2018 Festival reviews

 

SETTLE STORIES FESTIVAL 2018

All reviews by Gill O'Donnell 

Seventy plus events and only forty-eight hours and I need to sleep sometime... Settle Stories Festival is not an experience for the indecisive! Do I go to the Sufi Poetry session and miss the Hip Hop Griot; if I go to the photography workshop how do I manage to fit in the doll-making and when can I possibly go and explore inside the whale in the market place (And I really want to go in the Karvan!) - and that's just the start of the dilemmas!  Do you focus on workshops to develop your own skills or try to take in as many performances as physically possible or chose to spend quality time as a family doing fun events or simply all just do your own thing and rendezvous at intervals to swap stories and updates in the Dungeons and Dragons Cafe? Fortunately Settle is a very compact market town, blessed with a range of venues of differing sizes scattered around a central market place, which means that you actually can get between events easily and be able to find plenty of places to meet up with friends and family - however there are still times when it would be wonderful to be able to be in two places at once!  The festival has steadily grown over the years and each year focuses on a different aspect of storytelling so that as well as the traditional performances there is always something challenging to capture the imagination. This year the focus was on digital technology and many of the events reflected this, from the wildly exuberant game-playing paradise of "Wi-fi Wars", through to the somewhat sinisterly topical and thought provoking play "A Machine They Are Secretly Building" via the fascinating talk on "Interactive Fiction". This is another strength of the festival, the fact that it genuinely caters for all manner of people, not just those who already enjoy stories or telling stories. There are activities for crafters, thought provoking discussions, informative sessions on social and topical issues and exhibitions as well as free family events and activities. It doesn't just pay lip-service to the idea of something for everyone, it genuinely provides a range of quality activities suitable for all ages and provides sufficient free events to encourage even the most tentative to come along and explore what is on offer. Of course, once you start exploring, as every storyteller knows, you never quite know where it might lead... so that you too may find yourself sitting in a deckchair at the most unusual "Last Resort" or watching a circus in the belly of a whale or marvelling at the antics of fairies in a very unusual "Midsummer Night's Dream"...

A MACHINE THEY'RE SECRETLY BUILDING: PROTO-TYPE THEATRE

6/4/18: VICTORIA HALL 

A key theme in this year's festival is the role of digital media in storytelling and so this was an extremely appropriate and topical piece for the first event of the festival.  In a month which has seen so much controversy over both the alleged Russian involvement in the use of a nerve agent in Britain and the "revelation" that data from private Facebook accounts had been sold to overseas governments and may have been used to  influence the outcome of election results the themes explored in this drama were far too chilling for comfortable viewing. Equally the questions which the piece raised, such as "why do we not do something about this?" and "are we willing to trade privacy for security?" are far from easy to answer. The suggestion that we allow it because we don't feel we can do anything else is disturbing but probably true for most of us and allied with that is the thought that we feel that it shouldn't matter too much because we feel that we personally don't have anything to hide. However, as the production points out, if you follow that train of thought we end up with a situation where we are accepting of ID cards and numbers marked on arms so that individuals can be identified - and we all know that we have been down that road before. In essence the play tells the story of how the world has allowed the erosion of freedom on the pretext of maintaining safety via the agreement between the allies to exchange intelligence during WWII and then progresses through the Cold War demonisation of "Them" as the enemy, the fear engendered by the space race, the beginnings of Microsoft and the CERN's founding of the world wide web. In short sound-bites, highlighted by digital images we travel inexorably towards 10 September 2001 - the last day of "nice"  and then are presented with the aftermath of 9/11 and the way in which terror has become a commodity and examine how governments and businesses trade on our fear.  The production is slick and delivered with a strong sense of irony, the comments wry and the content disturbing at times but I doubt if anyone left the theatre and switched on their phone without actually wondering if anyone was actually monitoring where they had been and what they had seen?  A clever and thought provoking start to what promises to be an intense and interesting festival.

7/4/18  FESTIVAL TALK

BIG ISSUE NORTH

 This fascinating talk began from a slightly unexpected standpoint, it asked the cost of the ticket and then explained that the £8 cost for the hour's talk would in many mainstream jobs take more than an hour to earn. More importantly, for many of the people who sell The Big Issue it would actually be equivalent to a whole day's wage.  This was the next point which was emphasised, that those selling the magazine are doing exactly that, they are earning a wage. Big Issue sellers are not begging, they are self-employed and by selling the magazine they are not only working but they are working their way back to mainstream employment.  Many may receive benefits such as housing allowance or working tax credits but they also fill in tax returns and are classed as workers and the help they receive via Big Issue North is not classed as a hand-out but as a way of being given a hand-up.  The talk by the two staff from Big Issue North was particularly informative about the way in which the organisation supports individuals and moves at their pace to deal with they individual issues and to help them move from situations where they are either homeless or "vulnerably housed". Too often it is easy for those not intimately involved with this group to revert to stereotypes, or simply believe the stories in some sections of the media who try to demonise those outside the mainstream as "other", however the outreach provided by sessions such as this helps to challenge these perceptions and misconceptions.  Most importantly it also provided the opportunity to put a name to a face and make one story personal. Alan readily and eloquently explained the realities of life as a seller.  From the £2.50 charged for the magazine he receives £1.25, but after deductions for tax and payment for card sales he actually receives 98p.  He is also responsible for paying his own expenses in relation to travelling to his pitch, therefore if he were to work in a green pitch such as Settle - outwith the Leeds city area - he would need to earn sufficient to cover his trainfares before he began to make any money at all.  There was no doubting his determination however, as he not only has funded his own card machine and set up a bank account so that he can use this, he is also actively seeking accommodation in the area to reduce his costs.  Using a machine also has the added benefit of making him less vulnerable because he no longer is carrying cash in the same way as previously and it was insightful to hear how the organisation does take steps to protect more vulnerable sellers in these circumstances.  The talk also gave much by way of food for thought as to how individuals can assist the organisation through further involvement as friends of the Big Issue Trust as well as by re-considering our own attitudes towards individual sellers and supporting them within our community.  Long may this sort of talk continue as it is only by spreading the word of the work of the organisation on a face to face basis that the public can gain a greater understanding of the individual stories which lie behind the faces they see in the street.

7/4/18:  A FAVOURITE DOLL: Martina Attille

 I was never much of a one for dollies as little girl, but I did have a teddy bear, from whom I was totally inseparable!  So it was a real joy to go along to this workshop session and be able to immortalise the story of me and my teddy bear and let the world know how much she meant to me and how my mother totally traumatised me by removing my bear when I was asleep... The real pleasure in sessions such as this is the way in which the artist involved is able to put people at ease in order to get them to share the stories which matter to them and then get them to re-tell them to record them for others to share. Settle Stories Festival is all about the universality of shared stories and experiences and it is wonderful to realised that we as individuals have so much in common. So while I may have thought my bear was dead, others too have stories of how they have felt fear or shock when they lost dolls or broke dolls and we all share the same sense of relief when we find that things can be put right again.  For those who weren't able to join in this workshop there will be an opportunity to hear some of the stories at the Listening Gallery later in the year and hopefully some of them will inspire you to share your recollections with others and maybe to pass on stories to your friends and families.

7/4/18: ON THE WINGS OF BUTTERFLIES: Ana Maria Lines

Born in Brazil, Ana Maria Lines is a totally captivating storyteller and her tales in this project covered a vast array of venues from Mexican jungles through to Japan and eventually to Britain. The theme which linked the tales was the travels of a butterfly which acted as a guide across the continents and whose crystal wings revealed the truth hidden within each tale. Not only is her voice totally engaging and melodic, bursting into unexpected song from time to time, but her movements are also controlled and balletic - with tiny flicks of her hand creating the butterfly wings as it travelled. She is also that rare being, someone who is capable of doing a number of things at once for not only was she able to remember a complex story in detail and re-enact it she was also capable of folding a sheet of paper into an elegant origami butterfly whilst doing so and without once looking down to see what her hands were doing!  The tales, of course, all had morals of a sort and ranged from the realisation that it is not the large and powerful - in the form of storm clouds and thunderstorms - which necessarily are the ones who bring about change so much as the small actions which initiate a move towards them and so even the flood which changes a desert to a jungle has to begin with one tiny drop of rain.  Like many other storytellers she involves her audience in the story, but here there are no raucous actions or high comedy but instead the group provide background susurration for the wind in the trees or the subdued murmuring for the beating of a million butterfly wings. It is an enchanting experience, but not all on one note as mixed in with the beauty there are moments of comedy - the poor man turned to a woman who searches for his "precious"  - as well as much to think about such as in the story of how love can be found not in perfection but in simply finding the one who is most like yourself. 

7/4/18 : THE QUEEN AND THE JESTER:

Keith Donnelly & Ursula Holden Gill

 This was a perfect family performance with something to please everyone regardless of age. The storyline is deceptively simple with a love-lorn queen and a jester whose task is to  try to cheer her up. However, unlike most stories of this kind it doesn't have a predictable happy ending and in fact, it doesn't really have an ending at all. As one child commented on leaving "Well, it finished but it didn't actually end, did it?" But maybe that was because in some situations there isn't an ending - just a need to get on with things and avoid other more complicated explanations!  In between a story which began at the end and ended at the beginning there were all kinds of comedy and silliness along with a few hidden truths and a couple of digs at modern life. Consequently a queen who laughs at someone who is different to both herself and companions finds out rather painfully what it is like to be on the receiving end of such laughter and finds that she laughs until she is blue in the face - quite literally!  At times the self-centred antics of the queen threatened to spill over into a caricature of Blackadder's Queenie but for the adults in the audience this only made the performance even funnier. The jester meanwhile was the real show stealer with antics which are normally reserved only for pantomimes but which led to a kind of mass insanity which had all ages dancing- while remaining firmly seated because dancing had been banned!  It was in many respects a particularly odd show as it regularly inverted expectations, but one which had a sense and integrity of its own and which clearly was a huge hit with the audience of adults and children alike! This was in no small part due to the two stunning central performers and the great rapport between them. 

7/4/18 INTERACTIVE FICTION : Alastair Horne

 

Imagine you are sitting at home reading a ghost story on your phone and it begins to talk to the other technology in your house. Almost imperceptibly it turns down your central heating, so that chills run down your spine. It monitors your heart rate while you read so that it knows when you are becoming more scared and can trigger unexpected sound effects.... Sounds far-fetched? Not according to Alastair Horne, for this scenario is not far off if his research is to be trusted.  Already our reliance on smartphones is influencing the way we tell stories and the way we talk about storytelling and while some might argue that the best way to read a story is to turn physical pages and leave the rest to the imagination we clearly have already come a long, long way from Shakespeare's wooden O and the magic of allowing our own abilities to create a private world inspired by another's words.  So having begun the journey it was interesting to follow the tracks to see where it might lead. First port of call was Kate Pullinger's novel/phone story "Breathe" where technology allows the reader to experience references and visual clues which relate to their actual location and where ambient literature is created using technology to emphasise aspects of the story and personalise it for the reader.  Early mobile phone fictions in Japan were able to use technology to present bite-sized stories timed to fit journeys and using an unfiltered autobiographical style to increase a sense of reality and immediacy. Smartphones can also pick up where the 1980's style interactive fiction left off and allow the reader/player to follow a multiplicity of versions of a story or to determine how a story develops. Some even make use of the fact that you are reading on a phone by allowing you to receive "incoming messages" to help you piece together the story and others will allow you to communicate with other readers and even authors.  There are also stories being developed which specifically relate to certain places and which when read in those locations will trigger further interactions. There are however drawbacks at present as development is of necessity limited by existing technology - but undoubtedly there will be other new developments.  Or alternatively, you can always curl up with a drink, warm fire and a good book and use your imagination.... Though no doubt there will be soon be app comes along to simulate those too!

7/4/14:  WI FI WARS: Steve McNeil

Billy Connolly used to do a sketch about the tribal behaviour of Glasgow Rangers fans and Celtic supporters and pondered on how they seemed to be able to communicate with one another without the need for speech. If he had seen the audience at Wi-Fi wars he would have found the answer, clearly their modern equivalents use smartphones. There was definitely something quite tribal about the hive-mind at work in the teams playing these arcade games. The underlying idea of the show is to get a crowd of disparate individuals playing a series of increasingly complex old style arcade games simultaneously in order to compete as a teams. It is comic and clever and must surely be the ultimate in audience participation in a show as they are the show.  As a non-combatant watching the proceedings it was also slightly surreal as screens flickered into live and the robotic twitching of thumbs began and gradually increased in intensity until people were jerking and convulsing wildly as they piloted their phones and tablets through a 3D world avoiding virtual reality obstructions. Clearly this is a big hit with fans of gaming with followers travelling to shows on a regular basis and it certainly is an immersive interactive experience unlike any other. There are bright lights, loud noise, flashing images and the sense of being part of a huge event while never actually needing to be anything other than involved with your own screen - in short, it was rather reminiscent of the "two minute hate sessions"  in George Orwell's "1984" where for a brief period everyone in the room is consumed by the desire to destroy as a result of some abstract need to become a grimacing, screaming lunatic like everyone around them. I'm assured that the technology is amazing and it certainly seemed to be phenomenal. The commentary was minimal and at times inaudible but it really didn't seem relevant to the players. I'm sure if you like this kind of thing then you really will like this kind of thing and find it an unforgettable experience but I have to admit that I was unmoved other than to wonder about why anyone would choose to spend their time doing it.

7/4/14: TALES AND A TIPPLE: KEITH DONNELLY

Working from the popular assumption that there are only seven basic stories in the world, raconteur Keith Donnelly has decided to forgo the traditional view and create seven more. Not a man for subscribing to the view that a proper storyteller only tells traditional stories, he instead creates tales which have the feel of the traditional or follow the framework of the traditional and then not only does he turn them on their head - he also shakes the living daylights out of them for good measure!   His take on life is slightly anarchic and his stories, songs and anecdotes can hold you spellbound and while you know there is a twist coming - with him, there will always be a twist somewhere - it is never quite what you anticipate.  This was a good natured evening with a range of all of the above and tales that appeal to all ages. The Magic Woods was a wonderfully funny pastiche of the mother and child stories with the mum trying to get the child to see the magic in their surroundings and the child stubbornly refusing to do so until they saw salmon leaping and again there was the beautiful denouement of the fact that this was no ordinary mother and child... The story of King Kookaburra again was framed almost like a creation story and involved audience participation and while in many ways an extended anecdote also had a great twist to it with the revelation of the skill of a tiny termite. It is impossible to write about his stories in detail without giving away the trademark twists, but each story showed tremendous skill in the way in which they played with the audience's expectations and yet also demonstrated all the best aspects of the storyteller's art through musicality, scene setting and wonderful linguistic manipulation.  A perfect wind down to a long day, mixing humour and story in equal measure.

8/4/18: TOAST AND MARMALADE: Alim Kamara

Sunday morning breakfast will never quite be the same again after sharing it with Alim Kamara. A man with more snap, crackle and pop than a bowl of rice krispies, he brought a sunshine start to Sunday morning with his lively tales and engaging manner. Forget interactive technology, this was full on audience engagement with people not only joining in with his storytelling but also opening up and telling their own stories.  From Catholic guilt confessions, awe-inspiring teachers, failed romance,  psycho-sisters and magical happenings we happily shared our own tales along with the tea and toast and in doing so prompted plenty of thought and conversations about what makes for a good story and what makes a great telling of a story.  Alim Kamara was a relaxed and encouraging host for the session sharing his own tales but equally appreciative of the tales told by others, who if not as practiced in the art of storytelling were certainly enthusiastic and created a real buzz in the hall. This was a fun way to begin the day and congratulations to all those who plucked up courage to speak out and share.  Not surprisingly, in the light of some of the tales told, one of the key messages in Alim's final story was about the need to be willing to take time out from our preoccupations and spend time with those we love and to be willing to share time and interests with them. This morning's event was a perfect example of that and while technology can bring us closer together, there is no substitute for actually being in a room with another person and sharing a meal and a chance to talk.

8/4/18: A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM: Ursula Holden-Gill

I'm rarely left lost for words, but I am in total awe of Ursula Holden Gill. This was a real tour de force, an hour long retelling of A Midsummer Night's Dream complete with music, dance, a variety of mood and accent and with each character clearly delineated and all by one amazing, shape-shifting woman. Clearly she is a changeling of some kind for how else could she possibly be capable of such magical feats! There are quicksilver shifts from one being to the next and with a swift change of accent, or slight gesture she evokes another person or place and all done with incredible precision. Little wonder that the audience, of all ages, was held totally enchanted by this captivating performer. The feat of memory alone is staggering as not only is there the sheer volume of text to consider and the complexity of the story, on top of this there is the layer of practicality of creating ways of differentiating the characters and ensuring that each time the right character strikes the right pose and speaks with the right accent. The mastery of this technique alone is enough to throw many would be storytellers, but she delivers with such fluidity that she literally flows from one to another and physically transforms as she literally turns around. This was entertaining on so many levels! Not only was it a marvellous telling of a great story but it was also a perfect example of how to introduce Shakespeare to children, or those who claim to not "get" theatre. Furthermore it was a masterclass in acting and storytelling, blending skills together into a faultless performance and most importantly, it was quite simply tremendous fun.

8/4/18  KARVAN

Bright blue and unmissable, Karvan is a 16ft, artistically renovated caravan which houses a secret. It is in fact a tardis, capable of travelling through time and space to any manner of locations in world literature without ever leaving the place in which it is parked. The Karvan takes its name from the Persian - kārvān - and just as the caravanserai of the old trade routes would travel so the Karvan takes those who enter inside on an journey.  The concept is that those who enter spin a magical compass which indicates a course of travel either to sea, city, forest or hills and then into a world of literature which they may not previously have experienced.  Based on the idea that we travel together the concept uses literature from around the world to help people to extend their range of reading and to discover now worlds through stories. It is a fascinating idea and my own personal journey took me to both an author and a city I have never visited and one which I will enjoy exploring further. It is a very simple concept, but like many simple ideas it is an effective one and although the festival was linked to technology there was something very grounding about the fact that it was the most ancient of methods, direct human contact with a slight suggestion of something mystical, which led to a new discovery.

8/4/18: AND THE BIRDS FELL FROM THE SKY

IL PIXEL ROSSO

This is probably as close as it is possible to get to being the star of your very own film as the immersive video goggle performance allows you to enter completely into another world.  It is a peculiarly disorientating sensation. Sat in a wheelchair and wearing headphones and goggles you lose all control of your world and experience all sight, hearing and movement only through the equipment so that you are part of the film and it is your only reality.  Added in to the mix are various scents, physical sensations of touch and physical interactions of touch. What is most alarming is the way in which you find that you respond quite naturally to the various instructions and stand and sit and move immediately on cue, as if you felt your life and well being depended on it and yet simultaneously feel slightly irritated at being moved about in this way.  The storyline of the film itself becomes secondary to the sensations and the experience and this in itself raises questions about how technology plays a role in storytelling. Will we find that we are willing to sacrifice quality in a story simply to experience the thrill of vicariously being part of the narrative in this way? If so, is this where augmented story technology of the future will lead us?  It is without doubt a very clever and well performed production, though clearly very labour intensive at present - but how long until we can reproduce something similar with robotic guides instead of people? Perhaps this was the first glimpse of a world in which we could each enjoy our own personal story festival without even needing to leave our own room or interact with another person? 

8/4/18 LAST RESORT: Two Magpies

Welcomed to your holiday resort with a rum cocktail and seated in a deckchair with your own personal beach at your feet, it is obvious from the start that this is not your going to be your average theatre production. And it isn't, because this is a 2 Magpies production and that alone guarantees that it will be an experience which demands more of its audience than to simply sit back and be entertained.  Work by 2 Magpies is always well researched and cleverly constructed, however in my experience it is not always particularly good at explaining itself and at times it can be appearing to be clever simply for the sake of appearing clever. They are very much a "marmite" of the theatre in that you either like them or don't or if you do you still sometimes go away with a slightly odd taste in your mouth as if you've swallowed something which isn't altogether palatable. In effect that is what this production is asking you to do for by transposing a hi-di-hi holiday camp atmosphere onto the notorious prison camp at Guantanamo Bay you are being asked to swallow not only the notion of  this transformation but also how and why we as a society sat back and allowed what is alleged and known to have happened as a prison.  It does make for uncomfortable viewing, and there were those present who left part way through and the comments overheard afterwards were mixed. But it is certainly very pertinent and novel in its approach. Theatre of cruelty and the performance of acts of barbaric horror on stage a however are not new,  consider the blinding of Gloucester in King Lear or the plays of Jean Genet or Antonin Artaud, but sadly the production lacked the dramatic tension required to make any distinction between the key scenes of cruelty and the overlying candyfloss of the holiday camp. There is a boyish, enthusiastic new recruit who is being shown the ropes of camp-life by a more experienced practitioner, whose jolliness is a thin veneer over a more sinister and menacing persona: at various intervals this relationship merges into prisoner and guard from the internment camp just as the holiday camp activities blur into those of forms of torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners. Except that it is all rather messy around the edges and while the sight of someone being forcefed or waterboarded is horrific and moving it only works as a piece of theatre if you actually have some kind of empathy with the victim and unfortunately this simply didn't exist as the hotch-potch approach prevented any real characterisation beyond superficial caricatures. Perhaps the play works better when not under time pressure, with more opportunity for involving the audience in more in-depth discussion? Perhaps it needs to have a different means of conveying complex information so that it can be absorbed and retained more easily? Perhaps it needs more critical editing so that it is tighter in terms of production? Perhaps for some it will be the most striking thing which they ever see in the theatre? Perhaps it is quite simply just like marmite...

8/4/18 THE HIP-HOP GRIOT: Alim Kamara

Lively, irrepressible and full of engaging charm are the terms which I would normally use to describe the Hip Hop Griot, Alim Kamara. This is because normally he is all of the above as he bounces around an audience establishing an immediate rapport and telling wild stories and encouraging children and adults alike to join in and take on various roles in the tale. However, to those should be added the terms perceptive, powerful, inspirational and insightful as the central section of today's performance revealed a talented and intelligent poet able to respond with genuine empathy to the problems faced by young people today in London.  Silhouetted against pictures of three teenagers who have died within the past 7 days as a result of violence in London, he performed a heart-rending plea for action and understanding for those caught up in a culture which offers them no answers other than despair and a sense of their lives having no value.  It was all the more moving because of the general light-hearted and up-beat performance which preceded it and emphasised that this is a talented, multi-faceted performer.  The session included a range of stories varying from the popular Ananci story where he was very nearly out-performed by the talented individuals picked out of the audience through to a tale of the power of determination in adversity about a donkey in a well. This was a definite highlight as he ended up with the whole audience on their feet joining in a hip-hop mantra!  Add into the mixture the explanation as to how Mahalia Jackson influenced Martin Luther King jnr and caused him to improvise his famous "I have a dream" speech and a fantastical story about how to remember the value of Pi and you can be assured that you will have an afternoon that you won't forget in a hurry!

8/4/18 THE UNFORGETTABLE TONGUE

Shrikant Subramaniam ,David Aldred  & Lulia Togara

 

The vagaries of public transport, a landslide and a delayed taxi nearly meant that this 14th Century tale of a menacing boar, a cunning huntsman and a tongue remembered nearly didn't make it to the festival stage.  Fortunately the gods were appeased though there were clearly still some troubled gremlins as were apparent in the rather dodgy graphics and computer glitches which bedevilled the show. These did rather detract as there seemed to be a mis-match of technology making it seem as if the projected background was out of focus most of the time and clearly some of the images kept re-starting unexpectedly. Sadly the rest of the performance was equally disjointed as if no-one was entirely sure of their cues. Therefore while the style of Indian inspired dance, African drumming and European story tradition should potentially have blended well there was instead what appeared to be a slightly under-rehearsed mish-mash.  The dance elements were superb and extremely expressive and an excellent way to portray the boar. The hand gestures were particularly fascinating. The drumming was at its best in the hunt, where it was tense and exciting. However, the storytelling was rather stilted in places as if it had been the last element to be considered and so not entirely moulded into the overall performance. Individually each component was interesting and clearly the performers were giving their utmost but it didn't completely gel. Similarly the storyline didn't seem to be fully developed and many of themes hinted at in the programme billing were sadly not expanded on in the actual performance which meant that it felt lacking in directions.  Sadly it was rather disappointing way to end the festival.