On Saturday 30th July, I ran “Shakespearean Story Madness” at the Globe Theatre in Southwark as part of their “Telling Tales Festival.” My brief was to create a workshop suitable for visually-impaired children where they could create a new story together which related to Shakespeare’s work. I spent days thinking my way through the plots of MacBeth, Hamlet, Othello, Lear trying to pick out the common elements. I don’t mean the stylistic elements but rather the ways in which those plays are built.
I arrived at The Globe. The Globe have partnered up with RNIB in a committed effort to make great literature exciting to blind young people. Accordingly, my assistant and I were invited to explore the RNIB Reading Forest. This was a multi-sensory environment with great “Reading Trees” spaced within. These trees had Braille for bark and each tree had a recorded voice on a permanent loop sharing works of childrens’ literature. We stood beneath one as our Globe guide explained the installation, while above us, a voice read from Michael Rosen’s classic Early Years poem We’re Going On A Bear Hunt.
“Hang on a minute!” I said, interrupting our guide, “that’s me!”
And it was! The poem was a recording I made for RNIB a few years ago! Minutes later I was hailed by Chris, the recording engineer with whom I made the recording. Naturally, we posed for a picture together and here it is. So it’s official – I have performed at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre! Ahem. Claim To Fame, thy name is Tenuous, as Shakespeare might have written…..
And then the workshop. The children were all 12 and below. Allow me to summarise what they created together with my help:
Lord Dragon lived in a castle on an island. He was so big that some said he was a giant. He was so strong that some said he was a hero. He was so beautiful that some said he was like a god.
One day, a mysterious robed and hooded person came to Lord Dragon and told him that someone, somewhere, was boasting that they were stronger than Lord Dragon. Lord Dragon was amused. They said that this person bragged they could take Lord Dragon easy, any day. Lord Dragon was not amused. He demanded to know who? King Henry, he was told. Now King Henry VIII when young was strong and you don’t just challenge a King to single combat but Lord Dragon did. King Henry would be a tough opponent, the robed figure told Lord Dragon, but Lord Dragon could not lose if he fought using this spear. Lord Dragon took the spear, issued the challenge, crossed the sea to England. He noticed, when he took the spear, that the robed figure was missing a thumb.
For days Lord Dragon practised with the spear. On the morning of the fight he wasn’t feeling himself. Actually, he was feeling ill. He was approached by a white haired old lady. She told him that the spear had been poisoned, its shaft soaked in the spit of leeches and the blood of anacondas. The woman could see the veins of his arm had turned a funny colour and if the poison reached his heart he would die. She could give him the antidote. But Lord Dragon ignored the advice and soon the fight was on.
Lord Dragon and King Henry were well-matched and they fought hard but eventually Lord Dragon had King Henry at his mercy. But something distracted him. Looking up he saw the white-haired woman again. He saw she was missing a thumb. He saw her rubbing her head in anxiety as she watched the fight, hovering with a bottle of antidote. He saw her hair slip back – it was a wig! Beneath the wig was dark hair and, Lord Dragon saw, she was missing an ear! Lord Dragon realised that he recognised her, that she was in fact his estranged brother with whom he had quarrelled years ago!
The distraction proved fatal. King Henry threw Lord Dragon and wrested the spear from him then drove its point into Lord Dragon’s chest. Dying, Lord Dragon asked “why did you do this?” His brother answered that was his plan was to create a situation in which he could save Lord Dragon’s life and earn his forgiveness. “But you have been my death!” said Lord Dragon. “And mine!” said King Henry, realising the poison was in his blood now. With that, King Henry struck the brother with the spear and so they all died.
A magical, cross-dressing tragedy in the finest of traditions that left all the kids beaming! And this took a little less than an hour to create together and relate together. Not bad, huh?
I was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s “Saturday Live” on 20th Feb. Great fun. Programme started late because of a technical hitch and there was even a blackout in the studio (I confess, I didn’t really notice!). It’s a great programme, with Richard Coles and Aasmah Mir hosting. You can listen to the whole show here or, if you want to jump to my bit, I’m at 01:07:30.
Here’s the link;
and here are some pictures from the studio. Who knew Zeb Soames looked like this?!
On Monday morning, 15th Feb, at the Royal Festival Hall in London, I ran an hour long session for blind children and their siblings at the Imagine Festival. My brief was to involve the children in a highly interactive storymaking session. This would draw on previous work I’ve done in Norfolk with blind children on behalf of the County Council’s Sensory Impairment Services. I started by telling a couple of very ‘joiny-inny’ stories and got the children singing, clapping, beating drums and shaking tambourines and maracas. In order to take the interactivity to another level I began to tell them a story, asking them to choose for themselves the elements that I could weave into the story as it happened. The result was a story about a knight who lacked courage, rode on a small steam-breathing dragon, and was armed only with an ordinary wooden stick. I told this new story back to them and asked “Who made up that story?” “WE DID!!” they chorused. By the time we’d told two interactive stories and co-devised a third, we had only seven minutes left. “Right,” I said, “let’s make up a complete story from scratch, only using your ideas….” Using Story Structure, we did. I was able to tell the them the tale they’d invented (to be honest, we told it together). Elements included: a giant horn-lacking unicorn! Quacking like a duck! International travel! Blackbirds! Lots of them! Struggles! Danger! Love, and, of course, a very happy ending.
Bloody good story, I reckon, given the time constraints, but this is one of the key things about the StoryMaking work I do. Speed helps. I found it fascinating that this group of blind children created a story about an animal born lacking something everyone else around him possessed.
I was speaking afterwards to one of the dads and an idea popped up – what about setting up a storytelling club for blind children in London, where they could develop their creativity, explore and express their articulacy as well as developing their confidence? What do you reckon – should I do it?
Then we were home.
We were both genuinely sad to leave so shining a country, so energetic, so optimistic. We were sad to leave the graciousness, the warmth of Indians behind, to say nothing of the warmth of India itself. India was cotton shirts, tee shirts. Home was damp, clammy, cold, but still home. We realised, on disembarking from the plane that straightaway we would need our woollen armour.
Next day, Sunday 14th, I told love stories for Valentine’s at the Viktor Wynd Museum Of Curiosities (my monthly residency). It interested me – the Museum is based on the camera fabula of 18th and 19th Century Englishmen, a box or a room crammed with exotic treasures picked up on voyages as the English explored the wider world. One of those exotic treasures, acquired first by a private company and then by the Crown, was India, all of it. In Hackney, young men in Victorian style beards, and their vintage-fabulous ladies, lost themselves in traditional love stories. It was interesting to reflect on that deep and long relationship between two cultures, which still persists. In India I saw endless cricket and English place names. In Hackney, as well as British Indians, of course, I see young men with large beards and elaborate moustaches which were originally inspired by that British contact with India, where moustaches are still almost de rigeur. That night I told the story of Shukuntala, a beautiful Indian story that Gorg Chand told me years ago. It features the kindness of a king’s daughter, the greed of a god and love for a blinded sage. It seemed right.
A late night, especially after all that travel and with my body clock 5 ½ hours ahead, but worth it. Telling good stories is always worth it. Next day would bring another early start and “Storytelling Mayhem”, a workshop with blind children for the Imagine Children’s Festival. I went to sleep not knowing what stories I would tell the children the next day. Why? Well, we were yet to invent them together.