Monday, 23 August 2010

Beautiful Days

For the Beautiful Days Festival, we had a crew of five from the Collective - ourselves Widsith & Deor, Andi and Mandy of Freeplay, and Liz of (individual website under construction). Working for Majical Youth, we had a marquee in the Craft area and slots in the Storytelling Circle in the 'Under the Redwoods' performance space between 6 and 9pm each evening.
At first I must confess to thinking (having been back home for all of three days) 'oh no, not another one', but actually... Andi and Mandy arrived for a quick cup of tea and to kindly take some of the supplies, and - after a while as her train was delayed - we picked up Liz from the station (as she had come up from Penzance), having packed the storytelling van full of leather, sheepskins, cow hide, tools, carnival heads and posts, bodymasks, fabric, and cooking gear - i.e. all the necessary stuffs for storytelling, workshops, event decor, and being out of doors for days. Plus books in case we got a chance to sell. Then fitted in all Liz's gear, and off we went.
Thursday was marquee decoration and Freeplay did a splendid job, the place a palace of drapes and cut bunting, finished off by their big fabric sign and our carnival heads on poles. It rained a lot in the night, and we were allotted a parking space on a steep slope and not given any blocks, so it was a struggle whenever the back doors were opened not to let the sleeping bags shoot out onto the floor! But on the other hand, it was a great spot in other ways - because it was right at the back of the crew camping, with access to the tea tent over the way, two vans away from the rest of our own Collective crew, and right next to a secret back entrance into the field with the main arena, so within five metres, one overlooked the main stage!
The workshops - a lunchtime session on Friday, and two mornings over the weekend - went very well. Mandy offered peg loom weaving as folks made their own rag rugs! Some taking hours, others just making something small to sit on. Adults were addicted, and children amazed at their own handiwork. Andi showed folks how to make 'magic wristbands' - leather strips that wove into themselves without cutting off the end, like a mobius strip, I showed them how to make simple classic Viking plaited leather wristbands, fellow storyteller Deor (whose original workshop the whole leather one was) showed them how to make gauntlets and masks, and Liz kitted people out with carnival masks from paper, card, sequins, feathers, glue and other things. We catered for every age group, the smallest children preferring carnival masks, to middling ones wanting animal masks - mixing cardboard with cow hide - and tails! to teenagers making anklets to adults making full face creepy animal head masks, guitar straps (from rags) and one person a furry stole, and another a miniskirt/belt complete with cash pocket! Needless to say, people were very appreciative and some didn't want to leave - 'I haven't cleaned my teeth yet or anything - I just got a call from my daughter saying 'Mum, you've got to come - there's a leather workshop - you'll love it!' ' - high praise from someone who works at heaps of festivals for a living, as the latter was a comment from a stallholder who provides food at all hours to wasted festival goers throughout each summer.
Our storytelling went equally well, the host being teller John Row who organizes the storytelling tent in the Kidz Field at Glastonbury and has done for some years. We told in a circular fire space under tall trees, a twenty minute to half hour set each evening, and to my delight, we started off with people sitting in a semi circle, and as we performed, it became a full circle, and by the end, concentric rings - always a good sign.
Unlike the Buddhafield we had excellent support in the rest of the Collective, other friends were there, and we even had some time to enjoy ourselves. Meals were also Collective, and I was surprised, pleased and relieved as ever at how well we all work together. On Monday we weren't so shattered that we just had to leave (unlike some previous festivals, and despite the torrent of rain on Sunday night) so we went 'tatting' as Mandy calls it - seeking for anything useful amidst the piles of rubbish and junk left by festival goers. I know a number of people who gather tents and allsorts of stuff at the end of events and sell them afterwards. And sure enough - a green heavy duty waterproof jacket, a small foldaway umbrella (working), piles and piles of bread rolls still wrapped in plastic and packed in boxes - we asked and the hot dog place said they didn't want them, we told the kid's crew, and their caterers collected box loads! an air bed, tarpaulin, pristine pillows scented only with washing powder, solid clean bucket with handle, wooden stakes, pink organza, tableware, yellow tutu...the list went on. We each took a few useful things and shook our heads with wonder at the rest - the things people throw away...
Pleased with how our part of it went, that we were a good team, that the weather even at its worst had cleared up and been basically reasonable, and at the festival itself, we parted in good fellowship. Huge thanks to Andi, Mandy, Liz, Sam and Alex for being such a great crew and so talented/helpful, also to Bicton Ben and lovely Kate for providing extra amusement, Jackie Brown of Manic Organic, and to Helen, Jo and Majical Youth for booking us again, John Row for hosting us, Ruth for telling such great tales, and all involved in putting on such a nice and relaxed festival.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Performing Contemporary American Fiction

Storytelling Written Fiction...

I love storytelling - I love it not least because it frees one from all constraints of how literary work 'should be done'. When I first became aware of it, it seemed to be some strange branch of theatre, but one I didn't understand as while lots of movement and emphasis and voices were in order, the lack of props, costumes, sets and lighting phased me. And of course the extremely stripped down cast... That was then. It's long since I've seen it as an amazing artform - fluid, dynamic, spontaneous - with room for both the polished drama of a speech in the mouth of a hero or powerful narrator, to pocket or full length play all created by one person, sometimes with only one 'voice', and minimal or no props... An artform as old as mankind, that harks back to some of the most vital parts of our 'intangible heritage' - oral history, myth, legend, folklore, folk tales. An art that automatically combines words with performance, and uses movement in gesture, asks, as the scops did in the Dark Ages, for music, and that can be very visual and even use dance. An art that carries its history on its sleeve from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Viking Sagas to Medieval fairytales, and wears its erudition lightly, taking ancient clay tablets and obscure global heritage and fashioning it into something for your ear in the local pub. An art that crosses continents more effortlessly than most, as storytellers from all over the world tell tales from the other side of the world. That somehow, never having been to Sweden or Bulgaria say, I can bring them closer to me, the farmer/peasant culture of turnip tales from the 1600's or Sly Peter the fool figure whose first recorded mentions are also from 1600-1700 by telling those tales. I feel these cultures and past times are suddenly closer at hand, and can be conjured for others to do the same for them too.

The other magical thing about storytelling is its sheer flexibility. And so when I wondered about the relationship which there could be between written literary/post-mass literate society literature and real storytelling, I didn't come to any conclusions but instead just natural occurrences. (No conclusions that is, except that's its bloody hard to write a real fairytale with a true feel of the originals, and that many attempts to construct latterday folktales for oral telling instead of purely literary tributes, had fallen into the numerous pitfalls attendant on such an attempt. And that it was a lot harder than it looked! to retain the simplicity and wisdom of the real thing.)
Instead what happened was this; There were days when the next Storyclub would suddenly come up, and catch me completely unprepared. (For some reason I have never told the same tale twice at the Storyclub unless a second tale is called for - some fetish I suppose.) At which point I would glance round in trepidation, and my co-storyteller would ask me - well what story DO you remember? And it would be something which I had read - either recently, or in one case, years ago - while trawling through e-zines to make sure they were of a good enough quality to be of interest to readers of Spoken/Written Bulletin to be worth their while submitting to.

In every case so far, the stories which I have (in haste) recollected and then retold, have all been from contemporary American fiction. And very splendid examples they have been of them too - hence being so damn memorable that when it came to re-telling them, I could remember the plots and characters, give them all their voices, and fill in any missing details with the storyteller's 'spontaneous adaptation facility' (otherwise known as 'making it up as you go along') - despite sometimes having read them some time ago.

The Stories Themselves...

The first one was a startlingly memorable sci fi/fantasy story called 'Our House' by Paul Di Filippo. It has a repetition structure perfect for storytelling - there is a house with three floors (which all have their features), three couples live there, and each of the two main characters have two encounters apiece - it's also wacky, striking, and the kind of story that's so 'well of course', that you wonder why you hadn't written it yourself. But that of course, is its genius - to capture something that's parallel to what so many understand as being past/present/future, and also the problems and pleasures of shared house living...
The first time I performed it, the audience came to be in hysterics especially on the "Mrs Ab! We've only just met...!"'s just a case of getting the timing right on this most generous and perfectly put together of tales. I was thanked very kindly for telling it, and people said they could see why I had remembered it for so long!

Another amazing and completely different story is 'Requiem' by Joshua James Wilson Mattern. It's an incredibly powerful monologue of one man trying to decide what to say - or indeed whether to speak at all - at his estranged father's funeral. At the behest of his beloved sister Sherry, he decides he has to say's a brilliant exploration into that mixture of love, hate, pity, anger and duty that runs through difficult family relationships, and his eventual resolution is, bizarrely both shocking - as is the first line - and 'right'. When I did that one, I felt (probably from drama training) that I became him, and when I stood at the end, I knew the whole audience was with me - it was cathartic, and people were very kind - one person coming up to me and saying 'that was incredibly powerful, and you are an amazing storyteller' afterwards. Just putting on one of my American accents (from drama) and getting lost in the wonderful writing of Joshua Mattern, it was more his triumph than mine, and I e-mailed the magazine afterwards to let them/him know. It was no surprise that they were nominating him for the Pushcart Prize! And were glad I had got in touch.

A story that was totally different again was a retelling or rather a latterday Southern folktale from the Deep South - I was looking at the web resources searching for tales for that month's theme, when I came across a great site called the The Moonlit Road. I flicked through and at once came upon a tale I liked the look of - 'Deal with the Devil'. It read so well and so classically like a folktale, that it was only after I had read it to learn it, that I realized it actually had an author and was a modern 'folktale' by David Hirt. It's very hard to write like a 'real' folktale, and I would class books like Angela Carter's 'The Bloody Chamber' firmly in the literary tradition. To write and capture the old oral mores and tensions in a story is really a lot harder than it looks. (I only have two short stories which I think come anywhere near, and one I'm not so sure about. The other I modify a lot when telling aloud, as well as cut down.) - So I was much impressed by 'Deal with the Devil' which has all the slow richness of a genuine tale from the Deep South - and I had the joy of using another American accent. This one also went down really well with the audience, and I think they thought it must be a 'folktale' without an author till the end, too.

Why do I tell American fiction? - perhaps it's the sheer number of e-zines out there to cater for the many writers of a vast country (but writing in English), or perhaps the strong 'voice' that we in the UK (or at least those of us raised on old films!) can really 'hear', but whatever it is, there's some true gems to be found and told. It's a pleasure to tell them, whether sci fi, monologue or folk story.

To check out these great stories;

Our House by Paul Di Filippo, published online at;

Requiem by Joshua James Wilson Mattern, published online at;

Deal with the Devil by David Hirt published online at;

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

National Play Day

Another Play Day - our fourth for the play association based in Dorchester. Having done willow wings and swords, leaf mobiles, harvest crowns, leather wristbands and gauntlets, this time we were doing mobiles, head dresses, willow rattles/corndollies, dragonflies and building a Viking boat! And of course, storytelling.
Leaving really early, to set up the Pavilion by 9.30 for a 10am start...after coming back from Cornwall on Sunday, was not ideal...but we were all ready to go on time, and offered dragonflies, mobiles and helping build a willow boat sculpture. The boat turned out beautifully - it was made of willow panels, with a mast, rudder, figurehead of the unicorn carnival head, and peopled with masks like the green goblin and grey wolf. It looked splendid, and by the end had arches set in the decks...
The mobiles and head dresses were popular, and I was pleased to see that folks of all ages and genders were interested, and the mobile I made to set the ball rolling drew much praise. (Still a kick, having only been any kind of maker relatively recently.) As ever, some smaller folk decided to make the willow rings themselves, while some teenagers and adults bottled out and requested to have pre-made ones or us to make them - never predictable who chooses to or not. Some made wonderful trailing head dresses, and others fairy crowns. Some from organza fabric, and others from curling ribbon. As ever also, by three o'clock, I felt I had been cutting up fabric forever... However much stuff ready cut up you go with, people always tear through it, and as fast as you make more, they vacuum it up, like (as said in a previous blog) guests at an endless feast, some calling for beer, and some for cake, and all for cheese and biscuits...(again, to use the same book as analogy as in a previous blog -) like Bilbo in 'The Hobbit' when the dwarves come visiting...
Willow rattles/dollies/torches or whatever one wants to call them went down well in the afternoon, small children to adults taking up the challenge, but for the faint hearted of every age, we still offered mobiles and crowns, and got a couple of people wanting wings. And of course a few desperate for swords, again, as always.
Perhaps we should, as Wayne pointed out, review offering an interactive boat sculpture however, as every time we've done it so far, the weather has tipped it down! The weather was distinctly changeable - luckily dry when we set up, and sunny on taking down and clearing up! but grey and misty during parts of the day, and pouring with rain twice. The Pavilion of course was packed, and Deor performed the Inca flood myth as the rain pelted down. We also did Bulgarian and Swedish tales which made everyone laugh, and then Deor finished with a dark but haunting and beautiful tale of 'when King Hal shall ride again'.
I didn't even have time to stop for lunch, as folks came in wanting to make things as I took my first bite of the burgers being handed out to those working there, and didn't stop till after every other attraction had finished either, as folks kept wanting more! The very last being a couple making a mobile to hang in their baby's nursery...

We all lay about on the grass dazed and in my case confused as well, after the last bits of fabric and willow were gone, the camera's charge exhausted and the Pavilion packed away...and were paid promptly (always pleasant!) and praised a great deal - 'we think you're wonderful' said the organizers, 'so flexible!' They loved how popular we were, how we offer things both simple and complex for every age and competency/confidence range, the sheer number of things we offer, how we entertain folks when the weather's foul, and generally how we always think of something. At one point it rained hard enough that only two things were still going on! Of which we were one. They were pleased and impressed with us as usual, and said things like 'another reason you're amazing is -' which always goes down well!
Tired but pleased to be appreciated and glad to see some of the wonderful rattles and crowns and mobiles folks had made, as well as marvelling at the lovely boat, we all trundled back to Devon to have supper at a pub we knew, before the others made their way back to Cornwall, and ourselves to the city, and me to bed!

The last thing that was REALLY nice was that Ann of PlayPlus, who had bought a copy of 'Porlock the Warlock' last time, had read it and so said 'I loved your book' and had also lent it to her daughter who also liked it a lot - it's always so great to hear when people have enjoyed it.

BIG Thanks to Ann, Carol and Sarah of PlayPlus for booking us and all involved in setting up the event!