Posts Tagged ‘narrative’

Headshot image of ChloeRevered script consultant Michael Hauge, whose blockbuster credits range from Pirates of the Caribbean to Hancock, happily gives away trade secrets at www.storymastery.com .

A young wannabe wrote to Mr Hauge of his frustration at getting no response from Hollywood script agents. The submitted scripts, intended for mainstream USA audiences, featured Sikh characters and included roles for the writer, who’s also ‘an aspiring actor’. He asked if he must ‘write to sell instead of writing good quality screenplays with unique characters’. You can read Michael’s beautifully honest reply on the Q+A page of www.storymastery.com

Michael’s response might be tough for a frustrated writer / actor /director to read. That’s why it’s so valuable.

I believe that ‘commercial and ‘good quality’ are not mutually exclusive – in fact the creative challenge to balance those elements is a big part of the fun!

To me, creative process means communicating my ideas – in ways that will win audiences. Grab them, hold them, provoke them into thinking (that’s hard!), give them laughter and other reasons to go on living.

Emotional power

Obviously I’m white British, irretrievably middle class and now sagging into middle age. Yet somehow I’ve always been aware of long established respect for Sikhism in the UK. When I was aged six or seven I loved the serial in my weekly comic about a Sikh army officer. I was also a child who suffered horrible nightmares. Time and again I summoned up the image of that warrior in his turban and uniform as I prepared to face the wild landscapes of night; the thought of that character made me feel protected.

So let’s think Life of Pi. Think Slum Dog Millionaire. Those films involve cultures outside the experience of a large part of western cinema audiences, yet the stories have vivid characters about whom you really care, they have visual magnificence and narratives that corkscrew between magical romance and raw survival. Cultural settings are secondary to the films’ emotional power.

5 year plan

But that young Sikh writer-actor must also remember that British creative industries have gatekeepers who tend to revel in their power and who only deign to give the time of day to their chosen clique. Outsiders are almost never allowed in. I suspect the USA, land of opportunity, is no different when it comes to film and television.

I suggest that, given he knows what he’s capable of when he gets his break, the young man needs a 5 year campaign:
1) To build a good reputation in the right places as a Sikh actor. Be available in many countries, do the widest possible range of work to learn how different aspects of the industry create success (and to see how NOT to do many things!) Respected actors do get opportunities as writers + directors.
2) To offer scripts to specialists in making films that feature Sikh culture.  Initially he should not ask to act in his own films, until decision makers know and trust his writing and his acting. So where are the Sikh film makers, all around the world? Hollywood is not the only fruit.
3) To trust that all experience is useful as he works towards writing scripts that celebrate his Sikh culture and weave that material into a wider (western) context that will hook Hollywood decision makers’ attention. If he still wants that.
4) To network, study, work ordinary jobs to pay his bills and discover life; and keep writing. NOTHING IS WASTED even if it isn’t used this year … or next…

All about the money

I know all about failing to see beyond my own potential. “If only bookers/audiences would see how brilliant my performances and material are…”

And my work is constantly devalued, even when people enjoy it. “It’s just storytelling. It’s just for kids.” “We’re a charity.”

Just last week a conversation went bad because someone said “It’s not all about the money” to which I responded “But money is important. I have to pay the rent”. They couldn’t assume that I deliver my work fuelled by a lifetime of experience, 15 years of full time commitment and all the artistic integrity of which I’m capable. Instead they leapt to the easier assumption that I’m crassly commercial.

Right now I’m wriggling my material around to reach a new market. The world première of my first all-contemporary story cabaret Scheherazade’s Shed was hailed by the director of Cheltenham Poetry Festival 2015 as a “highlight of the festival”. I should have done this years ago!

Terrified

But when I started out in 1999, the senior practitioners of my (very small) creative industry terrified me into believing that only one kind of work was acceptable. They were the gatekeepers so I did what they said they wanted. And 15 years on I’ve realised that didn’t work either! Sometimes the doors aren’t just locked against you, they’re bricked up. Time to stop banging my poor bloody head against a brick wall.

But if I’d been more confident, I’d have found the way round much faster. If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll only get what you always got. Creative work MUST be influenced by commercial demands, i.e. what audiences like. Otherwise your work is just amateur self indulgence.

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Chloë: "Fairytales help me function in the real world"

Chloë: “Fairytales help me function in the real world”

Experts tell me my blogs are too long. They insist you don’t have the time (or intelligence?) to take in detail.
I think experts cater for the average – and that’s not what I’m working with, here.
I think you read with cuppa to hand and brain provoked into firing off your own ideas. That’s what blogging is about, isn’t it? But today I experiment: the long blog has been split into 2 parts. You tell me what you think – add your comment or use the Contact Form below.

When I perform as the Dragon Whisperer, every audience includes one child who asks, “Are dragons real?”

To the child whose voice quavers with anxiety I answer, “I am a storyteller. It’s my job to make things up. What do you think?”

To the grinning, streetwise brat as well as to the gravely enquiring child I respond with a straight look and “Dragons are real to me. You’ll have to make up your own mind.”

I believe these responses empower children to sort out their own thinking; and that’s the point, really.

A few young people find fiction an irritating turn off. Was Richard Dawkins, disparager of fairytales, one of those? Many reluctant readers need facts – wild truths, outrageous reality, biographies and encyclopedias. Fiction phobes relish real life stories about how their heroes overcame disadvantage and setbacks. Engage their imaginations with how the real world is constructed, from weird sea creatures to the craziest twists of history: because truth is, of course, stranger and more wonderful than fiction. Every day.

Relief in fantasy

It’s quite disturbing to hear an eight-year-old claiming that fantasy stories help her ‘escape’. I have to hope she was repeating what she’d heard adults say.

But fantasy / fairytale as escapism for teens and adults is also valuable.

BBC Radio 4 intelligentsia might fret about teen boys immured in bedrooms playing internet wargames and watching endless films; I suggest this is still feeding imagination – and diverting the rogue waves of testosterone. Better films and fantasy than rampaging down the road with an Uzi. (Yes, this is a whole different subject, for another day.)

Put it another way: if your life is dull or difficult, if physical or mental health is on the blink, then fantasy can provide significant relief.

More adaptable

For more than 30 years I’ve been pummelled by phases of depression, some more derailing than others. Millions of people face the same mood management challenges that I do, and likewise refuse to resort to alcohol or other substances.

I can’t change my world: only my response to it. For me, that means a short trip into fantasy – dragons, space ships and all; sometimes in a book or film, sometimes at a live action roleplay game. Thus refreshed, I face my real world tasks in a stronger and more adaptable frame of mind.

In my mid 50s, I still NEED fairytales in order to function.

I hazard the guess that Richard Dawkins loathes Narnia author C S Lewis, whose work was as much Christian allegory as children’s entertainment. I read the whole series repeatedly between the ages of eight and twelve and took no interest whatsoever in the Christian connections. The stories were just rattling good reads. So I’ll give today’s last word to the creator of Aslan, so thrillingly “not a tame lion”.

“Since it is so likely that (children) will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.” – C S Lewis 

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Blog revised (divided to make shorter pieces!) after expert advice that you can’t cope with long articles…
Tell you what, you tell me: comments below. And anyway, you’ve probably seen Part 2 of this already, thanks to blog layout. Hey ho.

The hero who faces the dragon can inspire or warn many generations

“…Let them [children] at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage”

PART 1:   Richard Dawkins won his headline coverage at the 2014 Cheltenham Science Festival by belittling fairytales and suggesting that childish fantasies should be dropped in favour of “a spirit of scepticism”.

Dawkins has a string of letters after his name. My late father, the entomologist Professor A D (Tony) Lees, had only BSc, PhD and FRS [Fellow of the Royal Society, Britain’s top club for scientists. You don’t get many of them to the pound]. From my earliest years, my father read to me and encouraged me to love stories.

In his own boyhood, my father was partly inspired to follow the way of the naturalist by reading the children’s fantasy series Dr Dolittle.

Before that story was razzamatazzed by Hollywood, Hugh Lofting’s stories about the little portly doctor from Puddleby-on-the-Marsh nudged young readers to consider very serious subjects indeed. The Dolittle books explore friendship, family, multi culturalism, moral dilemmas, money management, cruelty, ignorance, courage and the stultifying effect of narrow thinking – including academic snobbery… Lofting himself was a WW1 veteran and international civil engineer.

Relief from logic

My father – and his colleagues – sent me exploring Narnia, Middle Earth, Japanese poetry and mythology, Jules Verne proto steampunk science fiction and of course the spoof scientific methods of Sherlock Holmes. For these very serious scientists such fiction provided relief from the business of hard logic – as well as springboard moments of ‘What if..?”

Several models of mobile phone, medical diagnostic devices and even the latest space ship design derive directly from the enduringly popular TV science fiction series Star Trek.

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairytales,” Albert Einstein is alleged to have said.

The author Beth Webb says “Fiction inspires scientists to imagine the impossible.” All my life I’ve seen how the arts and science mutually nourish each other. I’ve observed author Sir Terry Pratchett deep in discussion with performers and scientists as he developed more of his glitteringly successful, magi-technical Discworld. Good fantasy writers start from real science in order to create plausible fiction.

And yes, bad fantasists distort science to con the less well informed. Look at almost any so-called UFO website; it’s very nearly impossible to find genuine information.

But the professors from around the world who dined at my father’s table, talking shop until my mother and I crept away in exhausted incomprehension, valued creativity from fine art to fine words. Very serious scientists love fantasy.

Great beards in the sky

Dawkins complains that fairytales indoctrinate children in “supernaturalism”. An ardent atheist, he worries that fables put young minds at risk of being caught in the webs of religion.

But isn’t it exactly the other way around? I suggest that young people experienced in the difference between fantasy and reality are far LESS likely to be taken in by claims of resurrection, virgins in heaven, tablets of stone, divinities with animal heads, guided thunderbolts or any of the great beards in the sky that rulers have invented to control the general population.

The woodcutter takes charge of the dragons, tricking them out of their treasure

Legendary hero Stan Bolovan wins wealth and happiness by keeping his nerve: a lesson for children? (Illustration from ‘Dragon Games’ story in DRAGON TALES CD and e-book by Chloë of the Midnight Storytellers)

I can’t have been the only child who was disappointed to discover that her toy magic wand didn’t work, and that no amount of burrowing to the back of wardrobes led to a snowy lamplit land. Privately, without fuss, I confirmed the difference between make-believe and the real world.

Dawkins fails to credit children with their natural bloody-minded common sense. We know in our bones – I revert to eight years old here – that frogs can’t turn into anything (except interesting corpses…), that superheroes don’t fly to the rescue and that dragons don’t light up our skies. And we see pretty soon that prayer can ease fear but it doesn’t stop earthquakes or save loved ones.

The uses of metaphor

As it happens I deal in make-believe on a daily basis. For the purpose of children’s entertainment I have constructed the fantasy world of Agent Green the Dragon Whisperer – lead draconics expert and field operative for DCHQ, Dragon Conservation Headquarters.

In costume and character I tell stories about dragons, plus traditional folktales and legends from many cultures around the world. I must be doing something right because it’s no trouble to keep a couple of hundred primary school pupils completely spellbound. Even teen and adult fantasy fans – especially Tolkien/LOTR enthusiasts – enjoy my Masterclass in the Care & Training of Dragons.

But what is actually the point of fairy stories and folktales? (As the very teutonic academic demanded at the end of my Tolkien Society presentation in 2012).

Beth Webb (also on Facebook) writes elegant fantasy fiction that is adored by an extraordinary range of children and teens. She also works with the UK’s most gifted and talented young people – frankly, the great thinkers and top boffins of our future – in writing courses bubbling with joyously outside-the-box creativity. Most of her students won’t become professional writers but they do go on to communicate more effectively with the rest of their world. They never forget the critical and constructive thinking skills – yes, the ‘spirit of scepticism’ – and the creative freedom opened up for them under Beth’s guidance.

Educationalists around the world assert

  • For children transitioning from concrete thinking to abstract thinking, the structure, phrasing and imagery of fairytales/folktales demonstrate the uses of metaphor.
  • Fairytales accustom children to narrative structure and develop their vocabulary. Children who grow up hearing, telling and reading stories move more easily into written work at school.
  • Fairytales allow children to experience fear and danger at a safe remove. Children observe how wit, courage, creative thinking and co-operation solve problems.

I would also say that fairytales and folklore help connect young people to their cultural roots. Equally, stories from different cultures give children insight into other ways of life and different values. In a world where belief systems are clashing with ever bloodier violence, and the great beards of temple, church and mosque are prescribing and proscribing with ferocious zeal, stories become a last chance to broaden cultural horizons.

Very definitely fairytales promote scepticism: think of all the mocked and unloved third sons or daughters of storyworld who shine as role models, defying convention and authority to save their families. Consider Dawkins’ improbable frog prince, and the Beast in his rose garden: apparently impossible partners for a human – yet their gentleness and delightful good company invite us to take the difficult step of looking beyond appearances, beyond prejudices.

And now refill your glasses for Part 2: scroll up to the next blog post title ‘Fairytale: A Great Escape’

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If you’d like to be entertained by live Story Cabaret (spoken word fantasy for audiences of adults) or would like workshops to inspire your own creativity, as well as for secondary schools Year 7 – Sixth Form, please check out my work

I also supply storytelling for primary and junior schools and family events as Agent Green the Dragon Whisperer

If you’re really keen, Dragon Tales the e-book for Kindle is available for a teensy tithe of treasure – only GBP£2.56 – including more illustrations

…Would have a career! Here I am mixing up a potent cocktail of performance skills: from high drama to stand-up comedy with the odd moment of pure poetry. Making some people drift into dreamland, and some reach for the sick-bag.
(Hmm.. A new ad theme? – Chloe’s work kicks like a Moscow Mule, sparkles like vintage Veuve Cliquot, and is salty round the edges with a worm at the end!?!)

But because I’m a ‘storyteller’ – oh dear, it’s got that nasty childy mocking whine of stor-y-Jacka-Nor-y.  And I’m dead.  No English theatre, no trendy venue, no hip broadcaster wants to put  ‘ickle floaty-birdy-pretty-bunny kiddyfodder in their main schedule! Because that’s all they can imagine storytelling to be!

It is set in stone for entertainment agencies, venue bookers, broadcasters and the general public that ‘storytelling’ is for 5-year-olds. They cannot fathom the idea of Story Cabaret packed with gripping narrative designed to entertain adults.  I cannot meet someone for the first time and be introduced as a storyteller without them gushing Oh How Lovely, D’you Go Into Schools?

It makes me want to do to them what the Japanese storm god does to his sister’s pet pony…
Not nice. Lots of blood.

My latest Story Cabaret (aha! trying another name, see?) at National Trust property Hidcote Manor was sold out. The definitely grown-up and indeed sophisticated audience contained not one person who’d experienced performance storytelling before.  (I asked.)  They’d only come to the show because it was called ‘Tales of Lust & Chocolate’ and frankly anyone with a pulse would come to that.

Even the event organizer was startled by how spellbinding a story show can be. In one hour we experienced naughtiness, heartbreak, temptation and scary trickery. The audience laughed, blushed, grieved and shuddered – sometimes to the same story.

Good spoken-word stories are emotionally powerful and thought provoking. Traditional stories can seem simple; yet they deal with the whole smeary rainbow of human behaviour. New stories – eg urban myths, and the much-maligned-until-recently personal stories – highlight our age, our world, in all its absurdity and contradictions.

Now, do you still think this material is suitable only for 5-year-olds?