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March 10, 2009
"Once upon a time there was a little girl called Molly Whuppie and she was very clever. But her parents had so many children they could not afford to feed her and her two older sisters, so they were sent out into the world.
Led by Molly, the girls encounter a giant and escape, causing his own daughters to be killed along the way. She meets a king, and through fulfilling a series of tasks set by him - namely returning to the giant's house and stealing various treasured items - Molly secures prince-husbands for her sisters and finally herself."
This was the English fairy tale that formed the basis of our group's storytelling theatre performance last term. Using the storytelling techniques described by Mike Alfreds in his work with Shared Experience. This proved a unique and sometimes frustrating challenge during rehearsal, as we swung from an interpritation that was too cartoonish, to a heavy-handed, pyschological character analysis approach.
Our saviour was Bakhtin, and carnival humour. Suddenly the elements of the story made sense - the grotesque body of the giant, the reoccurance of food and eating as key themes, and Molly as the comic hero: amoral, resourcesful and likeable trickster. Revived by this, we transformed the piece as a rollicking and irreverent romp. It was a great success when performed to our peers. Our tutor, Joe Winston commented "something of a triumph - pacey, gripping, suspenseful, comical, ironical and true to the spirit of the original."
Giants, child snatchers and other villians of MA storytelling group!
Yet, as an ensemble all viewing each other's work, I couldn't help but be aware that we all had a certain amount invested in enjoying the performances each group presented. The presentation evening ran high with theatrical nerves and elation, and while the standard was such that the compliments which passed easily between us were honest and heartfelt, this was not an evening when our practice was carefully reflected on. For many, what felt like the real challenge as education practitioners was the next day's performance in a local primary school; Balsall Common. The laughter was less, but it was there - with rapt attention between.
What I found really interesting was watching the children - aged between 7-10 - during a break between performances. They had just watched a performance of Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves that included an enthustiastic mime sequence of pouring boiling oil into barrels containing hidden thieves and an African tale with a cartwheeling villian. As soon as the children got up from their spaces they began mimicking the sections that had made the most impression on them. The room was full of the screams of miniature thieves, dying in boiling agony, and legs flying everywhere as cartwheels were attempted. This made me consider that an important aspect of performances intended for young people should elements they can recreate for themselves. As Grotowski observes, if the actor "performs feats which are well beyond the ability of the spectator... the result is either incomprehension... or quite vehement refusal to listen"
The second incarnation of Molly Whuppie was as part of an hour long workshop with a year four class at Templars Primary School. We attempted to deliver a workshop with a focus on the moral themes inherent in Molly Whuppie, particulary the questionable moral values of Molly herself. However, we discovered the children, without expection, approved of Molly's action and wanted to be her friend because 'she was clever' and 'she would take care of you'. A hotseating session with the giant almost descended into a slanging match. The giant tried in vain to explain to the class Molly had caused him to kill his children and almost batter his wife to death. But they would have none of it - Molly was the hero of the hour. I wonder if a factor in this was that the performers ourselves, though our devising process had also come to like and admire Molly, and in our carnival-inspired performance revelled in her trickery - even when it resulted in death and violence.
Reflecting on this, we struggled. It seemed clear a more heavy-handed protrayal of Molly would leaden the whole performance. the very power of this carnival folk tale, some would argue of all theatre, is in its ability to subvert the norms of society. If (as we attempted in rehearsal) we were to temper Molly's actions with space in the narrative to reflect on their consequences, the whole performance took on the air of a sermon. And so, despite an enjoyable workshop, we were left with questions. We were sure the tale had moral issues within its scope; combining so deftly questions of hunger, greed and poverty with family allegiances, bravery and marriage, but how to tease out these without loosing the sense of fun inherent in the story?
Our latest Molly adventure was with a year 10 drama class at Queensbridge School. On the teacher's request, we had developed a skills-based workshop. The group had already done some work on narration, and so - also taking into consideration our own storytelling module began with an exploration of narration, this seemed a viable choice of focus. Remembering the primary children and their eager imitations of the most grusome storytelling moments, we elected to focus on the moment at the Giant's house when Molly has tricked the Giant into clubbing his own daughters to death - giving her and her sisters time to escape.
Although the performance was well recieved, we struggled with a frustrating mixture of rowdiness and lack of motivation from the class for the rest of the session. The teacher (himself a previous graduate of my MA scheme) had told us we might face these challenges with this group. And although we spent time developing the scaffolding of the task - using a mixute of discussion, whole space warm-ups and still image formation to develop understanding of the narrator's role - I wonder now if we could have taken more advantage of our numbers (four facillitators in all) to work more intensively with smaller groups. Our model of one facillitator leading an exercise and others drifting between groups left too much space for either misbehaviour or disinterest to develop. In fact there were times when the 'how are you getting on?' approach to a group actually felt more of a hinderence than a help to them - the sudden attention either making them clam up completely, or having to halt effective group negotiations to communicate with us.
Having said this, there were some very positive moments. One group of boys in particular seemed to grasp the concept of narration leading the tone and interpritation of the story, creating two strong still images: one of Molly's triumph, and the other of the Giant Children's tragedy. Other groups had started to experiement with the importance of body langauge and use of the space in storytelling there - one girl created a strong, upright Molly standing over the prone bodies of the Giant Children, while another group had Molly standing on a table, the Giant Children draped asleep or dead at her feet
If I believe (and I do) that storytelling can be engaging and relevant for every age, then how do I understand and hopefully overcome the issues we faced in the GCSE workshop? For me it raised lots of questions about discipline and classroom management in drama. If you are trying to create the atmosphere of an ensemble, how do you sqaure this away with the need (as we had today) of dealing with unacceptable classroom behaviours? If, as Nora Allingham points out "curriculum consists of everything in the school environment' then won't a 'shut up and listen now' attitude destory any mutual respect between teachers and students? And yet if the behaviour of some is inhibiting the work of others, isn't there a necessity of discipline procedures to deal with this? And if this is a knotty problem for a teacher to handle, surely it is even more so for the visiting practitioner to deal with? How do you establish these boundries in one, or a small number of sessions?.... But this issue is, as we say, a story for another day.