OCTOBER / NOVEMBER 2013
When a famous children's author like Michael Morpurgo does a school visit to do a storytelling, he arrives with nothing more than a paperback in his pocket. When I do a school visit it's a car-load of props, novelty books, a special jacket and a pair of red boots, a table, a CD player and half a dozen packets of gingerbread men.
Although the writer in me knows it's possible to entertain an audience of children by simply telling them a story and encouraging them to use their imaginations, the actor/director in me insists in giving them a proper show in the hall, featuring magic and music, as well as illustrating the story – my play/book/tv version of THE GINGERBREAD MAN – with pictures, props, plus bags of audience participation including magically baking gingerbread men at the end.
I love doing it. It takes me back to my roots as a children's party entertainer and to my early acting jobs touring in Theatre-In-Education. After the performance I do sessions for year or class groups called BOOKS ARE FUN!, featuring my own published novelty books. I have been doing this on and off for years, and have never resented the chore of carting all the necessary stuff from house to car, from car to school, from school back to car, from car back to house. It's part of the job.
A few weeks ago I flew to the Shetland Islands to work in schools as part of an Arts Festival. They had agreed to provide a table and CD player. So I had packed everything else into a large suitcase. You've probably guessed what's coming. I changed planes at Aberdeen and arrived safely at Lerwick. But not the suitcase. It was either still at Heathrow or was sitting in Aberdeen having missed the connecting flight. Seventeen hours later I stood in front of 150 children aged 3 to 9 with nothing with which to entertain them but the clothes I had travelled up in and, thank heaven, one slim volume I happened by chance to have taken with me in my hand luggage – my rhyming version of CINDERELLA. This was not a book I had intended to use, but it would have to do. It saved the day. And it seemed to go down OK, thanks to the kindness of the children, who seemed determined to enjoy themselves. After that we made up a story. No props involved. It was great fun.
And it made me think. As an entertainer/storyteller I really shouldn't be unable to perform without oodles of props to prop me up. From now on I aim to be more prepared for when I'm unprepared, if you see what I mean. It has also made me think how important the role of the performer is. You can have the best story in the world, plus all the theatrical tricks of lighting, sound and set, but the entertainment won't work without the skill and personality of the performer/s. I managed to scrape through OK, but, boy was I relieved when the suitcase turned up at 9.30 pm that evening, ready for my second Shetland school visit next day. Comfortably propped up once more, it was business as usual.
That afternoon I flew back to Heathrow. And – you've guessed it – I arrived three days before the suitcase …
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