Live short storytelling? For adults? Is that a real thing?
Back in 2011, I received an invitation out of the blue from a woman I had never met. The show was to be for the Sunday Times at Latitude, one of the big annual UK summer festivals about to flatten a field in Sussex. She was a renowned and celebrated American voice-over artist, had seen my work in The Tudors and had me in mind to read a particular short story. Would I be interested in joining them? Little did I know how much my life was about to change and how this marvellous woman would inspire me to grow.
For those who haven’t had the privilege of meeting her in person, Cedering Fox is an electric, generous, visionary human being. A passionate artist, a leader and now a very dear friend. WordTheatre is her brainchild, a charitable organisation which has touched the lives of thousands of people worldwide, raises literary awareness and produces some of the most unique and captivating live performances of spoken word globally today.
I accepted the invitation, obviously (this would be a very short blog post otherwise). Why not?
Up to my knees in mud and clutching a steaming hot tea, I hovered by the back of the literary tent at Latitude, peering through the flap to the back of the stage. You could tell which actors had performed with WordTheatre before and those who hadn’t; the veterans had a glint in their eye and a certain restlessness, like racehorses pawing the earth, waiting for the gates to spring open. Those who were new to this live storytelling scenario, like me, were doing what all actors do when they’re not sure what to expect; their very best to look like they know what they’re expecting.
The veterans grinned. “You’ll get it,” they said, “It’s addictive.”
The tent was full to capacity – the buzz of hundreds of people settling in for the afternoon sent my heart racing. Who knew short story readings were so popular? I’d performed in theatre for years…but this was something different. Here, there were no costumes or sets. No clever lighting. People were sitting on the ground, or standing, craning their necks to get a better view. Juliet Stevenson took to the mike wearing rain boots. I shook my head in amazement. The excitement was palpable.
Then I understood why.
It was the stories. These beautifully crafted short stories. The bare bones…just the words…spoken aloud by these wonderful actors. I witnessed magic; narrative spells were woven exquisitely, deftly. The audience was enraptured. Worlds unfolded themselves in my mind as I listened through the flap of the tent. I was transfixed, transported, absorbed into each short tale, carried along for the ride like a leaf on a stream. I felt like a kid again. Finally, I got it.
And then it was my turn…
Years later, I’m very happy to say that wasn’t my last WordTheatre adventure. Since then I’ve been fortunate enough to work with many more phenomenal authors, actors, musicians and creatives at WordTheatre shows at the Arts Club in London, Zedels, the St James Theatre and the Festival of Words and Wickets in Wormsley. Each show has been expertly curated and directed by Cedering to explore a different theme, each evening taking on its own unique flavour and energy.
One very special show, commissioned to open the 2017 London Literature Festival, is one of my dearest memories. On that occasion Nikki Amuka-Bird, Christopher Eccleston and I found ourselves charged with bringing to life an abridged version of H.G Wells’ epic tale The Time Machine in front of an audience of over a thousand people. Cedering found a way to incorporate the magnificent pipe organ at the Royal Festival Hall into the performance and the result was magic. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.
The veterans were right. It is addictive.
Now I find myself in LA, preparing for my first American WordTheatre performance. I’m greatly looking forward to becoming more involved in their American charitable works too (WITS), bringing WordTheatre into schools, giving device-savvy kids the chance to experience the enchantment of spoken words, just as we had growing up. I’m very thankful to be a part of such a wonderful organisation.
Do get involved. We hope to see you there.
By Emma Hamilton