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.