Taking down evil in storytelling is quite often presented as an individualistic action. A hero will defeat a villain. These characters are binary. The hero is good and the villain is bad. This narrative has been served up to us time and time and time again. Even when we get told stories about a group of people battling another, this is quite often reduced down to leaders.
However banishing the monsters of this world is a collective effort. For so long, we have been living in a story of a pyramid. We have been consumed by the notion of the ‘One’.
The one who rules us. The one who stole our heart. The one who cast dark magic. The one that got away with it. The one that saves us. The one that had roast beef. The one that had none.
It is an isolating view of the world and it stops us diversifying what we know, who we know and how we learn. It comes with an enormous pressure. For those that are the one and for those who are not.
When we look at the moments when there was a pivot in society, we would see that those moments are built on ‘We’ and ‘Us’. Not ‘I’ and ‘me.’ The Civil Rights movement, the Suffragettes, School Strike for Climate, Black Lives Matter. These were built by grass root collectives.
Good and just society is neither the thesis of capitalism nor the antithesis of communism, but a socially conscious democracy which reconciles the truths of individualism and collectivism.
Martin Luther King Jnr
So let’s start telling stories where people come together to ask for a better life. Let’s hear stories which aren’t about ‘the one’ but are about ‘Us’. We will discover other ideas and other people and we may even find ourselves sat in their stories in ways that surprise and delight us.
I am thirsty and I am in the desert. I am not sure how I came to being in the desert. At one point I was in a room full of people. Some of those people where those that I love and some were people that I hadn’t met yet. The room was full.
Then someone turned out the light. The colour drained to blackness, the noise of all of those voices were silent, I couldn’t see. I didn’t seem able to move. No I could move, but I might as well of not bothered because it remained black. Sometimes the sound of my own breath was deafening. I slept and slept and slept.
When I woke I was in the desert. The light was bright to begin with. The sun burning my eyeballs. I had to cover my eyes with my hands and let my vision adjust from darkness to light.
Sand got everywhere. Everywhere. In my mouth, up my nose, in my ears and the fibres of my clothes. I didn’t notice that I was thirsty then. Although I probably was. I was dealing with the sand. So I lifted my t-shirt over my nose. To stop the sand blowing into my mouth. The days were hot.
The night was cold and long. Sleep escaped me. Underneath that blanket of infinite stars that shone in the velvet blue sky, I felt lonely.
I am haunted by memories of place where space was held for thoughts, beliefs, experiences. Where things were weaved, stitched, spoken, drawn, constructed. Where people came together.
I am in the desert and I have been here for some time. I have tried walking forward. Tried to find water. Tried to find people. I guess I need help. I think others may be in a desert too. So maybe be if we shout into the silent night sky and sign our names in the sand, we can find water. Water for everyone.
An open letter can be found here that asks Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and to the board and staff of Arts Council England to open a dialogue about the problems facing community arts. If you are a community artist or an arts organisation that supports participatory arts, you may want to add your voice.
If you are not a community artist, but want to support, please consider writing to your M.P. and/or the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. It may be helpful to talk about your experiences as a participant on a community arts project.You can find their detail and write to them here.
This afternoon, I entered into a Zoom meeting with composer and musician Tayo Akinbode, hosted by Z-Arts. Being a storyteller, can be a lonely process and we are living in a lonely time, so it was great to hear about how Tayo creates music to tell a story.
One of the thoughts that regularly swills around my head is around the difference and similarities between working with children or adults. It’s a question I get asked regularly moving between these different groups that I work with. It leaves me a bit stumped as other then a slight modification of language, there is no difference. Children laugh and so do adults. Adults struggle crossing the creative threshold and so do children. Both children and adults want to hear and tell stories. So it is a relief to hear someone as experienced as Tayo say ‘I wouldn’t dumb down music for children.’
I have finished writing the story of my family ancestors. A project I was inspired to start after working with Emily O’Shea company, On The Border. I am now in the process of editing the story into an audio experience and it is a relief to be piecing the story together. The writing process has been difficult. The vision I sat down with was to create a piece of audio storytelling about my great-grandparents. They were performers at the turn on the 20th century who went on to manage some of the first variety cinema’s in the country (a mixture between Music Hall and Cinema). Before I sat down to research, this part of my family had mythical qualities. I wanted to use Music Hall numbers in order to help tell their story. I wanted this to be a piece for family audiences. Something that could be enjoyed with everyone – an intergenerational activity. That you could listen at a distance together with your elderly granny who is shielding and your 8 year old nephew who is home schooling. That it would open up conversations about family stories in a way that I could not have with my own grandparents. I was going to use this idea to develop my creative practice, to experiment and play.
But the doubts creep in. Will children get this? Is the music too bawdy? Am I just inventing truths that I cannot find? Is this material appropriate for family audiences? Nothing kills playtime like doubt and nothing makes experimentation more pointless then isolation. So thanks to Z-Arts for providing connection and thanks to Tayo for grounding me and reminding me that children are no different from the rest of us, which in my wobbly, lonely, creative moments I forget.
I grew up in Reading and we had family down in Bath. When we drove down to see them in Bath, my Dad would play Peter Gabriel’s albums. We loved the track, Solsbury Hill. We used to drive past Solsbury Hill on the route to see our family. We used to climb up it (when you could). We loved that song. We’d ask for more Peter Gabriel. We’d listen Red Rain, Don’t Give Up and Games without Frontiers. We did not hear the loaded political meaning in these songs. We didn’t here the meanings that I as an adult now hear. Tayo told us today ‘Children like Music.’ Its a simple statement, but it is an easy one to make. No matter how much I see my children request Michael Jackson (their Dad’s favourite) or sing along to Fleetwood Mac (Rumours is my go to Album), in my artistic process my lived knowledge gets crowded out by my doubts over how to execute an idea. I managed to create children into something ‘other.’
That is why I love working creatively with children. They remind me that we are all not that different from each other. I’m looking forward to Z- Arts opening their doors again so I can be reminded of this by the real child experts, the children themselves. Until then, I will keep going. Clumsily put one foot in front of the other.
After all music is music to be made, all stories are stories waiting to be told and all humans are humans waiting to be heard, no matter their size.
This project am I am working on has bee made possible by funding from the Arts Council Emergency Response Fund. The funding has allowed me time to develop my skills, conduct research and connect to other artists. My thanks go to Z-Arts for providing free access to these conversations and understanding that these conversations are needed.
There is truth that artists are encouraged to access their inner child to cultivate their creativity. I am sure that you have heard this or something along those lines in the past. I get where it comes from. As artists we need to have intuition, knowledge, curiosity and a playful approach to our creative practices. However this phrase does a little disservice to children themselves.
Around the country and maybe even the world, there is an uptake in home learning. There is an understanding that children need to be practicing something creative. It will be engaging, they will have fun and they may even use some additional skills that will bring in the more formal elements of a child’s learning. Those elements that as a society we seem to prize above all other things – English and Maths! Oh, for a dismantlement of this structure. However this is not the blog that I am going to write.
Picasso and Lennon, two of the biggest creative talents of the 20th Century, told us that all children are artists. I am not going to disagree with them. I think we are capable of creating art, but there is a trend I have observed in children and adults alike, in my community practice. Whether we are making maps, retelling tales, meeting new characters, writing lists. Whether they are 8 or 80, a blank page empties the mind. Everyone is full of fears and doubts that block imagination and stamp the message on the inside of their forehead “Art is not for you.”
The thing is because artists are encouraged to access theor inner child and because we have all seen the quote art ‘Every child is an Artist”, which Picasso may have not actually said, we seem to think that children can create something out of nothing.
Children are not creative machines. No one is. It takes time, space, love, inspiration, commitment and play to create. That is all tiring. Sometimes we need to rest, reflect, dream. The truest thing I know as a community artist is that we are all capable of creating with enough encouragement. So what have we all discovered in our creative fervour that has been poured out since lockdown begun in March?
I have found that my expectations on my own children are not what I have for the children I teach. In the early weeks of lockdown. We made rainbows and dragons and mermaids and masks and puppets and pictures. We made them and then they were abandoned. They clutter up the corners of our messy home, gathering dust. I quietly slip them into the bin, a crafty craft post bedtime cull. These outcome based activities passed the time. Sometimes we were really happy to do these tasks and sometimes we made things with my parents over video chat and sometimes we were very cross when we created. I see now that it is forced. I as a maker would find this wearing to never control what I create. I wouldn’t feel proud all the time. I wouldn’t always be interested. If this was my exposure to creating, I would feel very controlled.
Crafting is important. Through doing this we learn how to cut, stick, stitch, sketch, tie, weave. These are important skills for children to have and skills that children don’t get a lot of time to practice once they are in the confines of the National Curriculum. It is vital that children get this practice in. But copying a craft made by someone else is not necessarily a development of our children’s creativity.
So where is the balance? What is the answer? We have to find the mid-ground. We have to provide the opportunity for our children to create. We have to listen to our children and follow their interests. We have to expose our children to ideas. The good news is that ideas are everywhere – games, tv, books, magazines, the natural world. We might have to provide some materials for our children to create with. We then have to let children own their process.
One of the things my youngest daughter loves is her torn paper. We have a box of scrap paper. This box includes old leaflets, envelopes, packaging. If we cut something out of a clean piece of paper we put the cuttings we don’t use into the paper box. But this is not the paper my daughter is interested in. She found some paper from a pastel coloured paper pad. And she tore them up. She stored them in a basket. She places them in little piles on the battered lid of an old gift box. She sorts them very neatly. They’re her cupcakes that she’s made or food for her animals or insects in her garden. It’s annoying at times, to trip or slip over this. It looks a mess. I could dismiss this as rubbish. Tell her to stop tearing up the new paper and use the communal torn paper box. TO STOP LEAVING IT ALL. OVER. THE. HOUSE. If I did this, I would be shutting her off from her creative practice.
The good news is we can all aid children to be creative, but we need to stop expecting creativity to pour out of them. We need to understand that the barriers we have to creativity, are the same barriers that children have. We need to understand that for as long as we focus on products above processes we aiding the shutting down of our children’s creativity. We need to understand that we will never innovate if we are first not inspired to do so.
‘People. Just the idea that the individual is capable of looking after himself, that we don’t need centralized government, that we don’t need father-figures and leaders, that every child is an artist until he’s told he’s not an artist that every person is great until some demagogue makes him less great.’
The actual quote by John Lennon, said in response to what should replace society’s hierarchical model of functioning- Penthouse Magazine, 1969.
If you are someone who sweats at the word ‘creative’ and feels it is a word so utterly other to you, you are allowed to not use that word. Try ‘experiment’ or ‘play’ or ‘investigate’ or ‘build.’ You have all the intuition to lead your child towards creativity, and knowledge will come with practice. If you’re in doubt as to where to begin, go for a walk and let your child lead you.
This time, more then ever we need stories. Many famous and more intelligent thinkers and writers than me say that after shelter, food and air we need stories. We need stories to listen to and we need stories to tell. But after numerous conversations with friends, peers, fellow artists and family I see a similar trait in behaviour and it’s linked to the way we tell stories.
“We don’t need a list of rights and wrongs, tables of dos and don’ts: we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.”
― Philip Pullman
‘I know how lucky I am compared to others…’ is a mantra that is rolled off the tongue repeatedly. I hear it so often, as often as tales begin with “Once upon a time…”. However where “Once upon a time” leads to a story, “I know how lucky I am compared to others” is the completion of a story that hasn’t even been uttered. Now don’t get me wrong, of course we are lucky compared to others and during this difficult time, we need to count our good fortunes and appreciate what we do have. Gratitude is important. Good fortune can keep us healthy and secure. There are plenty of tales of characters losing everything through a lack of appreciation – like this one.
“I know how lucky I am” has become a sneaky silencer of our conflicts and our stories. But it doesn’t need to be. Your stories matter. Hearing the stories of our friends, colleagues and family (the good, the bad and the ugly) will combat the other dominant force in our lives currently – Loneliness. By denying the stories that you need to tell, you are denying your humanity. Many of us would be horrified to find out that we had been silencing the voice of others, and yet we think nothing of silencing ourselves.
I am currently, furiously, painfully trying to tell the story of my great grandparents. They died in the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. This has involved a lot of connecting dots through research using ancestry websites and it has been a background project for about 8 months. I have discovered so many wonderful things about them, things that none of us knew. But I have to guess at what they think and feel.
I would have loved to have found letters and diary entries that they had written, I would have loved to have stories told down through time, so much so that the way the stories were told is a story in themselves. But I do not. For many reasons this is not available.
So I want you to imagine, that 100 years from now, your great grandchild is trying to understand how you felt about the time you live in. What would you want them to know? And if you’re not sure where to begin, what questions would you ask your ancestors who lived 100 years ago?
You could write these questions down and you could answer for your time. You could or you could not. Or you could tell your story to the audience that you currently have, the audience who are invested in you now. Your friends, your colleagues, your family.
So instead of using “I know how lucky I am compared with others”, try “Today, I felt…” because we want to, need to hear your stories, even if your voice shakes.
I have been thinking over this last month about listening. It goes without saying that if we all want to have greater connection to the world around us, we have to be attentive listeners. I have previously blogged about the things you can do with your body to help you listen more comfortably. I am aware that we all understand that we should be better listeners, but its easy to forget about that when Facebook prompts us with ‘What’s on your mind?’ or Twitter’s decision to double the number of characters late last year. We are told to tell all, but are we listening?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the dangers of a single story in her powerful TED talk. We have to challenge that one story we know about a certain person or country. This single story limits us and stops us listening. At the extreme, this is what the far-right have always used to justify actions of hate and discrimination. However, at the milder end, we are all missing out on opening our minds to the people and possibilities that surround us.
I am currently reading Keith Johnstone’s ‘Improv for Storytellers’. He writes that instead of telling his students to be ‘Good Listeners’, he encourages them to ‘Be altered by what was said.’ I can’t think of a more apt way for explaining the effect that listening should have on us. So whether we are trying to tune into a conversation in a board room, our children telling us about their day or trying to listen to ourselves with greater integrity, all these moments could lead to alterations about the way we perceive the world. It’s time to let our minds be changed, influenced, informed or moved by what we hear in the world around us.
Last November, I finished reading Phillip Pullman’s Book of Dust. Wow, I was swept up in the storms and flooding of Oxford and thrilled with reading about the early days of Lyra, 15 years after first picking up the Amber Spyglass. I was pleased, I had had a good run of books, before Book of Dust, I had read Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest book, Here I am and re read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for the twelfth time.
I thought about the books that I wasn’t reading. The majority of the books I have read have always been written by white, men. Here I was, trying to throw myself into other worlds. Worlds as varied as the last few books I had read and yet I wasn’t challenging myself to read work written by other, not enough. So I decided to challenge myself to only read books by anyone other than white men. Six months in, I am more excited about reading than I ever had been. I have time travelled along the Indus, with Alice Albinia and trapped between the pages of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. I have been haunted by the language of Nikita Gill’s Wild Embers. I have commuted with short stories and essays from Chinua Achebe, Betty Friedan and Dorothy Parker (Penguin Modern Classics, £1 a book). I uncovered the history of the women and their voices with Mary Beard and am currently lost in 1970’s America with Joan Didion in her collection The White Album. These are just some of my highlights.
However, I have had to break the rules. Normally when it came to do with work. Storytelling and folklore theory have tripped me up and I have had to read books that where edited, collected or written by white men. Women are present in this scene, but seminal works belong to white men – clue in that adjective.
Generally this challenge has been really fulfilling and exciting and I currently have a shelf full of books that are still waiting to be read. I am always looking for recommendations, what do you suggest?
Little Red Riding is a shocking tale. It’s more than the simplified children’s tale of doing what your told (Sticking to the path) and not talking to strangers (the Big, Bad Wolf). We think of all of the Grimm tales and their counterparts as being for children.
The original name of the Collection was Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children and Household Tales.) We as modern audience focus on the side of the tales that are for children, but what about the ‘Household’ part of the collection?
When I get asked, as a Storyteller, what content I would perform for adults, I see a lot of nose wrinkling when I say traditional tales like you would find within the collections of Grimm Brother’s, Charles Perrault, Giambattista Basile.
Many of these collectors and writers including Hans Christians Anderson, had not purposely written or recorded their work for audiences made up solely of children. If you read the Juniper Tree from Brother’s Grimm, you are faced with a tale of murder, deceit, cannibalism and children being horribly manipulated alongside a magic tree, a bartering bird, and a little girl. These traditional tales can be (and should be) adjusted to the audience that are listening to them. Often though the tales are heavily diluted into sweet bedtime tales and a patronising delivery of “And the moral of the story is….”
Storytelling is a gateway into literacy (more on this is another blog), if we cheapen the tales in this way, it is no wonder no one can be bothered to sit down and orally share tales. We all love telling anecdotes, we are all storytellers, so why not take these tales and use them as a tool to unpick our modern life.
Cinderella is a tale of slavery. Worldwide, it’s estimated that there are 4.5 million victims of sex trafficking. Beauty and the Beast a tale of imprisoning a young woman. The Beast can be found in the likes of Ariel Castro and Josef Fritzl. The Elves and the shoemaker tells a story if helping those most in need. We need these stories to help us connect into the world we live in.
These stories could be serving as much now, as when they were originally bought into the public consciousness, as they have throughout the whole history of humankind.