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’m really excited – building on my successful workshop at the Imagine Children’s Festival, I will be at Shakespeare’s Globe on Saturday 30th July, running a session at 2.15pm called Shakespearean Story Madness. This workshop is specifically for children who are visually impaired and who may have additional needs. What will it be? Well, Shakespeare knew his traditional stories! I’ll be looking at the plot structures underneath his great tragedies, for example Lear, Hamlet, MacBeth and Othello, and using them to help make up new stories with the participants. The session will be frenetic, collaborative and above all fun! So if you, or if you know of anyone who has VI children, please forward the workshop information on and get them involved. You can find out more and book tickets here.
And if you want to hear more about the links between Shakespeare and earlier traditional stories have a listen to this brief natter I’ve recorded for you below:
Orleans House is absolutely beautiful – right on the Thames (you can hear the ducks quacking from the grounds). It’s within easy reach of Richmond, Twickenham and St Margarets train stations and is a short walk through parkland from various bus stops. And there’s parking! If you don’t know this part of London, I’d really recommend you have a look (I grew up round here) as it certainly makes for a wonderful day out (not least because of the glorious riverside pubs…).
I’ll be performing in the Octagon Room – a stunning space designed by the architect James Gibbs. And Orleans House Gallery holds a special place in my heart as it holds photographs taken by the explorer Richard Francis Burton, another extraordinary man that I brought to life in my show Tongues of Flame.
So, 30th May, put it in your diaries. And if you can’t make this, I’ll also be performing a shorter version in Pope’s Grotto itself on 18th and 25th June as part of the Twickenham Festival, the full version at Twickenham Library on 4th July and again at The Old Sorting Office in Barnes on 13th October. For full details click here.
My train from Bath took me straight North to Manchester and I arrived at Manchester Piccadilly just ½ hour before the storytelling started. Earphones, SatNav, charge!
I loved walking through Manchester, obeying the orders of the bossy woman’s voice I heard in my ears. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I recognised, having not visited Manchester in over a decade. Oxford Road where Sooz studied, that funny bar at the junction of Great Bridgewater Street and then The Briton’s Protection, a lovely pub named, with typically harsh Mancunian irony, after the Peterloo Massacre on St Peter’s Field, 16th August 1819, when the government read the Riot Act and commanded the Army to open fire on peaceful Chartist demonstrators. Still on the Statutes, the Riot Act.
I arrived with a minute to spare and there I found old friends like Honor Giles and Helen Stewart, who’ve been running the Word of Mouth Storytelling Club successfully for a number of years. I sat at the back not knowing, until he spoke, that I’d sat next to my old friend Nick. Then I heard Effie’s laugh & realised that my London friends, Richard Trouncer and Effie Giordanou were there too! I met Richard & Effie at Word Of Mouth, years ago. Richard & Effie met each other at Word Of Mouth. I was already enjoying this reunion.
Friday night I saw Amy Douglas telling stories with her musical partner Lucy Wells. “Wild Edrick” was very cleverly structured and a beautifully balanced evening’s storytelling. Funny, magical, humane, the story glid from Shropshire landscape to folklore, to history, to myth, and back. Subtly, but strongly political, different layers of the telling explored the relationship between Edrick and Goda, between the rich people hunting and the poor people getting fed, the shamanic relationship between hunter & hunted – in which the hunted gives consent to be hunted on the understanding that they will not be over-hunted, and the relationship between the ruled and their rulers. Really beautiful stuff.
More memory lane as I walked to my hotel, past the Central Library, the Art Museum. I was amazed just how much my mind had stored.
But on Sunday I was astounded at what the memory of Shonaleigh has stored. You think you’re a storyteller and then you hear Shonaleigh doing a Drut’syla telling. Wow.
The Drut’syla is a female Jewish storyteller. They have their own unique repertoire. Shonaleigh’s training by her Grandmother Edith Marx, which lasted from the age of four to eighteen, has equipped her with a repertoire of 3,500 interlaced stories. No, that’s not a typo. Really, three and a half thousand.
The way a Drut’syla telling works is fascinating. A story will intersect with another story which is alluded to with “but that’s another story,” to which the audience responds “for another time”. The teller then continues with the tale. But, if anyone in the audience says, for example, “no, tell us the story of the wine merchants” the Drut’syla will do so. Usually that story leads back to the one we were on, but not necessarily, and there’s no guarantee you’ll hear the end of any given story. Not that night, anyway, and traditionally a Drut’syla telling can last for nights.
I could’ve listened for weeks! It wasn’t just the depth of her repertoire and the sense of an entire world you could explore, but Shonaleigh’s telling is so spare, so clean, with never a word too many nor a description too long. Utterly hypnotic. I sincerely think Shonaleigh should be awarded Museum status as a sincere acknowledgement of her, of her Grandmother and their tradition and of the importance of intangible culture, paradoxically enduring and at the same time fragile. Now that’d be a Facebook petition to sign!
I’m taking a few days break now but I’ll be in touch next week to share some exciting developments in the Alexander Pope commission. And I plan to record some poetry for you. So, keep checking in! See you soon.
Be one of the first people to see Alexander Pope: A Search for Perfection! I will be performing a sneak preview of my latest show at the Pope’s Grotto Preservation Trust symposium “The proper study of Mankind is Man” on Saturday 21st May 2016 at Radnor House School, Twickenham.
As it will be the first time I will have performed the piece in public, there will be an opportunity to feedback – who knows, you comments might help shape the final piece!
But the symposium is not all about me. Throughout the day there will be talks from leading authorities on Pope, a garden archaeologist and the planned virtual reconstruction of the Grotto. It’s a really exciting line up and you even get lunch.
For more information you can download the press release here and to book your tickets click here.
Tickets for my latest storytelling piece Alexander Pope: A Search For Perfection are now on sale for performances at Pope’s Grotto during the Twickenham Festival on Saturday 18th and Saturday 25th June 2016.
You can buy single or family tickets and I will be telling stories throughout the day giving you the chance to both listen to me and explore Pope’s fabulous and very curious Grotto.
Tickets are available via Eventbrite. For more information about the event please go to The Pope’s Grotto Preservation Trust Events and Newspage and subscribe to their email list. And of course, follow me on FacebookandTwitter for further updates!
More tickets for more dates will be available soon…
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?
So, I taught the last of five workshops, one each in Kolkata, Delhi, and two in Chandigarh. These are the kind of workshops I would love to do more often with teachers in UK. Essentially, it puts staff in touch with their memory, their imagination and with the natural storyteller in all of them. It is so rewarding to teach.
Children always sound excited when I tell them there are going to be no written notes. Grown-ups sound alarmed. I have to explain that, when you say “I’m writing it down so I can remember,” in fact, you are writing it down so you can forget. And of course staff were much more able to remember things than they thought and, at the end, were all confident they could replicate the workshop I taught them with their pupils, and were excited to do so.
So I taught them a Memory Technique from Ancient Rome (Cicero, if you’re interested in provenance) and then used that to get them to memorise a content-free story structure. Then, in just over five minutes (I kid you not) staff, in groups, were able to create new stories, each different from those of other groups, which are guaranteed to hang together and maintain listener attention because they are based on the same Story Structure as Star Wars (the first ever and the most recent) and, for that matter, the Ramayana. Having used this structure to devise the story we were then able to spend the rest of the workshop exploring the language used to develop the story and the voice used to deliver the story. All staff said they were amazed by the way that a little limitation of choice actually liberates, rather than kills, imagination, and agreed that nothing kills inventiveness more than absolute freedom of choice. A strange paradox, but something I’ve found again and again.
Best of all, I got to hear them tell stories! It never ceases to give me joy. I can remember, when I was 11ish, some friends and I were all discussing telepathy, and wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could put thoughts inside someone else’s head? I now know we can – use language to name things, describe things, narrate things, and a whole world can burst into life inside somebody else’s head. You put it there.
Here are some pictures of the lovely people I worked with in Chandigarh…..
Open boulevards, clear vistas, clean, straight avenues, clean lines on white modernist buildings. Designed, not evolved. In Kolkata we were met by white-kurtured concierge, black boots, red turban. In Delhi we were greeted at the hotel by a man in a red turban, but in a black Kurta and with a fabulous curling moustache. At Chandigarh, the concierge looks ultra-modern in what appears to be a combat shirt and baseball cap. The courtesy, the warmth, is the same. In the hotel lobby we hear not the twang and gulp of sitar and tabla but the soapy ooze of soul-jazz. No more the cortical whorls and grooves of Kolkata, it’s hive-like streets, with buildings and businesses packed tight and uneven as boxes in a cupboard, neither the palatial government buildings, majestic parks, pillared colonnades of New Delhi, but pale, rectilinear blocks, spaciously and evenly distributed. Le Corbusier, who planned the layout and much of the architecture of Chandigarh, famously stated that houses we’re “machines for living in”. So, what does it feel like to live in a machine? I’ll get back to you.