Festival list 2018

Last year I visited a couple of festivals.  This summer I’m visiting a few more…

28th April 2018 – Arts 4 All 2018 (Henley in Arden)

13th May 2018 – Barnes Kids Lit Fest 2018 (Barnes, London)

9th June 2018 – Eye Open Gardens (Eye, Suffolk)

14th June 2018 – Broadway Arts Festival 2018 (Broadway, Cotswolds)

24th June 2018 – The Big Marlarkey 2018 (Hull)

30th June 2018 – Bradford Literature Festival 2018

24th July 2018 – Brentwood Children’s Literary Festival 2018

Some of these events I’ve done before some of them are completely new to me.  Some are very local affairs, some are regional if not national events.  I’m very excited to be included in all of them.

I hope to see you there!

My work in special educational needs (SEN) environments

The first time I really worked with young people who were considered to have special educational needs (SEN) was through a theatre company in London.  We worked with a very small group for 6 weeks before the participants delivered their project at a local theatre.  I don’t mind admitting that this was a very steep learning curve and at times I was out of my depth but by watching the other tutors and facilitators and by working with rather than against the children I got through it.

Since then I have been privileged enough to share stories with young people with profound physical, learning and behaviourial needs in places like Andover, Bridlington, Chelmsford, Harlow, Milton Keynes and Newcastle.  Each time the experience has been hugely challenging and deeply moving.

I have had some really rewarding experiences in special educational needs environments and often find that the staff and children greet me with a warmth and openness which is refreshing.  Sometimes the work I’ve delivered has been more or less what I’d deliver anywhere else and sometimes I have planned and delivered sensory stories (a story in which the individual engages with a story through their senses – smell, touch and taste as well as the more usual sight and sound).  Preparing a sensory story really challenges me.  Its very stimulating to reevaluate even the most simple story in terms of sensual opportunities and accessibility.

I think that my success (if I have been at all successful) in SEN environments can be put down to a few things:

  • I do a lot of preparation work (particularly if I am delivering a sensory story).
  • I have a highly visual, energetic style of delivery.
  • I place a lot of importance on striking a rapport with the group so that everybody feels welcome, safe and included.
  • I try to be adaptable and always expecting the unexpected.
  • I treat everybody the same irrespective of their perceived disadvantage.

I just wanted to explain what my last point means.  Some of the young people I meet have things going on that many of us could not imagine living with but they don’t need or want my pity.  I try to work with the young person not their condition; yes, of course I respect their conditions but if I don’t respect them as individuals then my delivery will fall flat.

Equal opportunities and accessibility is something we should be conscious of when we run sessions.  Be it allowing blind or autistic children to feel the props before or after a story to enhance their understanding or simply wearing a transmitter so a deaf child can hear or making it possible for a wheel chair user to volunteer I have seen how small adjustments can make big differences.  I am still learning a lot and I pick up new techniques all the time but my experiences mean that I certainly I feel a lot more confident when I deliver work for children with special educational needs.

In some ways “special educational needs” is a very cold one-size-fits-all term for a group of people with a wide range of talents and abilities.  Some of my favourite days have been working in SEN environments.  I would thoroughly recommend the experience to any arts practitioner and it is definitely work I’ll be looking to do more of in the future.

Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief #dennis2018

I am pleased to announce that I will be telling Nigel Auchterlounie’s Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief this summer.  This isn’t just exciting because it’s Dennis the Menace but because it’s a brand new title being released by Beano Studios and Templar Books in May 2018 and they are entrusting it to me.

Below is a list of presentations which includes libraries and literature festivals.  The eagle eyed will notice that this year I’ll be doing a full week in London with further dates in the East Midlands and more work than ever in the North West.

I am also pleased to announce that Joseph Attenborough will be creating another original composition for the story and I’ll be sharing a poster for the summer created by Dan White on this website soon.

We are still three months away from the first date and there is still a lot of work to be done but I’m hoping that we can deliver something very special for the summer.  To keep up to date on how I get on use the hashtag #dennis2018 when searching for the project.

The Big Malarkey in Hull –  24/6/18

Manchester Libraries – 27-28/6/18

Oldham Libraries – 4/7/18

Sefton Libraries – 5-6/7/18

Wirral Libraries – 9/7/18

St Helens Libraries – 10/7/18

Brentwood Children’s Literary Festival 2018 – 24/7/18

Thurrock Libraries – 25/7/18

Southend Libraries – 25/7/18

Derby City Libraries – 31/7/18

Redbridge Libraries – 2/8/18

Westminster Libraries – 3/8/18

Hackney Libraries – 7/8/18

Brent Libraries – 8-9/8/18

Kensington Libraries – 10/8/18

Cheshire East Libraries – 13-14/8/18

Cheshire West Libraries – 15-16/8/18

Rutland Libraries – 21/8/18

Nottingham City Libraries – 22/8/18

Luton Libraries – 23/8/18

Bexley Libraries – 28/8/18

Trafford Libraries – 15/9/18

Bolton Libraries – 6/10/18

My work with museum and heritage services

Back in 2009 my father put me up to writing a show for the National Trust.  So I gave it a go.  I wrote a one man presentation based around the premise of a carnival sideshow quack called Professor Montague Rumpleseed Drake in which I promised to demonstrate to the audience when the best era of history to live was.  In a 30 minute presentation I’d peel back the layers of time until we came to the conclusion “we’ve never had it so good!”.  When I look back on it, this initial piece was by no means perfect (for one thing I used to cart a small cupboard all over London tied to a shopping trolley!) but what I latched onto was the idea that children have short attention spans so I had to be constantly looking for ways to change things up.  The Professor never darkened the door of a National Trust property but he became the first of many attempts to communicate thousands of years of history to young audiences.

The Professor and his time travelling machine allowed me to showcase my ability and led to museums in Hackney, Haringey, Southwark and Bromley inviting me to run workshops for them and to write other presentations.  During the Olympics I worked with Hackney Museum to deliver an outreach presentation to school children about change in the local area.  Ever ambitious in 30 minutes I tore through 30,000 years of history!  I structured this presentation in much the same way that I’d structured the Professor’s shtick three years earlier but without a bowler hat and  lab coat and with added elements of participation.

Spin on again to 2014 and the commemoration of The Great War.  This time it was Redbridge Libraries looking for a way to enhance their pop up library events.  I had done a few bits and pieces with Redbridge and they asked for something for adults and I gave them something for children (oops!).  Again this was borough specific and instead of 30000 years we were looking in detail at just four and this time I incorporated elements of participation and roleplay into 40 minutes exploring Redbridge’s home front.  The Great War didn’t just open doors in Redbridge; in 2014 I developed sessions for Hackney and Vestry House Museum, each time cherry picking what had worked elsewhere and doing it again.

Now to the present day.  I have been working with Vestry House Museum for four years.  We have developed workshops about The Great War, the Walthamstow Workhouse, Crime and Punishment and Roman Waltham Forest.  I have developed a formula that works for the children of Waltham Forest and the feedback on our latest sessions (the Romans) has been beyond my wildest expectations.

As part of my work with the Vestry House I have gone full circle and find myself telling the story of another London borough with a view to building relationships between the museum and schools.  Between now and May I’ll be visiting 16 Waltham Forest Primary Schools, meeting hundreds of children and sharing the story of the place they call home.  My latest dash through history covers 2000 years; from the Romans to the present day.  We interview a Roman, play a multiple choice game with the Anglo Saxons, learn a Tudor inspired dance, debate moral dilemmas in the 18th Century and learn new languages in the 20th Century.  Its a lot of fun and I hope it inspires some more children and schools to visit Vestry House Museum.  For me it represents nearly a decade of work.  I feel comfortable doing it and I am still loving sharing the story of how London has developed after all these years.

Its a strange thing to spend so much of your time working in isolation so whenever I work regularly with museums and libraries I enjoy the feeling of being a part of a team.  I owe London’s museum services a great debt after all had it not been for the staff of the Hackney Museum who encouraged my madness and supported me when I went wrong I’d probably still be working in as an office administrator and these days its the team at Vestry House who put up with my daft ideas.

The person I find that I have to thank the most for my rollercoaster ride into the wild west of heritage services is not Professor Montague Rumpleseed Drake but my Dad.  He and my Mum may not be completely comfortable with some of my life choices but it’s been their faith in me that’s pushed me to be more than a jobbing actor and office temp and for that I am very grateful.  Verity is now a year old and there are likely to be big changes over the next few months and years but if I’ve learned one thing from working in museums and heritage services its that whilst none of us can accurately predict the future you can have an awful lot of fun trying to make sense of it once its in the past!

A perfect storm..

Sometimes everything just comes together perfectly – the audience, the environment, the stories – it’s almost like everybody wants it to be really good and last week it really was.  This is the feedback I received from one of my National Storytelling Week sessions:

“A sensational performance delivered to nearly 400 children. They were engaged, enthralled and completely overwhelmed by the experience. They loved it!”

It was a genuinely lovely morning that will live long in my memory.  I told a ghost story (A GHOST story!)  to nearly 250 children and you could have heard a pin drop.  Why do I tell stories?  For moments like that.

I’m all booked up (uh-huh-huh!)

Dear Schools,

I am now fully booked until the end of March.  If you would like a visit then I’d be thrilled to come to you in April, May or June or alternatively one of my storytelling associates might be available.

Many thanks,


That’s a wrap for 2017…

I have now downed tools for the year.  As I do it seems appropriate to look back on a tremendous year.  Here are just a handful of the stand out moments.

In 2017 …

I became a father to Verity Beatrice Kirk who is now looking forward to her first Christmas.

I visited the United Arab Emirates and Guernsey to tell my stories including The Twits.

I spent a summer with a 100mph Dog.

I worked with The Literacy Trust in Swansea and presented a book award in Bolton.

Its been a very busy year and 2018 looks set to be even busier.  Many thanks to my family (particularly VBz and Lauren) for their continued support, to the many libraries, schools and festivals who made 2017 so special, to Jeremy Strong, David Higham Associates and Casarotto Ramsay for entrusting me with great stories, to Dan McGarry, Joseph Attenborough, Rebecca Hutchins, Paul Valentine and Dan White for helping me tell great stories and to you for reading this blog and coming along to my events.

Wishing you all a merry Christmas and a very happy new year.


What the little boy said next blew me away…

So I was approaching the end of a traditional tales session and about to tell The Billy Goats Gruff a group of Nursery and Reception children.  Now I have many props and hats that I use in my storytelling sessions but even though I’ve been telling it for years I don’t have any goat horns.  Instead I have a set of black devil horns (don’t ask).  I therefore like to play a guessing game as to the title of the story.  It’s not easy particularly when my horns are definitely more vamp than goat.

Me (to the children):  What group of three have horns that we could tell a story about?  Three Bears?  Three Pigs?  Three Blind Mice?

The children have a go even if they have no idea, making all kinds of suggestions but then a little boy puts his hand up and his answer blew me away.

Little boy: Cars.

I almost gave him a standing ovation.  It was another brilliant example of why I love telling stories to young people.  He’s clearly had the same experiences of buses as me!


You wait for ages and three come at once!

Read this and I’ll buy you some chocolate…

Recently a mother brought her child to one of my storytelling sessions.  When her boy got up and volunteered she jeered at him.  When he was embarrassed and didn’t want to do it anymore she said “I’ll buy you some sweets if you do it”.  I stopped her saying that volunteering should always be the individual’s choice but what she had done (other than mortifying him and putting everybody else off helping me) was to say to her child and the rest of the audience “sweets are better than this”.  Thanks.

This particular lady thought she was doing the right thing; she had attended the library to listen to a story – big tick.  Unfortunately though, it doesn’t follow that a love of books, reading and stories will rub off by simply turning up in a library.  When I deliver stories it’s very common for children to look around at how other people are receiving the story and judge their own response accordingly; are Mum and Dad watching? are Mum and Dad enjoying this?  You can’t hand a book to a child and say “read this and I’ll buy you some chocolate” because a carrot and stick approach is simply not appropriate when trying to nurture a child’s interest.  Libraries are undoubtedly the right place to encourage a love of reading and books but more often than not a child’s library experiences need to be positively reinforced by an adult.

It’s the same in schools.  We live in an age when many children see reading, writing and arithmetic as purely for tests and exams so, thankfully for me, schools are always looking for ways of inspiring their children.  A good author visit or storytelling day should have quite obvious and immediate short term benefits but authors and storytellers may not have the long term solutions a school is searching for.  The long term legacy of such experiences depend upon them being properly valued at the time and adequately followed up by teachers in the classroom.

I am keen for schools and the public to get the most out of what I do.  I try to encourage discussion of my visits and I try to build opportunities for further writing exercises into my session structures.  In public sessions I try to work with libraries to ensure stories are available to be borrowed and also encourage adults to engage with me on social media so that they are aware of my events in the future.  More often than not my work is about enjoyment and entertainment but by trying to inspire the adult as well as the child I hope that for some children a story becomes more than 30 minutes of fun.  A well-executed storytelling can become a doorway to a whole world of stories or a topic or who knows, a career.

We all have bad habits we can easily shake off.  It can be as simple as singing the songs at toddler rhyme time rather than using the time to check text messages or being seen to borrow and read books or just putting the book marking off and engaging with the class’s storytelling visit.  If we don’t do these things what messages are being shared?  Your learning is somebody else’s problem.  Reading is something you have to do.  I’m too busy for stories.  If we want to encourage and inspire our children we all have to raise our game.

A Jekyll and Hyde storyteller

Something is happening to me.  It’s not happened overnight but over a period of years.  I’m having a professional identity crisis; I am a Jekyll and Hyde storyteller.

Let me introduce my aliases to you.  Jekyll is subdued.  He sits on a chair and tells stories using simple props, hats and the odd sound effect.  Jekyll is the one who presents trios of stories to reception classes and spooky stories at public events.  Jekyll looks and behaves like a stereotypical storyteller (if such a thing even exists).  Hyde on the other hand is manic.  He loves a crowd and is instinctively theatrical.  Hyde likes knockabout fun with volunteers and chucks buckets of water for any given reason.  Don’t get me wrong my Jekyll and Hyde’s are both great but the conundrum increasingly is that if people turn up to see one and get the other will they be disappointed by the presentation they get?

I feel that I’m at my best when I get material which allows me to use all of my abilities.  For me it’s about striking a balance between knockabout routines and visual humour and using words to paint pictures for an audience so that they can close their eyes and just imagine it.  I’m the Toyota Yaris of storytelling; neither wholly one thing nor the other.  I sit on a stylistic fence and that can be a real drag.  For years I have struggled to describe my own work when pushed by friends and family.  These days I often need people to sell my work in order to generate audiences and defying categorisation is tricky.

In the end though, being a bit different is mostly brilliant.  You see children enjoy my different.  My different exposes them to stories and encourages listening and positive participation.  My different is fun and creates lasting memories (I meet children who remind me who they were in a story or that I squirted them with water two years ago).  Storytellers might call me an actor, actors might call me a children’s entertainer and teachers might call me Mr Kirk but I hope the children I meet remember that in the end I’m just John.

To everybody else out there who finds that they are a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde, have a happy Halloween!