Tag Archives: surrey storytelling

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.

I accidentally wrote a modern Fairy Tale for a festival and then ended up on the radio twice in one day!

On 26th May 2020 Southwark Libraries Festival of Words opens and features a very special story I wrote that seems to be resonating with people across the South East.

When the lockdown was announced Southwark Libraries approached me about contributing a story to their festival of words. I was more than happy to do this and decided to record my version of “Rapunzel”. Having recorded it I saw a parallel between Rapunzel’s situation and thousands of children living in flats during the national lockdown. I wrote “The Girl in the Playground” in a single sitting. As well as submitting it to the festival I decided to share it with Dominic King at BBC Radio Kent (I performed an extract from Rapunzel on his show last year). The next thing I know he has included it in his show. Encouraged by this I decided to contact my local radio station and before I knew it I was live on BBC Radio Sussex’s breakfast show being interviewed!

A lot has been said about the impact of the national lockdown on the economy and the adult world but beyond education not a lot is said about children. I have been blogging about how my daughter and I have enjoyed our time together but sadly this won’t have been the case for some families.

The lockdown will pass. We will get through this. There is always hope.

Southwark Libraries Festival of Words runs from 26th May – 12th June 2020

John Kirk is a professional storyteller working in schools and libraries, at events and festivals. For more information about my work please use my contact form to get in touch.

I’m telling Roald Dahl’s “The Twits”on the internet and now I need your help…

I have been granted a licence to stream Roald Dahl’s “The Twits” on the internet. I have been telling “The Twits” since 2016 and have told it live on over 250 occasions but now I hope to be able to share this fabulous story using the digital platform Zoom.

Now I need your help….

I want to work with libraries, bookshops, schools and charities. If you are reading this and think you know an organisation who may like to be a part of a Zoom based storytelling session then please put them in touch with me. Netflix and The Roald Dahl Company have granted me a unique opportunity to share a fabulous story with families and young people. The more people who read and share this message the more likely it is that this story will find its way into people’s homes and lives in the coming months.

Thank you for supporting my work.

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.

Finding inspiration in a lockdown

Six weeks ago I was in Yorkshire touring regional libraries with “The Enormous Crocodile” and “The Twits”. Six weeks later with all my dates either cancelled or postponed I am at home and work is at the check out of major supermarket. If I had told you this story a year ago you’d have said it would be improbable or incredible but then the truth is often stranger than fiction. At times I have found this situation very difficult to cope with and in so many ways thoroughly demotivating but when you have a toddler and bills to pay you can’t afford to wallow so I have had to find inspiration in some new and unexpected places.

Spending time with Verity

I have relished looking after my daughter. With time on my hands I have been able to plan science experiments, craft activities, garden and indoor games. I have already blogged about how our stories have inspired our play but as this unprecedented period extends, everyday brings the renewed challenge of keeping us both interested. As the videos below indicate, we have been getting creative…

Talking to Peers

Storytellers Andy Copps and Hannah Brailsford have been running meet ups on Tuesdays where storytellers can come together and talk. These sessions have been attended by some tremendously talented folk from all around the world. There is relief in knowing that this situation is effecting everybody and I have found energy in sharing views and ideas.

Discovering Zoom

Unless you count scrubbing dates out of my diary, I hadn’t done a lot of storytelling work since March. Having found YouTube quite frustrating Zoom has been a revelation and in the past few weeks I have lead three sessions for under 7s. Like most storytellers you’ll ask, I miss a live audience but working through Zoom does have some advantages as I can now be in Manchester and Swansea simultaneously. In a couple of weeks I will be leading a workshop for a group of wheelchair users in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow from the comfort of my living room – this workshop wouldn’t have happened without the lock down. Its a steep learning curve as we overcome the restrictions of working in front of a computer screen and cope with Zoom bombing.

Set up for The Gingerbread Man…
… an engrossed audience.

The lockdown itself

I was asked to record a story for Southwark Libraries Festival of Words. I opted for the story of Rapunzel. Once I started thinking about the story (a little girl locked in a tower by a wicked witch waits for a Prince to save her) I started thinking about the national predicament and how the story might be updated for the lock down. I have written a story about the lock down but putting a child at it’s centre. A little girl school closes and she is forced to stay in her flat for reasons she doesn’t really understand. From her window she can see a playground and one day she sees another little girl on the swings. A friendship develops but she can’t go outside to ask the mystery child her name. When they finally meet it turns out that the girl in the playground is called Hope. For Rapunzel see the girl in the flat, for the Wicked Witch see the Lockdown and for the Prince see Hope. Had it not been for the situation I would never have written the story which whilst based on a very simple idea is already resonating a week before the festival opens.

So you see inspiration comes in all shapes and sizes (and often when you least expect it). As we take the first tentative steps towards a brave new world I’m going to keep trying to find creative ways to thrive because never was it truer to say, necessity is the mother of invention.

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.

Playing stories during the Coronavirus lock down

This blog sees me return to an old topic. Using stories as the basis of play with children. In the past I have spoken about how Verity and I have used stories like The Gingerbread Man and Goldilocks as the inspiration for our play but now we find ourselves in the midst of a national lock down I am finding that I have to be even more creative to keep both of us stimulated.

Here are a couple of ideas that we have tried so far. In each case our activity was accompanied by either reading, listening to or watching a video of the story that would be the basis of our play. I felt this was important context otherwise she wouldn’t understand that the game she was enjoying was anything to do with a book. In some cases the game we played was very vaguely connected to the story (maybe a theme or a picture) but I tried to make it as fun as possible during what must be a very confusing time for my toddler.

The Three Little Pigs – this is a game we play all the time. Verity has a Wendy House which she enjoys playing with. I simply stand at the door and pretend to be the Big Bad Wolf so that she can tell me that she won’t be letting me inside (not that I would fit!). The story of the Three Little Pigs is very simple and Verity has remembered the phrasing of the story from a very young age. We have played this game in play tents, soft play centres, her Wendy House and even Dens that we have built together – she never gets tired of saying “No Big Bad Wolf, not by the hairs on my chinny, chinny chin, I will not let you in!”

Stick Man – as the end of last year I was asked to use Julia Donaldson’s “Stick Man” as the basis for a day of play at a nursery. Verity and I chose some sticks and stuck eyes on them. We then used the sticks like dolls or action figures to explore the garden and the house – she loves it when Stick Man tries to climb the slide and keeps slipping down it!

Stick Man playing fetch with a puppet dog in our garden.

Elmer the Elephant – this is a brilliant kiddie craft project. For it you will need a plastic milk bottle, some card and coloured paper, glue and googly eyes. Cut the top off the milk bottle and trim the handle so that it is an appropriate length for your elephant’s trunk. Attach ear shaped pieces of card to the sides of the bottle before covering the bottle and the card in coloured paper and positioning the googly eyes. It is dead simple but a lovely activity that we were able to do together and the result is fantastic.

Verity and Elmer

Pirates of the Caribbean / Peter Pan – the other day we had a vacuum delivered. I decided to turn the box into a Pirate Ship complete with wheel and anchor. Verity put on her Pirate costume and I laid out the fabric I use to make seaside landscapes. We then put on Hans Zimmer and used some soft balls to have a canon battle then took some beads into the garden where we buried our treasure in the flower bed.

Pirate Verity sailing round the kitchen in search of adventure.

A few weeks ago I did a training course for Hammersmith and Fulham Libraries based upon the song Five Little Men in a Flying Saucer. During the session I asked the participants to decorate a washing peg so that it looked like a person.

Ten Little Men in a training session

My idea was that decorating cloths pegs was an affordable, accessible and relatively sustainable creative activity for a library authority to incorporate into a storytelling session. It also left me with a mass of unused cloths pegs.

Humpty Dumpty – this is a classic diorama using pens, paints and a boiled egg.

Verity loves her nursery rhymes so I had the idea of creating a wall out of food box, using an egg for Humpty Dumpty and a couple of cloths pegs for the soldiers and the kings men.

All the King’s soldiers (and Verity) couldn’t put Humpty together again!

Now you could say that this wasn’t a terribly inclusive activity for a toddler. Well we actually doubled up everything (so Verity had her own cloths pegs and eggs and she decorated the wall). She was so taken with the result that three days later and despite having dropped him on the floor, she will not allow anybody to eat Humpty Dumpty!

These are just a few ideas for games and activities inspired by books and facilitated through necessity during a public health lock down. Some of them I dreamt up myself but most I credit to the internet. I am very lucky; I have a lot of resources available to me that I don’t have to go out and buy. I have an eager audience to try ideas on (saying this Verity doesn’t care if an idea flops because she is still spending time with Daddy). We also have a lot of space to do things. I share these ideas to inspire you to think about how we can make stories a part of our children’s play so that books and reading remain present in our children’s lives even when libraries, schools and nurseries are closed. In the coming weeks Verity will be receiving her first copy of Storytime Magazine which I am sure she will devour because she loves good stories. It’s my job as her parent to feed her enthusiasm for stories not only by reading to her but by keeping our activities as fresh as possible and making sure this lock down, however long it may last, is as fun as possible for both of us.

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.

Are you an April Fool?

Traditionally the 1st April would be a day to trick people with tall tales and fabricated facts but living as we do in such unprecedented times where truth is questioned daily and almost anything is possible April Fools Day may have lost some of its edge. Now I love barely believable tales. There are some truly wonderful myths and legends out there and one of the great privileges of being a storyteller is introducing new audiences to fantastic stories. In an effort to restore a little of the spirit of the day I have made a family friendly quiz to intrigue, entertain and get you thinking.  What follows is a mix of folklore and facts.  Without using an internet search engine for help, can you work out which of the following statements I looked up and which I made up?

  1. In the 13th Century a crocodile escaped from the menagerie of Richard I and caused damage to the Essex village of Wormingford.
  2. The Panama hat originates in Ecuador.
  3. Anthropologists believe that the Yeti and Bigfoot are related and that at some time close to the end of the last Ice Age would have walked from North America to the Himalayas.
  4. In the 18th Century Mary Toft became famous after giving birth to a rabbit.
  5. The Dahu is a French mountain goat with shorter legs on one side of its body than the other (meaning its great at standing on steep slopes but can only walk in one direction).
  6. Atlantis is at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean close to the island of Madeira.
  7. Flora Sandes won several medals fighting with the Serbian Army during The Great War after she was rejected by the British when she volunteered to be a Nurse.
  8. The passengers on the world’s first hot air balloon flight were a sheep, a duck and a chicken.
  9. In the early 19th Century a man in Hammersmith was sentenced to death for shooting a bricklayer after mistaking him for the ghost he was hunting.
  10. The British Museum’s “Unlucky Mummy” is responsible for the sinking of the Titanic.

At this point you are expecting me to reveal which of the statements I made up.  Well I’ll tell you that I only made up two of them but I’m not going to tell you which ones.  If you’re still curious why not spend some time looking them up yourselves? I hope you enjoy exploring these stories – happy April Fools Day!

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.

Suggestions for musical instruments to use whilst storytelling

I find that musical instruments have an enormous value in helping me to tell my stories. I was recently asked if I would put together a list of the musical instruments I would recommend for school children to compliment their storytelling work. The following is based upon my experience and my personal kit. Some storytellers play guitars or accordions (I dabble with a concertina) but as I tell a multitude of different stories often at quite a high tempo and because I’m not very musical, the instruments I prefer are easy to use, durable and adaptable. My list is by no means exhaustive but some of the instruments I’ll talk about are invaluable to my work.

Generally I like the instrument I use to become a part of the story rather than just something I stop and play. When I use a kazoo to represent a wasp or a fly I float around the audience landing on children’s heads and when I am narrating a tiger I use the low purring of my vibroslap to inform the rhythm of my stride and help the audience imagine a wild animal stalking it’s meal. Perhaps my finest hour came when in “Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief”I used a duck whistle to represent, well, a duck!

When I am preparing to tell a story I look for opportunities to use musical instruments to enhance the storytelling. In Jonathan Emmett’s “Bringing Down the Moon” the Mole tries to pull the moon out of the sky. First he jumps up and grab the moon. As well as getting the audience to jump, I bash on a hand drum to represent Mole’s heavy landings. Then Mole gets a long stick and tries to poke down the moon. For this I use a long handled tambourine and perform a swishing action with the audience. Finally Mole throws acorns into the sky as he tries to knock down the moon. I use a wooden block and a beater, holding the block in front of me as I perform a throwing action with the beater.

I use instruments to punctuate and define moments in a story. In a folk tale like Anansi the Spider when Anansi completes Nyame’s difficult challenges and when Jack steals the harp and the hen from the giant I use a small set of cymbals to highlight these triumphs (I suppose a triangle could do a similar job). I have a set of chimes which I have used in supernatural stories but they tend to get tangled too easily. I have also been known to sing (in German) and in a story like Michael Morpurgo’s “Private Peaceful” to play a simple tune on a harmonica. I would only do this if I felt the song complimented the story.

There is undoubtedly a magic in an audience seeing and hearing an instrument being played particularly if that instrument offers a specific sound to the story or captures a specific moment. When telling Roald Dahl’s “The Twits” I use a swanee whistle as Mrs Twit floats up and then back down into the garden and in Roald Dahl’s “The Enormous Crocodile”as Trunky launches the crocodile into space I use a green singing tube as the crocodile is swung around in a blurry circle.

Audiences love seeing me swinging the singing tube around my head almost as much as they love seeing and hearing my thunder maker. I consider my thunder maker to be an absolutely essential piece of kit. It fascinates people of all ages, is easy to use and has so many applications in so many different stories that it is often the first thing I put in my bag when packing for a day of storytelling.

I have been fortunate enough to work with composer Joseph Attenborough who has recorded soundtracks for several of my storytellings but there is something special about making music together. Using shakers and bells is a great way of including an audience in a story. An egg shaker or set of sleigh bells are incredibly inclusive instruments and when I do workshop sessions with 3-5 year olds and in dementia care homes I’ll try to offer the participants every opportunity to have a go. Similarly claves are a wonderful way of incorporating rhythm, listening and repeating activities.

It’s possible to spend a fortune putting a box of instruments together for the purpose of storytelling but it isn’t necessary. My advice would be to collect instruments that make the experience accessible. There are some marvellous instruments out there but they are only any good if you know what to do with them. It’d be much better to include some old wooden spoons and saucepans and allow the storytellers to make a racket as their tales sing.

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.

Coronavirus videos week one (feat.Gareth Calway)

Since all schools and libraries in the UK are currently closed I have decided to take a tentative dip into the world of internet based storytelling. Its very different to my usual routine as I am interacting with a laptop screen rather than an audience. I am hoping to put up a few more videos in the coming weeks but before I do I am investing in a microphone!

Here you’ll find Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Monkeys who saved the Moon, The Three Wishes and Romeo and Juliet. I am also excited to be able to share some of the work of storyteller Gareth Calway. I hope to be able to showcase the work of other storytellers during these stressful times.