Tag Archives: identity

My contribution to a year of culture in Waltham Forest

In January 2019 the London Borough of Waltham Forest (LBWF) became the first London Borough of Culture and so began a year-long celebration of the arts and creativity across the whole authority.  Cultural activities in different sizes, shapes and forms have been planned and led by professionals, community groups and enthusiasts and people have been coming together to share their artistic interests.  Until recently I lived in Walthamstow and I’ve been working in Waltham Forest for a number of years as a storyteller and facilitator at The Vestry House Museum and William Morris Gallery most recently devising and delivering  an outreach assembly charting the story of the area.  When it was announced that LBWF was to be London’s first Borough of Culture I was very keen to be involved and despite moving to Sussex I am really excited to have been asked to deliver another outreach project, this time promoting fun through art.

If you looked at my calendar it gives the impression that this storyteller isn’t doing that much at the moment.  In fact this summer I am working as a presentation facilitator, visiting 37 primary schools in Waltham Forest to work with over 2500 children and enabling the young people I encounter to create mass art pieces based on their cultural identity and interests.  The way we work is that the children are each given a piece of coloured card.  They are then asked a question relating to who they are (their favourite foods, the languages they speak at home and their artistic interests).  To answer the questions the children move around the room.  It’s a bit like what would happen if one of those mosaics you see crowds make at international football matches was achieved by playing an enormous multiple choice game or what happens to a pallet of paint as the brush moves, blending and mixing the colours.  As the children move new patterns emerge which are as unique as the children in the room. We take photographs of the process at different stages which become the artwork.

This is a very ambitious project which relies upon a massive amount of team work between myself, the school staff and the children involved and so far the sessions have been received enthusiastically.  The images that we are capturing are very striking but what’s also striking is the eagerness of the children. Waltham Forest is a very vibrant and diverse place and our sessions are as much about creating a forum to discuss identity as they are about making art. As the children make their choices there is invariably a positive buzz around the assemblies and when asked for feedback, everybody wants to share things about their families and their interests.  The children aren’t the only ones who are enjoying themselves. As a storyteller I am fascinated by family stories and how they are valued so being a part of the discussions has been a wonderful experience.

The project is not without its practical challenges.  Whenever you ask 120 children to move at the same time you risk a certain amount of chaos but by far the biggest challenge of the project has been communicating the outcome to schools.  Holding up pieces of card in front of a camera to make an art piece is a fairly abstract idea.  To make it even more confusing, we instruct the children to use their cards to cover their eyes, nose and mouth so their faces cannot be seen – this means they have no idea of the bigger pictures that they are making.  It’s been my job to keep the sessions bouncing along, to try to keep some very large groups engaged and to assure them (and the schools) that the pictures we are making look great.

At the time of writing we are about a third of the way through the project which will run until the end of the school year.  I think it’s fantastic that the Borough of Culture have tried to engage children from every part of the London Borough of Waltham Forest with arts, creativity and culture and it has been a privilege to be invited into so many schools to take a glimpse into the worlds of the children.  Waltham Forest has undoubtedly shaped me as a storyteller and I hope that for some young people this kind of experience and the opportunities arising from a year of culture on their doorstep might also have a long lasting legacy.

John Kirk is a professional storyteller working in schools, libraries and museums as well as literature festivals and events. For more information about his work or to make a booking use the contact form.

St George’s Day

DRAGONIts St George’s Day so what better excuse for publishing a picture of a puppet dragon made out of newspaper?

Here are some links about St George, the use of his image, sacrifice and identity to make you think on England’s patrons day:

The Golden Legend 

Clapton Orient’s War Game

Interpreting the Great War

Wave your Flag

The Great Fire of Guilden Morden (Part Two)

John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.Time to bring you up to speed on The Great Fire of Guilden Morden project.

As you’ll recall from my previous blog on this three month project  last year I was contacted by Guilden Morden Primary School who were looking for a creative partner for a Heritage Lottery funded project.  Working over 12 weeks between May 2014 and July 2014 the school would devise and develop a creative response to The Guilden Morden Fire (22/5/1881).  This creative response would be documented using web based, digital technology.

The project has now finished so it seems appropriate to reflect on what we got up to in my final weeks in Cambridgeshire…

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.Week Six

Polishing our story – I worked with the groups to consider the structure and language we might use in our poetry and scenes.  We explored atmosphere and how it might effect the urgency of our words (particularly as our story is about a fire).  We began rehearsing our scenes and thinking about how we could use transitive verbs to help a performer better understand character and events.  Elsewhere we explored the local legend of Jack o’Legs and the area’s connections to agriculture.

Week Seven

Staging a Chorus – The group continued to think about how vocal expression could bring the story to life.  Conscious of the looming deadline to create a piece of community theatre this week I also introduced some basic ideas about Greek Chorus Work.  With the youngest classes we set up a water relay race as we explored the difficulties the Fire Brigade might have faced in 1881.

Week Eight

Rehearsals – With two sessions scheduled this week we staged the main structural elements of our story; the scenes and poem.  It is worth mentioning that most of the ideas for the words and actions came from the children rather than from the teachers or myself.  It was very important that the children felt this was their project and that my role was to challenge and enthuse them.

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.Week Nine

More Rehearsals – Working with each group for short bursts to ensure they didn’t disengage from the story we continued to rehearse the groups.  As we began to bring the different elements of the story together the process became very technical and I confess to confusing myself at times!  Despite this the group took things in their stride.

Week Ten

Show Time – For the first time we brought all 73 performers together and on two sweltering afternoons the children presented their story to their families and community.

The Great Fire of Guilden Morden is documented by the school here but this is a taste of what we came up with…


“It was a charming summer’s day in the year of 1881.

In Guilden Morden, the golden hill in the marsh,

the sun’s warm rays are dancing on the faces of children playing outside.

Birds sit amongst the fresh green leaves of silver birch trees

singing their beautiful songs,

and a gentle breeze carries cares and worries away.

Peace reigns over the village, fields and lanes.

None suspect what is to pass on that terrible Sunday.”


From start to finish this was a special experience.  The staff and all the pupils were wonderful to work with and I will truly miss being a part of the school.  I take away a lot of memories and a folder of thank you messages from the children which I will treasure.  Most of all though I leave this project inspired by the potential of young people and certain that creative practitioners have a future within education so long as schools remain willing to take creative risks, commissioning projects where the outcomes are more difficult to quantify.  So long as there are teachers like those at Guilden Morden Primary School creativity has a very bright future.

The Great Fire of Guilden Morden (Part One)

John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.Three years ago it was my pleasure to be involved in two projects which were funded by the Creative Partnerships initiative.  The programme saw artists working with schools and exposing pupils and staff to new ideas of working.  In Stoke we worked to explore how we identify with urban spaces through stories and in Lincolnshire we created a story trail for the school and wider community.

Rather than doing a day in a school I was able to present a series of workshops as I took up residency in my partner schools.  The projects were very rewarding and I feel that I learned a lot about my practice from being involved.  I was supported by my partner schools to try out ideas (to take risks) and organise really memorable learning experiences for the children (we did a Q&A in Stoke with some local VIPs as well as a creative walk, whilst in Lincolnshire I organised storytelling experiences around the school to help the children’s imaginations).  Sadly (as is the way with these things) the programme came to an end just as I was discovering it.

Last year I was contacted by Guilden Morden Primary School who were looking for a creative partner for a Heritage Lottery funded project.  Working over 12 weeks between May 2014 and July 2014 the school would devise and develop a creative response to The Guilden Morden Fire (22/5/1881).  This creative response would be documented using web based, digital technology.  Remembering my previous Creative Partnership experiences I jumped at the chance.

At the time of writing we are approaching the midway point of the project.  I have tried to summarise what we’ve done below…

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.Week One

Celebration.  Our first session fell on May Day.  In Cambridgeshire at the time of our story May Day would have been an opportunity for the community to celebrate the coming of Spring.  I want celebration to be central to our final presentation so I introduced a simple group dance to the children.  The dance will be incorporated into the final presentation and offer our work a communal spectacle.

Who are you?  Through simple storytelling games I found out more about the groups and we used objects to stimulate more personal stories.

Week Two

Who am I to you?  The pupils brought objects from home to tell their personal stories.  We then used the objects to build a map of their school community.  By spending two weeks focussed on identity we are better positioned to introduce the heritage aspect of the project (I have a better understanding of who I am but where do I come from?)

Week Three

The Great Fire of Guilden Morden Walkabout.  I lead walks around the village, introducing the children to the story of the fire in role.  Each walk took us on a 40 minute stroll about Guilden Morden stopping at the (assumed) site of the fire, The Independent Chapel, Old School, War Memorial, Church and Vicarage.  At each stop I role played a different character who had a part in the story of the fire.

Week Four

Commemoration.  This session fell on the anniversary of the fire.  To mark the date the school organised a fire drill and I read the newspaper report of the fire to the children in assembly.  Our commemoration was in sharp contrast to the celebration of Week One.

In their own words “The Guiden Morden Fire”.  The groups retold the story of the fire using drama games.  The groups used drama to structure their own version of the story.  These structures will be used as a starting point for building a narrative poem and dramatic scenes.

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.Week Five

Acting Out the Events of 1881.  With the younger classes I appeared as a Victorian Schoolmaster and with the older classes we turned our version of the story into a series of scenes.  In the next week the classes will transcribe these scenes to form the basis of scripts and stories.

Over the next six weeks we have a lot of work still to do but I hope to be able to share news of our success, images and video here over the next few months.  Stayed tuned!

What’s your Story? A Simple Storytelling Game

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.As human beings have evolved we have developed an introspective (thoughtful) nature.  The ways in which we try to answer the bigger questions in our world is fascinating.  We have turned our minds to the sophistication of technology, we seek truth in theology and spiritual enlightenment but we also tell stories (what are fables and parables if they are not attempts to better understand our own nature and environment?).  Whether you are conscious of it or not, you fill your lives with stories and the ability to exchange stories is a big part of being human.  We fill our lives with narrative and take our turn at playing orator and audience.  Some stories we will tell are significant and some less so but I believe that storytelling is about more than art and communication, storytelling helps to define us.

When I work with a group I do so understanding that even the youngest participant has some notion of a story.  I doubt there is anybody in the world who doesn’t have a story to tell or cannot tell a story.  The work that I do concerns articulating that story better and helping participants to understand the mechanics of their narrative.

To demonstrate this I’d like you, the reader to play a game.  This will hopefully show you that a) everybody has a story to tell and b) everybody can tell a story.  Depending where you are reading this you may want to think about it for a little while, write your answer down or even share your answers over a dinner with friends and family.  My exercise is essentially a parlour game that I often use in workshops with young people and adults as an icebreaker but in this context we are using it to encourage open, honest introspective thinking about identity.  Please read the exercise and rather than saying “I have no idea” say “that’s tricky, let me think about that”.  I hope that you feel able to participate in the game and remember: we’re doing this on the internet – nobody is judging you.

John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.“Think of one thing that most people know about you and one thing that less people know about you.”

Nobody is saying that telling a story is easy but these stories are about you.  You only share as much as is comfortable.  Don’t worry if the answer you have given seems more like a statement at the moment.  If I were in the room with you and you had given me a very short answer I would probe you with further questions.  Let’s pretend I’ve done that and tell me your stories.


One thing most people know about me…

Short answer: I am a football nut.

Story:  I was raised on Manchester United before rejecting them for Wimbledon Football Club.  I was there for the sit ins at Selhurst Park when Wimbledon Football Club became Milton Keynes Dons.  Between 2002 and 2006 I visited the 92 football clubs that make up the football league.  Having moved to North London these days I will only turn Match of the Day on if either Arsenal or Manchester United have played.

One thing less people know about me…

Short answer: I have Burmese heritage.

John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.Story: My Grandmother was born in Kalaw in the 1920s.  During the Second World War she met my Grandfather and once the war was over she left Burma and moved to the North West of England.  Opposition to the ruling military junta meant that until quite recently visitng Burma was out of the question.  In 2013 my Father, Uncle, Brother and I with our respective partners visited Kalaw and the Convent where my Grandmother was educated.

Storytelling is as much about listening and responding as it is about telling a story.  In each of my stories there are points of intrigue and potential common experiences which might draw further stories from the orator (doing the 92, a trip to Burma) or even draw stories from the audience (a love of sport, migration, family holidays etc).  If that’s the case with you don’t deny your audience a good story or a great conversation.

I hope you enjoy this little game and I hope it proves that we all have a story to tell – happy storytelling!