When I first got the call from Nicki Bray, the charming and dynamic learning officer at The National Museum of Rural Life at Wester Kittochside http://www.nms.ac.uk/national-museum-of-rural-life/ , a short drive from Glasgow, I was very excited. Storytelling at fantastic spots that you personally love and enjoy visiting is one of my favourite perks of the job!
The museum is a fantastic collaboration between the National Trust for Scotland and the National Museums http://www.nts.org.uk/Property/National-Museum-of-Rural-Life/ , comprising a historic working farm and a stunningly designed exhibition space, it also has a small theatre which it uses for events and a really good cafe…whatsmore you can get a free tractor rides between the two areas as part of the entrance fee…always a winner with my family!
The brief was to turn Rabbie Burns’ “To a Mouse’ into an interactive storytelling session for families…working with Louise Cairns http://loucairns.bandcamp.com/ the very talented musician I collaborate with more and more these days.
Nicki had heard about ‘Dancing Trees: a kids ceilidh’ a session we collaborated on last year and felt something similar: interactive elements and music crafted around a story, (but this time a piece by Burns serving as the inspiration, designed for a younger audience) would work well in the museum’s theatre space for their weekend of activities.
We set to work, Louise wrote a gorgeous little song using the words from the poem, simple enough for children to learn quickly, catchy enough according to feedback (one lovely family came to the session on both days) to be remembered and sung after the session was over!
Using the storyline of the poem and using key words and phrases, I wrote a session and retold the poem as a story.
One of the things I find it really helpful to remember when I deliver storytelling sessions that require the use of Scot’s language is that whilst some words have entered the vernacular: blether and wee, for example and need no explanation, even for those brought up wholly in the South of England, the meaning of beautiful phrases like ‘Daimen icker in a thrave’ are however, not even entirely clear to many folk who in part casually use the Scots language in everyday speech. Because of this I find that stories with layers of words and intrinsic explanations for children who are not yet old enough to have covered Scots language in school, (as they fortunately do nowadays) can be an amazing way of familiarising a really diverse audiences with the use and beautiful descriptive quality of the language.
The session opened as the families came into the theatre, I started to ask the children if they’d ever seen a ripe field of barley in the late summer sun, how it could look like golden shimmering waves, described the plump, ripening grains and the long tufts atop, all accompanied by Louise’s flowing original piano. As the theatre filled I asked the children to come down to the stage area and help me create our own barley field.
I had armfuls of golden dried barley from http://hopshop.co.uk/ a family farm who grow all the dried plants they sell, a cloth I had died with lines to represent furrows and armfuls of dried flowers and pebbles…this was a field that predated weedkillers and mechanised rock removal!
Then I talked about the seeds the barley had grown from, how many had eaten Scotch broth? Those succulent swollen pearl barley seeds in their raw state had popped rots and shoots had grown and developed into our field. Louise `as going to use barley seeds with them now to make shakers from recycled materials and teach them the rhythms to accompany our story, Louise as well as being a talented singer songwriter and classical musician, shares her skills and love of music with children https://www.facebook.com/pages/Tonic-Music-Education/223997380998832 and is always great at our sessions for energising the children and getting them really involved with the music.
Shakers made, field grown, I took the participants through a visualisation of the seasons, they could feel the wind getting colder, ploughing time was nearing, we harvested our barley, building a haystack: “was that a wee mouse we saw? a wee sleekit timourous mousie?What was she up to, building a nest with a wee bit of stibble?”
Could wee lure our wee mouse out of hiding with a song? No? Maybe a story!
We sang the poetic little song to our mouse, then settled down for a story.
A story of two Ayrshire lads working to keep a roof over their head and not letting a small kindness to a poor wee creature lay waste to their own vital plans too much!
The original poem http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/robertburns/works/to_a_mouse/ is one of several Burn’s pieces I love using, my Living Voices group loved the story of Burn’s birth: the tale behind ‘Rantin’, Rovin’, Robin’ and I love to recreate a version of the traditional tale adapted by Burns’ that is Tam ‘O’ Shanter for halloween. To a Mouse has stunningly simple but brilliant philosophical observations and is a fantastic vehicle to explore our heritage and farming history so was perfect for the museum.
The session went down well, the small theatre was full for all four sessions, standing room only for the last set!
The families that came were brilliant, the children obviously really enjoyed strewing the theatre with barley and flowers, some grown ups joined in with the singing (hurrah!), two children and at least one mum had amazing beautiful voices and it was wonderful to hear them sing.
The museum staff sneaked in and loved it, a wonderful lady who volunteered there stood with her grandchildren and really enjoyed it she told me, this praise is always amongst the best…these are the people that see many events and really know what works, we were really really happy, very privileged to be able to share this with such lovely people and incredibly flattered!
We are of course more than happy to recreate this session for other venues, schools, theatres etc that would like something a bit different for families ..be it for future Burn’s celebrations, St. Andrew’s day, or maybe as a different way of introducing the very young to poetry on World Poetry day; please do just get in touch.
We are also happy to work on new pieces especially tailored to fit your event or venue that use similar interactive ways of bringing stories and music to life and are currently working on a few ideas of our own…