20 Years of Adventures in Story and Drama

This week I began a five week, fourteen workshop series in Guilsfield School near Welshpool. As these blogs will be paying a regular visit to update the project work I thought it might be a nice opportunity to remember some of the work I’ve done in the past. It was then that I realised that, give or take the odd month, it is more or less twenty years since I begun all this. So why not celebrate by remembering a few of the highlights of twenty years in theatre and story and select the odd photo along the way.

It began in the summer holidays, (remember them!) of 1995. Five of us gathered along with the local press in the skittle alley of The West India House, Durleigh Road, Bridgwater. where we were to begin rehearsing our first production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Two middle aged men who maybe should have known better, two young actresses – lately of my A Level Theatre studies group and one Exeter based musician. I no longer have that publicity picture of Brothers Tales, but the musician left after the first rehearsal. We remained friends but I don’t think we were for him.

This first picture shows the rude mechanicals in our production of the Dream and showcases Bottom’s impressive belly. The other mechanicals came courtesy of the local pound shop and how we got away with this I do not know, but they were certainly cheap labour! Later on John and I went on to produce a version of the play where four inmates from HM Prison Shepton Mallet played the parts the puppets couldn’t.

The Rude Mechanical Puppets!

The Rude Mechanical Puppets!

Alas and possibly fortunately, there are no existing pictures of our next production, ‘Dangerous Sports’. We were promised funding from the road traffic section of Somerset County Council, but all that ever appeared was three hundred pounds. John, Claire and I toured the show anyway in about 20 venues throughout Somerset, using a basic set, John’s home stereo system and two romper suits!, (don’t ask). The project was aimed at young drivers who had just passed their test. A series of comic vignettes followed our two heroes in pursuing ever dangerous sports and kept the audience chuckling. When things suddenly serious, our previous approach had all the more impact.

Instead here’s a picture to represent the History Days we perpetrated in local junior and primary schools for five years. A teacher from Wells Central High School phoned one day to ask if we did “Tudor Days.’ Needless to say it was the perfect excuse to invent one on the spot. It gave birth to a whole method of performance which I’ve used ever since. I invented our Potted Histories; a forty minute burst of facts, loud Hawaiian shirts and a series of wince making jokes. Accompanying that were workshops on the Armada and St Johns fair and our first fifty minute Shakespeare in pictures, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. These children are trying their impersonation of professional Tudor mad girl Bess O’ Bedlam and Mad boy Tom O’ Bedlam. They’re good, aren’t they?

Various Attempts At Bedlam

Once or twice we actually did get funding for projects. One of these was from the Arts Council for the project we were commissioned to do by Sedgemoor District Council. “Splash’ was intended to encourage children to learn to swim before they reached secondary school. Claire’s wonderful seabird masks had been for an environmental project which never came off. I always intended to make use of all her hard work and in the dream sequence here I finally got the opportunity. The picture below it of a drunken Lizzie being greeted by her parents, (Nicky and Shaun) is every teenager’s nightmare.

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By the time we did Splash the old company Brother’s Tales had split and I had formed Skin O’ The Teeth. We were now the resident company at Bridgwater Arts Centre. Apart from a new production of Romeo and Juliet for Key Stage 3, one of our oddest ventures was Shakespeare Sacred and Profane, where we combined so called authentic Shakespeare with some more outrageous modern ideas. Here are Matt, Lesley, Lizzie, Annette and myself really getting our teeth into the Bard.

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It would be impossible to show a photographic history without more Hawaiian shirts so here they are again. This time Su, Paul and I are having fun in one of our arts centre showcases with our adaptations of two classic and silly English Folk Tales – Lazy Jack and The Three Sillies.

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Finally in this celebration of shirts and puppets, a chance to see me in a wig as Judge Jeffreys sentencing some children. I don’t think they’re taking it very seriously!  Our final project in Somerset was also the biggest. Bridgwater was celebrating its 800th anniversary and we were given a large amount of money to mount a major schools project for both junior/primary and secondary/further education. Nearly all the schools took part, producing their own pieces on an aspect of Bridgwater’s history. Tales with Teeth – as we were by now – contributed two major performances on both The Battle of Sedgemoor and Bridgwater Carnival. Even more exciting, (but alas no photos) was our production of The Eighteenth Day, a new play on the Quantock Murder by local playwright Stuart Croskell. The facts are history but  I asked Stuart not to write an ending yet. Instead after the secondary schools had seen what there was of the play, we workshopped possible endings with them. Then Stuart went away and wrote one from those ideas. Su, Alex and I performed the final result to a packed audience from the schools, (all the junior and primary groups having earlier performed their own pieces). I played John Walford, stopping for cider on his way to be hung and for a last farewell with his sweetheart Anne. It was one of the most moving performances of my life and a fitting finale for the Brothers and Teeth years.

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The Seven Unlocked Competition

In July of this year several schools in Powys took part in a very special competition based on The Seven and the remarkable artwork local artist Rose Foran produced which was inspired by it and the sequel The Eighth Gateway. Children were asked to produce either a picture inspired by the artist’s images or by the book itself. Alternatively a piece of writing inspired by either. Guilsfield, Maesydre and Meifod schools all produced winning entires and were prevented with their prizes at school by both myself and Rosie. Each winner was given either a book prize, kindly donated by Gomer Press, or their choice of prints from Rosie’s work.

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Beginning at the top we have the winner of the creative writing competition, Jocelyn McKenzie from Guilsfield School. The judges were particularly impressed with her use of atmosphere and mood, and the way that she began the piece with a single word, ‘Falling’.

The remaining two creative prizes of books published by Gomer Press, including a special Gateway edition of The Seven, went to Nell Walsh, (for second prize) and Grace Evans, (third) from Meifod School. Both piece were also rich in atmosphere, ideas and character, with Grace’s put together in the style of Branwen’s diary and Nell’s evoking a rich gothic feel.

Now we come to the art competition. The judges thought that the above picture by Luke Van Hulzer of Tony rummaging through his attic and finding his mother’s mysterious paintings in the first chapter of the book, was highly effective. You can see a box of Tony’s old toys and the swinging light below the skylight. There is a real sense of discovery, taken from just one small idea. Luke is from Guilsfield School.

Next to it is Ruby Shepherd’s second prize winner – also from Guilsfield School. Ruby has clearly had fun re-inventing the idea of the churchyard in which even some of her classmates names are on the gravestones. Again the churchyard and Tony’s mysterious alder tree, in which he believes he can see Eleri’s face, feature at the beginning of the book.

The final third prize winner beneath is from Zoe Baker from Maesydre School in Welshpool with this beautiful and accurate painting of The Seven’s cover. There are of course seven trees on the little mound, as you will find there are throughout the book.

The actual competition was only part of the fun we enjoyed throughout June-July with the Seven Unlocked.

I made several visits to local schools before the competition in July, in order to encourage years 5-6 to enter. Then in July itself Welshpool Library hosted an exhibition of twelve images by Rose which were inspired by both books. At the end of term all of these winning entries were framed and added to the competition so that children could see their own work.  Some schools paid special visits to view the artwork. All winners received their prize of either book or print, along with a special competition and a report for each detailing just what the judges had enjoyed most.

Our special Seven Unlocked Quest however proved so difficult that even library staff were unable to solve it!

There will be more on this in a future post.

You never know – you might be the one to solve it.

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A little addendum to the Dark Fairies.

I feel like a fool.

All those years I was moaning about Terry Pratchett abandoning my favourite characters the witches Granny Weatherwax and the supremely everything incorrect, Nanny Ogg to concentrate on just about everything else. ‘Why can’t he go back to the witches?’ I moaned again and again.

But what’s this! He never left them. How could I have missed it. All the time he was writing about witches and let’s face it the plain mechanics of magic and cleverly disguising them as ‘children’s books’. As a pagan and practicing druid, (I”ll get it right eventually!) of twenty years standing I know a fair bit about magic and especially about those who practice it and in many cases make it their life. I’ve always felt that Granny, Nanny and the rest have a great deal of authenticity to them and that the very business of being a day to day hedge witch is incredibly well evoked.

But in the Tiffany Aching books magic doesn’t so much get in the back door as come crashing in with a big boot as the main event and heaven/hell/some none specific afterlife help who gets in the way. The books become progressively darker until there are times in the fourth “I Shall Wear Midnight” when it feels like one long howl for social justice, decency and equality. I can’t help thinking that this is the sort of thing that the newly elected government, (no I can’t believe it either!) would find and burn when they eventually appoint a minister of book burning, which must be soon. Meantime how heartening is it to know that there are books for ‘children’ which adults are allowed to read such as this, so that people can enjoy and learn an appreciation of magic which is neither a school for assorted child wizards or what the book burners fear it to be. Better still is that Terry’s last huzzah in September will be the fifth book in the series, The Shepherd’s Crown.

How could I have missed all this?

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So Long Terry And Thanks For All The Dark Faeries

Like so many people my life as a writer has had the steady background influence of Terry Pratchett’s work. It was not something I truly recognised until his sad passing a week ago, far too young and with many literary footsteps still to tread.

I didn’t really like “Sourcery’, the first book of his that I read, To be honest I’ve never fully engaged with Rincewind and all that studied ineptitude. But there were enough concepts, ideas and let’s face it jokes in there to keep me happy. After that I read Equal Rites and enjoyed that a lot more, but it was ‘Lords and Ladies ‘which converted me once and for all to the Pratchett way.

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I loved it so much that I based an A Level Theatre production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on it with my students at Bridgwater College. Along with Raymond Feist’s book “Faerie Tale’, ‘Lords and Ladies’ introduced me to the idea of fairies being far from light and airy Cottingham a’ fluttery. ‘No-one ever said a fairy was nice’ remains one of my all time favourite quotes. In my mind and work fairies have remained these creatures of unease where ‘glamour’ has a totally different meaning and since then I’ve been far more drawn towards the dark side of fairy. Nowadays it’s the likes of Graham Joyce’s ‘Some Kind of Fairy Tale’ and the Harry Dresden novels of Jim Butcher but the lure of the ‘un-seelie court’ remains and Terry started it.

My by now far too mature students may not remember but they bought me the Josh Kirby Discworld portfolio, a book so big it won’t fit comfortably anywhere. And that’s maybe as good a way as any of describing Terry Pratchett’s work. A world and a body of work, to all intents and purposes, too big to fit comfortably anywhere and why not. Surely nothing Terry Pratchett wrote could ever be described as comfortable. Years ago when the critic Tom Paulin accused him of being a complete amateur because he didn’t even write chapters, he responded to the complaint by using it as a quote on the back of his next book. Now that’s style!

Of course Lords and Ladies provided something even more important in my literary development because it introduced me to Granny Weatherwax and even more importantly to the irrepressible Nanny Ogg, a single toothed cackler who could find a double entrendre in Queen Victoria’s mourning dress.

The witches have always been my favourites, so it’s with a sadness tinged with delight that I hear that the final novel to be published will be one of the increasingly wonderful, witty and wise Tiffany Aching series. I can only hope both of the old girls are in it.

Thanks Terry and I do hope it’s not just bananas in the afterlife.

Lucy’s Wanderings In The Grove of Books

I’m a writer. I write children’s books mainly and sometimes the other kind. I read a lot and a life without reading would be desolation. I could just about give up music, favourite TV and DVD but I would be lost without being lost in a book.

I”ll shut myself in one, draw those book curtains and snuggle down with my book cocoa or if it’s daytime my book caffeine. Who needs drugs? I’ve been addicted all these years and hardly realised it. There are millions of fellow addicts to encourage me in my own personal twelve step book programme. Step one – read more books. Step; two. – well you get the point.

I’ve had one book published and hope to publish a good many more. I’m fifty five but in my legs no more than thirty five. I”m a child at heart perhaps because I’ve kept my early love of children’s books close and never felt ashamed of it. Oh it nodded off for a few years, just in case someone more adult and mature was watching. Now however I”m out and proud carrying my children’s books in their own covers unashamedly jumbled up with the so called adult ones.

So why write another blog about books? Because I’m a writer who reads a lot but never records what I think. Because I could write a list of the great books I’ve read in the last few years where some opinion or insight has been forgotten in the spider web which has entangled them in my memory.

Because I want to write a blog which shares my love of books for both adults and children and to explore the unexpected bridges between them

My favourite book is The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera.

It’s a book within which I can find fun and joy, love and wisdom time and time again. Then there are the three books which make up The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay. These remain the best things I have ever read in the fantasy genre and always leave me newly stunned after each reading. I”ll add to the list Music and Silence by Rose Tremain, which among many other strengths has the best collection of well drawn and eccentric, earthy and true female characters ever assembled in one historic period. Three writers and works with wholly different things to recommend them. Ain’t reading great?

I’ve read all of them many times and that’s my criteria for a favourite book; to want to pick it up again and willingly be lost in its world again.

My favourite book for children is Kit’s Wilderness by David Almond.It was given to me and my late wife Celia by a dear friend and I wish she knew half of how much it’s meant to me. I’d never heard of David Almond but now I devour everything he writes. His gift to me as a writer is the ability to create memorable female characters as a ‘side-kick’ to the male protagonist. Girls so wonderful in their own right that that they upstage our hero and sometimes and quite rightly end up with their own book.

I also love his sense of place and the close knit family community ready to pull together at the slightest hint of adversity even if they don’t always agree with every bit of it.

The first book I remember enjoying was either read to me at Nunsthorpe  School in Grimsby, or by a family babysitter when I was seven or eight.

I went out and bought The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe soon after. If I were to pin down what made me fall in love with the Narnia books then I’d have to say it was the snow. I’m a sucker for anything set in snow because I love the stuff. Having said that I don’t drive and would doubtless change my mind pretty abruptly if I did ! But I also loved Mr Tumnus the Faun, and the snow queen witch and Edmund and the turkish delight and Aslan coming back from the dead. I also loved brave Lucy who no-one believed. I must have loved her because when forty odd years later I came to write The Seven, I called my favourite character Lucy.

My Lucy is the same age as I was when I first read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. She’s never been a happy child and can’t really understand why. She has a secret place, a grove of seven trees where a beautiful lady once taught her a rhyme. Every birthday she goes up there and sings it and nothing happens. But this time its her seventh and we all know about sevens.

The bridge between Lewis’s Lucy and mine has been a long one with, like the best stories, a lot of unexpected turns and diversions. Sometimes I couldn’t see the wood for the trees ahead.

But the books have always been my guide.

Great Oak – Saturday March 14th

Here’s Lucy

On Saturday I am doing a storytelling and book reading at The Great Oak Bookshop in Llanidloes.

At any such event you need to decide what to do. How do you fill that time between the excited arrival of all those eager faces, (well I do write fantasy!) and their eventual departure clutching a copy of the black, red and blue tome, (see previous). Do you spin them a tale or two of your own or someone else’s? Do you perhaps gross them out with all the really gruesome bits from the story of Branwen? Do you just drone from the book and therefore give the reader little insight into what actually makes your book tick? Worse still if it is a slow starter you might even put them off!

Well I’m a storyteller who certainly can’t keep still so one thing’s for certain and that is that I won’t stay in one place for long.

Hey wait a minute I could tell them about the characters. About Chris and Margaret, Tony and his mum. Eleri and Lucy. Ah yes especially Lucy.

Lucy is the character I love most in The Seven and maybe in anything I’ve written. She is surly, rude and never uses a lot of words when a few more emphatic ones will do. One day a few years ago before The Seven was published I saw her in the actual grove. Just for those few minutes she’d become a boy. A boy of the same age and disposition digging with a stick under the right tree and wearing wellies and a scruffy leather coat too long for him. All he lacked were the blue designer specs. He gave us the sort of look which said that if he were Lucy we’d all be in trouble. Then I left him there in peace and completely unaware he’d been Lucy for a few minutes.

What else can I say about Lucy Morgan. She’s unhappy but doesn’t remember why. She’s deaf in one ear and both her parents and the local GP are equally confused about why! She loves animals but there are few humans she gets on with. She hates cruelty to animals above anything. And like both Tony and Chris she has no idea how special she is.

Lucy isn’t pretty pretty in pink and let’s all stop for tea with ringlets and freckles. Nor is she a tomboy with a boy’s name whose best friend is a dog. (There is a dog involved but Bryn is more of a nuisance than a companion)  She doesn’t really like her brothers and sister and there certainly isn’t a friendly fawn to greet her when she opens her particular gateway. Unlike many of David Almond’s wonderful girl characters say she doesn’t have a male best friend either. She’s resolutely on her own and that’s the way she likes it aha aha.

No Lucy is one of those characters who walks alone for most of her life and when she does find a friend it will be the most unexpected person imaginable. And she’ll be far braver than anyone could ever have anticipated because of course everyone has underestimated her.

 

So yes whatever else I do on Saturday I”m going to share some of Lucy with you. Hope to see you there and here’s the link.

http://www.greatoakbooks.co.uk/

Meantime you might have noticed that Lucy’s got her own blog now on this very site. It’s about books because as you might not know, Lucy loves books.