The right story for the right time – The Bed of Arrows

Posted: June 17th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Blog | Tags: , , | No Comments »

On 6th February this year, I was in India for the Kathakar International Storytelling Festival. I was standing underneath a Peepal tree, an audience of 400 people were buzzing in an open air amphitheatre that struggled to hold them all. I told the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

I hadn’t planned on telling it, but Giles Abbot had just told the story of The Loathly Lady and had thus done the hard work of introducing the Arthurian world and most of the characters. Looking back, I feel like Gawain was the perfect story to tell. For all sorts of reasons, but one seems most relevant right now.

There’s a moment in the story where two men kiss. It’s part of an elaborate, courtly game where they’re swapping prizes back and forth. I’ve told this story a lot in the UK and it’s always hard to get the right tone at that moment. But in Delhi that night there was palpable tension and joyous relief. Laughter, yes, but it didn’t feel homophobic. Instead, it felt like we had shared something, had stepped into a taboo place and found that it was not as dangerous as we’d thought.

I didn’t know at the time but while I was packing for the flight to Delhi the Indian Supreme Court had announced that it was going to investigate decriminalising the laws which make homosexuality illegal. The penal code, a product of the British Raj in India, has been the subject of much back and forth over recent years. That was the background against which Gawain and Bertilak pressed their lips together.

In a few weeks time, I’ll be telling The Bed of Arrows at The Beyond the Border Storytelling Festival. It’s a great story, one that I expect I’ll be writing about here a lot in the next few months. It’s a collection of stories from The Mahabharata, an imagined dialogue between Bhisma and Shikhandi after the war is over. At its core, it’s a story about gender identity and transition. About the way the world changes and old institutions – glorious, powerful, magnificent but brutal institutions – collapse and shift.

From wikimedia commons

Bhisma on the bed of arrows

It’s also an Indian story. Some might call it a sacred story.

I’m not Indian. I’m not a Hindu. I’m a white British man. I am a direct descendant of a culture that profited from colonial brutality across the world. At the same time, the message in The Bed of Arrows feels enormously relevant and resonant to the culture I’m living in today, to the times I’m facing. I hope that, just like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was exactly the right story to tell in Delhi, The Bed of Arrows will be exactly the right story to tell at Saint Donats. Right now, that means doing a lot of work in making sure I tell it as well as I can but also being open to the contentious issues that telling this story raises.

If you’re interested in queer Indian myth, I would heartily recommend Shikhandi and other tales they don’t tell you by Devdutt Patanaik. I was given two of his books as a gift by Nisha Tyagi of the British Council. I devoured them as I traveled around India—I can’t remember the last time I picked up a collection of stories, started at the beginning and read them all through in order. Devdutt gently explores the themes in each myth, reflects on what they mean and has inspired me enormously.

If you’re at Beyond the Border, do come and say “Hi.” It’s always good to meet a reader. See you there!

Clowning for Storytellers – A Masterclass with Fred Versonnen

Posted: June 14th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Blog | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

Coming up on the 14th July, Beeston Tales is bringing you the next in its program of masterclasses for storytellers. Internationally acclaimed performer Fred Versonnen is stopping off with us as he travels from Belgium to The Festival at the Edge.

Clowning is a beautiful way of making connections. Connections with your audience, connections with parts of yourself you don’t always talk to. Fred has a lively and colourful background as a street performer, jester, stilt walker, fire crasher, clown, juggler and storyteller. He currently teaches at Circus School and spent many years working in Children’s Hospitals. In this workshop he’ll introduce storytellers to some useful clowning techniques and games. Learn to be fully present. Learn to embrace judgement and vulnerability. And who knows, maybe you’ll learn how to make someone laugh!


This workshop is taking place upstairs at The White Lion Bar and Kitchen. Turn up at 10:30 for an 11.00 start. Wear loose clothing. Expected end time is 16:30. This workshop will cost £35 and includes lunch provided by The White Lion. Please let us know of any dietary requirements when you book. Book by sending a cheque to Mike, by emailing us to confirm details or via the paypal link below that says Book Now.

Perhaps you’re not convinced of the link between clowning and storytelling? Read this personal account by Simon Sylvester who attended one of Fred’s workshops several years ago in Brigsteer.

“Last month, at Dreamfired, I saw storyteller Fred Versonnen perform the amazing Elephant Story. The next morning, I attended his clowning workshop in Arnside. This had almost nothing to do with the stereotypical idea of clowning—no silly noses, no silly shoes—and was essentially a 101 on delivery, performance and body language.

Fred warned us at the start of the session that it might take us to some uncomfortable places. I didn’t believe him, but he was right. It’s taken me this entire month to process some of the things that happened in that class. I’m not sure I’ll ever totally get to grips with it, but at the same time, I no longer think I need to. I just wanted to record a few thoughts on what clowning means to me.

I’m not going to talk about the specific activities Fred led us through. They were plentiful, varied, invigorating, intense and brilliantly useful, but they will mean different things to each person who attended, and I don’t feel the need to dissect the actual workshop. I want to talk about what I learned.

I learned that I’m frightened of embarrassment. Most of us are, probably. During the workshop, we performed tasks specifically designed to undermine dignity and strip away the topmost layers of self-respect. I found myself trying to rationalise the embarrassment by imposing a narrative upon it, but every time, Fred forced me to confront it.

‘For a clown, embarrassment is a gift,’ he said.

In this way, I learned that clowns are truly fearless.

I also learned to wait.

In a world consumed with noise and signals, the clown is silent. She waits, absorbing everything, and then she waits some more, until the wait itself becomes excruciating—until the pause itself becomes the embarrassment—and then she responds. In that pause, the clown is naked. Every part of her is laid open for the world to see. The clown waits long enough for the audience to connect, to project their own feelings onto the situation, to drown in empathy, to cringe in anticipation. Every part of them is laid wide open. This is the tragedy of the clown, and the triumph. It has nothing to do with face paint or comedy trousers. Laurel and Hardy are clowns, and Pennywise is not.

I couldn’t live that way, but I’m trying to bring some of it into in my own readings. At the Flashtag story slam, I made myself pause, and wait, then wait some more. I took a stupid hat onstage for my final story, and I forced myself to wear it. I tried to share anticipation of what was coming next with the audience. It was, without a doubt, the happiest I’ve ever been with my performance—the best I’ve ever read my stories. For everything I learned, I’m not sure I’ll ever know how to apply it properly. But I think I understand, now, that not knowing is itself part of clowning. It is Zen—pure action, without thought. I think too much.

At the start of this post, I said that the workshop had nothing to do with silly noses. That isn’t entirely true. At the very start of the session, as people were still arriving, we gathered in the kitchen to wait. Fred began to ransack the drawers, looking for props to use in the workshop. He found an orange ping pong ball. In a single, fluid motion, he spun to face me, bringing the ball to his nose, and he grinned. Just as quickly, he replaced the ball and closed the drawer. But in that second, or half a second, he’d become a clown. His face changed, his body changed—with the sheer, magnificent, wondrous joy of finding a ping pong ball in a kitchen drawer.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to articulate what happened in that workshop. I don’t need to articulate it, of course, but I want to; and that is why I will never be a true clown. A clown wouldn’t need to analyse it, because they wouldn’t be scared of it. A clown would simply shrug, smile, and turn to embrace the vastness of this mad, sad, glorious thing that we call life.”

£35. The White Lion Bar, Beeston. 10:30 until 16:30. 14 July 2016. What more do you need to know? Confirm your place below: