Tag Archives: scotland

Black stories matter: storytellers and anti-racism.

Since the appalling death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a renewed call for greater equality has rightly dislodged the Coronavirus from the newspaper headlines.  What started with the atrocious murder of an unarmed black man has become a far reaching debate about our colonial past and how we teach slavery to future generations.  From my own experience of leading workshops about cultural identity at Vestry House and The William Morris Gallery, I advocated the issue be presented in a balanced, progressive way which celebrated the impact of diversity whilst accepting the practice was abhorrent but then the museums I have so proudly worked with for so many years became the centre of the storm.  I’m sure like many other people, these events combined with the lockdown have made me question a lot of things.

As a white British male I have no real understanding of racism.  I probably understand playground bullying but not out and out discrimination.  Working as a storyteller is a highly competitive.  I have had to work hard to achieve what I have but the colour of my skin has never been a barrier to my progression or mobility and perhaps this has allowed me to take greater creative risks. I wouldn’t have ever said I was racist but is keeping your head down and getting on with it whilst others struggle perhaps something I should have felt more guilty about?

I am regularly asked to tell stories from all around the world and have a repertoire that reflects the globe. If I am ever asked to tell an African story I will always favour telling children about Anansi’s colourful adventures.

Black History Month- Anansi The Spider-Man – Woo Long Talks

Anansi is a spider and a trickster who back when all the animals spoke and walked the same way as man was always getting up to mischief (often to fill his belly!). If I was then asked to tell a story from America I would want to tell you about Brer Rabbit.

Who Killed Brer Rabbit? True Lies in a Silenced Culture | Breezes ...

Brer Rabbit is another trickster. He is Anansi’s American cousin and their adventures bear direct comparison (eg. both Anansi and Brer Rabbit have encountered a sticky Tar/Gum Baby). Brer Rabbit is part of the folklore of the southern states of America.  The slaves who were forced to work on the plantations were denied their language and their culture but they couldn’t be denied their stories or their songs.  I love Brer Rabbit and Anansi because they always manages to outsmart larger animals (Brer Fox and Osebo the Leopard with terrible teeth).  I’m sure to those who were forced to work on the plantations these larger creatures represented their owners and that a bygone audience found escapism from misery in humour.

There is a rich tradition of oral folklore that can be traced across the world because of the slave trade but is sharing these stories cultural appropriation or anti-racism? Anti-racism as a concept was introduced to me by another storyteller who had witnessed an incident and after speaking to the victim vowed to no longer be part of the silent majority. It would be my view that every time a storyteller tells a story to an audience from beyond their own culture perhaps they do cherry pick the best stories but they do so to celebrate cultural diversity. If in telling the story they also help create a forum to address difficult issues (like equality) they can become powerful anti-racists.  One hundred and fifty years after its abolition, the folklore that derived from slavery is rightly recognised in the rich tapestry of American culture. Oral stories are not statues; they only exist in the mouths and minds of the storyteller and their audience and if a story isn’t told then it may be forgotten. In the same way historians remind us of the horrors of slavery storytellers keep their tales alive to celebrate their cultural contribution.

Many years ago I was asked by a school to tell the story of Rosa Parks, the black woman who refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus. Back then I turned the work down. I’m not ashamed of that decision but as an older, wiser storyteller if the opportunity were ever offered again I would take up that challenge with relish because I now see that I have a choice: remain a secure member of the silent majority or be part of the change I want to see. I choose to tell the stories of black Africans and slaves to enthuse, entertain and enlighten a generation of anti-racists and because as I have said before, these days I’d rather be a Billy Goat than a Troll. I am a storyteller, I have a voice and I can use it.

#blacklivesmatter

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.

Back to school (and how that was possible in a lockdown – artists and teachers take note)

On Thursday 25th June 2020 I went back to school in the capacity of a storyteller for the first time since March.  For 40 glorious minutes we shared Roald Dahl’s “The Twits”, we threw water and we laughed.  It all seemed quite normal but in the current national circumstances nothing about it was.  In was in fact an extraordinary, encouraging and important moment for all arts practitioners who like me hope to be back working with schools as soon as possible.  This is the story of how it all came about.

It is well documented that at the end of March the world changed as the country went into lockdown.  As schools and venues closed and festivals and events began to postpone or cancel their programmes, I and many like me had our livelihoods placed on hold.  Fortunately I was able to secure employment as a check out assistant with a local supermarket.  It’s been just over a year since we moved from east London to East Sussex and there has been a lot for me to get used to after living in a city for twenty years.  Lewes is such a small town I find that you bump into the same people ALL THE TIME particularly when you work in a supermarket.  In just three months I began to see familiar faces, hear their stories and anecdotes, and watch life played out.  As a storyteller this was pure gold and I would look forward to my shifts.  Then one day a young lady came to my till who was up for a chat.  In the course of our conversation she divulged that she was a teacher at a local primary school.  When I told her about my storytelling work she invited me to email her with the details.  So it was that an impromptu speed networking event over her weekly shop, lead to my return to working in schools.

It’s tricky to explain what this booking after so long has meant.  For the school my visit represented a treat for children some of whom have been to school everyday since March and a slice of the life we once took for granted but for me it was even more significant. In my life I have three roles; I am a father, a husband and a storyteller and without any one of them I am lost.  For 98 days I have been in limbo, my working life stopped, my diary savaged, my confidence knocked and like so many other people I have been forced to wait helplessly, unable to do something which for 11 years has given me identity – I have felt lost.  As I have said when writing about video conferencing and prerecording stories, telling stories on a computer offers an alternative platform to storytellers but there is nothing, nothing that compares to being with people and sharing something live.  Live performance is like surfing; an audience gives you energy and you ride the wave – it’s often as euphoric as it is humbling.  It may sound selfish but I love what I do and getting back into a school at the earliest opportunity mattered.

Unfortunately it was never going to be as simple as starting where we left off in March.  Schools are restricted by Government guidelines relating to social distancing.  It is still very unclear just how easy it will be for an external contractor to visit a school when they do reopen fully and I doubt if the sort of visits I would regularly do pre-lockdown will be possible much before Spring 2021 without some serious compromises (but then, what use is a storyteller who wears a face mask?).  Fortunately the host school were well organised and put a great plan in place for my visit. The practicalities are noteworthy to anybody hoping to work on a school site during the current academic year and possibly into the autumn.

  1. I never went into the school (they even brought the signing in book out to the field to sign me in).  The storytelling took place under a tree on the school field.  This meant I couldn’t use any electricity, staff fetched the water I would use in jugs and I didn’t have access to a toilet.  Being outside meant that perhaps I had to do a bit of extra work vocally but it was no more difficult than telling a story in a hall with a high ceiling.
  2. I kept 2m from the audience.  My usual style of presentation would be to wade into a crowd and ask volunteers to join me at the front.  Instead I promenaded in front of the audience and at the points when I would normally ask for a volunteer everybody got involved from where they were sitting.  There were a couple of moments when the more lively children crossed the into my area but this was not overly concerning.
  3. The audience was made up of two bubbles of about 20 children.  I loosely divided the audience area in two with each bubble allocated a side as the bubbles couldn’t mix.  I don’t mind working with small groups but if I had been booked to present to the whole school the number of sessions required would have been very demanding.

The session I delivered was a success.  The children and staff enjoyed the experience and everybody felt safe (except maybe when I was throwing water around!). I am incredibly grateful to the school for facilitating the visit and feel this demonstrates that with a bit of planning any school with outdoor space could be hosting events and, to a point, workshops again. The weather was on our side and I’ll except that we could have been scuppered if it had been raining but perhaps using tarpaulins to cover the ground or gazebos to cover the audience in wet weather might mean the show could still go on.

There is still a long road back to normal and whilst my presentation never felt compromised it was adapted for the circumstances.  I don’t know when I’ll get another opportunity to work with a live audience but for now, a chance encounter in a supermarket that lead to work with a local school has been encouraging to me both as a person and a professional.  It has boosted my confidence and esteem and in an uncertain world pointed toward a future beyond the lockdown.  I’ll take that because at the moment “every little helps”.

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.

Did video kill the storyteller? Storytelling for video in the lockdown.

In a previous blog I discussed how as a storyteller I have been using the video conferencing platform Zoom to work with schools and public libraries during the national lockdown.  I talked about the merits and challenges of live digital storytelling and what I have tried to overcome not occupying the same physical space as my audience.  In this blog I want to talk about making videos of stories.

I made my first video three days before the lockdown was announced.  I was staying in a hotel and wanted to see whether there would be an appetite for the medium in the weeks to come.  In the following weeks I made and shared a few videos on Youtube, Facebook and Twitter (Goldilocks, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, a couple of folk tales and a version of Romeo and Juliet).  I then went right off making videos but three months later I am honing the skill of being a prerecorded storyteller and I am very pleased with my most recent creations.

There were a few reasons that I initially went off prerecording videos. It’s a bit depressing to spend a lot of time (sometimes as long as two hours) producing a ten minute story that less than a handful of people will watch.  You see in this brave new world there is no shortage of digital content for the audience to watch.  Not only that but it’s a David and Goliath battle for attention which pits little old me making videos in his back room on a laptop with heavyweights such as authors, celebrities and theatre companies.  As a professional storyteller with a decade of experience and a large repertoire of stories my content is just as worthy as anybody else’s but I can’t compete with their production or promotional resources.

There have been things I’ve been able to do to improve my experience of making videos.  I stopped trying to make videos hoping they would go viral and started telling stories I really enjoy and wanted to share (I’m a storyteller and not a Youtube star). Despite issues with image and sound quality I have continued to use my laptop to record my stories rather than investing in new equipment which may have a finite usefulness. In my early recordings I used my laptop’s inbuilt video recorder but now I record using Zoom.  The sound still isn’t perfect but it’s much better. I also hung a colourful cloth as a backdrop to make my space appear brighter and started making recordings in the day time to take advantage of the natural light.  Finally and most crucially I started telling people that I was making videos.  I have worked with a lot of libraries as a storyteller and they have been super supportive of my work since the lockdown, sharing my initial videos and requesting more to share on their social media and websites.  Where initially I had been recording to pass the time I now had a purpose.

When I do live stories I like to get audiences involved, giving them actions and words to repeat, getting volunteers to help tell parts of stories and using props, costumes and water pistols to enhance the overall experience.  Working on a small screen some of this is still possible live because I can see how the people I’m working with are interacting.  If I ask a group to stand up I can see them doing it and know to wait for this to happen.  If you are prerecording a story and want the audience to stand up you have to trust they are doing it.  It’s far more difficult to allow an appropriate amount of time for an interaction which may or may not be happening.  In other words as the storyteller you are in the dark as to the impact of your recording (fortunately with a three year old at home I have a willing audience for my recordings before I share them more widely).  Another effect of not having an audience is there is no one to slow me down and something that might take me half an hour live is significantly shorter in video form.  To begin with I found recording to be an awkward process that I could become overly critical of my performance.  I have found the best way of countering the void left by the absence of an audience and feelings of embarrassment is to throw myself into the telling of stories and have found it a lot easier to record silly stories where I could be more physically dynamic than more emotive ones.

As with every aspect of the new normal storytellers are finding their feet and using their resources in different ways.  All of my videoed stories were achieved in single recordings.  I can do this because I record in a space where I get very few interruptions.  It does mean that some of my videos contain small errors but then so do my live performances.  The stories I share (my one take wonders) reflect a moment in time when the words fell out of my head in a certain order in much the same way they have done for ten years.  I prefer this method of working and feel it’s more truthful to the art of storytelling but we live in unprecedented times.

When storytellers produce videos we have the shared goal of trying to achieve the most impressive and engaging product possible and if that means enhancing our work by editing it, adding titles or music then so be it. Even a truly marvellous recording will enter a crowded marketplace and more than ever we are grateful to our network of supporters if our work is to find an audience on video sharing platforms.

Telling stories to a camera isn’t a perfect scenario but at least we are still telling stories and finding audiences.  So did video kill the storyteller?  No, like everything else it just forced them to think further outside the box (well the screen anyway).

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.

A silly story to get you in the mood for the #SummerReadingChallenge #SillySquad

The Summer Reading Challenge is back for 2020 and this year there’s loads of digital content for you to enjoy with your family. I’ll be doing live storytelling sessions on Zoom and sharing stories on Youtube and via public library websites. To find out more visit The Reading Agency website. In the meantime here’s one of my favourite stories to get you in the mood.

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.

To Zoom or not to Zoom that is the question.. (Telling stories to young people using video conferencing)

I was looking at some photos of my work as a storyteller and I found two which sum up the dramatic change to my working life quite perfectly…

Thursday 5th March 2020 (World Book Day), telling Roald Dahl’s The Twits
in Liverpool Central Library

then exactly three months later…

Friday 5th June 2020 (launching The Summer Reading Challenge)
telling Roald Dahl’s The Twits in my back room

In just twelve weeks I have gone from packed assembly hall to lonely living room and in the process have had to master video conferencing.

I have mixed feelings about telling stories via a computer. Yes, its a way of engaging an audience when being in the same space isn’t possible but it’s much harder to gauge how that audience’s feelings about a session. Yes, its a thrill to think your storytelling is being seen all over the country and even around the world but its also frustrating for someone with a big theatrical style to find themselves restricted to a small screen. Since the beginning of the lockdown I have tried a few different ways of storytelling. I have prerecorded short videos, done some writing and recorded some audio but I still miss live storytelling. I have had a lot of conversations with other storytellers about how they are working and recently conducted a survey. This was a tiny poll asking storytellers and workshop leaders about their preferred medium for live delivery but it reflects what I hear anecdotely; to Zoom is the thing.

The reason why many storytellers are turning to Zoom over Facebook, Youtube and other video conference services (Microsoft Teams, House Party, Google Meets etc) is because its being widely used by the general public . There are question marks about Zoom’s security but there is no point using a platform that nobody else is using. The other advantages I see for using Zoom as a storyteller is that the sound quality is very good and its possible to see the audience (on Facebook and Twitter all you see is the number of engagements). This means not only can I interact with the audience during the session but there is the potential for qualitative evaluation afterwards.

I have done a few storytelling sessions using Zoom and Google Meets. Bearing in mind that I am essentially interacting with a webcam I have been happy with their delivery but I have had issues relating to my broadband and some Zoom bombing. Whilst there isn’t much I can do about the reliability of my broadband there’s plenty storytellers can do to prevent people intentionally disrupting sessions. Here’s what I have been doing with libraries to keep my sessions safe places for children and families.

  1. Appoint an administrator. Once I start telling a story I don’t want to be thinking about managing my audience. The administrator is there to ensure everyone has a good time.
  2. Password protect storytelling sessions and discourage the sharing of passwords on social media. I am proud of the fact that my work in libraries is free at point of access to users. Sadly though advertising events on social media can draw the wrong type of crowd. By encouraging virtual ticketing and making users sign up to sessions before they receive the necessary passwords we discourage potential disruption whilst keeping the events free. The other advantage to libraries is that users are encouraged to visit the library website for passwords and possibly engage with further local content.
  3. Ensure that mics are off and video is on. To further safeguard sessions we ensure that anybody joining is prepared to show their face to the camera. If they are unwilling to do this without good reason then they are ejected by the administrator.
  4. Enlist monitors to support the administrator. Although my sessions exist in a virtual space I encourage libraries to log on and assist the administrator in observing the audience. This is especially helpful with large crowds!

If using a new medium wasn’t enough to think about then consider that many storytellers are using ticketing platforms to monetise their work (this is after all our professional livelihood)! There’s really no time to be technophobic because you still have to adapt your content to your chosen medium.

Just three months ago I looked like this….

March 2020 telling Greek Myths with a Primary School group

now I look like this…

June 2020 telling Anansi the Spider with a Primary School group

Every storyteller is different and will engage with video confencing in their own way but in my view its no good just telling a story to the camera especially if you’re doing it live because that’s what television does. I want to engage my young audiences in the same ways I would do if I were with them. To this end I have tried to make my delivery as visually appealing as possible. I already use props and hats but I have introduced a colourful background and as I tell stories I have played with my proximity to the camera. I’ve experimented with talking to audience members as they join sessions, playing games and increasing the roleplay content of sessions. In some instances I have forewarned groups of things that may be useful if they want a 4D experience (paper and pen to draw responses to my questioning and water pistols to squirt the watchers!). Rethinking my repertoire is a huge challenge but I’m working and it’s a lot of fun and I hope that some of the ideas that have come out of this process will stick.

In so many ways storytelling was designed for video conferencing platforms. Its an ideal entertainment for a small screen and although I yearn for a live audience I believe that telling stories virtually will become part of many storyteller’s “new normal”. For that to happen storytellers must be prepared to engage with technology, adapt the way we tell our stories and begin to build new audiences. What came from necessity could prove to be the beginning of something truly exciting for an ancient art form.

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.

The Haggis, The Spaceman and the Glaswegian Elvis (based on Theseus and the Minotaur)

Over the past two Saturdays I have worked with Whizz Kids Clubs in Scotland. In the first session we told Theseus and the Minotaur. I then challenged the group to make up characters who might live in an alternative labyrinth. The characters were so spectacular that I decided to throw them all into one wacky and wonderful reinterpretation of Theseus and the Minotaur. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed telling it.

Dramatis Personae

The Purple Haggis – King Aegeus

The Emperor Zurg – King Minos

The Half Pig Man from Granny’s Farm – Theseus

The Fire Monster – The Minotaur

Elvis with a sooth tooth and in need of a haircut – Ariadne

The Story

Not so very long ago the Emperor Zurg from the fifth quadrant had sent his warships to attack the people of Scotland.  To protect them their leader, a purple Haggis from the shores of Loch Ness had ordered a “loch down”.  This meant that everything was closed and that Elvis who had a sore tooth and just wanted a haircut was out of luck; there wasn’t a dentist to cut your hair or a barber to pull your teeth to be found anywhere between Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Learning what the Emperor had done to the people of Scotland, The Half Pig Man who lived on Granny’s Farm went to see the Purple Haggis on the shores of Loch Ness.  “I will challenge the Emperor Zurg’s Fire Monster” said the Half Pig Man “and if I win he will be forced to return to the fifth Quadrant”.  The Haggis was sure that the Half Pig Man would be killed by the Emperor Zurg’s Fire Monster but he could see he was determined and eventually agreed to let him go. The half Pig Man from Granny’s farm rode on the back of a wild elephant all the way to Glasgow where he met Elvis.  Elvis agreed to help the Half Pig Man if in return he would help him find a haircut.  The half Pig Man knew this would be impossible; he knew that all the barbers were closed and even if the loch down ended the queues would be ridiculous but he agreed to Elvis’s deal and together they went to face the Fire Monster.

Together they went to Erin’s house and discovered the Emperor Zurg under her bed.  “I have come to fight with your Fire Monster” said the Half Pig Man “and if I win you must return to the fifth quadrant.”  Hearing this Zurg laughed his most menacing laugh.

The Fire Monster turned out to be quite a nice Fire Monster and the Emperor Zurg was forced to return to the fifth Quadrant.  The Half Pig Man and Elvis then went in search of a haircut.  Together they rode on the back of the Wild Elephant to the city of Edinburgh where they met the Princess Street Garden Monster who was angry because people kept trampling his flowers.  Whilst Elvis and The Princess Street Garden Monster talked haircuts and dentistry the Half Pig Man slipped away back to the shores of Loch Ness where learning of the Emperor Zurg’s defeat the Purple Haggis lifted the Loch down and set the people of Scotland free to live happily ever after.

Despite a few technical issues it was an undeniable privilege and pleasure to work with the group and I’d like to thank Whizz Kids Clubs in Scotland for allowing me this opportunity and all the families and participants for their time and enthusiasm.

I’d like to finish this blog by sharing a thought. Today I used the story of Pandora’s Box to frame the group inspired story. When Pandora opened the box the horrors of the world escaped forevermore but the last thing to leave was hope. When all else was gone, hope lingered. As the “loch down” eases across the country we all hope for happier days, days when we can go about freely and laugh about the summer the word zoom became a verb. As we rush to kick start the new normal we must remember the lessons of the lock down and hope for a better future for everybody.

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.

Today I worked and it felt great!

Since the lockdown began opportunities to work have been scarce but today I ran a workshop with some families in Glasgow and Edinburgh and it felt absolutely brilliant. We played games, we told Greek Myths and we invented monsters. Yes, it was odd not to be face to face with the participants to encourage and cajole them through the session but I was able to adapt games and my style of storytelling for a young online audience (have you ever squirted someone with a water pistol remotely? it’s very satisfying).

Theseus and the Minotaur Greek Yoghurt Pots!

A massive thank you to Whizz Kidz Clubs in Scotland for inviting me to lead the session. I’m already looking forward to doing it all again next week!

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.