Postcard from the Wee Write! Festival 2018

I love Scotland.  I don’t really know why.  Perhaps it’s because we went there a lot on our family holidays or because of the happy times spent at Edinburgh Festivals in the early noughties.  Maybe it’s the accent or simply because I don’t have to spell out my surname to Scottish people but I have always had a soft spot for the place.  Anyway, the last time I worked in Scotland was on a schools tour almost fifteen years ago.  I have been trying to find a way of working there again ever since.  Earlier in 2018 I thought I’d cracked it; I booked dates for the summer in Moray, Angus, Fife and Dumfries and Galloway but the plan was scuppered because of my family commitments.  Then came The Beast from the East hit Britain.  It caused chaos and lead to the postponement of the Wee Write! Festival.  Determined to do something for young Glaswegians the organisers managed to pull together a wonderful programme of activity in just a few weeks.  I hadn’t been originally invited to participate but when I was contacted I didn’t think twice – I was Ton my way to Scotland!

“You take the high road and I’ll take every form of transport known to man, and I’ll be in Scotland before yee (maybe)!”

The thing about living in London and working in Glasgow is it’s a very long way and travelling on a Sunday is not easy.  So my day begins at 3.45am (you haven’t misread that) as my alarm goes and I hop in the shower having spent the night sleeping on Verity’s play mat in the living room.  I creep out of the house, terrified of waking her particularly as we’ve been camping this week and her sleep is all over the place from spending the night in our van.  By 4.10am I’m at the tube station.  I have used the night tube once before but never in the very depths of the night.  As a train geek this is brilliant fun and I’m excited to see that a service runs every 10 minutes through the night.  When the tube arrives it’s pretty empty but it soon fills up with people heading home from their nights out or, like me, to the airport.  When I reach Victoria I stroll along Buckingham Palace Road arriving just before 5am.  I try to talk my way onto an earlier bus but I’ve got no chance – all the buses from Victoria Coach Station have been fully booked from 3am because there’s no other way of reaching Luton at this time in the morning.  No worries, I wander back to Greggs for a sausage roll (yes, Greggs is open before 5am in Victoria Coach Station!).

At this stage I am not worried at all.  I have selected a bus which will get me to Luton in good time for my flight.  I had foolishly bought a rail ticket only to discover that I’d miss check in by a minute if I used it so as the bus gets underway I’m feeling pretty smug.  I read my book in the dawn light as we loll through the empty London streets.  Looking out the window the dew in Hyde Park gives the grass a very eerie appearance.  Everything is going fine until the bus suddenly stops.  The driver informs us that a joy rider has crashed a car and abandoned it in the middle of the road.  There is nothing on the road and the bus is still stuck.  The minutes are now ebbing away as the Police arrive and inspect the vehicle.  I know that they are working as fast as they can but as they check the vehicle over I am wishing they’d just find the hand brake and clear the road.  The bus finally gets through and we arrive at Luton Airport ten minutes late.  I have just enough time to check my bag before jogging through security and onto the the plane.  An hour later I am reunited with my bag and am queuing for a transfer into the city of Glasgow.

I have only been to Glasgow a couple of times but the central area has never struck me as being that big (it is however very hilly particularly if you misread the google map and go up the same hill twice!).  I finally find the Mitchell Library.  The Mitchell Library is one of the largest libraries I have ever been in and it has a beautiful early 20th century exterior.  Today its grandness is somewhat overshadowed by the fairly busy dual carriageway it sits next to but as I go inside and see the gathering crowds it is clear that the Mitchell Library is a much loved community asset.  Having said my hellos I make myself scarce for a while.  I take a turn along Bath Street and Sauciehall Street toward Buchanan Street stopping off to see the Duke of Wellington’s traffic cone hat before heading out onto the river Clyde and meandering via BBC Scotland back to the library.  It still pretty early and the city has a very relaxed feel about it; the city is awash with colour with everybody wearing either Celtic green or Race for Life Pink.  When I get back to the library the place is buzzing and there’s a very friendly atmosphere; there’s cartoonists leading master classes, toddler story times, a science workshop and people hanging out in the cafe space.  The children seem to be having a high old time.  In the foyer as I listen to the Seussical Musical it’s easy to forget that I am here to work.

Finally my moment arrives and I’m ushered into in the 400 seat Mitchell Theatre.  This venue has seen some seriously big names play on it.  I am doing a demanding double bill of “The Twits” and “The Hundred Mile an Hour Dog”.  The presentations go down well.  The audience seem to enjoy “The Twits” but it’s trickier to tell with Streaker.  It’s quite quiet in the auditorium for both stories as the crowd give very little away.  I worry that my brand of chaos seems to be getting lost in the vast auditorium and that I’m not getting up my usual momentum but there are still queues at the end of each session for photographs and lots of positive feedback.

Then as quickly as it all began my participation in the festival is over.  By 4.30pm I’m back on the street and after another couple of hours in Glasgow city centre its back to the bus stop and off to the airport only to find my flight has been delayed (it’s now nearly midnight and I’m still not quite home).  There are signs all over the city reminding its inhabitants that “People make Glasgow” well I will certainly remember the people who made my Wee Write! Festival so memorable and I am very grateful to the organisers for their hospitality and the audiences for supporting my work.  Its been a crazy day but it was a pleasure to have been part of a very special event in a very special city.

Working with Dan McGarry #dennis2018

Way back in 2005 I was involved in a production of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  The production was based in Cambridgeshire and involved us performing at stately homes and beauty spots across Cambridgeshire and east Anglia.  All these years later I am still in touch with some of those who were involved including Gemma Boaden.  Gemma is amazing.  She is very professional and thoroughly dedicates herself to whatever she puts her mind to and over the years has been a very good friend to me.  Since doing Alice its been my pleasure to drag her into projects including leading a BTEC acting course in Sutton and facilitating presentation workshops in Hertfordshire.  Gemma is now an acting voice coach at Northampton University, mother to two wonderful children and married to Dan McGarry.

Dan McGarry and I obviously met through Gemma.  He has a unique and enviable skill set as an uber-talented actor musician, stand up comedian, presentation coach and storyteller.  Most importantly, he gets my way of working and is happy to do likewise.  Last year Dan helped me deliver presentations of Jeremy Strong’s The Hundred Mile an Hour Dog and this year he’s agreed to tell Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief.  This means that when I am planning and preparing the project I have a sounding board and conspirator and if its not me leading the session I can be 100% confident that the calibre of the presentations will be incredibly high.

Dan McGarry will be presenting Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief

@ Croydon Libraries on 24th July 2018

@ Redbridge Libraries on 2nd August 2018

@ Westminster Libraries on 3rd August 2018

@ Luton Libraries on 23rd August 2018

@ Cambridgeshire Libraries on 30th August 2018

(Check the calendar for other dates)

I’m only human after all

Its official: March was rubbish.  The month started as the “Beast from the east” plunged the UK into a deep freeze.  I was lucky and despite the snow I made it to all my engagements including flying from Stansted to Germany for two days out there.  The weekend after I developed a cough and flu-like symptoms.  Now I’ve had man flu enough times to know that you ride out the worst of it and it passes in few days.  This though was different.  It was like I was a car with a flat battery and all my usual tricks for jump starting myself simply didn’t work.  I just couldn’t imagine being able to engage and energise a primary school audience and for the first time ever I had to call a school and say I wasn’t coming.  I felt terrible about it and was left wondering which was worse; the flu-like symptoms that had left me staring at my bedroom ceiling or my feeling of guilt at having let so many people down.

The following week I was back at the races and went up to Preston and had two beautiful days in North Wales.  When I got back to London my cough returned with vengeance.  This was the Thursday and by the Saturday it was clear I wasn’t getting any better.  A trip to the emergency doctor later and it was confirmed that a probable throat infection had developed into bacterial tonsillitis!  I was sent away with antibiotics and instructions to rest (tricky with a 13 month old).  In the end I had had to cancel four dates in three weeks.

My job is a lot of fun.  I have had the most exhilarating few years seeing the world and being offered all manner of extraordinary opportunities.  The highs have been high but the lows have also taken their toll.  I have been aware for a while of the strain my workload was having on my body and voice but my attitude had been to carry on.  For years I’ve dragged myself out of bed to travel to the four corners of Britain and beyond and I have pretty much ignored my health for the sake of the job.  Looking back now its pretty clear that in 2016 my demanding schedule for The Twits left me close to a point of utter exhaustion and in 2014 Private Peaceful took a toll on my mental health as I went through such an emotional tale three times daily but until this most recent episode I have always managed to keep going.

Having now been there I can confirm that if a freelancer lets you down you can be sure something pretty serious has happened.  You see if I don’t turn up I have a lot to lose.  Firstly there are the professional consequences.  I am ultimately responsible for fulfilling the commitments in my diary to the best of my ability.  I really like what I do and most of the time I take bookings because I want to rather than have to do a job.  Yes, I work with others but this is my gig and I’m very proud of it.  It’s gutting to have to pass up exciting projects because you are ill.  I also don’t want to develop a reputation for cancelling.  It’s taken a long time to get where I am and what people think of my work matters to me.  My feedback shows that not everybody likes my style of storytelling.  I accept that, I have a pretty distinct way of working which some people don’t realise when they book.  I don’t need people to dislike me because I repeatedly reschedule dates.

Then there are the financial consequences.  The scenario is simple: if I don’t attend I don’t get paid and as I don’t ask for deposits my upfront costs aren’t covered (this includes any travel expenses I might have incurred).  Finally, doing the job is much easier than not because having to reschedule is a logistical nightmare and isn’t always possible.

My friends and family who get wonderful things like paid holiday and sick pay say I can’t can’t expect to not have to reschedule or cancel work in the future and they are of course right.  For ten years I burnt the candle at both ends to meet my professional liability with little regard to anything else and I was very lucky that nothing happened.  Verity changed everything.  Lauren’s maternity period has ended and she has been offered a very exciting job beginning in June.  I have therefore arranged for Dan McGarry to cover some of summer commitments so that I can look after Verity (much as we did last year in Northamptonshire).  In spite of knowing this is right for my family and having total faith in Dan, the workhorse in me found e-mailing people I regard as friends to tell them I have to change or cancel agreed library visits a very difficult thing to do.

Its been an awkward and unprecedented couple of weeks which have left me feeling hollow and like I’ve let a lot of people down.  In fairness I’d been riding a positive wave of momentum for a long time and it was time it came crashing down.  This is a wake up call.  I have to become more responsible for myself, my family and my working partners.  At times in the past few months I might have felt invincible and that I could conquer the world but it turns out I’m only human after all…

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,

JK

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.

JK