Tag Archives: suitability

Telling a story in Aisle Four and creating the environment for storytelling.

The Victorian School MasterI graduated from Rose Bruford College in 2002 and that Christmas I took a job with a small scale touring pantomime company.  I was young and fresh and keen to begin building my career.  Well some would say that at 6ft 4ins I wasn’t the most obvious choice for Rumpelstiltskin but I was still very excited to be involved particularly when I learned that we would be doing a public performance in a supermarket.

Well when we arrived at the venue we realised the story wasn’t to be performed in the store but in the staff canteen to the children of the workers.  The other problem (as it turned out) was that store was open and the canteen in operation.  During a 90 minute show we battled deafening tanoy announcements, staff and parents talking over the story and even workers crossing the performance area.  It was at about this point I realised how hard a life in the arts was potentially going to be.

Nearly 12 years on from this experience I am now more than accustomed to inviting family and friends to watch me present stories in strange places.  I have told stories in pub beer gardens, public squares, parks and even a beach hut.  In my view, the same golden rule for success applies whatever the venue: if you aren’t the most interesting thing in the room then you are doomed.

If the environment isn’t right then it won’t matter about the content or delivery, the presentation will not be as effective as it might otherwise have been.  This isn’t always as straightforward as it may seem.  My work is something between pure storytelling and theatricality.  You might think that in suggesting characters using props, hats and wigs even my most wordy stories would be the most interesting thing in any room.  However, I was once telling Private Peaceful in a library when my young audience were completely distracted as a cat crossed the window ledge behind me!

I accept that there are certain things which are beyond the control of the event organiser (unless its your cat) but there are invariably steps that can be taken to ensure that everybody has the best possible opportunity to enjoy the story.

The War GameIs the story suitable and do the group know enough about the subject matter?  Preparing for an event (determining a story’s suitability, talking to a group about the content/background) will maximise engagement and minimise disruptive behaviour.  In telling “The War Game” I have noticed that audience members with some knowledge of The Great War take more from the experience.

Can the group engage comfortably and safely with the presentation?  It’s easy to say “they won’t mind” but in setting up a space the patience of an audience should be considered.  This could mean laying out mats in a public library or ensuring that all the equipment in the school hall is away before we start our session so that there is extra space and no distractions but it can also relate to numbers.  As a performer I don’t mind a large audience but when size compromises or dilutes the quality of the presentation there is a problem.  Sadly, in austere times and as many schools grow to three or even four form entry, I am in regular correspondence with organisations who want to offer experiences to children but are having to make tough decisions based on numbers.

How is the experience going to be valued by those taking part?  Young people with little experience of live presentations will watch adults and how they interact with a presentation.  This means that very young children can sometimes be engrossed by stories because they are taking cues from their parents and elder siblings.  Unfortunately things can also go the other way.  I was once telling Hansel and Gretel to a group.  At the beginning of the session I enlisted a teacher to assist me in handing out sweets and pebbles to the children so that they could help tell the story.  Rather than placing the two items in front of each child the teacher chose to throw them to (or sometimes at) the children.  A higher than usual proportion of that group spent the first few minutes of the story throwing their props because, in my opinion, they hadn’t been shown how to respect that element of the story.    In my experience there is a definite difference in behaviour and attitude when a teacher or parent respects my work and gives a story their full attention (that means not marking books or checking a mobile phone).  Its even better when my stories feeds directly into a project/topic and has a lasting legacy.

Odysseus and Poseidon

How is the experience going to be valued by the rest of the community?  In some environments everybody must take responsibility for the experience.  In school halls, museums and public libraries my stories have been interrupted by all manner of people who failed to recognise that their activity meant they had become the most interesting thing in the room.  In my view (and this is only my view) we all have a responsibility to children and their literacy and whilst disruptions in a public setting are often unavoidable in some settings they are inexcusable.

I’m sure that I’ll have other supermarket experiences over the course of my storytelling life but my first is indelibly etched on my mind.  For now my work is about collaboration.  It is about effectively communicating with organisers what I do and how I do it ahead of the event and then it is about working in partnership to ensure that every session is memorable for the right reasons.

A Guide to Guidance: how can you be sure a story is suitable?

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.Whenever I take a booking or ask for feedback on my work, suitability is mentioned.  For each of my stories I have suggested the age or level the audience should be at in order to watch it.  You did read that correctly, I said suggested.

Most recently I have been presenting “Private Peaceful” as part of the Cityread 2014.  My brief was to work with young readers in public spaces (lots of libraries!).  Michael Morpurgo’s story is quite rightly, not pitched at younger young readers but I know from experience of working in public spaces to expect very young audiences.  I therefore devised a piece which could be accessible to an audience of young people aged 7 plus.  This was challenging as I did not want to compromise the language or the tone of the original in my work.  In my interpretation I remove elements of the story which are too disturbing for a young audience or too difficult to do justice in a 40 minute presentation (the shooting of Bertha, Molly and the baby).  Similarly, I say that my version of “A Christmas Carol” can be enjoyed by audiences of young people aged 4 plus.  I don’t deviate from Dickens’ story or his language and in places my ghost story can be scary but I include elements of slapstick, pantomime and colourful, comic characters to entertain the very youngest audience members.

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.The truth is that when I say a piece is suitable for a particular age or level I am making a broad statement.  If I am liaising with a school directly it is much easier to advise them on a story to choose for their children.  Here my statement on suitability is definitely “this story is suitable for a person of the stated age or level”.  When I work In public environments I have less control over who will be watching.  I can put a statement of suitability on my literature or speak to the audience briefly before the presentation begins but my statement is more ambiguous, “a person of this age or level can access this story in some way”.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be like this but in the end I don’t know the audience who will watch my work.  When I work in schools, a child who is particularly sensitive will respond to my work differently compared to one who is bomb proof.  During the school holidays a parent will not be able to leave one child in order to monitor their sibling so I often present stories I deem inappropriate to very young children.  Saying this, I have had two year olds howling with laughter at Dracula because of my presentation style and teenagers who have disrupted my stories because they weren’t prepared to engage with my work.

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.There are risks when booking or attending stories for children but many pitfalls can be avoided with insight into the work.  Just because it says its suitable for a seven year old doesn’t mean its not Michael Morpurgo.  Just because it says its suitable for four year olds doesn’t mean that its not Charles Dickens.  A statement of suitability is to say you can rather than you should watch.  It is for adults to exercise their discretion in choosing an appropriate story for their audience.