Tag Archives: kids storyteller

Mad March is over for another year

Every year March is my busiest month.This year I was working with two other storytellers but still found myself working all across the country (Birmingham, Manchester, South Yorkshire to name but a few destinations).

I’m really enjoying working with audiences at the moment and before we March into April (see what I did?) I thought I’d share some of the feedback I’ve received from schools.

It was wonderful to see the students captivated by the tale (The Twits), listening to every word and suspending disbelief for the duration of the event. The fact that so many students and staff have since commented on how much they enjoyed themselves, is confirmation of the success of each session and their value in terms of exposing the children to the power of storytelling.

Librarian, William Hulme’s Grammar School, March 2017


The children took a lot from the session and they were enthralled when John was acting out scenes from Shakespeare on his own. The children were still talking about it when we returned after the weekend.

Teacher, St Augustines, March 2017


From the moment the children entered the hall you had their attention and kept it for a full 45 minutes – unheard of with 5 – 7 year olds! 

Teacher, St James’ Primary School Colchester, March 2017

The second two of these three schools also told me that their children had been spotted using ideas and games from my workshops in their classroom learning and their play.  What a result!

Its a privilege to work in any school but I have been very lucky to work in some really lovely, supportive schools and with some really great teachers and children so far this year.  Its nice to review this feedback and to look at the pictures I’ve been sent (I’ve shared a few new ones here).  However, whilst there may be room for a short break with the family before I start my April sessions I won’t allow space for complacency.


Seasonal offering 2016

gingerbread-man-4Tis the season to be jolly (almost) and this year (once again) I have decided to expand my repertoire of seasonal traditional tales.  This is something of a side step away from my usual offering of A Christmas Carol which after three years I am taking a break from presenting.  Here are the tales I have selected for my seasonal offering:


Dick Whittington

Jack and the Beanstalk

The Snow Queen

The Elves and the Shoemaker

The Steadfast Tin Soldier

This represents a mix of offbeat European folk tales and popular British panto stories for schools and families this Christmas time.

For more information about booking contact me.

Spooky stories in Redbridge

cvtnkikwyaeyapSo for the past 3 months I have been trying to prepare a spooky story session for an old mansion house in East London.  Great, you might think but its never as simple as that.

Over the years I have told a variety of stories in a plethora of settings but I rarely tell scary stories because a) nobody ever asks b) I personally dislike being scared c) its a minefield.  I used to tell Dracula and The Unlucky Mummy which were about ghosts but weren’t scary and many moons ago we made a gothic horror beach hut – those were the days!

tomb-robberTo prepare the session I spent a bit of time reading through potential material.  To make the task slightly more tricky the brief was that the stories should in some way feature a house.  Now, if you look on paranormal websites and read through folklore there are hundreds of ghostly goings on said to be happening up and down the country in stately homes and houses but many tend to be unexplained.  “A blue lady haunts the top corridor” needs the how or why to become a great story.  I also pondered the ghost story’s relationship with the ghost.  Is it enough to say “this place is haunted because…” or do we need to encounter the ghost during the story and learn how it makes things go bump in the night?  I plumped for the latter because it’s more frightening.

DraculaThen there is the thorny question of how suitable ghost stories are for young children.  I have used this blog to talk about suitability and innocence in the past but in my view a truly scary, spooky or unnerving story must risk something and I didn’t want to shy away from death, murder, ghosts and evil too much for the sake of being overly sensitive.  In the end what’s scary is subjective and what one person finds traumatic may barely register with another.  As one parent said to me, her children would struggle to sleep if they watched “Horrid Henry”!

So the challenge was set – a session for 4+ containing spooky stories set around houses.  This is how I dealt with it.  I’ll happily confess to telling stories I find in books or hear and love; none of the ideas below are original.

The Tale of the Skull House – a story about a woman who haunts a new house after her family refuse to move her skull in with them.

The Ghost Hotel – a short tale about some tourists who visit a hotel and its owner only to discover it was demolished years before.

cvh7blbwcaagudu-1The Seven Swans – a folk tale about a hunter who wounds and captures a swan princess before meeting his grizzly end in a lake.

The Talking Skull – a personal favourite because of its macabre humour, this story deals with the peasant who ignores a talking skull’s advice to stay quiet.

The Boy Who Vanished – a family lose their child when a fateful prophecy is fulfilled.  This one has a happy ending!

The Monster and the School Teacher  a variation of a Devil Tale in which the School Master outwits Satan.

The White Doe – again a personal favourite about love, witchcraft and the Lancashire moors.

I also told a story The Son Returned but scrapped it because it dealt with murder a little too directly and whilst I could disguise the death in The Seven Swans and The Talking Skull with metaphors and talking around them, this proved more difficult in a story where a man returns to his family home hours after being killed.

So there it is, a set for Halloween.  It was a lot of fun to do and the response from parents on the sessions was positive.  This was a lovely opportunity for me to do something different and I always like a challenge but I doubt that I’d be asked to tell Spooky Stories in a school setting!  I hope this project becomes something I can hone year on year but it may also be something that is never repeated (like a gothic horror beach hut).  Bizarrely I hope that I failed to scare anybody significantly and that dressed as I was in my cape, I provided enough atmosphere for to be suitably chilling without any real nightmares!

It not (quite) all about Roald Dahl …

Twits islingtonThis summer has been terrific.  As discussed at length in this blog I have been more or less everywhere and few places besides but there is a down side to being Mr Twit.  Now before I go any further I don’t want anybody to think that I’m complaining because I’m honestly not.  I have loved every second of presenting “The Twits”, I’ve met lovely people and the story has opened doors that I thought would remain forever locked but the truth is, there’s more to me than a single 40 minute story.

Having presented “The Twits” almost 130 times and having received pretty much universally positive feedback I have had days when I feel like a sort unofficial Roald Dahl cheerleader.   I used to get a similar feeling when I was presenting Michael Morpurgo’s “Private Peaceful” as part of Cityread 2014.  When you live with a story day in and day out it can take over your life and its easy to forget that you do do others too.

War GameLast week I was invited to take part in Norfolk Libraries’ storytelling festival.  When they contacted me I assumed it was because, like so many other authorities, they’d heard about and wanted me to tell “The Twits” but they didn’t, they wanted me to tell folk tales.  Now to some people folk tales may sound dull but I love them and devised (and continue to research) a tour of Britain where the route is dictated by the folk tale (ie a tale might start in one part of the country and finish in another allowing me to tell a story from another region).  For someone who loves travel, myth and mystery this was a liberating process and it exposed me and my audiences to stories from Norfolk, London, Warwickshire, Wales, Northern Ireland and my homeland, Lancashire.  It also gave me a brand new 45-50 minute presentation which I’m sure will evolve with time.

I have also been approached about a session of spooky Halloween tales and am having a lot of fun reading about ghosts, ghouls and things that go bump in the night.  This only came about because of Dracula which like many of the stories in my established repertoire hasn’t had an airing for a good long while.

SHAKES RBKTAs summer gives way to autumn “The Twits” are taking a well earned rest as I am now involved in library presentations for #Shakespeare400, a national celebration of the life and work of William Shakespeare for which I am presenting All the World’s a Stage!  a 45 minute retelling of Romeo and Juliet, Henry V and A Mid Summer Night’s Dream.  Like #nfkstorytfest and “The Twits”, taking part in a prestigious Arts Council England project has brought me in contact with new audiences, opened doors and created opportunities.

The bottom line is that when I look at the feedback I receive, people use words like spellbound, captivated, engaged and entertained.  Everyday I thank my lucky stars that I have wonderful stories to tell and that people still want to hear me tell them but those words are used to describe all my projects not just the ones with famous titles.


I am a twit

Twits islingtonI am delighted to announce that having spoken with Casarotto Ramsay today, they are happy for my performance license to continue until the end of the year and to include schools.

This is wonderful news and will allow me to continue to share a brilliant story and some of the best work I have ever done with even more people.

Today I can say with confidence, I am a twit!


Space and time travel stories

PROF MONT RUMPLESEED DRAKEHere is a set list for a space and time travel session I am preparing.  Each of these stories has a some kind of link to space and time travel (albeit sometimes that link is tenuous!)

How the earth was made (Native American – a similar story exists in several tribes folklore)

The three wise astronomers (English – based upon the tradition of English devil tales in which the devil is outwitted)

Urashima Taro (Japanese folk tale about a time travelling fisherman)

The archer and the ten suns (Chinese legend explaining how the sun and stars took their place in the heavens)

The proud turtle (Filipino story about a Turtle who wants to fly)

The boy and the moon (Turkish story about a boy who finds the moon in a well!)

I’ve never found space and time travel to be that easy a theme to get into but I have really enjoyed this opportunity to research and interpret these stories.  Having said that, the image above is taken from a piece I was presenting in 2009 about the irrepressible Professor Montague Rumpleseed Drake who lead audiences through British history on a time travelling adventure.  Then I presented a piece about Dewey Fiction exploring literacy in space (see image below).  Looking back on these stories now it seems like a lifetime ago!

Dewey Fiction @ The Space Hop!I digress.  As I was researching these space and time travel stories I found that some of these tales have many variations and that choosing the best version could be tricky.  In some instances I have mixed up different versions of the same story (ie where I liked the beginning of one and the ending of another).  This might be considered by a purist or an anthropologist to be an affront to culture and of course I’m sensitive to that but on this occasion my choices have been thematic.

Whenever I prepare a story session there are lots of perfectly good stories which bear inclusion(there are no end to the European folk tales I could tell) but I think its important that a storyteller enjoys the story they are telling and that this is part of the reason I get good feedback.  Hopefully I do this set of stories justice and that my audience is inspired to discover the different variations for themselves.

1000 up for Time the Ostler (and counting)!

I also offer a “Highwayman” workshop!!

A year ago I made a video inspired by “The Highwayman” in which Tim the Ostler confesses what he did to betray Bess and The Highwayman.  Twelve months on its just had its thousandth viewing.  Yah!

I’m thrilled that so many people have watched it (admittedly it’s not millions of bods but I’m not a pop star or a puppy/baby doing anything cute).  As with most things though the devil is in the detail – How many people watched the video because they were looking for it?  How is this short clip being used?  Do people like it?  I wish I could tell you but the truth is I have no idea.  For all the views, my video has received very little feedback.

It’d be lovely to know that this little film is being used as a study tool rather than just accidentally clicked on.  So do me a favour, if you’ve watch and enjoy any of my Youtube videos don’t forget to leave a comment or click “like”.

I also offer a “Highwayman” workshop!!

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.

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.

“The Highwayman” from an Ostler’s Point of View

I also offer a “Highwayman” workshop!!

Highwaymen are often referred to as “Gentlemen of the Road” but they were in fact nothing more than common thieves.  “Stand and Deliver!” (the command rather than the song), was last uttered by a Highwayman in Britain in 1831 but their exploits were (and are) popularly romanticised.  Alfred Noyes’ epic poem chronicles the night time adventures of one such rogue and the Landlord’s daughter, who tragically meet their ends in the cobbled inn yard.  Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman” is a brilliant story of love that has been reinterpreted by artists, film makers and musicians around the world.

As part of a workshop exploring Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman”, I was challenged to reinterpret the poem for a group of Primary School children.  This video is a part of the result and this blog came about as more and more people watched it online.


Rather than tell the Highwayman’s story I wanted to explore the world of the other characters mentioned in the poem.  I wanted the tone to be quite serious so taking Bess’ perspective was out.  The Landlord and the King’s Guards presented possibilities but the most interesting character seemed to be Tim the Ostler.  In the original poem Tim is mentioned by name but appears in just one stanza:

“And dark in the dark old inn-yard a stable-wicket creaked
Where Tim the ostler listened; his face was white and peaked;
    His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay,
    But he loved the landlord’s daughter,
The landlord’s red-lipped daughter,
Dumb as a dog he listened, and he heard the robber say—”

Who was this man?  Why was he there?  What was his role in events and what was his story beyond the inn yard?

What follows is the transcript of the above video.  My version is actually longer than this as I introduce the Captain of the Guard and explain what happens to Tim (I reserve those verses for live presentations).

What was most striking for me in Noyes’ poem was his rhythm and rhyming structure.  When I listen to the poem I always think about a horses hooves and I wanted my poem also to respect a regular meter (which it loosely does).  I also love his imagery and try to include some bold similes and metaphors.  Like Noyes I was drawn to his original themes of love, jealousy and violence but I have chosen for Tim the Ostler to recount his bitter betrayal rather than a third party.


Tim the Ostler

Now the landlord he has a daughter, whose lips are as red as a fire

Her hair is a perfumed cascade you couldn’t fail to admire

Oh how I longed for this young girl, who goes by the name of Bess

My master’s black eyed daughter

She smiled at me, his daughter

I dreamt that this sweetest lady would someday be my Princess….

I also offer a “Highwayman” workshop!!