Tag Archives: outdoor storytelling

How do you sensualise Shakespeare?

This Halloween I was booked to provide entertainment at a birthday party for an 11 year old.  I selected some of my favourite spooky stories giving some of them a modern twist for the young audience (a Tudor mansion became a three bed semi).  I also decided to complement the more traditional storytelling with a sensory exercise based upon William Shakespeare’s spell from “Macbeth”, beginning “Double, double toil and trouble”.

On the night I was located away from the rest of the party.  This not only allowed me to work with the minimum of interruption but gave me the time and space to set up a series of bowls with the different elements of the spell in each.  The elements were inspired by Shakespeare’s famous verse which reads almost like a shopping list for making a really noxious potion.  Even though it is famous the language is 500 years old, some of the things on the list are unfamiliar and some could be texturally similar so it took me a lot of time to think of what to use and how to differentiate between them.  In the end I sourced a lot of the elements from the pic and mix at the supermarket (the Adder’s fork and blindworm’s sting became a jelly snake which had been covered in strawberry jelly).  For wool of bat I used wool, for howlett’s wing I used feathers and for baboon’s blood I used strawberry jam.  As this was about feeling the elements all the participants were blindfolded before the bowls were revealed and the children only saw what they’d been feeling at the end.

The effect was quite something.  Even working in small groups the children were able to terrify themselves (and each other) into overthinking what they were touching with several children unable to complete the exercise.  I had to continually remind the participants to trust me and not to talk as any discussion could spoil the experience for the next person.

The material was well received and the sensory exploration was a fun way of enhancing the storytelling.  This is definitely something I would repeat with a similar age group even if everything did end up smelling like a strawberry jelly!

John Kirk is a professional storyteller telling stories in schools and libraries and at events and festivals.  For more information or to make an enquiry, complete a contact form.

What can we learn from stories?

I recently worked with a school near Chichester who were looking at stories from around the world and what we can learn from them.  I found this to be an intriguing and refreshing project.  It goes without saying that there are simply thousands of popular myths, legends and folktales.  Often they have remained popular because they go some way to explaining something or have a deeper symbolism but this challenge was about considering the moral meaning of tales rather than deciphering their metaphors.  Even before Aesop’s time storytelling has provided a mirror to the way we live as audiences have judged the choices of both heroes and villains.  As a storyteller I am drawn to colourful, funny, crowd pleasing tales so this brief really got me thinking about my material differently.

Here are the three stories I opted to tell to the children…

As Much as Salt – there are hundreds of versions of the story of the girl banished for comparing her love of her father to her love of salt (Shakespeare uses it in King Lear).  It has a beautiful resolution as the girl’s father learns what it is to love and what it is to forgive.

The Proud Turtle – you can’t do a session for a 5 year old and not have some animals doing silly things!  This story is one of my favourites.  Again there are lots of versions of the tale of the boastful know-it-all who falls from the sky because of a lack of humility.  I tend to leave it as the Turtle falls – it’s for the children to decide whether he survives the drop (and whether he deserves it).

Stone Soup – again lots of people claim this story of how a community make the tastiest stone soup through sharing.  It’s a lot of fun to get the children to suggest ingredients and act out preparing the soup and of these three tales has the most obvious message.

Meanwhile I was also asked to present a story set for an event celebrating the achievements of people who had volunteered at their local libraries.  Rather than something frothy I wanted my audience to have something a bit more thought provoking but also be suitable for an event celebrating volunteering in libraries.  I chose to tell a story about a boy who leaves his village and heads to the big city with nothing except his Mother’s wisdom.  In the story as he shares his wisdom he rises from the market place to become an adviser to the King.  In this instance when I’d finished I elaborated on the metaphor of shared wisdom; what if the boy had had a library card, could that have helped him to rise from the market to the Royal Palace?  What then the importance of the volunteer who listens to a child as they read or discuss their reading?  What role does the library play in the journey from their market place to the palace?  If you offer this kind of context I think it was an appropriate choice of story.

So what do I take away from the experience of considering the values I extol in the stories that I tell?  A good story will entertain but a well-chosen one can offer an insight into who we are and who we might like to be and that can be powerful.

Storytelling south of the M25

In February 2019 we gave up east London for East Sussex and in doing so I opened a new chapter in my working life. To this point most of the storytelling and workshop work I have been doing has been in my diary since before the big move but now my focus has shifted to trying to get more work in Sussex, Kent, Surrey and Hampshire.

In a couple of weeks time I will be telling Roald Dahl’s “The Twits” in Uckfield, Hastings and Bexhill as I celebrate National Libraries Week with East Sussex Libraries and in National Nursery Rhyme Week I’m thrilled to be returning to Horsham. In between times the enquiries have begun to trickle in from across the South East from schools looking for a storyteller and in the week of World Book Day (5th March 2020) I’ll be visiting Eastbourne (Pevensey), Pulborough and Arundel but it all starts next week with my first school visit of the year in Ardingly where I will be telling 11 children(!) the story of The Three Little Pigs and with an appearance at Reading Rocks! Horsham conference where I will be talking to delegates about storytelling in the classroom. Whilst I am thinking more local I am still excited to be receiving invitations to work all over the country and will be in the North West in November and Yorkshire next March.

In the meantime September has been a quiet month (if you take out Roald Dahl week). I have very much enjoyed reading through stories about fire, diversity and things that go bump in the night for later in the autumn. Now back to finding people south of the M25 to share them with…

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside! (Birthday party storytelling in Leyton)

Working as a storyteller I am always looking to the future. I have been busy telling stories (Simon James’ Boy from Mars, Jonathan Emmett’s Bringing Down the Moon and Dom Conlon’s Why the Cow Jumped Over the Moon) but having recently reviewed the patterns of my work I know that the autumn and winter could be quiet. I am also aware that having moved out of London to Sussex I am only just beginning to build up the storytelling work I do for organisations in Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire. I therefore find that there is a varied feel to my ongoing commitments. There’s my usual school and library visits but I’m also doing more and more nursery and early years sessions, sessions for older audiences in residential settings and I’m continuing to offer birthday parties. My latest being a mermaid themed birthday storytelling for three and four year olds in a park.

At present my approach to birthday party storytelling is to treat each as a bespoke presentation, tailoring my content to suit each occasion rather than the tried and tested packages I offer schools. Birthdays are the ultimate one shot deal because getting it wrong means spoiling a child’s special day. This particular party was one of my biggest challenges yet. As we were outdoors I had no power and I couldn’t rely on having any other kind of amenities (so no water for my water pistols) so everything had to be pre-prepped – if I couldn’t carry it then I couldn’t use it. The party guests were also relatively young. Whilst I have done a lot of work in nurseries and with little children generally this has been in formal settings rather than parks with all their distractions. Getting and then holding the children’s attention would be hard work if my content missed the mark.

The party was inspired by Maudie Smith’s book “Milly and the Mermaids” a story about a young girl who dreams of meeting a mermaid on a trip to the seaside. We began by creating the setting for our session using a beach towel, some golden sparkly fabric for the sand and colourful cut outs of fish, shells, crabs and starfish. We then used what was on the beach to make sandcastle hat bands (pictured). We used tape rather than glue to hold the hats together and glitter pens to decorate them. When I run birthday parties I like to play party games so I ran some parachute games and we used a picnic basket to play parcel the parcel (instead of prizes the children chose objects that led to rhymes and songs). We used a beautiful blue fabric held up by the parents and bubbles to make a sea that the children could swim through and with a little imagination, some rainbow coloured cloth and a wedge shaped leaf grabber I transformed one of the parents into a mermaid for us to meet! It was all very visual, very colourful and very low tech with a real range of things for the children to do.

I really enjoyed preparing for and delivering this birthday party. It wasn’t storytelling in the manner I’d perhaps normally offer it but my audience had a great time and I got to eat cake! In the last 12 months birthday parties  have lead me to create a restaurant murder mystery, a Christmas train adventure and now the seaside in a park; I can’t wait to see where my next party invitation takes me.

Why the Cow Jumped over the Moon?

Poet, copywriter and eater of cake, Dom Conlon has written a story for me to tell to children and families in libraries as part of the Summer Reading Challenge Space Chase. You can read it here…

If you believe (they put a man on the Moon) is a storytelling of a trio of tales including Jonathan Emmett’s Bringing Down the Moon, Simon James’ Boy from Mars and this story by Dom and is touring libraries in the North West, East Midlands, Yorkshire, the North East, London and the South East this July and August. For dates see my event calendar.

John Kirk is a professional storyteller working in schools and libraries as well as at festivals and events. For more information or to make a booking please complete the contact form.

Writing stories for an English Country Garden

At the beginning of June I was invited to tell stories at The Dorothy Clive Garden in Staffordshire.  I work regularly all over the country as a storyteller and whilst I have done outdoor storytelling in parks, playgrounds, gardens and woodland for festivals, fetes, birthday parties and events the majority of my storytelling work is in school halls, classrooms and libraries.   A lot of my contemporaries run very exciting storytelling sessions in outdoor spaces across the country and whilst there are challenges to telling stories outside when I receive invitations to work in the great outdoors I get romantic notions about audiences eating their picnics under shady trees as I tell tales surrounded by butterflies dancing on borders of summer time flowers and I find it hard to say no.  The other thing that appealed to me about the booking was that for this storytelling I would have to write my own set.

In the ten years that I have been working professionally as a storyteller my work has been a mix of adaptations of well-known tales or published works (Roald Dahl, Michael Morpurgo, Jeremy Strong et al), folk and traditional tales.  It can be very difficult to get the necessary interest in less popular or less familiar stories to work them up into sessions so to get an opportunity to expand my repertoire and challenge myself to create bespoke materials is a big deal.  In the past friends have suggested that I write stories but I am really a storyteller and not an author; in my view we live in a golden age of writing for children and my clients prefer my marquee projects to be written by more established names.  It’s far from easy to write for a young audience; it takes time and patience, which with a hectic work schedule and a toddler are things I really don’t have.  Saying this a deadline is a wonderful incentive and once I got started I found that there was no shortage of material; there are simply thousands of invertebrates to choose from and as I wasn’t necessarily restricted by scientific accuracy my imagination could wander within a world of creepy crawlies bugs and beetles.

Below is the set that I have come up with; in each instance my beginning point was to think about the characteristics of an insect and then think of a story that insect might suit.

The Bee who wouldn’t share – as I searched the internet for inspiration I discovered a Brazilian folktale which when told in combination with one of Aesop’s tales helped me create a story about a hardworking Bee who when robbed complains to the great Magician for assistance. 

The Brave Little Butterfly – this story was inspired by Beauty and the Beast and Hans Cristian Andersen.  As a splendid butterfly sets out across the meadow to find love he soon learns that beauty is about more than appearance.

How the Worm lost his clothes – in a recent addition of Storytime Magazine I came across a Serbian version of a Greek tale similar to The Emperor’s New Clothes.  Here I use it as the basis for explaining the relationship between the Worm and the Song Thrush.

The Toad and the Centipede – I love Devil Tales in which Beelzebub is proved to be foolish.  Here I draw inspiration from a Welsh Devil Tale as a clever Ladybird outwits a Toad who has caught a Centipede.

When supplemented with a classic Anansi story this set lasts 30-45 minutes.

My visit to The Dorothy Clive Garden was very well received.  Rather than being the idyllic weather day this storyteller had day dreamed about it was quite blustery but as I was working in a covered area of the garden the rain didn’t bother me at all and the vivid colour of the Rhododendron blooms were all the more striking.  As well as my stories I took along a bag full of fabrics and instruments which we were able to use to create the various birds, animals and insects in the stories and the children were very positive about the session.  All in all it was a very encouraging day.

I will be reprising this storytelling set on a couple more occasions this summer at outdoor venues a little closer to my base in Sussex.  They are as follows:

Saturday 22nd June 2019 – Cromer’s Wood, Sittingbourne, Kent (with Kent Wildlife Trust)

Monday 19th August 2019 – Borde Hill Garden, Haywards Heath, West Sussex

So if you spot a storyteller telling tales in an English Country Garden this summer why not stop, share your picnic and listen to a tale?  I can’t think of a more blissful way to pass the time.

To find out where you can see John telling stories this summer you can view his calendar or to make an enquiry or booking use the contact form.