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


The Gathering (Catch up part 2)

On Saturday the 13th April, at the Resource for London venue in Holloway Road, the  Society for Storytelling celebrated its 20th anniversary at the annual ‘Gathering’, quite literally a gathering of storytellers and all those dedicated to supporting storytelling in the UK. This it was only a one day event, unlike the usual two or three days, but it was filled with such community spirit and lively debate I am pleased to have been involved with the organising of it.

SfS 20th anniversary cake

This 50 x 50 cm cake was designed by yours truly, baked and iced by my Mum, and I hand-painted the lettering and phoenix.


I wasn’t meant to be, having just stepped down from the Young Storyteller of the Year committee due to a combination of personal reasons, I was attempting to be free from commitments aside from work for  while. Yet in January whilst chatting to Tom Goodale (of such notable fame in the UK storytelling and folk communities) all that was about to change. After having organised the Gathering in 2012 at Chester, Tom was worried no one had stepped forward to do one for 2013, especially as the SfS (Society for Storytelling) always holds in AGM during the Gathering. So Tom was just beginning to plan how and where to have the AGM. I happen to mention, that after doing the Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, I had a number of questions on how the UK community viewed mentoring, and a personal interest in the relationship between storyteller and dramaturg and wondered if I could have some space during the day to interview people about it. I just imaged being tucked into a side room. Yet Tom instantly started talking about panel discussions and a full day of events, and who would be on my wish list of people to talk about these subjects. Within a three hour conversation we had planned the Gathering, set a timetable and I had picked my wish list, and pretty much that timetable didn’t really change massively. I looked at some initial ideas for venues, but after getting very ill had to pass that mantel on to David Harry who did a super job, and Honor Giles organised Katrice Horsley as our wonderful keynote speaker.

I was lucky that nearly everyone I asked agreed to be on the panels, and on the day Ali Quarrell, Polly Tisdall, Shonaleigh Cumbers and Mike Wilson all gave excellent views on mentoring which spawned a great discussion, and has resulted in the creation of a mentoring special interest group, which I am in the process of setting up. After Katrice’s keynote speech (and that was an impossible act to follow) we had the panel on storytelling and dramaturgy, hosted superbly by Sarah Rundle and upon which I, Simon Heywood and Mike Wislon spoke. I was surprised at how well it was received and the comments it prompted. when something starts off as just a personal point of interest, it can be hard to image anyone else feeling it is interesting, or even worth discussing. Seeing how successful both panels were no one was more surprised than me, or more pleased.

To round the day off we had the Taster Tales, which has become a Gathering tradition now, and Honor, Tom and myself had the hard task of picking just six from the influx of applications that came in. Our Tasty Tellers were, Abbie Palache, Annette Armstrong, Phil Okwedy, Mark Steinhardt, Nicola Grove, and Stella Kassimati, all who came in on time and in that room I saw some of the most beautiful tellings I have seen in a while, I have no doubt these will be among the names to watch over the next couple of years.

I had always got the impression that organising a ‘Gathering’ was hard, and many who have done it talk about the experience with a ‘never again’ attitude. But I have to say I loved it, and it was easy, maybe that was because I was working with such a wonderful team of people in Tom, Honor, David and Pippa Reid who gave so much support; or perhaps it was because it was just one day, or maybe a bit of both. I am genuinely sad it is over, the most stressful part of the experience was getting a 50cm x 50cm anniversary cake, with another in my backpack up to London from Petersfield, by train, whilst coping with Labyrinthitis and trying not to fall down or be sick or both, or maybe it was delivering my talk on dramaturgy with a brain that felt like treacle (I did something unthinkable at a storytelling conference, I had to read my notes otherwise my mind would have drifted off topic, but also I remembered why I don’t usually read aloud, my dyslexic brain doesn’t like it – D’oh!). I am so pleased I stayed upright all day, no falls, and only slight sickness (a big thank you to Pippa and her sea sick tablets!) and I am even more pleased someone has stepped up to organise next year’s and that the community seemed to show by numbers, and through comments that the SfS has valued, and is valued and we as a storytelling community care about our development, our future and our traditions.

Coming out of Hibernation… (Catch up part 1)

So finally I am coming out of hibernation from this bleak winter both seasonally and in regards to my blogging goes.


Well at last we spoke I had just finished my first week of the three year Walking the Wildwoods course under the supreme supervision of Shonaleigh Cumbers. That week in Halsway Manor was beautiful and such a learning curve, since then I have been working with the tools I learnt, and creating a lot of origami cranes which brought calm in some pretty tempestuous personal storms.


December was very quiet, and January although seeing the start of two month school residency also bore witness to the lost of two full weeks of work due to the snow. Much of the work was in relation to the National Storytelling Week, which is celebrate every year in the week containing the 1st February, which is also St Bridget’s day.

St Bridget is a Christianized version of the old Celtic Goddess Brigid who was the Goddess of fire, fertility, the hearth, all feminine arts and crafts, martial arts, smithing, healing, inspiration, learning, and poetry among other things, and is perhaps as close to an ancient deity of storytelling as can be feasibly recognised.

Losing all that work was not only financially hard, but heartbreaking, by able to really bang the drum for storytelling during National Storytelling Week is vital to raising the profile of storytelling in the UK. As a storyteller we work hard all the time spreading the word about storytelling, encouraging audiences, and people to tell. Over the past 11 years since NSW has been running we see each year more and more schools, businesses, groups and individuals take notice and organise events, and so to lose out by the bad weather was saddening. However, Del Reid, organiser of NSW reported at this year’s Society for Storytelling ‘Gathering’ of record hits on the website, so its not all bad. I was lucky half of the work I had booked for NSW got moved to World Storytelling Day around March 20th, and with Book day, or rather week as it increasingly becomes, March proved very busy indeed. In the space of a week I had flown around the through stories on my flying carpet five times, been dressed as a pirate telling pirate and smugglers stories in a Naval town, told cat stories at a Naval base, and secured another storytelling residency, going bi-weekly to a home for disabled adults to tell stories.


Red Phoenix and the amazing flying carpet ride

Red Phoenix takes listeners around the world through stories on her amazing flying carpet.

Talking of resident storyteller positions, as well as the weekly one I have visiting a home for profoundly disabled adults, the one I start in January was an amazing project. It started one snowy morning walking around a sculpture park with four groups of year 3s. There were sculptures of every size and type and material at the park near Farnham in Surrey.

one of the wonderful sculptures at the Farnham sculpture park.

The School in Bordon, working along the Phoenix Arts Centre (also in Bordon, Hampshire) had put together a project to create their own sculpture park in the schools grounds (and at two other sites across Bordon, the Phoenix centre and the Eco centre) so that the children could create stories to tell to other children and their families. We started with workshops looking at the sculptures we had seen and building character types from these ideas, and also based in other familiar stories the children knew… We had a lot of werewolves and wizards. Then after picking the top ten most popular characters from the four groups, community artist Rob Turner came in and developed how the children thought these characters might look, and handed these images over to an amazing Chainsaw artist, Jona, how created the images straight from the page.

One of the sculpted characters by the children of Bordon Junior School

Whilst the characters were being carved from huge logs, I came back to do more workshops, this time on how to create, develop, learn and tell a story, and to help the children create their own stories using the sculpted characters. I was also commissioned to create a new story using all the characters and locations involved with the project, which was recorded and put onto MP3’s. Finally everyone came together for a community day at the school to unveil the sculptures, visitors could pick up one of the MP3’s and listen to my story as they walk through the grounds discovery the sculptures, or watch Jona do a chainsaw demonstration. Unfortunately the project ended as it had started, in snow, which meant Rob couldn’t get across from Kent to run a junk sculpture workshop on the day, and my walking tours through the sculptures meant a very chilly 2 hrs outside, and where we had planned for the children to tell their stories outside it proved too cold. We moved the storytent inside and whilst everyone enjoyed hot chocolate and cake, I and the children told stories to warm the heart and soul. It was such a great privilege to be able to spend that amount of time working with the same children on storytelling, and the teachers reported back that it had made a huge difference to their work and attitudes. I just love how when people get the chance to experience the magic of storytelling and the improvements it can offer, without fail they say, ‘why don’t we use this more?’ Indeed a good question, unfortunately the answer is usually found in ignorance and finances.


I was lucky to be so busy, but it came at the worst time physically speaking, because in February I was struck down by a virus which aside from attacking my heart showed no other symptoms. I had started to feel a lack of energy, which I put down to the long winter, but as it worsen and I start to feel dizzy and start collapsing it was obvious it was something more, when I finally got checked my blood pressure was down 88/46 at one point and my pulse was so low I was rushed to hospital, hooked up to an ECG and tested for everything. Finally it was concluded that it was a virus, which was also causing ‘Labyrinthitis’ which unfortunately had nothing to do with David Bowie in tight leggins, but rather causes an imbalance sickness placing the body in a constant state of sea sickness. I’d never been sea sick in my life and I have been out on small fishing boats in full on gales. It was terrible, sometimes not being able to move without being sick. After a while the virus stopped attacking my heart, and moved on to attacking my hearing. Although I am still suffering from the Labyrinthitis (they say it can take up to 6 months, to a year to recover) I was given the all clear a few weeks ago that the virus has done no permanent damage. However, they are not so sure about my hearing, the virus has damaged my mid range (where the voice registers) and although it is hoped that no, or minimal, damage has been caused, it is being monitored, until I finally get over it completely they won’t know for sure. In the meantime I have had to cancel a number of events, and even my holiday as I am not supposed to be driving, (a big thanks to my parents who have been ferrying me around to various gigs and workshops) even going on the train with its sideways motion has been troublesome. Good news is apart from the odd comedy prat fall, I am getting better and energy levels this last week have significantly improved.


Which was just as well because I helped organise the Society for Storytelling’s 2013 ‘Gathering’ on Saturday the 13th April 2013, and that took a lot of energy, to find one more on how it went, check out my blog post on it ‘The Gathering’.


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!!!!