Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Wise Words: Stories from the Stour

For anyone with an interest in storytelling, fable, myth and fairytale (i.e, me) , the idea of 5 spirits, 4 tales, 3 saucepans, 2 wizards and 1 performance was just too enticing to miss.
Stories from the Stour is a concept imagined by students from the University of Kent.  The founders of the Can On A String Theatre Company, Camilla Churchill, Gersom de Konig and Ben Williams, all specialise in Applied Theatre, working with young people to create something original and perform it.

Camilla, a 4th year student told me that they had been approached by the Wise Words Festival earlier in the year.  They had been working with Year 7 and 8 pupils from Canterbury High School and students from a variety of year groups at the Spires Academy and embarked on a specific project with the children from both schools for the Wise Words Festival through the idea of creating new stories, all inspired by the local environment.  The students have been involved in all areas of Stories from the Stour, right from the start in January, devising the stories and scripts, creating the costumes and props, making the films and the voice overs, including the makeup and the music.  Camilla stressed how amazing it was to watch the children grow and develop and today they will be performing their stories for the first time to their families, friends and members of the general public.
The stories are told in and around the Greyfriars Chapel and gardens.  Visitors queue outdoors in the light dappled meadow as the river ripples its burbling melody back at the chattering birdsong. We are a stone's throw from the bustling high street but you would not realise it from where we stand in the same spot where a chapel has stood since the C13. 
The gardens themselves are straight out of Wonderland.  Lampshades perch in the branches of the old trees like oversized blossom whilst in amongst the roots and moss everything you could need for a tea party is laid out.  A lot of this was for The Tempest which would be performed that evening in the gardens, a treat that unfortunately I was not able to get to.  Considering the fairytales we were about to experience, the gardens looked perfect.
I meet Sinead from The Demon Gin, a fellow thespian and blogger who is also covering the festival.  Go have a look when you finish up here, I highly recommend her!
In groups of 10 we are ushered by our sprite-like guides into a world of wonder.  They promise us magic and whimsy in the time ahead.
We creep down the dim hallway in the Chapel into the old prison.  You can see the river rushing below our feet through the cracks in the weathered floor boards.   It is very dark save for the luminescent sunlight that slips in through open doors and cracked windows.
A young man stands in the corner and is silent apart from the odd command for people to move round, move closer, fill the space.  When all are in their places he leans forward and taps a projector.  A film starts to play on the ancient brickwork.  A child's voice speaks out over the crackling sepia recording, describing a fabled amusement park where children enter but never return.  The grinning visage of the masked owner leers down on us as strains of This is Halloween from The Nightmare Before Christmas play disconcertingly through the air and shadow puppetry casts a supernatural veil over the children.  He laughs manically as they warn us not to enter the fair lest the spirit of the ringmaster gets you and the projector creaks to a halt.

Sometimes you are struck by just how vivid a child's imagination can truly be.  This is one of those times; this film spoke of fears that lurked beneath the surface, of worries of being abandoned and forgotten, of being cast out or lost and never able to find your way home.  It's a fear that has echoed down through the centuries as adults warned children of fey folk and their changelings, of not leaving the forest path, of spurning fairy food, of consuming 6 pomegranate seeds and being trapped for all time. The children ignore the warnings of the adults and stay too long on Pleasure Island, metamorphosing into braying asses to work for the cruel ringmaster for eternity as Pinocchio runs in terror.  This was another spin on an ancient tale and one that carried a lesson underneath as clear as Aesop's.  Don't talk to strangers, don't accept gifts from people you don't know. 
We move on, unsure whether or not we are to speak, and in single file ascend the stairs to the ancient chapel room.  Here we are ushered into pews whilst the guide asks for volunteers.  They are selected and moved to one side of the chapel to stand behind empty frames and instructed to adorn themselves with boas and flat caps.
We watch the children act out a scene where they leave to go on holiday with their father.  One child is left behind.  He turns on a tap and gets distracted.  The room floods and the child drowns.  Upon the families return from their holiday they are haunted by the child's ghost who has merged with that of an ancient wizard.  He bangs the saucepans, scares the children and eventually drives them from their home.  This again spoke of children's fears of being abandoned, forgotten about and left behind.  If Kevin had not fought the invaders with paint cans flung from banisters and shattered ornaments, would he have been fated to haunt his family? 
We move from the Chapel into the bright mid-afternoon sunshine filling the small garden.  A small boy in a sou'wester jacket lies sleeping in his camping chair, a fishing line propped by his side.  He wakes and tests his line, pulling the same fish three times from the water.  His comic frustrations grow until eventually a cloaked wizard hears him and offers his assistance.   He casts a charm on the water but the spell fails.  As a last resort he makes the fisherman drink some blue potion.  This has the desired effect and the next fish that is pulled from the water is significantly larger.  The fisherman grows greedy and fights the magician for the potion, stealing it and running away.  The audience are encouraged to follow him and he runs towards to the next short story.
2 reporters tell us that on a certain day, at a certain time, the spirits of the garden can be seen and we can hear their stories.   We move with them around the lawns, listening to the spirits' tales one at a time.
There is the spirit of the tree and his companion, the spirit of midsummer.  They whisper and wail of their time in the garden and the outside world, of what they once were and what they will be. 
There is a small, vindictive little spirit who will bite your ankles and trip you up, you may have met him on the curbs of streets, on pavements where you blamed your turned ankle on uneven paving, on roads slick with ice in the dead of winter. 
Finally, a cursed spirit who can no longer speak is standing trapped on his plinth.  He was a moving statue who was punished for a misdemeanor.  All he can do is bumble and burble, shaking his head and his cane in despair as his sock puppet familiar deliberately misleads us with regards to his intentions, mistranslating his incomprehensible words.
The spirits fade into the background as the reporters note that the time has passed on this enchanted hour and the magic is gone from the garden.  We are left alone at the end of the tour, to contemplate the stories and see the pride on faces of parents at what their children's imagination has accomplished with 5 spirits, 4 tales, 3 saucepans, 2 wizards and 1 performance.

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