Tag Archives: key stage three

Great War Workshops in Hackney and Walthamstow

Private PeacefulApart from all the wonderful stories I have been telling to children and adults at festivals, libraries and schools this year it has also been my absolute pleasure to work with two of East London’s brilliant local museums.

Earlier in the year I worked with Hackney Museum to develop and present Hackney to Ypres, which was presented to coincide with their exhibition “Writing Home”.  In the session we considered and contrasted the letters of soldiers from Hackney with the work of Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke as well as presenting discussion and role play activities.

Since then I have worked with The Vestry House Museum (sister museum to The William Morris Gallery-Museum of the Year 2013) in Walthamstow to develop a session to compliment their exhibition “Raids, Rationing and Riots”.  Building on the work I did in Hackney we have developed a session that incorporates multimedia, role play and analysing sources in a local study.

Leading a Highwayman Workshop

Both sessions (aimed at Years 5-7) require participants to look at sources and use inference and deduction skills as they consider what life was like in East London during The Great War.  They also include drama games and activities which help to make the sessions dynamic.

Feedback on both sessions has been very encouraging and I hope they will have a lasting legacy.  Having presented Private Peaceful and The War Game I can safely say that these workshops helped my understanding what happened 100 years ago!  It has been wonderful for me to work with two such outstanding museums.  I will take a lot from these experiences and commend these sessions to schools in and around the area.

I also commend the difference that an arts practitioner can make to a child’s understanding of a topic.  The workshops people like me offer to organisations can introduce, consolidate or enhance a child’s learning.  My approach is playful and energetic as groups learn through doing and enjoying.  Over the years I have used drama to unpick Darwin and Evolution, Shakespeare, the History of Highwaymen and even healthy eating.  Could I help to unlock that tricky subject?  Try me.

Mammoths to Medals (Revisited)

John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.In 2013 I moved from the London borough of Hackney to the London Borough of Waltham Forest.  I may have only moved seven short miles but after six happy years in one of the most vibrant boroughs in Britain it was a massive wrench.  Whilst living in Hackney I had some of the most creatively fulfilling years of my life as I built strong working relationships with organisations including The Hackney Museum.  Hackney Museum, based in Hackney Central Library is an amazing community resource staffed by knowledgeable and creative people with a passion for sharing local history.  I may be biased but I think its one of the best museums in the country.

Working in heritage environments is something I really enjoy.  My earliest solo storytelling pieces were based around British history (including a Victorian Classroom session for The Bruce Castle Museum) and this summer I will be helping to lead a creative exploration of the Guilden Morden fire.

Anyway, as I sat watching Lizzy Yarnold, Jade Etherington and Team GB at the Sochi Winter and Paralympic Games I couldn’t help but think back to my time working with Hackney Museum.  It was in the build up to Summer Olympic and Paralympics (London 2012) that I collaborated with Hackney Museum on Mammoths to Medals,a presentation which sought to tell the incredible story of Hackney’s history as part of the Museum’s Mapping the Change project.  In just 30 minutes we explored 200,000 years of Hackney’s history highlighting the contributions of those people who have called Hackney their home; Anglo Saxon Farmers, Tudor Society, Victorian Industrialists and migrants from across the globe.

In the life of the project I have presented the piece on many occasions at Hackney Museum and in Hackney Primary Schools.  Incorporating games and learning activities into a chronological narrative the piece offer facts about Hackney and but also it questions how we will be remembered.

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.A lot has changed in the two years since we made the piece was documented at Kingsmead Primary School.  Hackney’s demographic and landscape have been slowly morphing for 200,000 years but concerns about how communities will withstand the gentrification of East London mean our legacy is once again scrutinised.

When we look at Hackney’s story it shows us that change doesn’t have to be a bad thing.  It points to how different traditions, cultures and values have shaped an area into a place people want to live and work.   I am incredibly proud of being a part of Hackney’s history and of this piece.  I hope that through watching Mammoths to Medals young people recognise how they can shape their community.

Thankfully I haven’t lost touch with Hackney Museum and hope to be back to run sessions as the country prepares to commemorate The Great War.  For the moment though I am very settled in Waltham Forest and I’m looking forward to the future.

St George and the Dragon: The Golden Legend

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.I was recently asked to recall the stories that I told.  As I compiled my list it occurred to me that my repertoire includes stories about our world from all around the world. A striking example of this is The Legend of St George and the Dragon.

The Legend of St George and the Dragon is well known in England because he is the nation’s patron saint and although it seems, on the surface, a straight forward battle between man and beast (albeit mythical monster) this is a story which is appreciated around the world.

It is said that the story was first brought to England from the Holy Land  by Knights returning from the Crusades.  The story goes that St George comes to the town of Silene in Libya.  Learning that the town is troubled by a terrible Dragon, George seeks the beast out and kills it.  He is hailed as hero by the people.  It’s easy to see how the central idea of bravery, honour and valour conquering a terrible enemy would have resonated with the returning soldiers and fascinated the population at the time.

The idea of George as a Knight fighting with a Dragon, sometimes referred to as “The Golden Legend”, is a romantic view of the Saint’s life.   Saint George was a Roman Soldier, who was born in Turkey 2000 years ago and died for refusing to renounce his Christian faith.  In death St George is respected by Christians and Muslims alike.  As well as England, St George is patron of the World Scouting Movement and other countries including Georgia, Greece, India, Russia and Egypt.  The list of countries and cities who have chosen George as their patron saint is much longer than this but I feel this selection demonstrates his truly global appeal.

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.George and the Dragon is a legend: a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but not authenticated (www.oxforddictionaries.com).  Both Knight and Dragon can be viewed as metaphors (the saint’s battle with religious persecution).  In some versions of the story George captures the Dragon and only agrees to killing it if the people of the town convert to Christianity.

At the beginning of this blog I said that St George and the Dragon demonstrates how the stories I tell are about our world from all around the world.  Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone who chooses George as their patron did so because of “The Golden Legend” but I would say that you don’t have to be religious to buy into the metaphor.  Everyday all around the world people face hardships and difficulties.  They aren’t knights and don’t have swords or shields but they do share the resolve and courage that George had in facing his Dragon.

Doing the right thing isn’t always easy – it’s a simple yet enduring message.

“It was so much better than German!”

John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.At the beginning of January I was in Essex to help inspire a group of young writers.  I wanted to present a workshop in which the participants didn’t feel they were really doing any work.  As absurd as this may sound – I ran a creative writing workshop without doing any writing!

As a trained actor my strength is in the spoken word and its delivery.  Through games and activities I helped the group explore short stories and the work of Edgar Allan Poe.  Here are some of the games we played:

Exploring quality of their content and how we can manipulate atmosphere.

Person A sets up a simple mime.  Person B questions it.  Person A tells a lie about their action and that lie becomes Person B’s truth.  The quality of A’s lie will effect the quality of B’s mime (I’m eating a spicy chilli is far easier to demonstrate than I’m eating).  The game then develops as Person B informs Person A what they are doing.  Whatever B says A accepts as truth.  It is in B’s power to manipulate the scene (A is sitting on a chair watching television and B begins an interrogation).

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.Building short stories

A small group is challenged to tell a story.  Each person in the group is responsible for a section of that story which must have a clear beginning, middle and end.  A character, a location and object are offered as a starter to the group).  As the group build their story ideas about tense (how does “I” rather than “he” effect a story?), sentence structure and vocabulary are introduced before the story is presented to the rest of the group.

Eventually my success will be qualified by how the participants take the ideas they explored on their feet into their written work.  For now though my success is qualified by their words…

“It was better than any day at school… Changed my view of storytelling.”

“Today was really good!  It was so much better than German!  I learnt a lot about building tension and suspense and I have learnt how to use it in my own work.”

“This experience was such a great learning curve for anyone invited and I will take skills with me.”

I really enjoyed today… everyone got involved with acting and storytelling.  It was lots of fun!”

“Thank you to John Kirk for a great experience toady, we learnt a lot of new things and had a really enjoyable morning.”


John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.
A letter from a student after a secondary school workshop exploring short stories and Edgar Allan Poe.
John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.
A display of Tweets after a Secondary School Workshop exploring short stories and Edgar Allan Poe.


How Bertholt Brecht changed my life

Stone Soup 5As a student I was introduced to the ideas and work of Bertholt Brecht.

Bertholt Brecht was a German playwright and drama theorist who lived in the early part of the 20th Century.  The theatre of the time was shallower and more melodramatic than the theatre that would be familiar to us today.

Brecht was an advocate of Epic Theatre and sought to readdress the performer-audience relationship, believing that theatre should instruct as well as entertain its audience.

Rather than allowing the spectator to relax, Brecht wanted them to think about what was being presented.  He developed techniques to alienate audiences into objectivity and in his essays he talks about how an actor might encourage this alienation.

Over a decade has gone by since I first read Brecht’s ideas but today many of them are recognisable in my storytelling.

Directly addressing the audience 

Brecht believed that to readdress the relationship between performer and audience meant tearing down the conceit that the audience is somehow invisible to the performers.  In removing the “fourth wall” from the stage Brecht acknowledges the Elizabethan theatre in which delivering a soliloquy to the crowds would be commonplace.

As a storyteller I would find it almost impossible to share stories without looking at the audience.  My narratives often depend upon a more active rapport as the audience become characters or participate in activity and discussion.


Brecht talks about stripping back the paraphernalia of theatre (the lights, set, costume etc) to expose the audience to a story rather than allowing them to hide behind the experience.

A stripped back style isn’t really a choice when you carry your set, costume and props in a suitcase!  I do believe that in stripping away some of the frills of performance my audiences are more focussed.

My further thoughts on technology, concentration and storytelling


Bertholt Brecht admired the Chinese style of acting in which the performer demonstrated their character.  They do not become the role but play the gestus (a suggestion) of the role.

In my version of A Christmas Carol I play as many as 14 of Dickens’ characters, sometimes for no more than a few seconds.  The character is a vehicle for my narrative.  I must portray the gist of the character quickly with no time to consider my emotional connections to a part.  With small parts I achieve these lightning transformations by making distinct physical and vocal choices (Scrooge is spiky and nasal where Bob is small and timid).  Of course I work with young audiences so I incorporate bits of costume or props to suggest different characters.  The result is very entertaining (particularly when I get confused!) because its visually dynamic but it also forces audiences to concentrate.

My thoughts on the use of subtext in Naturalistic performance

Empathy vs Choice

Brecht believed that empathy shouldn’t be theatre’s primary currency.  Brecht was acutely aware of the theatre’s power to enlighten people to broader social issues.  Through his work he attempted to detach audiences from the sentimental and move them to take action by encouraging his actors to clearly present their character’s choices.

Brecht the playwright would probably have approved of the way I structure my presentations as I will happily mix narrative with drama activities.  In Brecht’s plays he regularly juxtaposes presentation ideas as narrative is interrupted by dramatic songs.  This means, like in a Music Hall presentation, his scenes can often stand alone and that the audience are again reminded that they are watching a play.

As I generally interpret other writer’s works I am rarely positioned to state personal opinions for the duration of a narrative but I will try to convey my thoughts and feelings on a story to the audience.  This could be in the choices I make in the wording of the adaptation or a pause or a look to the audience highlighting what I see as a crossroads for a protagonist in the narrative.

Unlucky MummyIt is difficult to say whether my audiences empathise with my presentations.  My style of presentation means that they probably remain quite objective toward characters (it can’t be easy to empathise with characters when I’m continually changing roles!) but empathy is still important to my stories (if we don’t care what happens to Hansel and Gretel in the enchanted forest then there is no real peril or adventure).

Truth in Non Naturalistic Storytelling

When we talk about alienating an audience from a presentation we must be careful about removing the truth entirely.  Non naturalistic storytelling is still storytelling.  At times it may be heavily stylised and may jar with an audience’s expectations but it’s success will depend upon a world being credibly sustained.  In my own work it is vital that the audience quickly accept that I will be demonstrating lots of different characters who will exist to serve the story.  If style takes precedence over substance then the story has been failed.


I believe that it was studying Brecht and non naturalistic storytelling techniques that lead me to be the storyteller I am today.  We are fortunate to have the benefit of past wisdom at our disposal when we make art today.  I could probably analyse my style in the light of other practitioner’s ideas, drawing comparisons and justifying their influence on my work but I feel that learning about Brecht has allowed me the freedom and confidence to tackle complicated and amazing stories that I couldn’t otherwise have done.

My further thoughts on the value of training and experience to the storytelling experience

It’s only by better understanding rules about form and content that we can begin to bend them to our advantage.

Brecht on Everyday Theatre

You artists who perform plays
In great houses under electric suns
Before the hushed crowd, pay a visit some time
To that theatre whose setting is the street.
Here the woman from next door imitates the landlord:
Demonstrating his flood of talk she makes it clear
How he tried to turn the conversation away from the burst water pipe.
A drunk gives us the preacher at his sermon, referring the poor
To the rich pastures of paradise. How useful
Such theatre is though………………
These actors do not, like parrot or ape
Imitate just for the sake of imitation, just to show that
They can imitate; no, they
Have a point to put across. You
Great artists, masterly imitators, in this regard
Do not fall short of them! Do not become too remote
However much you perfect your art
From that theatre of daily life
Whose setting is the street.
Take that man on the corner: he is showing how
An accident happened. This very moment
He delivers the driver to the verdict of the crowd: the way he
Sat behind the wheel, and now
He imitates the man who was run over, apparently
An old man. Of both he gives
Only so much as to make the accident intelligible, and yet
Enough to make you see them. But he shows neither
As if the accident was unavoidable. The accident
Becomes in this way intelligible, yet not intelligible, for both of them
Could have moved quite differently; now he is showing what
They might have done so that no accident
Would have occurred. There is no superstition
About this eyewitness, he
Shows mortals as victims not of the stars, but
Only of their errors.

Subtext: Stories in Silence

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.Subtext is a term which is often associated with the work of Constantin Stanislavski.  Stanislavski was a director and drama theorist who developed a system of acting in Russia in the early part of the 20th Century.  Stanislavski’s work was a reaction to the shallow, melodramatic performances of his time.  He believed in a naturalistic style of performance, challenging performers to bring truth to the stage.

Stanislavski advocated techniques, including the “Magic If”, in which performers attempt to recreate their character’s truth by asking how they themselves might respond in similar circumstances to the scene (“What if I were in this position?”).

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.Subtext refers to the unspoken thoughts of a character during a story and can help a performer to sustain their role.

I recently saw “Slava’s Snow Show” (Royal Festival Hall/International), a renowned clowning piece set to music with almost no vocal communication.  The absence of words did not make the piece less engaging because the clowns were telling their stories with their facial expressions and their bodies.  Every move and gesture was carefully played so that the audience could see the character’s unspoken intentions.  Okay, perhaps a clown isn’t the greatest example of naturalistic performance (they are prone to exaggerating and demonstrating their unspoken thoughts) but for 90 minutes they communicated their character’s truth quite beautifully and almost entirely non-verbally.

In Primary Schools I might introduce subtext through a thought tracking exercise in which I ask the participants what their character is thinking within a prescribed frozen picture or I might ask them to think of a line that their character might say to themselves in the bathroom mirror each morning and then challenge them to repeat the line to themselves as they walk about the room.  At the end of the exercise I am interested in how these techniques change the way the participant thinks about their character and the way they inhabit their role.

In Secondary Schools and with older groups a way of exploring subtext is for the performers to act out a scene.  At a given signal the performers must act out their subtext.  In acting out the subtext the performer should feel free to express themselves physically, vocally or verbally, exaggerating and demonstrating their character’s feelings (like Slava’s clowns!).  As the signal is repeated the performers return to their scene with a heightened awareness of their subtext.

I recently lead a play study in which we considered “An Inspector Calls” by JB Priestley.  The story is set against the back drop of a family gathering and is concerned with issues of class, sex and social responsibility.  Throughout the story characters listen to lengthy monologues relating to an incident that has happened.  The performer must respond to the information contained within each monologue as their character might if they were hearing the news for the first time.  Then, as each character is lead to reveal their own secrets do their unspoken thoughts belie their words?

During the play we must believe that Gerald and Eric are uncomfortable long before they are asked to give their accounts.  Equally, Mr Birling’s indignation and Sheila’s shame should be apparent even when they aren’t talking.

John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.In building a subtext for the character, the performer becomes a more active listener and responds more truthfully to the circumstances of the story.  In our study we physicalized our character’s sin.  Taking the seven deadly sins (Pride, Greed, Gluttony, Sloth, Wrath, Lust and Envy) I challenged the group to demonstrate their character’s main vice and then to sustain that vice as the inner life of their character during the scene.  Rather than thinking about the lines or what they might be having for dinner, even the simplest of subtexts will help the performer to remain animated when at rest and to respond more appropriately to the story.

In its simplest application subtext can be very liberating.  The performer has free rein to imagine and consolidate a world for their character with a web of unspoken thoughts and opinions.  For some subtext can help their ability to concentrate whilst for others, sustaining a subtext helps them bring truth to the mechanics of a story (why do I move at that moment?).

The skill of the storyteller is in repetition and in my opinion this can only really be achieved through rehearsal and fully understanding the story and a character’s objectives.  It is important to treat subtext as a tool in a larger kit to avoid unspecific and generalised performance.