoolworkshop.com and schoolworkshops.com I still get asked if I do school work.  I have dropped the ball on what once was my bread and butter and now I’m running to get back into the game.

So let me shout it from the rooftops “I do primary school visits!”.  I offer my assemblies, class group workshops and event day bookings (National Storytelling Week, World Book Month, school fetes, Well Being Days, school library openings etc).  In schools I have worked one to one with children or with as many as 500 children in a sitting!  I have been to schools for an hour I have done residencies.  I can offer traditional tales and published stories including Roald Dahl and Dennis the Menace and I can be as interactive as you like depending on the needs of the group.  I have never written a book but I can guarantee that primary school children will enjoy my sessions and be inspired by my sessions (they may even learn something about writing stories!).

“The whole day was great from start to finish. Working with you has been a pleasure and we were really grateful for how flexible and accommodating you were with both your time and the topics you covered. Speaking to children from across the school after the event itself they thoroughly enjoyed it and are already asking when you will be coming back”.

Literacy coordinator, Wyvil Primary School, May 2018

Schools and school visits have been a big part of my professional life and as the nation goes back to school full of hopes and ambitions for the year ahead it’s my hope that it won’t be long before I’m off to do my first school visits of the new academic year.

For more information about my work please review my FAQs or to make an enquiry contact me.

 

My adventure with Dennis continues! #dennis2018

In March 1951 Dennis the Menace and his dog Gnasher made their first appearance in The Beano.  Dennis, the trouble making school boy who terrorised his arch enemy Walter, proved popular with readers and soon became the Beano’s most famous character and their longest running comic strip.  As the world has changed so too has Dennis and as he approaches 70 years old Dennis, with his trademark black spiky hair and red and black striped jumper, is now more than a comic book hero, he’s a British institution.

In the summer of 2018 Dennis and his Beanotown friends supported The Summer Reading Challenge; a national reading scheme encouraging children to read in the school holidays and I presented Nigel Auchterlounie’s “Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief”.  To date (this blog was written in August 2018) my retelling of the story has been heard by almost 3000 children in public libraries across England.  The response from audiences and librarians has been overwhelming:

“Fantastic, lively, creative and entertaining storytelling.  Brilliant way of encouraging children to get interested in books.” Audience member, Nottingham City Libraries

“It was excellent.  A good balance of performance storytelling, great support for reading and literacy skills development…  The high level of participative activity ensures sustained engagement and enjoyment.”  Librarian, Derby City Libraries

Children have really enjoyed hearing about Dennis, joining his adventures and tackling the challenges of the Chamber of Mischief.  They have left our sessions buzzing about reading and the potential of books.  The response in cyberspace has been equally positive with lots of parents, grandparents and libraries taking to social media to share photographs and feedback using the #dennis2018.  It may have been a long, hot summer but Dennis has made it very enjoyable.

Now, with the kind support of Bonnier Publishing, I am pleased to announce that this storytelling session is to be made available for school assemblies and events.  For the next ten months teachers will be able to introduce the zaniness of Beanotown to their classes as Dennis helps us encourage and inspire a love of reading.

Nigel Auchterlounie’s “Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief” is published by Studio Press and is available through all good bookshops and public libraries.  If you are interested in my retelling of the story I will be visiting Bolton Libraries and participating in the Loogabarooga Festival in Loughborough during October.  If you’d like Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief to visit your school or event contact 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 heat is on: storytelling and the British weather

Britain is a country that sometimes experiences all four seasons in one day.  You’d think that the weather is something which happens outdoors and as we’re basically an indoor nation for all but a few weeks of the year it couldn’t possibly be that big a factor on storytellers.  Well that’s true unless you happen to be doing an outdoor event or the majority of your work is in old public buildings like schools, museums and libraries.  A Carnegie Library may look beautiful but they can be quite drafty, a school hall of the 1960s or 70s may seat a lot of children but I’ve known them to be like greenhouses have the radiators blasting out in July and whilst it’s fun to tell stories in museums and stately homes curators can be curiously aquaphobic!

During the cold snap of all cold snaps back in March 2018 the weather posed me a range of problems.  First there was getting to the jobs.  Driving conditions were treacherous and in recent months British railways have been, shall we say “unpredictable,” so when the snow arrived for a while it was Russian roulette as to whether you would complete a journey.  Then there are the audiences; I get quite warm when I work so a chill in the air doesn’t bother me too much but if you have to sit on the floor for up to an hour, sometimes in wet clothes because you had a snowball fight at break or you walked through the snow to the venue, a draft can test the concentration of anybody.  During March’s extreme weather conditions some schools closed whilst I was on site.  I started one session with 45 children and finished up with just 8 children as the weather in the area around the school I was working in worsened.

It’s now July.  “The Beast from the East” is a distant memory and Britain is experiencing a heat wave.  The trains are still “unpredictable” but their reliability is no longer my only gripe.  Good weather can mean some trains, particularly the London Underground, become stiflingly hot and disgustingly uncomfortable.  As for my audiences well if cold weather wasn’t good for concentration heat is no better.  My audiences are a sweltering sea of shuffling, sweaty children.  Luckily for them I always incorporate a water pistol somewhere in my summer storytellings (although I’m  sure how a hose pipe ban would affect this – fingers crossed it doesn’t).

Whatever the weather the show must go on and I must look after myself.  In winter this means wrapping up and taking steps to avoid illness (ie being sure to eat enough fruit and vegetables and getting enough rest).  Dressing appropriately and living well is just as important in the summer time but as the temperatures rise it’s more important than ever that I drink water.

I understand my body better than when I first started working; I know that in the autumn I’ll have a cold and in the spring I’ll have hay fever both of which affect the quality of my voice.  I know that whilst March and then June-September when I am in demand I have to manage my workload, December will be a time to recover.  Last March I developed tonsillitis.  Whether this was down to work I’ll never truly know but undoubtedly it was a factor.

This blog may seem like I’m complaining about all forms of weather as only the British know how and I suppose I am but actually there’s a lot to be said for British weather too.  Each new season has its own identity and festivities which demand a different set of stories.  Then of course there are countless stories which are inspired by the weather and the seasons which I could not do without.  I can’t say that I ever miss the winter months.  It’s nice to watch the sunrise from a railway carriage but it’s even to be out and about in the early morning gloaming when it seems you have the world to yourself and the summer is stretching out in front of you.  So whether I’m dragging my suitcase through snow drifts, getting soaked to the skin in torrential rain or frazzled in 30 plus degree heat if there’s a story to be told I’m glad to be the one to be telling it.

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.

The role of the storyteller in wellness and well being

A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by a charity in Surrey enquiring about a storytelling session for a wellness and well being day.  Within a couple of days I received a second message from a housing project in Bedfordshire and a third from a school in London both inviting me to participate in well being days.  There is nothing terribly remarkable about a series of e-mail enquiries which happen to concern the same subject but in the past decade I have never been invited to work at wellness and well being events.  Sure enough, like London buses, three events turned up at once and wellness and well being is now firmly on my agenda.  The question is what should a storyteller do at such events?

Wellness and well being are to do with mental health and how you feel within yourself.  It’s an inter generational issue and concerns loads of important things like happiness, confidence, self esteem and self worth.  It’s about everything that can be knocked or crushed when we feel vulnerable or lonely.  If well being is defined in terms of how we maintain and nurture a positive outlook in the face of problems like bullying, family trauma and stress then it’s clear that storytellers have a role to play in its promotion.

Storytelling is an ancient art form but as an activity it’s inexpensive and universal.  Some people do karate, some go rock climbing and some tell stories.  Belonging to a storytelling club or attending storytelling events can be a great way of meeting new people, feeling a part of a group and sharing something creative.  Storytelling can transport a person out of their day to day existence, building confidence through participation and even changing a person’s emotional state leaving both the storyteller and the listener feeling good about themselves and (in some cases) empowered.  It’s difficult to quantify the long term benefits of storytelling as it relates to wellness and well being and whilst storytellers may not offer a solution to how we nurture and maintain a positive outlook stories undoubtedly offer respite from a chaotic world and pathways for resilience.

So what am I going to do at the Wellness and Well Being events I’m attending?  Well I am quite unashamedly going to do exactly what I’ve been doing for almost 10 years; I’m going to tell my favourite stories.  I’m going to tell stories that I have magpied off other storytellers, from books and the internet and I’m going to tell them in my own unique way.  You see its my long held belief that if I enjoy myself my audience will respond positively not just to my story but to the enthusiasm I bring to the narrative and this will lifts their souls and put joy in their hearts.  If my audience walk away with smiles on their faces having had some fun then I will have done my job.

If you want to read more about wellness and well being here are two very useful links to external websites.

NHS Choices

Mind (UK based charity)

If you are interested in finding out more about these types of session or other sessions that I offer contact me.

A storyteller in search of a story

Aspects of this blog are superseded by A Twit Update and My adventure with Dennis continues!

So this week it has been confirmed that I can no longer offer Roald Dahl’s “The Twits”.  It’s a sad day but not totally unexpected.  Over the last two years I have presented this marvellous tale on almost 200 occasions across England and then in Wales, Scotland, the Channel Islands, Germany and the United Arab Emirates.  It been the most wonderful period and I’ll always be thankful for the opportunities my brief association with the Roald Dahl Estate created.  I will miss sharing what I consider to be a terrific story.

Knowing when to archive a story is as much a part of the creative process as developing the project in the first place.  Telling stories is a lot of fun but the bottom line is that a storyteller is a small business and once a client has seen your entire repertoire the opportunity for a future booking is greatly reduced.  Changing up material helps a storyteller’s repertoire remain fresh and the teller themselves remain energised but it can mean making some tough decisions about old or “well loved” material.

Over the years I have mothballed many projects for many different reasons.  Some decisions were forced upon me because of licencing issues (Private Peaceful and The Twits).  Some stories were very enjoyable to deliver but I found that my style had evolved in a different direction (The Mad Hatters Tea Party!, Dracula and the Unlucky Mummy).  Some stories were shelved because of a lack of demand or, in very rare cases, because what I did with them wasn’t very good.  In some cases when it hasn’t worked or I have been sick to the back teeth of a story I’ve managed to salvage something by finding it a new lease of life.  I don’t mind admitting that I didn’t like Anansi the Spider and the Stories of the World until I significantly altered the way I was telling it so that I was more comfortable with the material and it now sits amongst my favourite projects.  Generally though, if no one’s laughing anymore and the applause is polite rather than enthusiastic it’s probably time to let a story go.  After almost 200 presentations, as much as I love telling The Twits, I think the project has reached and exceeded its end point.

So what next?

My current project Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief will occupy me into the autumn but I am already aware that Beano Studios have another party interested in the book so I have no plans to make it available for schools presentations.  Instead I have been working up two new projects; Band of Brothers: the story of three Lions, which explores The Great War through the stories of three young men who fought it and It’s all Greek to Me!, in which I delve into some of the stories of Greek Mythology’s heroes.  I’m also toying with the idea of bringing Beowulf Sleeps back into my repertoire.  This was a project I did for a school three years ago.  I didn’t take it further at the time because it was at odds with the way I was then telling stories.  This autumn, as I move in a more traditional storytelling direction, I feel that it would sit nicely within my revamped repertoire.  I will of course continue to offer my usual array of folk and fairy tales, myths, legends and Shakespeare but beyond that I am really looking for the next challenge.  What that will be is a mystery right now but I hope that a famous author or publisher will have taken notice of what I do and offer me a title I simply can’t refuse but I’m not holding my breath!  In the meantime I can look forward to Mr Twit’s farewell party to be hosted on Saturday the 20th October 2018 as I take part in one final reading festival in Grantham being hosted by The National Trust.  When one door closes…

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.