Monday 13 July 2015

Goddess of Dramaturgy: Xanthe Gresham Knight @ Edfringe 2015


Fringe debut for performance writer and storyteller

Acclaimed performer and storyteller, Xanthe Gresham Knight cuts across the lines between storytelling and theatre as she debuts at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with two shows.

Storytelling is a unique human skill shared between people, and is one of our oldest art forms. It brings words and the world to life, stimulates the imagination, and builds a sense of community between tellers and listeners.

“Speaks like a woman spitting jewels” Phil Smith for Arts Council of England

Morgana Le Fey and Paradise Bride, the final two installments of her 8 Goddess Tales, bring a contemporary voice to ancient myths and tales, exploring themes from women's role in society to our relationship with the environment. Devised thanks to Arts Council Funding.

What inspired this production did you begin with an idea or a

script or an object?

Xanthe Gresham Knight: Morgana le Fey and Paradise Bride are the last two in a set of 8 Goddess Tales, all of which are experiments in the art of the anti-quest. They all start with a question and then a series of stories are used as a road map to suggest a multitude of answers.

Morgana le Fey started with a dream.  A booming voice told me, ‘You are Morgana le Fey!’  
My initial reaction was, ‘What? I don’t want to be bitch of Camelot!’ 

But then I had a hunch that Morgana was once a goddess, before medieval writers scribbled all over her with their misogynistic pens. Of course, if my dream was correct, I have a vested interest in re-instating Morgana to her Goddess origins, but then I also want to maintain the right to be a bitch - and every human shade in between those two extremes! 

With Paradise Bride, I was asked by Glastonbury Festival to create a piece about the Goddess Brigid to encourage the punters not to piss in the river as it’s bad for the fish and not to put their cigarette butts out on the fields as it’s bad for the cows.  My question is can telling stories about the land beneath your feet make you love it more?  I’m still answering it.

What can the audience expect to see and feel or even think of your production?
Storytelling is a form of enchantment that triggers the cinema of the imagination.  Oral stories, passed down from generation to generation have been honed to press every earthy and transcendental button we have.   

The audience can expect to feel lost and found as the stories work their magic.  They can expect to be inspired in unpredictable ways – stories trigger a multitude of responses.   

In Morgana le Fey, audiences are carried away by story, harp, drum and song, then brought up short by a feminist rant or a knightly tirade.

The show is peppered with urban chat, high epic, folktale and Middle Eastern songs of longing (Arthurian Legend ran parallel with the crusades and benefits from the Arabic tradition of love poetry). 

I want to manipulate the audience into replacing Malevolent Morgana with Thoroughly Modern Morgana  - a fellow seeker looking for love and meaning in a fragmented world. 

In Paradise Bride, audiences can expect lots of stories about the Celtic Goddess  Brigid or Bride – the tales are simple, musical, beautiful and easy to re-tell.  

Blurring this simplicity is me, the storyteller, the footnote, ransacking myth to find old rituals - the making of Brigid’s crosses, roadside altars, well dressings - all in an attempt to heal an old wound inflicted by a fundamentalist upbringing. 

They can also expect to meet Brigid in her 21st century avatar - a mail-order Eastern European Paradise Bride - and receive an ancient blessing for a fertile life.

How would you explain the relevance, or otherwise of dramaturgy within your work?
Juliet Forster of York Theatre Royal is the official director and dramaturg for Morgana le Fey but storytelling is a slippery beast.  It would prefer to have multi-generational dramaturgy as eons of audience shape the work.  

In reality, a theatre show, that is a combination of new writing and traditional story, needs to find its form pretty pronto.  With Morgana, storyteller and musician Nick Hennessey and I improvised around the stories with input from Juliet and movement consultant Jude Bird.  Then I went away, wrote the show and re-wrote it until we all agreed on the form. 

Paradise Bride has gone through thousands of re-writes.   I love
simplicity but my brain has a complicated way of going about things.  Only the audience and the creative team save me from total obscurity and writing my way into my navel.   

And of course gut and heart are ultimately the best dramaturgs – they pack a pure and simple punch when all else fails.  I often just say, ‘help!’ when the creative swamp engulfs, and something always does.

What particular traditions and influences would you acknowledge in your work: have any particular artists or genres inspired you and do you see yourself within their tradition?
I’d say my work is traditional storytelling crossed with the absurdity of ‘the seeker’ that Ken Cambell embodied.  I met Ken when I was archivist for the Experimental Theatre Club in Oxford.  All I archived was snacks and all Ken wanted to do was talk, which he did, all night.  I looked after his house boat and when I was at a low, he kindly took me to Amsterdam where I watched his Furtive Nudist Trilogy again and again.  

He taught me everything I needed to know about how you can say what you like, when you like, how you like as long as you don’t take yourself too seriously.  I’m still working on the not being too serious bit!

Other storytellers with key influences: Ben Haggarty and Laurie Anderson.

Books: for Morgana - Mists of Avalon, for Paradise Bride - Julian Cooper’s – the Modern Antiquarian and for the Goddess Tales in general, The Myth of the Goddess, Jules Cashford and Ann Baring.

Do you have a particular process of making that you could describe – where it begins, how you develop it and whether there is any collaboration in the process?
I can describe it simply.  I fall in love. In the case of these two shows, I fell in love with two goddesses and tried to let their literature, feminine energy and expansiveness do the rest.  I also fell in love with the talents of the creative team, Nick’s songs, Juliet’s vision, Jude’s precision.  I loved being in Glastonbury’s Shakti Sings choir.  In my opinion, love is the only collaborative process worth a peanut.

What do you feel the role of the audience is in terms of making the meaning of your work?
Absolutely, utterly, everything - they are therapist, priest, playmate and teacher.  They shape the shows, make the jokes and are the whole point.  They participate with huge gob-smacking generosity and create an addictive platform to which we all keep coming back.

What made you engage with a religious character: a goddess for your stories?  Do you think that pagan tales retain a meaning in our contemporary world?  Is theatre a good place for thinking about spiritual ideas?
I definitely think pagan tales have a place today.  The big things haven’t changed - spring, summer, autumn and winter / birth, life and death - are the main topics on every stage. 

But actually, for me, words like pagan, religion and goddess are too hard, too like rock, when what I’m interested in, is flow.  

Stories flow. There are as many stories as human faces – all with the same ingredients and all different with each telling.   You leap into the waterfall with one and it carries you downstream to the ocean where all stories live.  And somewhere in that archetypal water, feelings get released, problems get solved, the unknown is experienced.  

Goddesses embody archetypal emotions that feel as limitless as water.  They’ve helped me shake off religion, which is all about limits.  After being a storyteller for 20 years, all mythologies seem to me to be streams from one ocean that belongs to us all. 

The Song has no owner.

But then any deity is a force that we have domesticated, utilized and shrunk into something we can name.  
Right now, Goddesses are the zeitgeist because we are ready for the feminine.  We’re turning away from the male model – an arrow aiming at a goal to be created - to the spiraling, nurturing model of water.  We want to look after the earth, synonymous with the title Goddess, because she’s always giving birth.   

So vast in her creative powers, as the Greek poet Apuleius said of the Goddess Isis, she needs 10 thousand names.

A hymn to Isis holds the recipe for happiness:
Create life, love life, desire life.  
Burn to know life, to share life, to protect life
Create truth, love truth, desire truth.
Create a more pure love, 
Create a more pure life, 
Create a more pure truth.
A priestess of Isis once put it this way ( and of course you can substitute the name Isis with any name that resonates..): 
Draw upon the breath of Isis, that holy breath that cannot be concealed conserved, imprisoned within one person, one place even within one god or goddess, it is for all and brings all.  Open yourself to the wind of inspiration; let the unveiled truth cleanse your mind as a strong wind brings renewal.
Or if that's a bit much, I just remind myself, 

Myths bottle the essence of life.  Theatre and storytelling take the lid off to release a certain scent or feeling.  

Today for example, is a sunny summer day and I might want to call that day Aphrodite and tell a story about crushing aromatic flowers with my naked feet (especially if I’m in tight shoes on the stifling underground or caught in a traffic jam.)  

At night a feeling I would call Hecate might grab me as I long for something as vast as outer space, something that can crack my soul’s pin code and take me to the stars.

Tomorrow, walking the dog in a field, it might be the bright, bright Brigid of Scotland, shaking out her cloak of blue sky, her hair of golden wheat. 

If I’m walking by the sea in Brighton and there's rubbish on the shale and slime in the water, I might start telling myself the story of Morgana le Fey as she first arrives in myth, one of 9 singing sisters in a boat full of healing herbs to resurrect King Arthur.
We are sisters, sisters nine moving in and out of time… 
And I’m already swimming; the water is clear, the roof has lifted off the world.

My husband calls it Xanthropomorphising.  Stories blow my tiny mind.  Once I've got the right one, a droplet can become an ocean.
There’s a story for every problem.  You don’t have to worry, as soon as you open the right book, listen to the right storyteller, follow the urge to see that film or talk to this person, the right story will find you.  

You’ll know if it’s the right one because you’ll keep thinking about it, it will skip along with you, make you laugh, see life a different light and connect you with something that you thought you’d lost but was in your pocket all along.  
Like a friend, a story can last a lifetime because it will keep revealing different aspects of itself.  The twist in the tale is that feeling you get when what you thought what was the whole story, isn’t.  Theatre and story give the delightful illusion that it’s possible to put a full stop somewhere.  Or as Ken Campbell used to say, ‘a full stop is a line coming straight at you.’

Two brothers lived on opposite sides of a mountain.  One had lots of children, the other, none.  They both inherited a sack of gold.  

One night the brother with no children was thinking, ‘there’s just me – I don’t need all that cash.  Look at my brother with all those children!’ 

And he got up in the middle of the night and took his bag of gold on his back ready to leave by his brother’s hearth.  At the same time the brother with all those children woke up thinking, ‘I have all these children to provide for me when I’m old and sick but what about my brother? He has no-one!’  

And he got up and put his bag of gold on his back ready to sneak into his brother’s house and leave it by the hearth.

Of course they bumped into each other, on the peak of the mountain. They saw the sacks of gold on each other’s backs and realized what was happening.  Where they fell about laughing and hugging each other, the first temple was built.

So the story goes – but then, what was that first temple?  

For me it would be the human heart. That's the secret, that's the seed.  goddesses, gods, religions are just words, to blow away like husks!  

You can’t lose what is truly yours.

“A fine voice, pure and unforced Nick Hennessey’s fluid style and engaging presence is a winning combination.” THE TIMES

A two-hander by Xanthe Gresham Knight and musician and storyteller Nick Hennessey – Morgana Le Fey is a new piece of story-telling theatre exploring the myths and legends of the multi-tasking Morgana who features in the famous Arthurian tales.

Brought to life with music, games, and story-telling, often with humour uppermost, it places thoroughly modern Morgana centre stage at last.

From Merlin to Malory, Camelot to Excalibur, Morgana le Fey reigns supreme as fiendish counter queen to King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Playing by her own rules, she foils their quests, dismantles the fragrant towers of each princess, and wreaks general havoc from the shadows.

Director Juliet Forster, York Theatre Royal, believes the show is about the quest for love and finding the female voice. ‘As sister, lover and foster mother to King Arthur, Morgana’s very human passions are rejected time and time again. As Queen, politician, working mother and sorceress, she tries to do it all and fails. Is she trying to do too much? It’s a perennial question.’

Nick Hennessey’s harp playing, luminous songs and theatrical defence of Camelot provide a feisty male voice that adds to the heart and humour of the show. ‘There has to be some redemption in the battle of the sexes,’ he comments.

Paradise Bride, is the reworking of a previous story Her, commissioned by Glastonbury Festival for its Green Fields site in 2014.

To the Celts, Brigid was everything, Goddess of fire, healing and poetry. But where is she now? In search of Her, performance storyteller Xanthe Gresham Knight journeys through the old tales of Scotland, Ireland and much further afield, eventually channelling a 21st century Brigid.

Telling the story of online love, virtual reality and consumer addiction - by taking the identity of a mail order bride seeking a mate – Xanthe, performing as Brigid, smashes through a computer monitor.

Paradise Bride by juxtaposing modern technology with links to nature and myths of the land, asks us to consider our environment and love it more.

Xanthe adds, Her message, ‘skyscrapers, newspapers and water vapours are all one. Paradise is now.

‘Whether you walk on the grass or on the pavement, loving the land starts with loving the stories it holds.’


Notes to Editors: Website: View gallery:

Morgana Le Fey Venue: Netherbow Theatre, Scottish Storytelling Centre, 43 – 45 High Street Edinburgh EH1 1SR Tickets: £10.00 (concession £7.50) Dates: 20th – 31st August Ages 12+ Time: 5.00pm (1hour) Box Office: 0131 556 9579

Director: Juliet Forster, Assoc. Director York Theatre Royal, Movement: Jude Bird Devised and performed by Xanthe Gresham Knight and Nick Hennessey

Paradise Bride Venue: The Little Kirk Community Project, Just the Tonic, 86 Candlemaker Row, Edinburgh Tickets: £5 Ages 12+ Dates: 19th – 30th August Time: 12.05pm (1hour) Box Office: 0330 220 1212

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