by Gareth Osborne
I’m a children’s author, teacher and second-year postgraduate researcher here in the Department of Theatre, co-supervised at Cardiff and Bath Spa. I’d like to share with you how my creative repurposing of a Himalayan salt lamp ended up being archived in the British Library’s Emerging Formats collection.
My research looks at how reading and theatre engagement can be blended in immersive storytelling experiences for children to give them more voice in their fictions. As a writer of children’s books, a teacher of twenty years classroom experience, and father of two daughters I have seen how children’s books can give young people the power to guide their own formative experiences. I wondered how this mentorship that children’s books provide might be harnessed to drive more participative social experiences, in which children could become active cocreators of their fictions, rather than silently imagining into the words of an adult author.
I was in this happy state of academic pottering when the Covid-19 crisis hit. Suddenly children were isolated at home, struggling for the attention of remote-working parents, cut off from their usual adult mentors of teachers and arts practitioners as schools, theatres and libraries closed.
I realised, with no little horror, that my research might be relevant to this situation. How might a story in children’s private sphere be harnessed to reconstruct some of their social experiences again? How much of the mentorship role that teachers and arts practitioners played could the developing narrative itself assume?
Out of this thinking, emerged the idea for Storyhaven, an immersive storytelling experience for children that blends group roleplaying, lone reading experiences and sessions of immersive theatre with an actor. It centres on the town of Storyhaven, deep in Earth’s next ice-age, where stories have become the fuel for life.
Now this precious resource is disappearing. Someone is stealing the town´s stories. Deprived of their fuel the town’s fablehearths will go out, the ice will creep back in and families will perish in their beds. In a last roll of the dice, the town’s story shamans develop a perilous means of time travel to allow their most intrepid explorers to journey back into the past to save the town´s tales before they can disappear.
Storyhaven’s main engagement is driven by a reading and roleplaying game that can be played by schoolchildren in virtual or real classrooms. The children design their own characters, then navigate their way through episodes of a branching narrative in teams, talking decisions over together in a way that fosters compromise and social wellbeing.
Opportunities for children to cocreate the narrative are woven into the storyline through them having to rewrite the stories they save, so that they can send them back to the present through the shaman´s time portal. This device sets up the two immersive theatre sessions, delivered via Zoom, in which the children perform their stories to an actor playing the character of the town shaman, bringing the children’s roleplaying to life as their performances stoke the town´s fablehearths and fight back the encroaching ice. This was where Himalayan salt lamp came in: as the children performed their stories to the shaman he secretly turned up its dimmer switch to simulate them recharging the town’s crystals.
With university outreach funding from the Bristol Temple Quarter Engagement fund I assembled a creative team to deliver a pilot of Storyhaven over two months at a Bristol primary school, firstly in the socially distanced classroom, then transitioning to virtual classrooms and Zoom breakout rooms during the January 2020 UK lockdown.
Inviting other practitioners into my research has enabled me to explore my research questions in ways that respond to current creative industry and public sector demands and has led to further opportunities with The Egg Assembly at Theatre Royal Bath and Seven Stories, the National Centre for children’s books. Storyhaven was shortlisted for the New Media Writing Prize 2020 and archived in the British Library’s Emerging Formats Collection.
After ethics review, the data from the pilot has been recorded via practitioner interviews and the children’s own creativity as they experimented with how to blend reading and theatre themselves as immersed research participants.