Music is Music

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.

Solsbury Hill

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.

In the way of a good tale.

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.

The Mouse, The Bird, The Sausage

A tale adapted from the Grimm Brother’s collection

nce, three unlikely friends lived in the hollow of a tree – a mouse, a bird and a sausage. They lived happily in their home, each with their own tasks to keep their home happy.

It was Bird’s job to fetch the twigs for their small fire. It was Mouse’s job to keep their home swept and clear of spiders and cobwebs. It was Sausage’s job to make their dinner. He would stir the pot and then he would go for a swim through the dinner to add flavour.

One day, Bird got to thinking about the different jobs that they all did. Mouse only had to sweep the floor once a day and all Sausage did was go for a swim through the pot and stand there stirring. Meanwhile the bird had to fly through the forest all day to collect twigs and carry them home. It didn’t seem fair that she had to constantly come and go while the others did very little.

Bird complained to her housemates that she felt she worked harder then the others. Mouse and Sausage did not want their friend to be unhappy. They agreed to swap jobs. Sausage would go and fetch the twigs, Mouse would make the dinner and Bird would sweep the floor.

Bird was happy this. She felt she had gone from the hardest job to the easiest.At the start of a new day she swept the floor. Seeing that her job was done she decided to go for a nap. It wold seem that frustrations had taken its toll and she slept all day.

Meanwhile Sausage, had headed out of there hollow and into the woods. He felt great to be away from the host stove and he enjoyed looking at the forest and all of its wonders. He smelt great. So great that his smell filled the forest and snuck into the nose of a nearby fox. The fox followed the scent trial over and under logs until Sausage came in sight. As Sausage bent down to pick up a fallen twig, the fox leapt out from behind a bush and swallowed Sausage down in one noise gulp. That was the end of Sausage.

Meanwhile back at home Mouse had been making the dinner, just as she had seen Sausage do. She chopped up the vegetables, just as she had seen Sausage do. She slid the vegetables into the boiling pot of water, just as she had seen Sausage do. She stirred and stirred all day long, enjoying making food for her friends, just as she had seen Sausage do. And just like Sausage, she dived into the boiling pot to add flavour. Unlike Sausage, she could not swim and the heat was too much for her small fragile body. She drowned in the dinner. That was the end of Mouse.

When Bird woke it was dark and the house was quiet. The fire had gone out and the dinner was cold. She scoffed. Clearly Sausage and Mouse were not up to the tasks that they had taken on. She waited. A long time. The whole night through. And as the night wore on, she started to worry. Why was the home in the tree hollow so empty? So quiet? So friendless? Where were Mouse and Sausage?

Bird decided to clean up. After all that was her job now and it turned out that a lot of spiders wanted to make the Hollow the home so she swept the cobwebs away and shooed the spiders back outside. Sh thought she had better clean up after dinner. So she went to empty the pot and there curled up in a little ball was her dear friend mouse. Bird understood what had happened. Then she worried about Sausage where was he? Why wasn’t he home?

So now she flies from tree to tree searching for her friend Sausage, skittish and cross with herself for being such an ungrateful fool.

Alterations

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.

Love Letters – #4 Forgotten Storytellers

Dear Leonora Blanche Lang or Nora,

It is unsurprising that your name is obscure to most of the world. Your husband, Andrew Lang, rings bells loudly in proclamation of the great British collectors of folk tales in his Rainbow Fairy collection.

To be fair to Andrew, he did credit you Nora as writer and contributor along the way. In the preface to the last of the collection, The Lilac Fairy Book (1910) he writes:

‘The fairy books have been almost wholly the work of Mrs. Lang, who has translated and adapted them from the French, German, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, Catalan, and other languages.’

So he did try to honour you, Nora. He also credited 17 other female contributors to the Rainbow Fairy Collection. The world has not unfortunately remembered this. You name should sit along the Grimm Brothers, Charles Perrault and Hans Christian Anderson, but this is sadly not the case.

It’s interesting that nearly all of the collectors of tales had women contributing to the final books but there names are often lost. I want to say, Nora, that life is now better and women’s voices are now represented equally across society, but this is not the case. It still happens where men are credited for the ideas and words of women. We have come along way since you were compiling the Rainbow Fairy collection, but the journey is ongoing with many twists and turns. Your work has gone on to inspire many fantastic works of fiction. Most notably, J. R. R. Tolkien:

“In English none probably rival either the popularity, or the inclusiveness, or the general merits of the twelve books of twelve colours which we owe to Andrew Lang and to his wife.”— J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy Stories’

As someone who is filling their life with these kind of tales, I am grateful for the work that you did.

Love,

Felicity

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Why we should all explore traditional tales….

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.

 

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(Not So) Little Red Riding Hood, read on here…

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….”

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Marleenken, from The Box collection based on The Juniper Tree

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.

 

 

Love Letters – #2 Joyful Leaving

Dear Frida,

You were brave.

And I loved that.

You gave us all you pain

Your doubt

And your uncertainty

In sharing your complex relationship

You had with yourself

And the world around you.

You showed us

That identity is a movable feast.

In this you were not only ahead of your time,

But my time too.

 

I hate boxes.

I hate labels.

I hate the notion

That we are one thing

Or the other.

You showed us all

That we could be more

Than what the world

Would shape for us.

We could be more

Then what we could

Shape for ourselves.

 

You lived fiercely

Overcoming pain

And sharing it with us

In vivid paintings.

In your work,

I see that as Artists

We have to be brave

In sharing ourselves

With the world.

We can not simply

Put ink to paper

Without our heart

Pulsating through our hand

And onto the page.

 

You last diary entry

‘I hope the exit is joyful

And I hope never to return.’

Sings sweetly of a life lived to the full.

 

All my love,

Felicity.
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Love Letters – #1 Still Marching

 

Dear Suffragettes

 

Here I am writing

The first of my of Love Letters.

I plan to write a 100.

1 letter for every year

Since the change you

So fiercely fought for began.

1 letter to all 100 women who I love.

 

You stand out

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Deeds Not Words

In a crowd of women and men

Who changed the course of history.

You saw that quiet negotiation

Was not working

And you drove social change

With your militant approach.

I am in no doubt

Had you been here

100 years later

Trump would have described you

As a ‘Nasty Woman’.

 

And you were.

You were unsettling

You discomfort drove others to be uncomfortable.

You were loud and divisive

You were more the floppy hats

We see now in grainy black and white

You were cotton and earth

You were long hours

You were sexually, physically

And emotionally attacked

You were without things

I now so readily take for granted

Rights over my body

Rights over my property

Rights over my children.

 

You were dismissed as temperamental

You were dismissed as difficult

And I am so thankful

That inspite of this

You ploughed on.

You clogged up the prison service

With your revolution.

When they had enough of the force feeding

When they had realised that prison

did not hold sway over the power

Of your mighty hearts

They took their violence onto the streets

Assaulted in broad daylight at the middle of the road.

 

How can I honour you?

How can I carry on your fight?

It’s more than voting and petitions.

It’s more than banner waving.

It’s more than marching.

It’s more than online campaigning

It’s living my life to the fullest

Not being held back

By the views of others

The laws support me

Even if some people do not.

I will stand up for fairness

And I will stand up for others

Whose representation is missing

I will hold space, create space

For others.

I will support, share, hold hands

Walk alongside those

Who are not granted the platform

That I do have.

 

I will not run away

I will not be apathetic

Or indifferent.

I will not be silent.
Love
Felicity

Once upon a time lasts forever

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I stumbled across the above quote, and it resonates incredibly powerfully. Early on this summer I completed a course called The Performer’s Playground with ClownLab. It was a 12 week exploration of playfulness. We had a lot of conversation about finding the joy or the fun in something and enjoying being beautiful even if we were playing something ugly. How do we create fun or channel playfulness?

On reflection, I think the things that inhibit me are the parameters that I  have either set myself or the the ones that I have allowed others to set for me – ‘the table of do’s and don’ts‘ as Pullman calls it. There are a list of things I can do and a list of things I can’t do. I wrote a while back about Growth Mindset, the idea that through a shift in personal attitude can alter our potential. How do we know that our personal attitude needs to shift? How do we believe that our potential is unlimited?

Neil Gaiman wrote in Coraline “Fairy tales are more then true; Not because they tell us the Dragons exist, but because they tell us that Dragons can be beaten”.

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illustrations by F. D. Bedford  J.M. Barrie’s Peter & Wendy

Stories allow us to see that we can do, or be anything. Some of our favourite characters in our most loved tales and stories have the hardest start; they are orphans. Harry Potter to Cinderella; Superman to Peter Pan; Mowgli to Sophie in the BFG. Their world has been disrupted in a way that no one would want for a child.  Yet, these characters go on amazing adventures, and overcome huge obstacles and show a resourcefulness and resilience to find their way through. Peter Pan has no ‘list of right or wrongs’ just a love of play and make believe. His game playing allows him survive and outwit his enemies.

The art of oral storytelling transcends age, ethnicity, education, borders and gender whilst also recording and reflecting our difference in those things. This kind of storytelling is a shared act between teller and listener. Jane B. Wilson tells us in her book The Story Experience, “Those who tell tales are both speakers and listeners. They have heard and remember”.

We are all storytellers and we are all listeners, if we allow ourselves the possibility to listen. We can all believe that we can do more, be more then we think we are. If we see others have defeated the bad guys, maybe we can too.

“The listener is caught and whirled into a talk, living for a single moment in the good, the great, the naughty, the lost. The tellers voice awakes dreams and spins stuff for thought; incites to contemplation.”

The Story Experience, Jane B. Wilson