Tag Archives: sussex storyteller

What happens to Roald Dahl’s villains?

Warning – this blog will pretty much spoil every Roald Dahl book ever written but I do try to make an interesting point.

Like so many other children I was brought up on fairy tales.  In the classic versions the heroes come out on top whilst the villain or antihero gets their just desserts (even the Gingerbread Man gets eaten!).  There is something reassuring about knowing that the Wicked Queen in Snow White, the Witch in Hansel and Gretel and the Giant in Jack and the Beanstalk are not only out smarted but that they also met fairly gruesome endings.

I have been telling Roald Dahl’s “The Twits” since 2016 and have had plenty of time to think about bigger questions linked to the story; Do Mr and Mrs Twit love each other? What happens to The Twits at the end of the story? The second of these questions I find quite fascinating and to attempt to answer it I now need to spoil a whole load of other stories.

Roald Dahl isn’t just a good writer he is a brilliant writer and has undoubtedly influenced the children’s authors who came after him.  In my opinion The Twits is a masterpiece of children’s writing, packed with disgusting humour.  In fact whilst many of Roald Dahl’s stories could be described as magical just as many are quite dark.  Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is perhaps one of the most famous stories ever written but in it four spoiled children narrowly escape quite horrific deaths.  The point is that Dahl chooses not to kill off these rotters.  In fact rather than following the formula of the classic fairy tale, Roald Dahl invariably keeps his villains and antiheroes alive.  In the BFG the Giants end up trapped in a pit.  In Matilda Miss Trunchbull runs away in the night and in Fantastic Mr Fox Dahl leaves the three terrible farmers waiting by the hole.  Waiting perhaps to do it all again.

By being ambiguous about the fate of his characters Roald Dahl denies his audience the certainty of the fairy tale ending preferring leave the door open (just slightly).  In James and the Giant Peach Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker are squashed by the peach but does squashed mean killed?  Miss Trunchbull may no longer be a part of Matilda’s life but isn’t it a horrid idea to think that she might be out there somewhere tormenting other children? What’s worse the fact something happened or the possibility of it happening again? It’s very clever and not so unsurprising from someone who was also known for short stories for adults including his Tales of the Unexpected. As far as I can work out the only exceptions to my theory that Roald Dahl preserves all of his villains are The Enormous Crocodile who crashes head first into the sun (which we must assume fatal) and The Grand High Witch who meets a sticky ending.  Perhaps even Dahl felt that these two were the stuff of nightmares.

But what about Mr and Mrs Twit?  What happens to them?  Well if you want to find out what happened when the Roly Poly Bird met the Twits or when Billy met the Minpins then you’ll have to buy a ticket to our Crowdcast event happening on Wednesday 15th July 2020.

Tickets are available here and priced at £3 to £6.

Andy Copps tells “Billy and the Minpins”

John Kirk tells “The Twits”

I promise, no spoilers here.

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

5 ways to bring stories to life for your child (via TheSchoolRun.com)

I wrote a blog offering storytelling tips to parents for TheSchoolRun.com, a website offering resources for families with primary school aged children.

You can read it here…

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

A message from Mr Twit…

On Wednesday 15th July 2020 storyteller Andy Copps and myself will be broadcasting live from The Cryer Arts Centre, Carshalton. We will be telling “Billy and the Minpins” and “The Twits”. Here’s Mr Twits to tell you more about this very special children’s storytelling event…

Tickets to these children’s storytelling events are available here:

Tickets to see storyteller Andy Copps telling Billy and the Minpins

Tickets to see storyteller John Kirk telling The Twits

Each story will last 30-45 minutes and is suitable for school age children and families. If you decide to purchase a code you don’t even have to watch the storytelling live because the broadcast will be viewable for 24 hours. This means you could be in the United State, India or China and still catch two top quality storytellers in action.

Mr Twit and I have been touring the UK since 2016 and in that time we have visited many schools, libraries and festivals. I have always believed myself to be fortunate to have the rights to tell such a wonderful story and have done everything I could to make it as accessible as possible to as many people. During the national lockdown I have been prerecording stories for the internet and will be doing a number of Zoom and Youtube Live events from my house in July and August for libraries across the UK but these are generally for specific localities; on Wednesday 15th July it doesn’t matter where in the world you live, your family can join the virtual audience and watch as we broadcast from my natural environment, a theatre. Me, on a stage with lights and production values, sharing a masterpiece of a story, now that’s very exciting! If you have ever seen me tell the story I hope you will recommend this event to your friends and family and that you’ll remember to have your sticky glue (water) ready so you can get involved at home.

” John, as usual, your energy was tangible, even through the screen! I could see the children taking part and having a blast.”

Feedback on “The Twits” live on Zoom, June 2020

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.

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.

How do you show a picture to somebody with a visual impairment?

So we reach the end of another year.  It has been very busy for me both personally and professionally as we made the move from London to Sussex and the impact that had on my storytelling work.  I have done lots of different things; from working with 47 Waltham Forest Primary Schools as part of the London Borough of Culture to storytelling in a care home for the elderly.  I have lead nursery and early years sessions and storyteller staff training sessions for Where Reading Rocks and libraries.  I had a very successful summer telling Jonathan Emmett’s “Bringing Down the Moon”, Simon James’ “The Boy from Mars” and Dom Conlon’s “Why the Cow Jumped Over the Moon” whilst my relationship with The Roald Dahl Storytelling Company saw a consolidation of “The Twits” and the launch of “The Enormous Crocodile”.  This year through my work as a storyteller I travelled from Glasgow, Plymouth, Swansea, Newcastle, Norwich, Liverpool, Guernsey and all points in between.  I thoroughly enjoyed what could be my final visits to Germany to work with Ministry of Defence schools and to the Midlands to work with US military but at the same time I did more birthday and private parties than ever before. My final thought for 2019 is about the work I have done with children with special educational needs.

In November I have been in east London working with Waltham Forest and the Borough of Culture in special educational needs environments.  I devised a sensory session exploring Walthamstow High Street and its famous market; looking at pictures from Vestry House Museum’s archive, smelling and tasting the foods of the market, listening to music and voices of the market and touching some of the goods and textiles on sale there.  In this way we told a story of a stroll through the town.

I worked with lots of children with a wide spectrum of profound and complex needs taking a little time to share each item with each audience member individually and allowing them to engage with the object (and me) in their own ways but probably the biggest challenge was working with children with visual impairment.  How do you show a map or a photograph to somebody who can’t see it?  I tried to be imaginative, scoring the outline of the image and cutting streets out of maps so they became a textural as well as a visual experience.  Speaking to the staff I worked with and reflecting on the session I feel that I could have done more to put myself in the position of the audience.  What is a map if you can’t see it?  Well, it’s a large piece of paper.  If I had presented a picture and offered more context that might have enhanced the audience experience.  So if the picture is of a market trader wearing a hat and a coat, shouting at passers-by from his fruit stall as the storyteller I could have offered a fuller description of the man, his work or had a similar hat for the audience to feel and wear so they got a better sense the image being discussed.

I enjoy running sensory storytelling sessions and have had compliments for the sessions I have been devising and running this autumn.  To this end Father Christmas has already delivered a 12ft parachute and a range of musical instruments for participants to use in my future sessions because building on what has been a fantastic year has to be my focus for the year ahead. Now that I have done it, I want to do it better.

Wishing you a Happy Christmas!

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.

How do you play Pass the Parcel with a deaf child?

I was invited to work at a Halloween themed birthday party for a five year old.  As the guests were going to be mainly 3-6 years old this would be completely different to other Halloween storytelling events I had done before.  Rather than trying to get the children to sit and listen I wanted to keep them as active and engaged as possible throughout our interaction so I decided to offer a single narrative about a School of Magic and to string a series of party games into the story.  We started with a craft activity (making our own school badges), before commencing a series of magical lessons including practising loading brooms (Musical Chairs) and spell casting (Pass the Parcel).  I incorporated further storytelling opportunities by using the famous Bear Hunt story; first as Follow my Leader game in which I encouraged the children to imagine and roleplay different terrains and then as a more formal storytelling (instead of a Bear in a cave we were hunting for a Spell Book in a creepy house!).

It was important to the hosts that everybody felt included.  This meant trying to ensure everybody was able to participate including a deaf child who was among the guests.  I am a fairly visual storyteller and use my face and body as well as a lot of colourful props and hats to communicate and enhance my regular repertoire but many of the games I had chosen for the party involved instruction and aural stimulus (starting and stopping music).  In the event the age of the guests proved to be almost as big a barrier to participation as deafness as some of the children were so young that they didn’t recognise the games we were playing.  Thankfully the adults stepped in to lend a hand and prevented the party from faltering.  Afterwards I was praised for the structure I offered and how I got the children involved but this was a large party and I was immensely grateful to get help from the other adults in the room.  In my experience whilst it is possible for a facilitator to encourage a child to participate, role modelling by a parent is invaluable even at a birthday party.

Although the story was very simple the narrative became key to the event and at times I was more like a compere than a storyteller or facilitator.  I set out to create something that the children would enjoy and whilst my games heavy approach led me to consider accessibility this delivery seemed to be a hit with everybody.


John was quick to suggest an exciting itinerary full of fun and games for the children. He asked all the right questions and adapted to children’s age and special requirements. He ensured helpful props for those who were deaf. John’s enthusiasm and professionalism was comforting. Children’s parties can feel stressful but he managed to take a lot of pressure off which was fantastic. My son and his friends had a wonderful time. John was ever so friendly and really engaged with children and adults. John made sure he arrived in good time to meet my son and go through the plans to ensure he was comfortable. I would use John’s service again and I highly recommend him. Thank you John so everything that you did. We are very grateful.

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 am thankful..

Some of the people I work with I will never hear from again.

Some I work with from time to time, others book me annually.

Some of the people I work with show me their world and make me want to be a better person.

Some make me feel so welcome that in time I have come to regard them as friends and look forward to seeing individuals almost as much as I look forward to doing the actual work.

The greetings card pictured was a daddy-daughter weekend project inspired by news that a one of a kind will be retiring when her school closes next summer (an Elementary School on a US military facility in the midlands).  In the time I have known this person she has paid for my visits out of her salary and I have never managed to leave her without a goody bag full of gifts not just for me but for my family.  Whilst I wish her well for the future I already miss her enthusiasm and her ability to find the best in others.  To have known her and so many other inspirational people like her I am truly thankful.