Filming with the RSC

Filming with the RSC

My dream RSC commission thrilled me all over again last week, as fellow storyteller Maria Credalli and I headed into the RSC’s costume storage unit in Stratford Upon Avon to film the stories we created back in August.

The stories were inspired by material we found in the oral histories of the Costume Department. For the last few years, a team at the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) has been interviewing costume designers, actors, costume collection specialists, buyers and makers of every description (wig makers, dyers, armourers, cutters etc) to gather stories about the Department. The interviews are fascinating (and confidential!) revealing both the tricks of the trade and the personal and artistic dramas behind various productions over the years. As a former drama student, I found them especially exciting, because they were talking about iconic shows I had studied, like Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I also loved having full access to the company’s vast photo archive (only selected items are available to the public) and spent hours comparing various costumes, especially those for Cleopatra. Helen Mirren, Glenda Jackson, Frances de la Tour, Janet Suzman…. all completely different.

Anyway, the RSC were so pleased with what Maria and I did, they decided to record our pieces for the RSC website. We were dancing round the kitchen at this news, especially when we learned there was the possibility that we could have Juliet Stevenson’s glorious Titania dress in the background on the day. Juliet had talked about it in one of the interviews we had been given and made it sound so amazing, both Maria and I had Googled it – and instantly fallen in love. Truly, it was the stuff of fairytales. Maria had spun one of her stories around its creation. So the thought of seeing it for real was thrilling beyond words. It was only a possibility. Our contact had requested it, but once a costume has become part of the official collection, it is guarded as closely as the Crown Jewels.

And yet… they brought it out for us. Oh, the excitement! We weren’t allowed to touch it (which I found funny, given that it had almost certainly been ripped/thrown onto the floor/had tea spilt on it on numerous occasions when it was in use) but still it was there. And it was indeed glorious. So beautiful.

Juliet Stevenson’s Titania dress

The videos will up on the RSC website in January.

Blenheim Palace Residency

Blenheim Palace Residency

It was wonderful to resume my Hallowe’en residency at Blenheim Palace this year after missing out to the pandemic in 2020. I’ve been doing Spooky Storytelling for families at Blenheim for seven years now, as part of their half-term Hallowe’en celebrations. Usually I am in the Stables, but there is a fabulous new permanent exhibition in there now, showcasing the role of horses on the estate through the centuries.

So this year I was in my new home: another stable room, festooned with cobwebs, green fairy lights and a wild assortment of bats, crows, spiders, headstones, manacles, skeletons, zombie mannequins and pumpkin lanterns. The kids adored it.

Five shows a day for nine days takes a bit of stamina, but it was truly joyous this year. Some of the families have seen me perform every year, so there’s always a warm welcome. I love making up new Hallowe’en-themed songs and rhymes too; this year 1-2-3 What Can You see? joined In A Wood Was a House and I Don’t Want to be a Zombie as a new family favourite. I especially enjoyed telling The Witch’s Finger for older children, and have never laughed so much during The Pumpkin Giant as I did this year. Everyone was just so happy to be there, enjoying stories in the company of others. I honestly think we all managed to forget our troubles for a while in that magical darkened room.

Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival 2021

Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival 2021

How wonderful it is to share stories with live audiences again… I performed at Budleigh Salterton litfest last weekend, my first post-pandemic festival, and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

I rode down on my motorbike a few days before, making a road trip of it. Glorious Devon… Panoramic coastal roads, pretty towns and warm welcomes, all beneath a cloudless sky. I sat on the harbour in Brixham with a cup of tea and a spectacular prawn sandwich, bathed in sunshine, watching the boats and it was truly blissful.

And then came the festival, beside the sea. The old stories came to life again, dusted off from the pandemic recesses of my brain, and it was joyous to be the one telling them. More please!! I have missed it so much.

RSC Commission: Threads

RSC Commission: Threads

I recently completed a DREAM job. I was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company to create two stories in celebration of their Costume Department. They sent me a dozen oral history interviews – costume makers, designers, actors – and granted me full access to their magnificent in-house photo archive. Then I dived in and swam around in an ocean of memories, facts and fabrics. It was totally absorbing and I loved every minute.

Friday 20 August was Costume Day. The RSC took over the riverside Bancroft Gardens in Stratford Upon Avon and filled it with performances and an exhibition of the elements of costume making, from dyeing to wig making. They also hired a river boat calledTitania, and that was where I spent my day, sharing my stories with the public as we sailed up and down the Avon, flanked by a retinue of swans.

What a perfect day. Especially after the months of lockdown and loss of all public performances. To see smiles and hear laughter from an audience was joyous – as was wearing a real RSC skirt and headdress. I couldn’t help wondering who had worn them before me. What production was it? Such tantalising thoughts.

Titania

A Feather In My Wallet

A Feather In My Wallet

Deep joy! I have finally been able to start work on my Covid-delayed Arts Council funded project A Feather In My Wallet. It should have happened last July but the pandemic truly scuppered all our plans. Even now, it is a bit patchy, and some of it has had to move online.

It is a project about finding stories in the little things we keep and was inspired by this story:

When the First World War began, my grandfather George was one of the first men to volunteer. He was wounded by shrapnel and discharged from the army in 1916. One day, as the war raged on, George took a tram ride in Liverpool. He was wearing civilian clothes. A woman left the tram. As she passed him by, she silently dropped a white feather, the sign of a coward, into his lap. George kept the feather in his wallet for the rest of his life.

I am working with image maker Anne Brierley, who is working like a war artist, drawing and painting the portraits of people I talk to. Future participants in the project will be terminal day patients at St Giles Hospice in Lichfield, a mental health group in Moseley and various community arts groups across the West Midlands. But we began this week on the street, talking to solitary men in city centre Birmingham, because our project aims to explore feelings of loneliness and social isolation (which makes it ironic that we were shut down because of lockdowns!!)

While Anne painted, I heard deeply human stories of multiple bereavement, eviction, the invisible hell of being homeless and the emotional pain of being a carer. One man told me he cares for his wife, who has ever-worsening dementia. ‘Some days I yearn for a conversation,’ he said.

But there was resilience too, plus wisdom, humour and enormous love. It was a privilege to be given such stories, and we all enjoyed the sharing after so many months of solitude.

These are some of Anne’s portraits from the day.

NEW Online: Candle Magic

NEW Online: Candle Magic

Originally created for Hull Libraries’ Harry Potter Book Night 2021, Candle Magic is a wonderful online creative writing session for Key Stage 2 – highly interactive, informative and great fun!

Presentation sessions are fairly easy online, but right from the beginning of Lockdown 1, children’s authors were wondering how on earth they were going to manage writing workshops – myself included. Usually I walk around the room as the children write. I can see who is flying and who needs a bit of help or encouragement. But online… aargh!

I was determined to find something that worked and, I am delighted to say, Candle Magic really does work. With the children writing their ideas directly into Chat, there is real immediacy and a sense of pure creativity at work. But Chat is not essential; good old-fashioned pen and paper works just as well.

The workshop was inspired by the fact that I like to write by candlelight when I am writing magical or scary scenes. I wrote my book Zac and the Zombeards during July /August and clearly remember shutting the curtains in the middle of the afternoon, lighting a candle and slipping into a world of midnight graveyards and dark subterranean tunnels. It seemed a shame to banish sunshine, but it really did sharpen my focus and help me visualise better.

So this workshop is a series of writing exercises on the theme of magic and candles. I conduct it in a dark room, by candlelight, so it feels very intimate and atmospheric. I talk about my book Wild Magic, read an extract and explain where my ideas for magic come from. There’s also a Harry Potter themed game and a chance for the children to ask me questions.

If you’d like to know more, please get in touch!

My Sardinian Story Den

My Sardinian Story Den

I’ve recently returned (reluctantly!) to the UK from Sardinia, Italy. I was there for three months, house-sitting near Santa Teresa Gallura. As lockdown locations go, it was pretty idyllic!!

Sapphire blue skies, glorious rugged coastline, villages with houses made of granite, donkeys, Italian coffee, wild pigs, the hypnotic Mediterranean Sea (which was eternally blue, whether it was mirror-calm or smashing against the rocks.) Myrtle berries, wild strawberry trees, ancient stone towers called Nuraghes, burial tombs fit for giants, stories of elves with red caps and the Devil hurling enormous granite stones across the landscape… Sardinia (or Sardegna, as the Italians spell it) was truly captivating.

While I was there, I made a story den beneath some ancient olive trees (as you do) Here it is 😉