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Suffolk to be swept along by storm of stories festival

PUBLISHED: 15:25 25 April 2016 | UPDATED: 15:25 25 April 2016

Alys Kihl, Artistic Director of the Wonderful Beast Theatre Company on Aldeburgh beach

Alys Kihl, Artistic Director of the Wonderful Beast Theatre Company on Aldeburgh beach

Despite the irresistible march of technology and the dazzling array of different entertainment options open to modern audiences, storytelling remains at the heart of virtually everything we do.

The Storm of Stories festivalThe Storm of Stories festival

Storytelling isn’t just sitting people around a camp-fire and holding them transfixed with tales of love, loss and adventure – although that still works as well as anything – storytelling is at the centre of virtually all performance culture. It embraces books, theatre, dance, film, opera, history, songwriting. It defines who we are. Even complex computer games have a narrative which gives them a sense of structure which allows the player to navigate the various levels and scenarios contained within this interactive digital landscape.

Stories help us make sense of our history and our society. Stories bring us together. They help give us a sense of identity and a shared heritage.

The Suffolk coast is a place with a wealth of stories associated with the sea and people who earn their livelihoods riding the waves or battling the elements. It’s fitting then that Aldeburgh-based theatre company Wonderful Beast is staging it’s third Storm of Stories festival in the town later this month.

Artistic director Alys Kihl said that the seaside town was due to be swept up in a surge of tall stories and gripping dramas which will be delivered over a long weekend and will embrace a multitude of different art forms.

Ben Haggarty from The Crick Crack Club who is taking part in this year's Storm of Stories storytelling festivalBen Haggarty from The Crick Crack Club who is taking part in this year's Storm of Stories storytelling festival

Alys said that, as with the previous years, community events will play a huge part in the weekend - providing opportunities for people aged eight to 80 to take part. The premiere of a specially commissioned community opera, The Nightingale, which will be staged at Leiston Abbey, will bring the generations together in one performance.

There will be child-friendly art and music workshops, Tales for Tea where local storytellers delve into Suffolk’s own folklore and a session on Fairy Tales for adults entitled The Grateful and The Dead.

“The idea is to make it as accessible and as engaging for as many people as possible. It’s designed to show how powerful good storytelling remains and we are extremely fortunate to have with us some of the best storytellers in the country.”

This year Storm of Stories has been concentrated into four days. “Last time we spread it over two weekends and people complained that they could get to see everything they wanted to do because they were free one weekend and not the other. So we have responded to that and created a packed programme over a long weekend, so it has much more of a festival feel. Everything is much more concentrated and we are making much more use of a variety of venues.”

Alys Kihl, Artistic Director of the Wonderful Beast Theatre Company on Aldeburgh beachAlys Kihl, Artistic Director of the Wonderful Beast Theatre Company on Aldeburgh beach

She said that she is delighted that Leiston Abbey are once again supporting the community opera. “The Nightingale is going to be such a special production. Last time we did The Six Swans, which was our first community opera and that was terrific. It was hard work and while we were putting it together, I said to myself: ‘never again’ but the performance was so amazing and people loved it so much that I knew that we would have do another one but that would be easier because of the lessons we learned.”

She said that the event captured the community spirit of storytelling because it involved school children, a scratch choir and Aldeburgh Young Musicians all working with theatre professionals to produce a polished piece of new work. “Also the setting at Leiston Abbey is fabulous. The site itself is wonderful and gives the event a wonderful sense of atmosphere.

“This year we have commissioned another new work, The Nightingale, from a gifted young composer, John Barber, who has done a lot of community music. The director, Freya Wynn-Jones, and designer, Sarah Booth, are all equally young and talented and in fact the whole creative team are very gifted and the whole thing is shaping up very well.”

She said that this time they have three schools taking part in the performance: Leiston and Aldeburgh Primary Schools along with Alde Valley Academy and they will be joined by The Wonderful Beast singers accompanied by a group from Aldeburgh Young Musicians.”

Return of the Wildman which forms part of this year's Storm of Stories storytelling festivalReturn of the Wildman which forms part of this year's Storm of Stories storytelling festival

She said that the experience of performing in an opera gave the children a wonderful creative outlet that allowed those who were not particularly academically able to shine. “The students love it and most of them had no idea of what it was all about but it’s great to see them get so involved and enthusiastic.”

Storm of Stories also gives Alys an opportunity to restage their play Return of the Wildman, which was first performed at the HighTide festival, last summer.

The show revisits the Suffolk folk-tale of The Wildman of Orford and asks the question: Who was he? and Is he still among us?

Alys said that the show sold out at HighTide last September and many people couldn’t get tickets and so she had no hesitation in reviving it for Storm of Stories. Return of the Wildman is a one man show, starring Martin Bongor and written by local writer Thea Smiley.

“The Wonderful Beast singers will be providing a musical landscape against which the drama is set. They’ll be supplying plenty of sea shanties.”

She said that not only has the community participation increased, the age range of audiences has also been expanded with the inclusion of musical storytelling show for babies and very young children.

“I encountered a wonderful thing called Musical Rumpus in Spitalfields, organised by Zoe Palmer, who also works for us. It’s an amazing opera for babies and children aged 0-3. They do Handel, Bach and all the others. It was extraordinary, so I went along and saw all these parents with babies in buggies, all sitting round surrounding an area where musicians from The orchestra of Enlightenment were playing and singers were performing but it was totally interactive. So there was a story and the children would help them build a mountain and or take them on a journey.

“I saw Zoe afterwards and said: ‘This is absolute magic and we have to do this.

“So, we will be staging Orla and the Sun, which is free for young children and babies, at Aldeburgh Primary School and is best described as an interactive musical adventure with a singer and dancer.”

There will also be a Shakespeare For Children workshop at the Aldeburgh Pumphouse in which storyteller Fred Sedgwick, who is former head teacher, introduces youngsters to the magic and comedy contained in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

At the other end of the age spectrum, Wonderful Beast will be tapping into the memories of Suffolk’s older inhabitants, coaxing out memories of town and village life from the past as well as re-telling old Suffolk stories in Tales for Tea featuring local storyteller Stephen Bayfield, singer Alvar Smith, musician Sylvia Hallett and step dancers Doreen West and Lenny Whiting,

“Stephen has a wonderful collection of comic stories. He was a game keeper at one time and calls on those experiences. Alvar Smith has played lots of pubs and knows how to entertain a crowd and our step dancers are always popular. Alvar has worked with the step dancers before and they get on very well.”

Laced through the festival will also be storytellers Ben Haggarty and Claire Muireann Murphy from the storytellers collective The Crick Crack Club. Both will be hosting various events during the weekend including a pair of late night Fairy Tales for Adults events which are entitled Others From The Other Side and The Grateful and the Dead.

Alys said: “These will be magical events and are really just for the grown-ups. The children will have had their fun during the day. These stories of changelings, stolen children, wild curses, dreams, initiations and paying your debts are very much for an older audience. It shows that these fairytales can be just as engaging and bewitching for adults.”

Alys said that she is thrilled that Storm of Stories has reached its third anniversary. She said that storytelling comes in many forms and the aim of the festival was to demonstrate the richness of narrative, highlighting the drama, comedy and fantasy as well as generating a sense of wonder – stimulating the imagination in what can be regarded as a more cynical age.

Storm of Stories runs across multiple sites in the Aldeburgh and Leiston area from April 28-May 2. More details can be found on www.wonderfulbeast.co.uk

Origins of the Wonderful Beast

Alys Kihl was born and brought up in Aldeburgh, she went to London to train to be a teacher, before eventually moving into theatre – particularly children’s theatre and working with myth and fairytale.

But the more she explored the subject the more she became convinced that classic stories shouldn’t just be aimed at children.

They were designed to be enjoyed by all members of a community.

She created a theatre company, Wonderful Beast, with the help of friends like Only Fools and Horses star Roger Lloyd-Pack, to explore the wealth of classic myth and fairytale, and moved back to the Suffolk coast.

“I am an Aldeburgh girl. I grew up here and went to school here, and although I have lived in London for many years you can never escape your roots. As the years go by you feel them pulling you back.

“I started the company in 1997. I had been a primary school teacher in London and had become more and more interested in the impact of myth and fairytale – not just on children – on everybody.

“The moment you say ‘Once Upon A Time…’ everybody is alert and they are listening, and I love that. I also did a lot of drama and music in school and was always bringing in companies from all over to work with the kids.

“I left and joined something called Children’s Music Workshop, which toured and worked with schools. Then what really triggered me to head off on my own was seeing Tim Supple’s Grimm’s Fairytales at The Young Vic.

“Although ostensibly for children, they were just as exciting for the adults there. You get adults jumping up out of their seats, catching invisible food. This really was a Road To Damascus moment. I thought it was just brilliant.”

She said that their first show was telling the story of Cupid and Psyche, under the title The Birth of Pleasure, at The Rosemary Branch, Islington, written by Jehane Markham.

“It was tremendously successful and the company took off from there. Right from the beginning I wanted a theatre company that appealed and reached out to adults just as much as children.

“I didn’t see why myth and fairytale should be ghettoised as being just for children.”

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