We love our audiences, we love the city and we love the people in it. We belive London should be for everyone and art should be everywhere and this is why, even as it gets more challenging to find suitable spaces, we persist with these events. I loved having the chance to talk about the weird beginnings of our London Dreamtime storynights, thanks to Niall Moorjani and Up After Dark for taking the time to hear from us!
We’d prefer you read the interview on Up After Dark’s site, here. Please support them!
BUT Due to some very silly rules with some social media sites, I have also included the text to the article below.
“I’m incredibly proactive about choosing outdoor spaces for performing and storytelling. It’s becoming harder and harder as we have this sort of public/private issue that you’re probably aware of. Spaces that are supposedly public, actually aren’t. The people who own them can do things such as move on rough sleepers, stop demonstrations or “tidy” the place up as they see fit. Places that we previously were allowed to visit and do storytelling in now have become increasingly difficult to perform in and there’s also more competition for spaces that are still genuinely public, free and available to everybody. So that’s an issue. We are really really thoughtful and careful about the spaces that we use. We don’t want to cause problems for anybody else and our events are usually quite quiet. We’re not here to cause a nuisance to anybody else who’s using this space because it belongs to everybody. I have to make that clear. The last thing I want is for people to think that we’re going around taking this space for ourselves. I strongly believe that the city is for everyone, to do whatever they want.
“The first outdoor storytelling event that George and I did together was in the evicted Heygate estate back in 2011. The Heygate estate was a very large, brutalist estate at the bottom of Elephant and Castle. It was an enormous space, in the middle it had lots of mature Plane trees. Anyhow, the whole block was being evicted. So they could replace it with luxury flats. A few people refused to move so like three people out of a thousand were living there. It was just a big empty derelict block.
“Guerrilla gardeners, called themselves the Urban Foresters, came to garden it. They made an allotment area out of car tires and kept chickens in these amazing homemade chicken coops. They were protecting the trees and things like that. Then people started to come and shoot pop videos there, a few years later they actually hired it out for film – a Brad Pitt movie. We got in touch with the guerrilla gardeners, and we said we’d like to do some storytelling there. They were like, “Oh, this sounds good. Sure, do whatever you like.” So, I said I’ll do a supernatural one and we called it “Supernatural Urban Forest” because that’s what it was. It was so popular!
“The first performance we did was free. For the second one, I think we charged one pound. We had so many people. We took them up on the roof, under the arches, all around the walkways on this amazing trail. I think we did it five times in total and towards the end the security got stricter and stricter. It got to the point where the security guards came over and told us, “I’m sorry, you have to leave.” We basically said, “oh please see we’re just quietly sitting here. We’re just some friends telling a story, let us finish the story and then we’ll go”, and they let us finish. The next time we came they had put barbed wire all around it, and blocked all the entrances. When they went to evict the subsequent blocks, they boarded them up and had very high security.
“That first event had an incredible buzz. I devised a story especially for this space, which took a really really long time. I devised a version of The Old Nurses Tale by Mrs Gaskell which is this really creepy old ghost story. And I’d modernised it so that it was set in different eras of the of the estate, some was in the 1970s and some in modern day. I spent so long figuring this story out and learning how to tell it since I didn’t have as much experience then of telling for adults. After that first event George and I spent hours scoping out different possible spaces. One really important thing to remember is there has to be shelter, in case it rained. So we has to scout out various places that we could go.
“During this, we were contacted by Resonance Radio, which is a really lovely little radio station. At the time, we were just like oooh, we’re going to be on the radio! Timeout also did a little feature about us; I think that’s what brought a huge amount of people and I remember feeling quite overwhelmed. We knew that we couldn’t rely on anyone, or any of the spaces being available, so we didn’t charge the audience, we just told guests to email us if they wanted to come and on the day, we would send them the location and met them there.
“We told our audience they should pay at the end because we were quite terrified that people were going to come and kick us out and it’d be really bad if we had taken their money. Despite that, knowing we could be kicked out at any time was sort of fun. I mean, that does still sometimes happen to a certain extent. With our outdoor events we do still run the risk at any time of being moved on or kicked out. Police sometimes come up to us and say “what are you doing?” and things like that and we always try and just be really polite to them and seem really like harmless storytellers. When in reality we are really evil scheming storytellers.
“I personally find that interaction a huge buzz, especially when it is transgressive. I don’t know about the audience. I don’t make a thing of it. I don’t tell them that they could be moved on. Personally I think it adds a bit of spice to the evening knowing that something could happen. Not that anyone’s going to be arrested or anything but the evening might end up finishing a little differently to how it was planned and that’s really nice. If so, I need to know the area really well. In case we have to go somewhere else. I feel like I need to be on my metal, I do get kind of wired beforehand. I feel like it definitely adds to my performance.
“One time we were telling a story in the Heygate Estate and they were filming “World War Z” with Brad Pitt at the same time as we were telling scary stories. We didn’t know it was going to happen until the night so it was quite a surprise. A good surprise! It was so appropriate. And literally as we were telling the story, this zombie movie is going on with pyrotechnics exploding and things like that. They were blowing up the Heygate Estate underneath us as the story was happening. There were like these hold pens full of zombie-extras that we had to walk past and it was incredibly dark too and I think the whole thing added a real post-apocalyptic feel to our event. I love it when weird stuff like that happens.
“A wonderful thing about spoken word stories is that they are a magical creative moment between the storyteller and the audience, a co creative moment. Then, when you take people into a beautiful interesting outdoor space, the space also adds its own presence and reality to the story. The space literally changes the story and makes it more real. That’s why so often the story that I tell is thematically linked to the place or linked by mood and emotion. If think back, for example, to the event we did last month in October, it absolutely poured with rain, I mean poured. We were in the woods and it was lovely, it was very dark and very muddy. I think the rain in the dark and the horror story all went together. It was a 1960s Hammer horror type story, lots of occult and black magic. And I think the rain, the wet and the cold basically just made that moment into a very powerful experience that the audience goes through. It connects you with that space in a way that you’re NOT connected when you’re having a nice walk or you’re going oh look at the trees or the scenery this is nice. I think there’s something about the live storytelling experience that it becomes like you’ve kind of become almost stapled to the space. The place becomes like a person in its own right. The event almost feels like an encounter that you’ve had with a person.
“With that I must say I have always loved walking at night and I would encourage anyone to do it. I always felt very safe on my own because I did a lot of martial arts, but I know some people feel afraid and maybe you need to bring someone with you to be safe. But remember it belongs to all of us. This city is yours. Go out and enjoy it because it is so, so worth it.
You can find Vanessa Woolf telling stories at londondreamtime.com.