Informed by ideas gathered in workshops with young people and children, Red: A Dystopian Fairy Tale is a spoken word piece about an imagined futuristic world ruled by a totalitarian regime known as Mother.
A world building workshop is available to book exploring Dystopian fiction. You can read more about workshops here.
I am sat reflecting on how many times I have talked about codes over the last year. Appealing to my inner child to write in that invisible ink that only shows up under UV light. Or writing letters backwards to create a secret language or drawing shapes to replace the alphabet.
This last year when I have designed workshops for children, I have looked at code breaking and code generating over and over again. At first I thought that this was something I was doing because it was easy to move it online. Teaching children over zoom is a challenge. I wanted an activity to hold their focus. Something that felt small and intimate as an act but would have their imaginations reeling at the possibilities. The more I thought about 8 year old me and 8 year old them, the more that I knew it was the right way to go. Some of them had already done it before. It did not matter. It was a chance to find a common tongue. If I write a secret message in numbers can you crack it? If I mix up the words in a sentence can you unscramble it? What code would you write in? And then we jumped to symbols and talked about hieroglyphics. And even though we are all sat in our homes, gazing into another screen, we find the thing that we couldn’t have in real life. We find an escape. Amongst the cats or dogs or snacks or piles of toys, paper, washing. The debris of our life surrounds us and yet we are somewhere else. Together. Writing codes and discovering a new way to communicate.
But this time fades, the world unfurls and unfolds. The toys go back in their box, the washing away in the draws, the paper into the recycling bin. We go out, back into reality and school and work. Grateful for the demand of onscreen time to drop, grateful for our children.
There was something powerful though. Something to be understood about the possibility of languages and communication. And I stared at the different codes explored and invented over the last year, I felt a pull back to something fundamental – Our human desire to communicate and understand.
So in a time when we are constantly and maybe desperately looking forward, let’s go back to when that great wave of migration sweeps through Europe. Let’s go back to wood and stone and ancient inscriptions carved into plates, jewellery and those giant rune stones. Portals to another place.
One of the earliest written text, Elder Futhark – a series of different symbols that represent something close to our own alphabet. These sharp and angular shapes, known also as Runes, are loaded with meaning. They represented Gods and Goddesses, elements and nature, daily life and the human condition. They could be read as an alphabet or they could be placed together to create some other meaning. They could be cast in a manner that would allow you to predict the future if in the hands of a Rune Reader or Sage. They were very open to interpretation.
They come with some gate keeping. For some, they are relics from history and for others they hold weight, magic and other worldly powers. Some see them as just strange marks. For me, an opportunity to play.
I have been playing with them for the last two weeks, exploring their shapes and their meaning. Layering them up and flipping them round. When reversed they have different meanings. At the same time I have been reflecting on my practice and pulling all my ideas together and there are some common connections betweens the Runes that I kept coming back to and the sketches and poems that are up on the studio wall.
The first was change. I can see that my work follows the shifts, some for the better and some for the worse. Some changes are linear, others are cyclical. The waxing and waning on the moon, the mushrooms emerging and disappearing, our bodies – heart beating, blood pumping, ageing towards dust. The chance to jump off or step furtively forwards. The changes we want and we don’t. The changes that confine and challenge us and the changes that open us up.
In the Runes, Dagaz represents breakthrough. An awakening and awareness. A transformation. There is certainty to it – hope and happiness, growth and release, day break, a balance point where two opposites meet. Working creatively gives us space to shift and change the way we see the world.
The next was Home with all of its complexities. That home will define us and to make healthy changes we need to feel that we belong somewhere. Our home could be bricks and mortar, twigs and feathers, the town where we live, or the country we come from. Our sense of home defines how we move forward.
The Rune that covers this for me was Othala. Its first meaning is ancestral home. Further inspection reveals a meaning of our fundamental values, our source of support and safety, what really matters to us. When I work creatively I want to feel safe. In workshops, the safer people feel, the more secure they are in the room, the more they will take those creative risks. Creativity can flourish if we feel safe, ideas can flow if we feel like we belong.
I saw in my writing and sketches the grasping for courage and in fact creating something in the first place is an act of courage. No lions may be encountered along the way, but who hasn’t heard the negative impostor voice telling you that the whole creative act is pointless and who really cares anyway? I certainly have. A quality I greatly admire in others is the courage to share the story in whatever form suits them.
In the Runes, Uruz represents strength and untamed potential. It can represent a time of great energy, health and freedom. It can mean tenacity and wisdom and the formulation of self. Watching rooms of all shapes and sizes, ages and stages over the last few years, I see that I am lucky to witness those acts of strength and bravery. As individuals change their attitudes from apologising to acceptance, as they take those creative steps into getting know themselves, the world unravels the messy knots we can tie ourselves in and reveals the threads of possibility.
So after a bit of play, I settled into this new discovery of myself and my values. I settled on a new logo.
The Othala and Dagaz combined to create a house where change is possible. The Uruz a small doorway, because everyone know it takes a little bit of courage to step through and build bridges to belonging.
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.
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?
In my dream society, all members have a voice. Everyone has a space to share their opinions, thoughts and feelings. Freedom of speech is the essence of the place I’d like to inhabit. In most ways, this is in place in the world I inhabit. However, the difference between my dream world and reality is that everyone has the ability to understand the power of their voice. Not just in the content, but in the vocal mechanism itself.
Through teaching for the last ten years, it has become apparent to me, that most people think that individuals are gifted with a beautiful speaking voice. A voice that eases into their listener’s ears and transports us with their stories, awakens us with their ideas and moves us with their view. Maybe some people are lucky to have been born with this skill. However I believe that everyone can unleash this marvellous power and use their voice to their full potential, if they are shown how.
In my dream society this is something we would teach to children as part of mainstream schooling, so as adults they contribute to society confidently and freely. In the world we inhabit, children may access this through extra curricular activities. Those who practice the creative and expressive arts are more likely to have confidence in their voice.
As adults in the society we live in, we can feel the divide between those who have accessed this and those who have not. However we perceive it as raw, unlearnable talent. This is it not the case, a clear, confident, authentic voice is available to us all, if we choose to engage with training that explores and deepens our understanding.
In learning these things, we free our voice. In freeing our voice, we share our ideas. In sharing our ideas, we evolve and grow our communities.
My dream society isn’t as unattainable as perhaps it first seems. Maybe yours isn’t either.
I stumbled across the above quote, and it resonates incredibly powerfully. Early on this summer I completed a course called The Performer’s Playgroundwith 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”.
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.”
I have been working with Z-Arts and Crumpsall Lane Primary School in Manchester, creating story telling pieces for the schools reception class. Its been really wonderful and tomorrow we go into our third week of the project based on the collections of Brother’s Grimm, and this week we are looking at Little Red Riding Hood or as Bro
ther’s Grimm called Little Red Cap.
This story has been re told and re told and re told, and I have a strong suspicion that the children will be very familiar with it. I think that each week they have bought there own colour and magic to the stories we have looked at (Musicians of Bremen and Hansel and Gretel.) That is why working with these traditional stories is such a gift because they can be re told in so many different ways. As a story teller, I love the immediacy of the retelling. The audience being very active in shaping how the story looks and feels. These stories are so beautifully simple but it is quite easy to overlook them.
I also provide lesson plans in arts crafts for further exploration of these stories in the class in the week that follows. I’d thought I’d pass on one of the craft exercises in this weeks lesson plan. You can never have too many resources available!
First things first, copy the above template for each of the components in the mask and cut them out. I made the mistake of putting it all together before I coloured it in, which made it much harder to build, the above image is on an A4 piece of paper. You could print it directly onto card if you’d prefer. An extra task for the children , could be to draw around pre cut provided templates and see if they could get them to fit it onto a sheet of A4 card.
The decorating is worth spending time on as the masks look so much better as a result. I kept my decoration very simple and only used felt tip, but I think the mask would come alive even further with some fake fur or felt or if the teeth were very shiny….
Stick the front and the back thin pieces together. I used masking tape to stick the pieces together, that way I can adjust easily to the circumference of head that is resting on. I then
took the nose piece and folded along each of the dotted lines.
I attached part one, by folding over the top of the front piece of headband in the middle of the ears and secured with tape.
I then attached the mouth piece behind section 2 of the nose and then the tongue behind the mouth.
Nice and straight forward. Now you can howl at the moon and be big, bad and scary!