Tag Archives: narrative

Non-verbal storytellers

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

As a storyteller it is not unusual to have people in the audience with a limited understanding of English.  When I presented Private Peaceful I devised a hand out to accompany the session so that learners could follow up the story afterwards.  A hand out is all well and good but what if your audience can’t read?  Well, most of my pieces incorporate a strong visual element so that even if the story is too much for the individual there is something for them to engage with.

I recently visited a school for children with learning difficulties.  I presented Dracula and The Unlucky Mummy to the students (I’d chosen the pieces realising that they are perhaps my most visual and silly) before running a short training session with staff from local schools.  We began the session by articulating what we saw as the challenges in our own working environments to imaginative writing.  It was in this forum that staff spoke about the challenge of working with individuals who for one reason or another, are non-verbal.  In the past I have used this blog to reiterate my belief that we are all storytellers and to discuss Stanislavski’s Subtext but in this piece I’d like to share some ideas about enthusing and empowering non verbal groups with storytelling.  Many of these ideas are inspired by people I have met and worked with over the years and from observing other brilliant professionals at work.  I hope that you will find them as useful as I do.

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

Encouraging Free Choice  If the objective of the session is to get your young people to be imaginative then you may have to empower them with the idea of a free choice first.  I can express my free choice orally when I tell stories but this isn’t possible for everybody.  One idea for encouraging non verbal free choice is through multiple choice activities in which questions and instructions stimulate the young person to narrative decisions.  Examples of possible instructions might be “pick up the object you think is found in the room”, “move to where you think we should set the story” or “point to the name of the character”.  This can be a slow process but through simple instructions and reinforcing the rules of your activity through repetition you will soon empower young people to tell their own stories.

Storyboarding  Another idea for encouraging free choice in storytelling might be for the young person to draw a cartoon strip story.  Using a simple template of boxes or arrows to indicate the direction of the narrative a story can be structured by the young person.  Such storyboards could then be annotated with assistance.

Using Sound and Movement  Perhaps you aren’t looking at the narrative but are exploring the atmosphere and tone of a story.  This could be done through sounds and working in a group as an “orchestra”.  Offering an idea as a starting point such as “the city” or “the seaside” encourage the group to respond through simple sounds or body percussion.  What does volume or pace say about mood?  This is as much a listening exercise as a sound making exercise and will require your group to work with sensitivity toward the contributions of other people.  Continuing on a musical theme you might encourage the group to express their story, mood or a character through movement or dance.

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

Using Props and Objects  It may be possible for the participants to use objects to tell their story using objects or props (placing items as the story is told and moving and animating them according to narrative).  Whilst this is a structured activity it would be encouraging an almost child like play.

As a drama workshop facilitator I have used these activities with varying degrees of success when working in Primary and SEN environments and when devising in Secondary and Sixth Form environments.  I think that these ideas appeal to young people because they are easy to access and own and they are fun.  These games encourage a group to risk being wrong without the consequence of failure.  In terms of the non verbal storyteller, used correctly they play to particular strengths rather than underlining weaknesses.

The success of these ideas inevitably depends upon the level of ability within a group and will require patience (your group may not get them the first time) and a variety of accessible stimulations (props and objects which appeal to the different senses, music or imagery).  In exploring and nurturing what an individual can do we hopefully create an environment in which they are able to tell more and more sophisticated and interesting stories.




Gods and Monsters: Approaching Homer’s Odyssey

John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.A year ago I devised Dracula to coincide with The Summer Reading Challenge (SRC) 2013.  The piece was hugely successful and it has been my pleasure to present it across the rest of the country at schools and events since.  Time waits for no man and a year later I am about to embark upon an even bigger tour with an even bigger challenge: Homer’s Odyssey.

I had originally thought to give SRC 2014 a miss – Private Peaceful was a very demanding and very consuming project and I thought that perhaps I needed some time to reflect.  In February I was booked by Hammersmith and Fulham Libraries for four days of storytelling.  I knew that the obvious choice considering the theme this year is Mythical Mazes, would be Theseus and the Minotaur but I tell this already as part of my traditional storytelling offer to schools.  I briefly considered “The Secret Garden” as an alternative slant on the theme before settling on Homer.

There are many good reasons for children to hear The Odyssey.  It may be 3000 years old but its a really famous and influential story packed with Gods and Monsters.  Be it the Coen Brothers’ Oh Brother!  Where Art Thou? or the test of the Glass Slipper to find true love in Cinderella, shades of The Odyssey are everywhere.  The original is very skilfully written and as the plotlines merge it is clearly much more than an adventure story.  There is a strong message through the narrative about the foolishness of men and the wisdom and fortitude of women.  I have used this blog to talk about the role of strong women in fairy tales before and whilst Odysseus truly is a man of exploits and trials (many of which are brought about by ill judged decisions) loyal Penelope is admirably steadfast and dignified as she waits for his return.

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.In recent months I have been doing more and more work around narrative poems.  I have explored Alfred Noyes’ Highwayman, Tennyson and even used narrative poetry as a device for telling the story of The Great Fire of Guilden Morden.  I have been keen to retain the sense of a narrative poem, its language and imagery, in my reinterpretation.  I say reinterpretation because mine will be an adaptation of Homer.  There is no way I could remember twelve and a half thousand lines of poetry but I hope that I offer a flavour of the journey as we follow Odysseus home in just 40 minutes.  My story must also have a sense of progression and therefore cannot afford to linger.  My other big challenge is making the piece accessible to very young audiences.  I want the experience to be fun but its important that the tone is right and any jokes mustn’t cloud the narrative.

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.The result is a series of short stories which in the future I will be able to tell independently or present as a show following Odysseus from Troy back to Penelope.  I’ll be doing my usual array of voices, physical attitudes and helping the audience to identify Gods from the Monsters with suggestions of costume and some more visual setpieces.  (I have already redecorated my Kitchen with tomato juice in a failed attempt to produce a suitably gory effect for the blinding of Polyphemus).

If the preparation is an indicator of the summer to come then it’s going to be epic!

Dates from 9th July 2014 in London Libraries.  Follow link and check local listings for details of presentations.

The Merits of a Narrative Poem

John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.When I was younger I didn’t think that I liked poetry.  Outside Shakespeare I rarely read verse for pleasure.  Last year though, I was introduced to Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman” and it changed my view of poetry completely.  Since then I have been reading other narrative poems including the “The Ballad of the Fleet” (Tennyson) and “The Walrus and the Carpenter” (Carroll) and incorporating them into my work.

A narrative poem tells us a story but it is set out in stanzas with the rhythms and rhyming patterns familiar in other types of poem.  It will contain a skilfully woven story packed with wonderful imagery and metaphors which compels its audience.

In my opinion the narrative poem offers so much that I have even used them in pieces for Birthday Parties!  Here are what I see as the merits of working with narrative poetry.

The narrative poem is perhaps one of the most ancient form of storytelling (The Iliad and Beowulf are both story poems).  As a Drama Facilitator I believe they are a fantastic way of introducing complex text to young audiences which demonstrates the breadth and depth of our literary heritage beyond Shakespeare.

It offers a whole story.  A chapter of a book or a scene from a play wouldn’t offer the beginning middle and end in this way.  If I want to guarantee that a group have heard the material a narrative poem is a concise way of quickly offering an entire story.

The narrative poem will capture the imaginations of boys and girls as it often recalls and romanticises some kind of adventure.

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.Investigating narrative poetry through drama is a lot of fun and once a group has a story they are better positioned to explore the author’s imagery and language choices.  The poems I am talking about were mostly written in the 19th and 20th Century and whilst the language is certainly complex it is not impenetrable.  Accessing it allows young  participants to make their own judgements about themes, events and characters (perhaps physically characterising or hot seating characters about their decisions in the story or making up scenes based upon their deductions).

I have also found that exploring a narrative poem can become a catalyst for exploring rhythm, rhyme and meter and getting groups to write in poetry.

_ _ _ _

“The wind was a rushing train, dodging every tree

The moon was a shiny banana ripe and ready for me.

The road was a lonely wanderer, under an ongoing spell

and Mr Highwayman came riding, riding, riding

Josh Highwayman came riding, up to the Grand Hotel.”

_ _ _ _

“The snow was a breeze of coldness coating the leafy bush,

The sun was a ball of fire, gleaming upon rushing waves

The field was a soft green carpet, over the earthy road

And the Highwayman came skating, skating, skating

The Highwayman came skating up to the big mansion’s door.”

_ _ _ _

As well as getting excited about narrative poetry I have discovered narrative songs.  My taste in story song is eclectic ranging from Benny Hill (The Fastest Milkman in the West) to Charles Daniels (The Devil Went Down to Georgia) and Chris Wood (Hollow Point).  You could easily laugh some narrative songs off as being novelties but constructing an effective narrative within a poem or a song is a great skill.  Tennyson and Noyes might not be matched for their poetry’s beautiful imagery  but Hollow Point particularly is (in my view) a powerful piece of modern verse based storytelling.

Up to now narrative poems have formed the basis of workshops or featured within other work that I have presented but this summer to coincide with The Summer Reading Challenge 2014 I am taking my new found love of the narrative poem to a whole new level as I reinterpret Homer’s “Odyssey” for a young audience.

My final reinterpretation is unlikely to be a narrative poem but one thing is certain – it’s going to be epic!

Special thanks to the children of South Malling Primary School for sharing their “modern” takes on “The Highwayman”.