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The Enchanted Forest

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I was invited to Riverside Primary in Stirling to be part of their ‘Enchanted Forest’ storytelling session. It was funded by the First Minister’s Reading Challenge Inspiring Classrooms Award. We had a wonderful time and it was something totally different to my usual events so I wanted to tell you a bit about it.

The teacher, Mrs Gemmell and the children in Primary Four decided they wanted to use their outdoor classroom space for the first time – they wanted a magical outdoor storytelling evening and they wanted to invite their families too. The school bought blankets for the event and everyone wore warms clothes.

We’d checked sunset times and worked out we’d start in the light and it would get dark by the end of the session. The children all enjoyed a hot chocolate and then I did some interactive story activities with the group.

We met the animals in the forest and learnt more about their behaviour as we re-enacted it. We created the smell of the forest and there was a football challenge with a giant football pine cone. I shared the story of Can’t-Dance-Cameron and everyone joined in on actions. Then it was time to toast marshmallows on the fire. I got to do one too!

After that I did a few more activities (including a rocket to make the pop sound of a capercaillie and a camouflage demonstration) and we finished on the story of The Grouse and the Mouse.

I know my books off by heart and I realised it would be distracting to turn pages in an outdoor space and much more intimate to share them as a storyteller. This was the first time I’ve told them that way and it worked really well. I used to do a lot of storytelling before I became an author so it felt good to be doing that again.

The whole event lasted an hour and there was such a lovely sense of community. The children and parents were brilliant fun and we all shared a love for stories. I signed books and postcards at the end and everyone headed home.

I’m glad the First Minister’s reading challenge is encouraging schools to come up with creative ways to enjoy stories – I really loved being part of something so special that night! Thanks to Mrs Gemmell and everyone at Riverside for having me!

 
 

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Feeling Better

I’ve not been blogging as much as usual these last couple of months. The truth is I’ve not been doing most things as much because I’ve been a bit poorly with my back. It started mid September and got gradually worse and then very slowly better. I recently had an MRI scan and it turns out three of my disks were prolapsed (slipped) and the bottom one was compressing my nerve on the right side.

The good news is, I’m loads better now. So much better that I’m off the strong pain killers, I can walk okay and I bought some lovely new football boots – I’ve just joined a five aside league and I’m hoping to start playing next week – back depending!

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UPDATE: Turns out my muscles on the right are weak so have to slowly build them back up before I play football – so hopefully I’ll be playing early 2016!

Thanks

I wanted to say a big thanks to the people who knew what was happening and who dropped round meals and generally kept my spirits up by being in touch and just acting like normal lovely people. Special thanks to my flatmate Rhian! I’ve had severe back pain before – a couple of years ago it took me out for around 3 months so this time I was better at dealing with it. Here are some things I learned last time, that helped me get through it better this time around:

  • Ask for help

I’m not good at doing this but I did it early on this time. Just an email to a few friends explaining the situation and asking if folk could drop round a meal if they had time or be in touch or pray for me.

  • Think weather

A couple of years back when it was really bad my physiotherapist said you need to look at a week overall and think weather – it might be raining right now and today’s weather looks worse than yesterday but overall has the week been better than last week? That way when you have a bad day it doesn’t seem quite so discouraging and you can hopefully see a gradual improvement.

  • Lower expectations

I’ve always been an over achiever. I’m now a recovering perfectionist. If you’re used to expecting a lot from yourself and then you can hardly do anything it’s incredibly discouraging. I’d start to feel a bit better and plan a full day of things including getting up early to fit it all in. Then I’d sleep through three alarms and feel exhausted and end up disappointed because I couldn’t do much at all. So I got used to expecting less. I’d maybe have one thing to aim for in a day. Doing some writing. Going to an event.

  • Take every day as it comes

You just don’t know how you’re going to be so it’s hard to plan for pain and also, there’s no point worrying about tomorrow either. Just be wherever you are at the time. Which I know is easier said then done.

  • Find ways around things

Walking or standing aggravated my back and after a few minutes of either I’d be in a lot of pain. So as I got better I drove to things, even very short distances. And sat or crouched down when standing became too hard. My car spectacularly failed its MOT and is now scrapped so in desperation, I tried cycling to a Pilates one evening. Because it was sitting – I was okay. After that I started cycling – it was so good to be able to get some exercise and get around but without hurting my back.

  • Don’t let fear stop you

Because it can suddenly become quite painful, it’s easy not to go out because you’re scared. I knew that fear could make my world smaller and smaller until I’d end up hardly doing anything. Then I’d feel quite miserable and that makes the pain worse. So I did my best to do things, even if I didn’t stay long. Even if it hurt and it was all I could do that day.

Lovely Wigtown Book Festival

I had four events at Wigtown Book Festival near the end of September when my back was still quite bad. I was still on prescription painkillers and I wasn’t sure how it would go.

I made contingency plans for the first two ‘Can’t-Dance-Cameron‘ schools events with 500 children. I could get volunteers up on the stage to show them the capercaillie dance moves if I couldn’t do them. I could do the whole event sitting down if I had to. I didn’t take the super strong pain killers the night before because I knew I’d never get up in time and I asked people to pray. I didn’t sleep but despite that, it actually went really well. I was able to stand and even dance on the stage and give the children my full energy. Here are some sketches Shoo Rayner drew at the event:

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Lots of teachers came up to say how much they’d enjoyed the event and they didn’t know about my back so they weren’t just being nice. The shop sold out of one of my books at the first event too so that was amazing. I got to sit for the signing so that gave my back time to recover between events.

I headed to the author’s yurt for lunch with my hot water bottle and enjoyed the lovely food (yes that is lobster!):

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And lovely people, the volunteers, the staff, Shaun at the Bookshop, the authors – Robert Twigger took some fab black and white photos of us all and added them to the message board every day:

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and later I visited my wonderful chairperson Renita’s house and spent the afternoon there drinking tea and resting. That evening I went to a magical storytelling evening based on ‘the moth‘ but called ‘the midge’. I was enjoying myself so much I even joined in with a story myself.

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And after that I still felt okay so I went along to book at bedtime – hot chocolate in the bookshop and a poetry reading from Peggy Hughes. It was such a lovely day and there’s such a wonderful welcome and atmosphere at Wigtown. I didn’t want to leave! So that was one of my best and most unexpectedly well days.

The next day I had a swim with Renita’s dog, walking to the water hurt but then the cold water hit me and the pain went – it was really good for my back.

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(Thanks to Renita Boyle for the video and photo!)

And later that evening it was Rally and Broad:

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with the wonderful Bookshop Band:

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I loved being part of the event with such brilliant performances from everyone (and a great audience!). There wasn’t a theme for the event so I based my set on all things at Wigtown.

And the final day was a family event for the Grouse and the Mouse – many of the rooms in the school had been transformed into magical fairy-light lit venues for the festival. It was amazing!

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(thanks to festival photographer Colin Tennant for this photo)

And before I traveled back to Edinburgh I saw ‘To Begin’, a moving show from the National Theatre of Scotland based on the real stories of the people of Wigtown (with lots of local people acting in the show too).

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So a big thanks to everyone at Wigtown for having me. I loved it and I’m looking forward to coming back soon.

Tidelines

Another lovely festival I visited at the beginning of September (before my back got bad) was Tideslines Book Festival. I had a couple of events in schools

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and then a public event in a theater with my first ever Hollywood style dressing room:

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And after the event the festival had organised a whole host of nature crafts with rangers and artists. Here’s a black grouse made from a pine cone:

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The rangers had slugs and bugs and fox fur you could feel:

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And the children had loads of fun too:

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Next week it’s Book Week Scotland and I’m really looking forward to these events – it’s so good to be feeling better again and I’ll just make sure I get plenty of rest in between.

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2015 in Education, Events, storytelling

 

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Maritime Memories of Leith and Newhaven

I’ve been working with older people in Leith and Historic Scotland’s maritime museum Trinity House to create digital stories. A digital story is a two to three minute audio sound track with still images over the top. It’s a personal story in the story maker’s own voice. These stories were inspired by the collections at Trinity House.

This week we had our red carpet premiere at the beautiful old cinema building of Destiny Church Leith. It’s one of the three remaining plaster cinema screens in the UK.

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We even rolled out a red carpet and over 70 people attended!

I introduced the digital stories at the event and thought that would be a good way to introduce you to the films now:

A Bow-Tow Remembers: Sophia Abrahamsen

Sophia is a Bow-Tow, that’s a person from Newhaven. She’s passionate about Newhaven History. On week two of the workshops Sophia read her first draft – it was so beautiful it was met by a spontaneous applause.  Who is Old Sherrag? Who lives in New Lane and why was Sophia abandoned as a child in Newhaven Harbour?

 

Watch the video on Youtube here.

From Lerwick to Leith: Stephen Hall

Stephen loved to talk about this family and that’s what this story is about. It’s also the first thing Stephen has written since school – I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s wonderful:

Watch the video on Youtube here.

Leith Docks: Ramsay Tubb

Ramsay began this story in school when he and two friends researched Leith Docks. Just what was it about the docks that captured his imagination?

Watch the video on Youtube here

All at Sea: Andrew Grant

Andrew is an amazing local historian. As well as bringing his local knowledge, Andrew helped digitise many of the images you see in these stories. Andrew had so many stories that his first read through was eight minutes instead of three. He had the challenge to shorten this and he chose one story – the story of his maritime training:

Watch the video on Youtube here.

How did the project begin?

I worked on a similar project facilitating digital story workshops with the Govan Reminiscence Group and Britain from Above. I’ll blog about that soon! I got chatting with Lucy at Trinity House and suggested digital stories would be a great way to engage people on their collections as well as capturing and sharing local history.

What did the project involve?

Firstly we ran a drop in recruitment session at the Living Memory Association venue in Leith’s Ocean Terminal.

We told people more about the project, shared some memories as a group and gave people a chance to sign up.

Each participant came to six two hour workshops with homework in between too. We drank tea, ate cake and worked on the stories.

The group gave feedback on each story – polishing a tweaking them and choosing the right images:

Lucy Bull provided the expertise on Trinity House and their collections and I ran the storytelling exercises. It was amazing to see the participant’s stories grow and improve over the weeks and it was wonderful to get such a brilliant reaction to them at the premiere.

UPDATE:

I’m looking forward to seeing this in the Edinburgh Evening News any day now. You can read about this project on STV here.

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2015 in Education, Events, Film, Media, storytelling, Writing

 

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Timmy The Turbine: Edinburgh International Science Festival

The Edinburgh International Science Festival launched its 2015 programme earlier this week. I’m really excited to say a science story I’ve written will be running every half an hour (for ages three plus) in the City Art Centre. Turn to page 7 of the programme, bottom right hand corner and you’ll see this:

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I wrote about the process of developing and piloting Timmy the Turbine for Vento Ludens here. I’m going to be training the Edinburgh International Science Festival Staff to run Timmy The Turbine soon – looking forward to that!

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Timmy the Turbine runs from the 4th to the 18th April (not Sundays) in The City Art Centre during the 2015 Edinburgh International Science Festival. If you know any children how enjoy science and stories, please do send them along. 

 
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Posted by on February 24, 2015 in Education, Events, Science, storytelling, Writing

 

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Dundee Literary Festival 2014

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Just a quick post to let you know I’m taking my first picture book ‘Can’t-Dance-Cameron: A Scottish Capercaillie Story’ to Dundee Literary Festival on 25th October, 10.00am. Get tickets here. The event is part of the family fun day:

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There will be:

  • Football with giant foam pinecones (more about that here)
  • Videos of actual dancing capercaillies at RSPB Loch Garten
  • Beautiful Scottish wildlife images thanks to Laurie Campbell
  • A naughty water-squirting red squirrel
  • Science experiments
  • A chance to make a red squirrel or capercaillie fridge magnet

You can also expect sounds effects, stickers, smells and a few surprises. We’ll be learning capercaillie dance moves along the way and dancing to music composed especially for the event by Sam Gallagher. Here’s a wee sample of the track, click play below:

About the Story

Cameron the capercaillie can’t dance. His family, the MacFeathers are the best dancers in the Cairngorms but sadly, when Cameron wiggles everyone giggles. Cameron meets a new friend, a red squirrel called Hazel Nut who takes him on a journey through the forest, will he learn to dance?

Pet Portraits

Literary Dundee have been sharing photos of pets with the programme on their facebook page. I got a little bit carried away and sent Peggy Hughes eight photos from the photoshoot I did with Oscar. Here he is at the end (I think he’s had enough!).

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Find Literary Dundee on Facebook and on Twitter. Find the wonderful Dundee Literary Festival programme online here.

 
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Posted by on September 29, 2014 in Education, Events, nature, Science, storytelling

 

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Timmy the Turbine on Tour

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This Sunday I’m taking ‘Timmy the Turbine’ on an adventure to meet families at Duddingston Festival. Soon after that on the 19th June he’s off to the Royal Highland Show to meet primary one and primary two children.

Timmy The Turbine is a nursery science show, story and workshop aimed at children age three to six years. The description for the Royal Highland Show Programme will hopefully explain what it’s all about:

Wind is wonderful and we’ve got plenty of it in Scotland! How can we use it to make things go?

Help Timmy the Turbine to find the perfect home in our interactive story with Nibbles the red squirrel, Honker the barnacle goose and Mr Haggis. Find out more about where they live and why Timmy can’t stay with them.

Measure how long Timmy’s arms are compared to yours. Sing the Timmy song. Learn the Timmy Rhyme and don’t forget the actions. Find out how Timmy can generate electricity. Create your own mini Timmy and decide where he should go.

If that wasn’t enough to wet your windy whistle – Timmy himself (the mascot) will make an appearance…

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I wanted to invite you along to meet him with your family this weekend at Duddingston Festival (or at the Royal Highland show in a few weeks if you’re a school). Details are:

Sunday 25th May, 1.15pm to 1.45pm Duddingston Festival Edinburgh. We’ll be in the BB Commemorative Garden if it’s sunny. If not we’ll be in the Miller Hall.

Thursday 19th June, Royal Highland Show, all day schools event (book your class in here).

Duddingston Festival is a lovely wee community festival. Most of the performers are coming for free and all the events are free too (by donation). You can see John Hegley‘s Children’s show (the amazing famous poet) right after Timmy finishes.

Where Did Timmy Begin? 

Timmy the Turbine started life as a story written by Jay Butler, Managing Director of Renewable Energy Company vento ludens. Vento ludens approached me to ask if I could to put together a proposal to take Timmy’s story and create a nursery workshop based around it.

I loved the story, especially that it was so well balanced – it helped highlight some of the problems of trying to locate a wind turbine as well as the benefits of wind power. For example Timmy gets in the way of migrating geese and he makes people’s TV aerials go fuzzy.

I worked on a proposal for the project which included:

  • a shortened version of the blurb above
  • ideas for an interactive science show
  • a fun way to simplify and present story
  • a song
  • a rhyme
  • a take home sheet
  • a craft
  • a plan to pilot the workshop in two Edinburgh Nurseries.

I pitched the proposal to Vento Ludens and was delighted to get commissioned. After that came the bit I really love. Writing and creating all the different interactive elements to make the story and the science behind the story fun, memorable and engaging for 3 to 6 year olds.

Creating Resources

I researched the curriculum for excellence and checked which areas of science are covered for Early Years (3 – 6 years) to make sure I was writing something relevant and using the correct terms. I simplified the story and added some memorable phrases to help the children to join in for example Timmy says “Hi, my name is Timmy and I’m looking for a home” each time he meets a new character.

I commissioned Julia Holland (my lovely sister) to create a set of felt book characters, I was so excited when they arrived:

I commissioned Edinburgh Sketcher to create four big story images to be used for recapping the story. Here’s one of nibbles the red squirrel in the pine forest: SquirrelForrest_Colour I asked the Edinburgh Sketcher to create line drawing versions for the story so we could put them together to make a take-home colouring sheet to stick on their fridge with a Timmy fridge magnet: BfKCsQIIcAAqsX3 Once I was happy with a prototype Timmy fridge magnet, I cut out lots of little Timmy’s:

I worked on the characters to give them unique personalities. The squirrel is bossy, the resident is a bit like Billy Conolly (but no swearing). I watched YouTube videos to perfect my Russian accent. I discovered Honker the barnacle goose migrates to Iceland or Russia so I needed to get the right voice! I should point out that my Russian accent is still fairly bad.

I built a model wind turbine and the cat, as always, got in the way:

I wrote a script and lesson plan and I practiced the show with a run order:

Timmy Pilot

We piloted Timmy the Turbine in Edinburgh in two different corner house day nurseries. Photographer Chris Scott came along to capture the action at the first nursery. There were 29 children aged four and five.

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This was a big group and I felt a bit nervous knowing it was my first performance. There were six nursery staff, two vento ludens staff members and a photographer all watching too – that’s more scary for me than the children. Thankfully, as soon as I got started I forgot about the grownups and had a really lovely time with the children.

They discovered how wind can make things go: _MG_1975

Nibbles the red squirrel threw nuts and squirted water:

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We told the story using the felt characters as props:

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We chatted about what they remembered using the beautiful Edinburgh Sketcher pictures:

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We had fun singing Timmy’s song and doing the Timmy the Turbine Rhyme:

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After 45 minute of carpet time I told them it was time for the craft and they didn’t move. One boy put his hand up and said “Does that mean you’re going?” I explained we would be going soon because another nursery needed to hear Timmy’s story. The boy said “Ohhhh” in a very sad voice and hung his head. I explained that if I didn’t go, they wouldn’t get to meet a very special guest… Timmy himself:

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The children decorated their Timmy the Turbine fridge magnets and once they’d finished we helped them to stick on pegs:

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I listened to some of their conversations and was really chuffed to hear them talking about Timmy’s story:

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Making it Better

There were a few things that came up during the first workshop that could be improved. That’s why it it’s useful to do a pilot, to try things and make it better.

For example I discovered the children weren’t too clear as to why Timmy couldn’t stay with Honker the goose. I asked them about it using the Edinburgh Sketcher pictures during the recap. Clearly I’d lost them somewhere, probably due to my Russian accent and the description of geese flying “Ve fly in a vee”.

So the second time around I made it really clear. The goose said “I vill bonk my head on your vings” multiple times to Timmy who said “Do you mean you’ll bonk your head on my blades?” “Yes, zat iz vhat I said. I vill bonk my head on your vings” and so on.

In the second workshop during the recap, they all remembered why Timmy couldn’t stay with honker the goose. The change had worked. Nibbles the squirrel was helping with the recap, she bonked her head on the picture several times with glee due to her being very pleased they had remembered – this made them all laugh a bit too much (naughty nibbles got carried away).

The second session was with a smaller group of 15 children aged 2 – 4. They were younger children so I shortened the workshop but they were still engaged for half an hour of carpet time. After the carpet time they drew Timmy on the Timmy Take Home sheet.

Evaluation

Overall we were really pleased with how it all went, especially with how well engaged the children were. The combination of different types of activities seemed to hold their attention. 

Here are a few of the nursery teacher comments:

They really enjoyed taking part in the story and I think it made them really feel part of it.

I thought it was a good story that covered different elements of the curriculum for excellence

It was really fun and informative. You managed to hold their attention for the whole length of time.

I’m sure they will be talking about Timmy for a while!

We also asked the teachers if the children could remember it after the event and if the parents had any feedback. Here’s what they said:

They were telling their parents all about the story and in particular the squirrel! Parents said they thought it was great that you guys had been in and done the story etc with the children. We have heard groups of children discuss it with each other.

I’m excited to see how Timmy gets on with family audiences this Sunday in Duddingston Festival and then with school children in June, at the Royal Highland Show.

Read about Timmy the Turbine on the vento ludens website.

Thanks

Massive thanks to everyone at vento ludens, to Jay for writing the story and huge hurrah for Susanne Mueller – for all your hard work, creativity and enthusiasm and for getting inside the Timmy suit with a smile. 

Thanks to Julia Holland and the Edinburgh Sketcher for creating such lovely resources. 

Thanks to staff, children and parents at the Corner House Day Nursery for being part of out pilot.

Thanks to our photographer, Chris Scott for all the lovely photographs.

 

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Faking My Own Death

Writing a personal monologue set ten years in the future during an Edinburgh based zombie apocalypse is not my usual kind of writing. I write about animals. Or science. I write for children. But I said yes before I’d got the brief. There’s a lesson to be learned there. Ari at Illicit Ink emailed me the story outline:

The apocalypse has come to Scotland. Nobody can quite agree on who invaded, but someone or something has. Seven Edinburgh folk give their stories about what happened, and how they are succeeding (or failing) to rebuild their worlds.

And some rules:

Your story must

a) Be in the first person – a monologue

b) Either be performed off-script or use a device (like a diary) where reading off the page is part of the performance

c) Include a section of the meta-story, as given by the producer

d) Be themed to the theme of the show

Here are some monologue devices you could use: diary, radio show, prison cell conversation, explanation over phone to spouse/children, news reading, coma conversation, someone buried under rubble conversation, report back to spaceship, letter to editor, school report, letter to loved one, letter to politician, confession to priest, chat to taxi driver, police station interview, etc.

I was one of the seven writers due to perform on stage at the Scottish Storytelling Centre earlier this month at ‘Apocalypse New’. My section brief was:

The mysterious visitors have built gardens. Edinburgh is full of waterfalls and new forests are springing up. Everyone is very happy and working together to build a compassionate and lovely world. But the strangers are eating people.

It perhaps sounds like my usual kind of writing until you get to that last line. At least I’d been given the most cheerful part, part five. I had a good few weeks to think about my section and during this time I was taken out quite literally by sciatic pain in my back and leg. It’s the worst pain I’ve ever had. I was on three types of prescription pain killers and still blacking out from pain. I could hardly walk but it gave me an opportunity to do something a little different with my writing. Here was a chance to fake my own death / disappearance / zombie abduction.

I waited until late at night when I was due a batch of pain killers. I wanted the pain to be real. I lay in bed with a phone camera and recorded three attempts at my last message to the world. Each was just over 10 minutes long and I played them back before recording the next one. I wanted the story to unravel almost seamlessly but at the same time be delivered with confusion and desperation. I wanted to question what it means to be human but add in things that show it’s me like my favourite bus (the number 10). I wanted to keep a few big reveals until the end. By the time I got to the third recording the pain and desperation were definitely real.

I didn’t want anyone to know I wasn’t going to be performing in person. When it got to my section the lights went out and a ghostly face appeared on the screen. My face. In the story I’m a doctor, here is my story:

Watch on Youtube here

It went down well. I only wish I could have been there to see all the other performances – radio presented compering, an interview, a play with music and spoken word:

Illicit Ink Skyground: Apocalypse New

When I told people how I’d made the video they said I was suffering for my art. I hadn’t thought of it like that. I saw it as making the most out of the pain. It was described as heightened realism and good acting. If you’re pretending to be drugged and in pain it’s a lot easier if you are actually drugged and in pain so I’m not sure I deserve the credit. I got the idea a few month before from a friend who’s a real doctor. The servers went down in Glasgow and the NHS had no access to anyones medical records for two days. That’s what got me thinking – what if everyone’s medical records really were hacked…

On the day of the performance I got very scared that it was a ridiculous idea and I sent an email to Ari saying I was scared it was rubbish. She assured me it wasn’t and said it was just the sort of experimental thing she was looking for. If you like experiments Illicit Ink: Skyground is back again in February. J.A. Sutherland was very complimentary about the event, read the review here.

Image Credit: Chris Scott

 
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Posted by on November 26, 2013 in Events, Film, poetry, Science, storytelling, Writing

 

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