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How I started storytelling……

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Well, here I am setting up for my ‘Princess Amelia’ story in Beijing, of all places, at the International School there. ‘Princess Amelia’ is the story that started me on the storytelling path. I was being invited into schools to run author workshops for older children and was often asked if I could do something for the little ones as well – so started telling this story, with a script at first and lots of props and bits of costume for the children to join in. The concept worked so I started writing stories specifically to tell.  Virtually all of them have an inter-active element and a few of them have some props. One wonderful thing about telling stories, rather than writing them for reading, is that the audience acts as your instant editor. You find out very quickly if something isn’t working! Hence, I tend to read my stories to an audience fairly early on in the process – there’s no point in going to the trouble of rehearsing a story that isn’t going to work! So Edinburgh, you will get some new material that I’m keen to try out – as well as some tried and trusted stuff!

I was thrilled to perform at Banbury Presents on Saturday night – and told my most difficult story – and pulled it off! Hurray! Pity I fell apart the next day telling it to some very kind and encouraging children – but I had been telling stories for nearly an hour by then! Onwards and upwards, huh?

Banbury Presents

Well, all you Sand Dog Bloggers, I thought you might be interested in what I’m up to at the moment!

Good on Suzette Neptune for spear-heading ‘Banbury Presents’, a new festival of drama and literature this weekend. My Junior group from ‘The Theatre Space’ is performing an edited version of their hilarious Great Wedding Disaster, which started with family stories and then got crazier and crazier in the devising process! I will never forget The Attack of the Squirrel! See them at 6.25pm this Saturday 25th July. It’s all happening in ‘The Grand’, an old theatre masquerading as The Wonderlounge on Broad Street and the fun starts at 5pm.

I’m also warming up for my appearance at the Edinburgh Free Fringe by telling the most difficult of my stories – on the basis that it’s the most suitable for an audience that includes adults! It’ll be good practise but I’m pretty nervous. You can catch me in the storytelling and spoken word section from about 5 onwards. Or if you fancy seeing me in Edinburgh, then you only have to look at the details on my poster!

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Banbury Presents….

Good on Suzette Neptune for spear-heading ‘Banbury Presents’, a new festival of drama and literature this weekend. My Junior group from ‘The Theatre Space’ is performing an edited version of their hilarious Great Wedding Disaster, which started with family stories and then got crazier and crazier in the devising process! I will never forget The Attack of the Squirrel! See them at 6.25pm this Saturday 25th July. It’s all happening in ‘The Grand’, an old theatre masquerading as The Wonderlounge on Broad Street and the fun starts at 5pm.

I’m also warming up for my appearance at the Edinburgh Free Fringe by telling the most difficult of my stories – on the basis that it’s the most suitable for an audience that includes adults! It’ll be good practise but I’m pretty nervous. You can catch me in the storytelling and spoken word section from about 5 onwards. Or if you fancy seeing me in Edinburgh, then you only have to look at the details on my poster!

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Big Changes in my Youth Theatre!

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Not very long after my last blog entry, when I wrote passionately about why I love devising theatre with young people, the axe fell! The new management at The Mill Arts Centre decided that they no longer wanted a youth theatre in the form I ran it or indeed in the form the Cherwell Theatre Company ran the senior group and we were all sent on our way.

I had to think long and hard about what to do but in the end decided I would start again, in different premises, completely independently and not-for-profit. I want to keep fees low as I know the cost of drama classes can be very prohibitive. Hence, the birth of The Theatre Space, after much agonising/research on what sort of company to create (there are many!) and how on earth you do it! So the birth pangs were nasty but as with most births, the outcome is re-paying the effort!

Inevitably and sadly, I lost some members – I was changing to a different time (an evening) and proposed running only two classes rather than four – but we are up and running and preparing for our first show on 29th March. We’ll be in a church hall so this is all a steep learning curve for me, but I’m hiring in lighting and a sound system and a technician and we’ll see how it goes!

We have some spaces in the Junior Class (7 – 11s, Weds 5 – 6.30pm) next term and could probably squeeze a couple more into the Inters (12 – 14s, Weds 6.30 – 8.30pm) so do get in touch if you know someone who’d like to join us. You can email meg4ever@greenbee.net or you can contact me through the Contact section on this site or respond to this post – or fill in this form!

Devising Youth Theatre – why I love it!

 

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Well, it’s not exactly the smell of the greasepaint! I often joke that we ought to call what we do at The Mill Youth Theatre, Banbury, Minimillist Theatre – because everything we have is minimal – apart from the young people who throw themselves into it, to the MAX!

It’s theatre almost at its purest. After all, what do you really need but a space in which to perform, some actors and an audience?

We don’t have a budget for set or costumes – these are hard times for the arts. For each performance we get two evenings in The Mill Arts Centre theatre supported by a technician, during which I run tec and dress rehearsals for however many groups I have performing – at present, four. It’s a tight schedule as we can’t start till after school and we have to finish reasonably early because of school the next day, but we manage it. The technicians I’ve worked with have responded with everything from impatience to bemused tolerance – it’s not exactly normal territory – but I’m always extremely grateful to them. When you’ve no set other than a few chairs, a few well-timed sound effects and some suggestive lighting make all the difference. The best was when a particularly gifted teccie created the effect of words written in blood, appearing on the wall! He also got his hands on some money for a flame gobo! Bless that man!

On performance night, there are two shows, one for the under 12s and one for the over 12s, and the place buzzes! The under 12s pour in at 5.45, bringing an assortment of props that they’ve begged, borrowed or made and the sort of energy that only excited children can provide! This term we needed an effigy of Edward Jenner (see photo) which I made with two children and a helpful mum one Saturday morning. The only problem was, where to leave him: I didn’t want to keep him in my car but nor did I want to give some unsuspecting cleaner heart-failure if she came across him! Fortunately, we found a bed for him in the scene dock.

Our Juniors’ show this term was about the history of Banbury, each part devised and performed by a different Junior group, starting with the Siege of Banbury Castle and ending with the visit of the Rolling Stones to the Winter Gardens. I was delighted when one little girl brought along some photos she’d taken on a school trip to a local church; we had a section about the notorious murder of John Kalabergo – and she’d been very excited to find his grave in the churchyard!

The Inters, the 12-14s, created a piece of Forum Theatre called ‘The Right Way’ in which they explored the pressures upon them – exam pressure, parental pressure, pressure to be ‘perfect’, pressure from siblings, from bullies and control freaks. I was thrilled by the maturity of their performance which was hilarious in places but still very challenging, well-observed and thought-provoking. They responded brilliantly to the audience’s interventions, improvising new scenes on the spot. I was immensely proud of them.

Some of the members of The Mill Youth Theatre started when they were as young as five and are now in the Inters. It is an immense privilege to see them grow up and to watch their confidence and skill develop. I love the fact that, because we devise our own material, a child has considerable control over how big a role he or she wants to play. No one is consigned to ‘the chorus’; no one does an apprenticeship as a tree – or just a tree, anyway! We are dependent on physical theatre to a large extent – you have to be, if you have no set – but if you’re a tree in one scene, you might very well be the King of the Apes in another, whether you joined the company this term or you’re a seasoned veteran of our twice-yearly performances. Occasionally we will decide to write a script for a scene where we’re struggling to pull it together but that is exceptional. It means that even children who find reading challenging are at no disadvantage. On the whole, the children create their own scenes, perform them for each other, take on the feedback they’re given by me and their peers and then hone them, week after week, until by performance night, they are almost word perfect. I used to panic mid-term, wondering how we would ever get our raw material polished enough for performance but invariably we do. As one of my sons once said, ‘The Magic will happen.’ And it does, time after time after time.

It is the magic of drama and storytelling mixed with the energy and ideas of young people who, given the responsibility and the opportunity to be creative, will be. On performance night, I’m stuck in a wing with a headset so I can talk to the technician. We have some generous parents positioned in the wings in case of emergency – but the children run the show. They know where their props are and they know what they have to do – and they do it with aplomb and gusto.

I am immensely grateful to Deborah Clarke who employed me in the first place, believing I could do something with the 3 children who were on role at that time. The Mill is still a lovely place to work, full of artistic and friendly people who keep the faith, despite these straitened times.

I love devised youth theatre. I love what the young people do. I would give every child the opportunity to be part of a devising theatre company if I could. I think the social and educational benefits are enormous, quite apart from it being tremendous fun for everyone. It’s learning through play in both senses of the word and it starts with imaginative games as toddlers. God forbid that Ofsted with their worries about ‘school readiness’, start interfering with that!

The Joy of the Longer Author Visit – Beoley First School, Redditch

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Oh what a difference it makes when a school wants more than a day’s author visit! I have just finished a two day visit to Beoley First School, near Redditch and am mid-project at St John the Baptist RC Primary, in Smith’s Wood, Solihull.

Beoley First School gladdened my heart no end! Last Monday, I spent the day with each class in turn, story-telling with Reception and years 1 and 2 and using my stories as a spring-board for drama and creative writing with year 3 and for suspense writing with year 4. Yesterday I went back so that they could share what they had done so far and offer my suggestions for where they could take things next.

What a joy! Reception had made wonderful glasses for unhappy Princess Amelia (who doesn’t like wearing her new ones) and enthusiastically learnt some new drama games with me, years 1 and 2 had gone on to group-write some splendidly structured new stories and year 4 had worked hard to write suspense stories which they were ready to edit. They set to with a will, even though it was the end of the day and the skills they were employing were advanced. Year 3 had gone to town! They had planned and acted out new adventures for Hex from the story I’m working on, ‘Griff and the Griffin’, (publishers and agents, please note this is going down a storm with KS2 boys in particular), they had made their own mythical creatures (see photos) and they’d created and videoed dances for their mythical creatures too! They’d even used their outdoor learning to go and make dens for Hex and showed me the photographs!

Could Michael Gove and his cronies please note this plethora of creative and imaginative work and the dynamism and enthusiasm of the teachers? Back in the sixties, I never had so much fun at school and nor did I have such varied educational opportunities. Incidentally, Reception also had visits from the local policeman and the doctor last week and a librarian will visit next week with the Bookstart project. Honestly, it brings tears to my eyes – how wonderful! All right, so I’m sure some teachers are less than brilliant but it’s not what I see when I visit schools and I visit a lot! I see energy and enthusiasm meshed with huge kindness and respect for young people, even in some very difficult circumstances.

I’m visiting St John’s tomorrow so more on that anon!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fantastic Frankfurt!

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Here I am role-playing my larger-than-life character, Jo Lofthouse, otherwise known as Big Bum Mum and lover of large, loud T-shirts, at Frankfurt International School where I’ve recently had a lovely week working with every class in the elementary department. What delight it was! I love it when a school wants me to run workshops, rather than just wheel in an author to do the traditional author talk plus questions – you know the sort of thing – ‘What’s it like to be an author?’, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ and the inevitable ‘Are you very rich?’ I’m never quite sure what function the ‘author talk’ serves as the answers to all the questions must surely be unique to every writer? I know that I’m in the mid-range, for example, when it comes to planning – I have a rough plan for a novel but for me part of the adventure is seeing how the story develops as I write. Other writers I know just plunge in and others plan every iota before they start – so I’m wary of appearing to be representative of my breed! If the aim is simply to excite the pupils into reading a book by an author they’ve met, fair enough – you never know, it might spring-board them into a life-long love of reading. Even so, I’ve occasionally despaired of the sort of questions I’m asked! I’m sure the local community policeman or vicar would have some equally interesting answers to questions such as ‘Have you any pets?’ or ‘What’s your favourite colour?’ So whereas I’m always happy to do an author talk and to make it as inspiring as possible, I love it when I’m asked to do workshops! : )

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Anyway, thank you very much to Mary Beth Steidl, librarian extraordinaire at Frankfurt International Elementary School. What a wonderful, welcoming, colourful, comfortable book haven she has created and maintains! It was a delight to work with her and her library assistant Sue and to have the chance to run different workshops for different age groups. I was particularly thrilled to combine drama with creative writing with the Grade 3s but perhaps most special of all was to have the chance to create a new story for the Grade 2s to tie in with their work on Memory Boxes. Here I am, sharing it with them with the help of my cuddly old bull-shaped pyjama case, Pedro, my trusty companion since I was about eight. Thanks as well to the splendid agency, Authors Abroad, who facilitated the visit. Later this week, I’ll share the story with you too!

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