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Tales of Trolls and a Dilemma

Hot on the heels of the success of When Apples Grew Noses and White Horses Flew: Tales of Ti-Jean I am now immersing myself in the world of trolls.  The work has its fun side but also carries with it a much more serious sense of evil.  Viciousness lurks always.  The ways of trolls are not pretty.  I am caused to think often of how what’s going on in these stories really does reflect the experience of some of the immigrant children I have met in schools who have come from countries where brutality and horror are rife. 

Still, for me, the issue of violence is a difficult one.  I am working from sources collected in Norway in the nineteenth century – in times when it was apparently perfectly reasonable to have the prince lop off the villain’s head and bring it to the princess’s father as proof of success.  These are not our times, however.  I am not interested in sanitizing or Disney-fying but I am a children’s writer and it is part of my job to recognize that the lessons being offered to young people now are not necessarily the same as they were then. 

I am totally committed to the idea that the trolls must be conquered and convincingly so.  I remember a friend telling me that as a child she was always much more frightened of the versions of Red Riding Hood that allowed the wolf simply to run off into the forest.  She was always so certain he would come back. 

I am happy to give young readers the satisfaction of rejoicing in the knowledge that those who have done foul deeds may fall to their deaths in chasms; they may be turned to stone; they may be shattered into a million pieces.  I still cannot reconcile myself to that head, however (although oddly enough I have no problem with the fact that the troll hag who carries her head under her arm is tricked into dropping it so that it rolls away). 

I absolutely cannot include an episode in which the hero must beat his beloved with sticks on their wedding night to break the enchantment under which she is held.  I’ve heard all too many instances of abuse dealt out for someone’s supposed “own good” to go along with that. 

But…but…but…  The story (called “The Companion” in Pantheon’s Norwegian Folktales) has many layers and complexities.  I like it.  I think it works perfectly if that beating is left out.

So…. What I’m trying for is something more nuanced and selective; something that leaves the violence less raw.  I know not everyone will agree with this approach but – as I’m sure I’ve said before --  I do believe that the traditional tales have always been subject to shifts and changes.  I am convinced, in fact, this flexibility is the very element that has given them their vitality over all these years.

I also know I’m just one person.  I’m not Disney.  I don’t have that much power.  Another part of my job is to take risks.  I guess that’s what I’m doing.  I’m trusting in the universe to bring forth others who will put out different versions if mine do not seem right.  The big thing does not alter.  The big thing is finding means to ensure that the traditional stories continue to have a place in our world. 

Snow is going fast now.  The rock outside my window is emerging.  Water lies in puddles on the lake ice.  Yesterday, I saw a song sparrow.  Here’s hoping he hasn’t come back too soon. 


Proof of the Pudding

We are into grant writing season and to this end had asked one of our Perth audience members to write us a letter of support.  I am including his reponse because a) it warmed our hearts; b) it does confirm my final point in the Yes It Works blog; c) it speaks so vividly to what storytelling has to give the world and why we all of us are prepared to work so hard for it.  Here we go:


February 26, 2012

To whom it may concern:

The ancient art of storytelling seems to be experiencing a revival in recent years.  Beginning in the fall of last year, I’ve become acquainted with the work of 2wp (2 women productions) in bringing storytelling to Eastern Ontario.  I’ve attended 4 different performances during the last half year and I’ve been struck by the brilliant and unusual nature of all of them.  They have been variously haunting, mysterious, moving, hilarious, intelligent and thought-provoking.  Oh, and furthermore, I should also say inspiring.  These are shows where the mind is engaged and you must be ready to think.  The material is serious and entertaining, and very well-crafted, which I personally find a very refreshing change from much of the theatre in this area which tends to compromise art for the sake of entertainment.

In some cases, the stories are told by the two women themselves; in others, the storytellers are brought in by 2wp; and in one case, 2wp helped the storyteller write and develop the work.  What I find interesting is that various themes seem to run through all the performances, and I can’t help but think that this is the careful work of the two women.  Themes like valuing and preserving things ancient and traditional from the onslaught of modernity, celebrating the beauty and mystery of language and the struggle of the individual against oppression or discrimination.  The stories contain almost radical messages if you take the time to look for them.  So, I guess what I’m saying is that while each performance is a work of art in itself, there also seems to be an artistic continuity running through all the performances as an ensemble.

I have remarked to many people how lucky we are to be able to enjoy this high-calibre storytelling here in our small town.  The performances have been well-attended, which confirms my thought that there is a largely untapped pool of people here who are thirsty for this kind of intelligent, high-quality, moving and, I would say, “real” work.  People watch and, more importantly, listen spellbound.  And, on two occasions, at the end of the story there has been a kind of collective gasp of amazement.

Of course, I should add that this is something that just about everyone would enjoy – because just about everyone loves listening to stories.  To sum up, I want you to know that this storytelling project is something special and the efforts of 2wp deserve to be supported.


Jim Bamber

And, yes, we do have Jim's permission to make his name known!





Yes, It Works

I see to my horror that my last blog was January 23.  I might be reduced abject groveling except for the fact that the reason for this huge gap has to do with being much immersed in 2wp work. 

First we had the two day workshop for The Odyssey, January 28 and 29.  (Catch one of the participant’s responses at  Seventeen tellers are involved and sixteen could be present at this time.  At first, there was nervousness.  Isn’t there always – especially when rehearsal methods are unfamiliar, when we all feel called on to strut our stuff, no matter what assurances may be given that this is not the point?  More and more, however, the nervousness gave way to total commitment – a strong and communal desire to explore Odysseus’ journey in all its nuances and to find voice for what is to be told.  To do that you have to experience in all of your being that this is a great human story of many layers, many  heights, many depths.  For Jennifer and I -- as we encouraged people to yell, sing, whisper and take risks beyond their immediate understanding; to role play in small pieces of their assigned books; to be aware of joys and sadnesses they had not yet imagined -- helping our trusty band get in there was what it was all about.  By the end, the shift in all of us was palpable.  We were at once more present for each other and for the wondrous task on hand.  We are, of course, not finished.  There is much more to be done before June 16 when we will be appearing as the finale to Ottawa Storytellers regular series at the National Arts Centre’s Fourth Stage – 10 am to 10.30 pm.  How about that for an epic event.

Even was we were looking on to this distant date in the future two other 2wp events were filling our days.  One had to do with just being producers – getting out the publicity materials, dealing with logistics for The Brothers Grimm: 200 Years and Counting with teller Dale Jarvis and musician Delf Maria Hohmann.  We had been nervous as to whether we could sell this show but our worries were unfounded.  Partly, 2wp truly is making a name for itself in our selected communities in Eastern Ontario and West Quebec.  Partly, there was – as ever – the pull of the old tales.  Dale and Delf had worked hard, not just to bring us the stories but to capture the ways of the brothers’ lives.  Listeners were fascinated.  Post-show comments indicated their intense appreciation.  Any problems with the fact that almost all the songs were in German?  No, that just made the experience all the richer; somehow anyway the meaning was clear.  Further info:

The other event?  Working with Katherine Grier to ready ourselves for the debut of Dragon’s Gold: A Sword Re-Forged, A Ring Accursed at the aforementioned OST Fourth Stage series in March.  Dragon’s Gold is the final show for 2wp’s 2011/2012 season and we will be taking it to our venues in Perth, Peterborough and Wakefield in April.  Boy, what a ride!  Finding means to weave it all together, to evoke the characters, capture the sweep of events.  It’s not an easy world to enter.  The circumstances seem so vast: a boy who has the gift that he may turn himself into an otter; a treasure that brings doom; a maiden asleep in a tower within a  circle of flames; a potion of magic that brings forgetting; lovers so brutally kept apart.  The passions are intense: Brynhild whose loves and hates are so unbridled; Sigurd who seeks for honour with such care; Grimheld, the sorceress, who will do anything to further her own aims.  I have to admit rehearsals brought more than their usual share of “how are we ever going to get to where we must be going?”  Then, it was “the night.”  We were up on that stage, the performance over.  We could feel in the house that the audience had done what we had longed for.  They had gone with us through tragedy and through transcendence as well.  Our relief and gratitude was huge.  We have some adjustments we want to be making but we await with eagerness our chance to tell the tale of Dragon’s Gold again. 

So why the title, Yes It Works?  Because although 2wp is fairly unique in the storytelling world we are increasingly proving that we have come up with a model that does just that.  Yes, if you will do what it takes in terms of publicity and professionalism, focusing on giving listeners the benefit of great artistic experiences, you can run a season of full length evenings in standard performance venues.  You can bring in a public that has never even heard of storytelling and leave them with but one question on their lips, “When’s the Next Show?”  You can indeed build yet one more opportunity for storytelling as an art-form to develop and grow. You may even find yourself in the position to be the inspiration for other major events -- witness The Odyssey, a 2wp-Ottawa Storytellers co-production, with 2wp providing artistic direction and OST coming forth with venue, publicity, and all aspects of logistics and financing.  You may have to give up a little on your blogging but you’ll even get back to that before all is said and done!

I write this with an emphasis on the word "model."  When we started 2wp, we hoped we might be breaking new ground.  As we report on its successes, we do so as a call to others to have a crack at following similar paths.  It is a deal of work but it does bring its rewards.  If you need some information about our processes, we're more than happy to share that.  We'd also like to hear of models of your own. 


Home Thoughts from Home

Good to be home, safe and sound and know we have done good work.  Rave reviews for The Book of Spells and the Towards More Powerful Telling workshop; lots of good comments from kids and teachers in schools. 

On the flight back I had a window seat which I always organize if I can.  Partly that’s for the view and partly it’s because the journey becomes more real in its passing and thus less jarring on arrival. 

As ever, I was overwhelmed by the sight of the landscape underneath our feet.  First, there was that very particular range of colours that comes from the light of the prairies (yellows and pinks especially blended in the snow tones this time).  There were the squares of the fields and the snaking of the rivers, looping back on themselves almost in their flowing through that vast open land.  It all comes to an end so suddenly as you cross the line that marks the beginning of the bush which changes -- almost equally suddenly -- to Canadian Shield.  The Sleeping Giant was visible as we went over Thunder Bay; the sun shone on the waters of Lake Superior and then the glistening and glowing and the shore line disappeared beneath absolutely regionalized cloud.  More cloud appeared over Toronto.  We flew into Ottawa at dusk.

We bring much back with us but know there is one issue that is definitely going to require more mulling.  This has to do with a realization that came to us through the workshop – an awareness that so often it is the emotions we might describe as “negative” that tellers have to struggle so hard to bring forth.  There’s a holding back in the chest almost when it comes to such things as rage and jealousy, even though those things are crucial to the tales. 

But the voicing brings such energy, such release.  “I want to work with the witch,” said one of the tellers.  We tried this and that and finally undertook the strong resistance which involves physical pushing.  “I’m the good, good girl,” I said.  Suddenly, there it was -- “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you.”  Those who were watching and witnessing almost cheered.  All knew that what was happening in the here and now would not destroy the story’s subtlety; all knew what was happening would be rendered and rendered till it found its deep-down essence.  It would belong to the teller – forever and ever amen.

Now we prepare ourselves to do similar work with The Odyssey on the weekend coming up.  Odysseus himself is not always Mr. Nice Guy.  We have to find him, along with Circe, the Cyclops, Penelope, Calypso and the rest.

The picture?  That’s by 2wp’s designer and publicist Annette Hegel (  She produced it while she was staying at our home when we were in Australia last year.  It's the view down the lake from my office window.  Our Christmas present to ourselves. 


2012 cometh

So, here we are.  Christmas and the holiday season are over.  We have stepped -- bravely or otherwise – into the New Year.  I long ago stopped making resolutions but I do like to have a theme.  I was going for “less is more” but could never quite get it to feel right.  Finally, I woke up one morning and knew I had to do a bit more in terms of taking unto myself one of 2012’s major upcoming events.  And so the theme is “being 70.”

Mostly I don’t expect “being 70” to bring about that much in terms of radical changes but I do believe it’s something that needs to be thought about.  I know all that stuff about “being as old as you feel” and “aging doesn’t matter” is garbage because aging does matter.  It matters a lot.  It is certainly not without its benefits.  For those of us on artists’ incomes, the old age pension is a liberating miracle of stability – not a ton of cash, of course, but something that does appear with absolutely unfailing regularity.  Then there’s the push to get on with things, to decide what you really want and make it happen.  Still that links up with the other side, because the push arises out of knowing that -- come what may -- time is running out.  Inevitably that’s a sobering thought. 

I know perfectly well 70 isn’t exactly what you’d call the end of the world but I do feel it merits some attention, some awareness, some sense of its situation in the pattern of my life.  I want to do some looking back and also some looking forward (as well as some just “being” along the way).  Oddly enough the back and forward seems connected with the development of my Who Wants the Dress? show.  A big part of that show comes out of the ways of my childhood and my unfulfilled longing to “be a boy.”  At the moment, the piece is an hour long and ends with my recognition of the fact that I am still a work in progress. 

What will the progress be?  I’m finding myself drawn to a second half involving a Music Hall star of my grandparents’ day.  Her name was Vesta Tilley and she made her mark as what is referred to as a male impersonator although her aim was not to convince people she was a man.  She sang and spoke as a woman.  She simply wore men’s clothing – top hat and tails of an impeccable kind.  Her specialty was masher roles i.e. acting like a toff.  The irony is that she was loved, approved of, lauded even in my family where I -- with my wish to wear boy’s clothing -- was seen as something of an aberration (hopefully, at best, going through a phase).  Where is all this going to lead?  Will I have to learn to sing and dance?  Perhaps “being 70” will show.

In the meanwhile, the Two Women are off to Saskatchewan on January 9.  We’ll be performing The Book of Spells.  A Love Story at Paved Arts in Saskatoon on Jan. 11 ( and in a house concert at the home of the illustrious Kevin Mackenzie, Jan.19.  (Kevin -- -- being the man to thank for getting us going on all this and doing so much of the organization.)  We’ll also be presenting our Towards More Powerful Telling workshop ( for the Saskatoon Storytellers Guild ( on the weekend of Jan. 14 and 15, rounding the trip out with tellings and readings for kids in libraries and schools.  It should be a good rich time and no doubt I will be writing more about the workshop and other aspects of note at some future point.

Saskatoon is where I first lived when I came to Canada from Britain in 1963 (even worked at CFQC Radio writing advertizing copy for a year).  I can’t say the adjustment to prairie living was easy.  Apart from anything else, my ex was a student and we had little money and before I knew it a baby was on the way.  Nonetheless, when I left after four years, I knew that I had been somewhere special, somewhere that was home to people of vision and strength.  I am, therefore, glad to be going back.

Snow at last and today it’s -20, the blue jays looking as if they’re wearing down jackets they’re so puffed up.  Yesterday, the wind had swept parts of the lake ice were clear; today the snow’s blown back again.  I got new snowshoes for Christmas and so far have not been able to use them (a slight matter of an over-enthusiastic burst of cross-country skiing just before New Year’s).  I’m itching to give them a try.  Carp all you like.  Winter is a great, great season.

New Year’s wishes to each and everyone from the enthusiastic life-livers at 2wp. 

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