Tag Archives: professional 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.

 

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!!

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.

Examples:

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!

A Story? Really? A blog about managing innocence in storytelling

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.As a storyteller I rely upon two presentation models: narrating events and being the character.  My relationship with the audience will change depending how I present the story.  If I am narrating events I inform the audience of our relationship.  I allow them to understand that the story and its events are a fiction and that they are watching a presentation.  I do this by introducing myself, talking about the story and clearly demonstrating different characters.  When I become a character my audience must do much more of the work themselves.

“So what?”, I hear you cry.  Well, when I present a session as a Victorian School Teacher the participants are briefly starring in a drama devised to expose them to the way education might have been in the 19th Century.  If the participants don’t respect the threat of caning then the session is less effective.  Equally, when I present a Detective investigating a crime the participants must be convinced that the scenario is credible.  A lack of investment in the world of the story can be a session’s undoing.

John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.Cynicism can bedevil creativity as we grow up and the examples above relate to characters and sessions devised for pre-teens but what about when we are very young?  What are the dangers of investing too heavily in stories?  Can there be any harm in believing that you just met the Gruffalo?  I suppose that very much depends on the experience.  For a young child, meeting a creature with terrible tusks, terrible claws and terrible teeth in terrible jaws etc. will either be the best or worst day of their life.

Clearly telling a very young participant that what is happening (or about to happen) isn’t real can impact their experience.  You could go as far as to say that intentionally breaking the illusion robs them of an innocent experience.  There is unquestionable security in the truth and I think it is the storyteller’s responsibility to offer that security through the narrative by ensuring audiences see that the wicked get there just desserts.  If the participant absolutely believes is this more memorable or just confusing?  Is Miss Trunchbull scary if you know its an act or is the Mad Hatter as wonderful if you know its in some way false?  How a situation is managed will hinge on lots of factors including the sensitivity of the participant and the circumstances and legacy of the meeting.

From my point of view it isn’t easy to maintain the reality of being a character rather than a person for an extended period of time.  It can involve a lot of planning with a school or organisation ahead of the day.  Trying to think like a character at all times and allowing everybody to believe you are a character can be exhausting (once I spent an entire day in a Headteacher’s study in role pretending to work at her desk!).  I have however found that the legacy of this approach is huge and the feedback on such sessions is generally very positive.

John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.“When you came in to work with the children during world book week, they were completely gripped!  The story narrative you came up with to engage the children was phenomenal, the children completely believed the 3 Little Pigs had been eaten!  You stayed in role all day and as a result the children played along too, the quality of writing and language we got from them was fantastic.   I have no doubt in my mind that we would use you again… as we are still talking about it a year later!!” (Teacher, St Wulstans and St Edmunds Primary School, Fleetwood)

I suppose that to some extent the purpose of the story will determine whether the participants are allowed to believe in the character.  After presenting the Victorian Classroom I will appear to participants as myself and discuss their experiences.  This is partly to assure groups that the monstrous school master is imaginary but also so that the group can articulate how my lesson and their lessons compare.

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.The real world can be a hard place and sometimes we grow up too fast.  Its a sad day when a child becomes inhibited by doubt.  I was recently at a school and a little girl took me to one side and asked whether I really was Willy Wonka.  I told her that in life we can choose to believe or we can choose not to believe but that decision was ultimately hers.  She skipped away satisfied with my answer, having just chatted with the world’s greatest chocolate maker!

There are times when I wish I was a little more innocent.  As an adult and a storyteller I have an important role to play in maintaining the innocence of my youngest audiences for as long as possible.

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.

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”.

“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.

 

“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.

PLEASE VISIT 1000 UP! TO VIEW THE VIDEO

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!!

Fairy Tale Stepmothers do ‘ave em!

Stone Soup 2Once upon a time the Fairy Tale was born…

The popular Fairy Tale has existed for well over 200 years and typically demonstrate good’s victory over evil.  Good being traditionally described as young, brave, kind, clever and beautiful, evil being old, wicked, corrupt and all too often female.

Witches, Queens, Stepmothers – there are plenty of examples within the genre but is there any common ground between them?

The fairy tale villain is an outsider, standing apart from society.  The Witch is ostracised for her appearance or habits, The Evil Queen is removed by her power and wealth but what of the Wicked Stepmother?  The Stepmother is the antithesis of what we might think of as a stock Mother figure (caring, nurturing, supportive).  Whilst the Witch and Evil Queen often threaten an entire community, the Stepmother represents a challenge to the family unit, her presence creating tension between the children and their Father.

There are several examples of Stepmothers in fairy tales; Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella and Snow White all have to deal with them.  In fact Stepfathers have far less nasty reputations.  This could be because many of the most famous fairy tale writers were men (Hans Christian Andersen, The Brothers Grimm to name but a few).

John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.In the Stepmother the fairy tale writer has a character with an axe to grind.  The Stepmother has won the heart of her husband and wields power over his children mercilessly (Snow White, Hansel and Gretel are forced out into the forest and Cinderella is used as a slave).  The Stepmother’s motives are broadly similar to that of the Witch or the Evil Queen; jealousy and the lust for power.  Her new child(ren) are more beautiful than she is and they are in the way.  In the family unit, the Stepmother is Queen and her throne must be ruthlessly consolidated.

Of course like all fairy tale villains it will not end well for the Wicked Stepmother.  Her death or banishment will not only be gruesome but in it there will be a valuable moral lesson about love and virtue.  These lessons are highlighted, not by the downfall of the villain, but by the child(ren)’s relationship with their Father.  Throughout the Fairy Tale the Father neglects his responsibility as protector; he is blind to his new wife’s behaviour sometimes going as far as to carry out her dastardly wishes.  In the end he realises who he truly loves and seeks forgiveness.

Perhaps the reason that the Wicked Stepmother endures as a villain can also be found at home.  It’s unlikely that in the 21st Century we will ever meet a Giant or a talking Wolf but each of us understands the role of the Mother.  A Witch may be more mysterious and a Queen may be more powerful but it doesn’t take a flight of fantasy for even the youngest child to recognise the threat a Wicked Stepmother poses.

Wicked WitchIn my Traditional Tales I enjoy playing the wicked characters (even the female ones).  Playing a Witch or a Wicked Stepmother brings life to the story and is the perfect excuse for a wig or a shawl!

It can be very scary for young audience members to come face to face with a truly terrible character in any context (Miss Trunchbull’s School Inspection or The Victorian School Room) so I work hard to assure my audiences that they are safe.  Exposing children to danger, be it a Witch, a Dragon or a Stepmother, in my view, comes with responsibility.  If I am going to present bad characters I must demonstrate their ridiculousness; my audience must see that villains always get their comeuppance and that good will triumph in the end so that we can all live happily ever after.

Tale of Two Newspapers

I am originally from Chorley in Central Lancashire but live in North London.  I had learned about an event which was to take place called Chorley Live through Twitter.  The event was all about showcasing local talent so I was keen to support it.  I got in touch with the organisers and arranged to bring my work home to Chorley.  Knowing that I would probably struggle to publicise myself at a festival 200 miles away I phoned the local paper (The Chorley Guardian) in order to get a bit of publicity for my performance of Dracula at Chorley Library.  What I got was an amazing two page spread!

Chorley Guardian Interview

As you’ll imagine the piece meant that quite a crowd of people attended my performance.  It went really well and it seemed that everybody enjoyed themselves with many people taking away business cards.

Now, whenever I give out business cards I notice spikes in activity on my Youtube and Facebook pages.  That evening I noted such spikes with  audience members from the library going online to follow, like and comment on my performance but I thought nothing more of it than that.

A few weeks passed and I was contacted via Facebook by somebody who’d seen my October performance.  She had been so impressed by my work that she had recommended me to her children’s school!  Before I knew it I was back in Chorley in front of 300 children, opening the school’s library with my Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.  I had a fabulous day at school and it was an immense privilege to be asked to cut the ribbon and officially open the school’s library.

Once again my adventures made it into the local paper.

Chorley Guardian St Gregorys

This story proves two things: that work truly does breed work and that I wouldn’t be anywhere without the support of my many friends, family and supporters across the United Kingdom.

Thank you for continuing to spread the good word!