The Crown of Feathers and Fins

For a long time I had wanted to do something with music and storytelling, its nothing new, but I had been telling a story for years which just seemed to beg for some music. I tried telling the story in so many ways, but in my heart I heard music and knew until I matched the two mediums I wouldn’t be happy.

Skip a few years until February 2013 when I am running a workshop at a local youth centre, and start chatting to the manger of the centre, Chris Secker, who I had worked with in 2012 on a storytelling and music workshop. From my musical talent depravity perspective Chris seems to have the ability to pick up virtually any instrument and create improvised masters pieces in seconds… Which got me to thinking that if storytelling works on an improvised level, then any music or musician would also need the ability to improvise too. So when Chris mentioned he’d like to explore storytelling a bit more a plan formed in my mind, a talented improvisational musician with and interest in storytelling… It might be time to revisit that story and music combo again. I already had a booking for a featured spot at Three Heads in a Well storytelling club run by Surrey Storytellers Guild, so I suggested the idea to Chris who hesitantly agreed.

Our first meeting involved telling a couple of stories I thought might lend themselves to the project, and Chris brought along some instruments to explore different sounds, the irony was the story I had been wanting to put to music for so long didn’t inspire Chris all that much… D’oh! We talked about different sections of each story, the characters and their journey both physical and emotional, and the feel of different chapters. I saw a lot of links between the two stories and started exploring ways to piece them together into one over arching show.

The next meeting Chris started to play bits he had composed and we started to fit them with different sections in the stories, and although we unravelled that plan several times over, it was the first spark of what was to come, and ease it would develop. Much of the time I had to just say what was happening in a particular section and the emotional state and Chris would start playing a melody on the ‘three string strum stick’ (which creates a sound somewhere between a regular guitar and a lute) and it would fit as though the tune and story had always been together.

The next four sessions we worked upon the second story, as this was the weakest link, it was also the story I had always wanted mix with music… and as if the music had breathed life into the story, suddenly it was alive. To aid the rehearsals and the development process we recorded each rehearsal, which I then edited and shared with Chris via Dropbox, this made being able to reflect upon the work much more effective, and at each new session the beginning was a buzz of new ideas. It also made refreshing the memory so much easier and hear when the story and music worked, and where we needed to adjust levels, let the music or the story shine and for the other to be quiet.

The potential of where this project was going filled us both with infectious excitement, and when Helen Stewart contacted me about doing a featured spot at ‘Word of Mouth’ in Manchester, and around the same time an opportunity at Farnham Maltings, suddenly we had the makings of a tour. Of course there was then the issue of a title and considering one story featured a feather and the other a mermaid, and both featured Kings, ‘The Crown of Feathers and Fins’ seemed appropriate.

It was at this point Chris left for three weeks to go travel around America, and I was left to play with the word weaving of the stories, and building the over arch of the entire show. This developed through research into the places the stories came from, the mythology that built the backbone of the plot, character exploration through creating family trees and relationships, and ‘Midrashing’ a technique I learnt from Shonaleigh on the Walking the Wildwoods course. During the latter process I started creating pieces of prose, poetry, kennings and riddles which have danced off my tongue twisting the twirling in images.

Finally Chris arrived back with a sprained/fractured right wrist after a snowboarding accident on the last day of his trip, and so for the first week back it was gentle does it, but at last work could begin on the story for the first half, which was just as well as we had two weeks before our first open run through to a test audience. It was a battle tackling this story, although it had been the one of the two which had seemed straight forward to begin with, now we started working with several elements weren’t gelling. Talking, working, talking, working, listening and some of the strongest coffee I have ever drunk in my life as well as chats with the ever wise councils of Belinda McKenna and Tom Goodale, little by little the story emerged.

I am really proud of both halves of the show now, and I known Chris is too, and no more so when we previewed it to the Home Education group consisting of around twelve 11-16yr old. They were told they didn’t have to watch, or could leave after the first half, but all stayed and gave us amazing feedback, including that the show was just the right length (we had been worried it was too long), that the music and story balanced each other and we introduce five new people to storytelling.

It has been a wonderful adventure crafting this show over the last two months, exploring, understanding and creating, not to mention the laughs, coffee and cake that has kept the process going, and it continues to develop. One of the greatest things of this project has been how we both have developed across medium, I suppose to begin with we both thought I’d handle the story and Chris would handle the music, but now we can both happily make suggestions about story and music.

So now it is ready to share with the world and we want to get it out to as many people as possible. Below are the dates and places we are currently booked for, but if you can’t get along to those then book us for a venue near you… We would especially like a few American and Canadian bookings.

8pm, 3rd May 2013 – Word of Mouth, Manchester
7.30pm, 24th May 2013 – Three Heads in a Well, Ewell, Surrey
18th September 2013 – Farnham Maltings, Surrey

Flyer for The Crown for Feathers and Fins

Flyer

Red Phoenix Here, Red Phoenix There, Red Phoenix, Red Phoenix Everywhere

Well it has been a busy couple of months, and so I have been somewhat lacking on the blog updates, but my time has been well spent…

October began with the annual ‘Pint Pot of Fire‘ storytelling competition, which brings together writers, speakers and storytellers to compete for the converted ‘Pint Pot’. I was back for a second year as the Storytelling Judge, and this year we judges (Rita Wheeler and Bryan Harrison) were treated to an extremely high quality of stories and both Judges and Audience had a hard time choosing the winners: 3rd Charlotte Comley (‘The Trouble with Arthur’ a tale with a zombie twist), 2nd Belinda McKenna (Yes our lovely associate storyteller, who told an amazing autobiographical story about how her life heart condition has made ‘Every Second Counts’), 1st Alison Moulden (‘Deep Fried Mars Bars at the Jungle Food Café’ which chronicled a strange visit to Edinburgh Zoo and the Penguin parade.).
The following night I ran a storytelling workshop in Alton as part of the Alton WordFest. It was well attended by beginners and seasoned tellers. Some wonderful stories were created and shared, it was a lovely evening.

A couple of days I found myself on a flight back to Canada, for 25 days of story-tastic times. I headed back to Toronto, and revisited the women’s group at ‘The Stop’ telling stories and giving a 2.5hr storytelling workshop, and even treated the after school group to some spooky stories for Halloween.

Red Phoenix telling Spooky Tales at the Canadiana Backpackers by Vera

Red Phoenix telling Spooky Tales at the Canadiana Backpackers by Vera

I even nipped back to the Canadian Backpackers to do a set of spooky stories as a warm set before I headed to Ottawa to be the featured teller at the ‘Once Upon a Slam‘ which got a good write up. It was lovely revisiting the lovely ladies and lads of the Ottawa StoryTelling community, especially Ruthanne Edward, Gail Anglin, Catlin Paxson and Martha Singh, I was also really touched that some of the members (Kelly, Debbie and Gary) of the  Bodhran Expert Platinum Group with whom I have been learning for the couple of years, turned out to see me tell. Thanks Guys!!!

Soon I was heading back to the UK and straight into a busy week of Halloween stories telling lots of Gruesome Grimms Fairy Tales, while Belinda returned to Marwell Wildlife Park for the third year running to bewitch crowds with more Grimms Tales (anyone would think its was the 200th Anniversary of the 1st Edition of the Grimms Fairytales being published… Oh hang on… IT IS!!!). And whilst many other were celebrating Bonfire Night I was on a train up to Edinburgh for a few days to discuss future storytelling projects and to visit my former lecturer, Dr Ksenija Hovat, and university Queen Margaret University where I was a guest lecturer, and whom have recently written an article on my progress since graduating in 2007. Dashing back to the South of England I had a wonderful morning telling dragon stories and being a Dragonologist answering questions on all types of dragons and help them investigate the strange Dragon sightings and clues left in their classrooms.

Red Phoenix telling Dragon tales suitably dressed to deal with any wayward Dragons

Red Phoenix telling Dragon tales suitably dressed to deal with any wayward Dragons

Later that day I was dinning in the Houses of Parliament as part of the WCMT annual dinner, what ever your political views, it was hard not to be impressed by the beauty of the building both inside and out.

A few days of rest and washing later and bags are packed once again, this time to head off to Somerset to take part in Shonaleigh Cumbers‘ ‘Wild Woods’ course, for which I have been excited about starting for over a year.

So as a said a busy couple of months, and with an international festival on the horizon early next year it doesn’t look set to calm down… Did I say I love my job!!!!

a GRIMM ole time!

After the generosity I received on my WCMT trip, with so many storytellers giving me time, books, cds, and a place to stay, I wanted to have the opportunity to give something back, and so this week I am playing host to American storytellers Judith Heinemann and Daniel Marcotte who are over in the UK performing their show Grimm’s Grimmest as part of Kingston University’s After Grimm: Fairy Tales and the Art of Storytelling’ Conference.

Judith and Dan performing Grimm’s Grimmest

I first met Judith in Cincinnati, in fact I was one of the first people she met when she arrived and Karen Chace introduced us and within the first two minutes of conversation we had established that Judith was going to be visiting the UK in September, performing at Kingston Uni and would be staying with me, and now she is it is lovely. Although Judith didn’t come alone, she brought the very talented musical gem Dan Marcotte with her, who I met for the first time when I opened my front door to them on Wednesday.

I am very glad to be able to host two such warm and giving folks, especially because it would seem they have brought the weather with them! Plus it has been great to be sat answering work emails to live lute playing in my living room. And apparently my flat is Dan’s ideal holiday resort, because I am a self-confessed Geek, so my collection of Sci-fi movies and series, my fantasy and sci-fi collector pieces, and my comic book collection and fiction library have been the subject of much conversation.

It has been wonderful to see so many lovely and familiar faces at the conference too, especially when so many of them graced the stage last night to perform a variety of Grimm stories. As well as Judith and Dan, there was Kelly Kanayama (with whom I appeared with earlier this year at the Taster Tales, as part of the Gathering, the Society for Storytelling’s conference), Janet Dowling with who I work with wearing my Surrey Storytellers Guild hat (actually we had a good representation what with Janet, Jeff, me, Alistair and Paul, it was a shame Belinda couldn’t make it, but she was being all dramatic and taking a week in hospital – feel better soon you crazy lady!), Cat Weatherill – the beautiful and sassy fellow redhead, and the spellbinding and somewhat other worldly Jamie Crawford. Not to mention the talent sitting in the audience with the likes of Simon Heywood and Jack Zipes!

Janet Dowling telling the Sea Hare

The evening of stories was truly mesmerising. First up on the small black stage with plush red curtains falling behind was Judith and Dan and their wonderful dressed stage with skulls and candles, Judith’s long black cape and their blend of story, music and historical periods (as Dan explains: ‘We like to take our 19th Century collected Grimm’s tales set them to 16th Century Ballard tunes using a Renascence lute and 21st Century vernacular’.). Next was Kelly blending the Germany folk tales with her experience of East Asian Mothers. A short break then catapulted us into a second half of strange beasts. Janet’s telling of the Sea Hare will linger with me always, I have seen Janet tell many times, but I have never seen her tell with such… pleasure, by the end of her story every woman in the room wanted race off and find a Sea Hare of her own! Cat’s use of the stage, dynamics and emotionally raw tensions really exploded the characters from ‘Donkey Cabbages’ into the room, always just at the right moment so that a greater understanding of the motives and complex relationships was understood and felt throughout the room, a highly enjoyable and thoughtful performance. And never one to disappoint, the last teller of the night was Jamie who told a modernised version of ‘Bearskin’. Jamie seems to have a elven quality to his movements and facial gestures, with just a look of his eyes you could which character was feeling what, he lept on and off the stage and really used every inch of the performance to his advantage, setting the scene and inviting the audience into every aspect of the story.

Cat Weatherill starting her version of ‘Donkey Cabbages’ with a haunting ballad

By the end of the night I felt fulfilled and exhausted by my journey through those dark woods of the Black Forest, and having met such wondrous creatures, sung along to and be serenaded by a chorus of ballads, mixed with magic and danced with the devil.

For a free event it was one that there was no reason to miss, and is such a shame that so many of the delegates of the conference chose too – especially as so many others had been desperate for tickets and turned away. We had so much top talent giving their time for free crammed into a small converted church-theatre and yet half the seats were left empty. It is an issue that comes up time and time again, and makes my heart bleed every time. Storytelling is such a beautifully powerful art form we should support and cherish and yet the attitude of most is that it can be free or it can be missed… if you had seen what I saw last night, you would never miss a tale, fable or story again, maybe this is why I felt the need to play my Bodhran as we walked into Kingston after the show, ‘The storytellers are coming, the storytellers are coming, listen, celebrate and share!’