A Literary Coup: a story of the night

We staged a literary coup in Primrose Hill Community Library with an astonishing variety of short stories about libraries, ranging from wartime libraries, to prison libraries, to strange encounters in libraries. Transformed by a variety of collaborations with different artists and art forms, the stories were performed live by actors, writers and artists, and peppered with shared stories amongst an enthusiastic, diverse and participatory audience.

After an introduction from the curator of the night, Ellen Wiles, the audience collaborated in a telling of a very short story, which involved a collective recitation of the ancient set of rules for joining Oxford’s Bodleian library which prospective members were required to read aloud.

Actor Susanna Hislop then took to the stage to tell a dramatic story called The Phoenix by Ursula K. Le Guin, which is about a library under threat in the midst of violent military chaos, and one librarian’s risky mission to save an armful of books. It was performed with a filmic backdrop of a curious military dance by artist Lucy Coggle, and preceded by Michelle Bailey doing military-style street dance up the aisle.

The audience were directed through to the next room, where poet Hannah Silva performed her new story A Library Beyond Language, using her characteristic, creative and striking technique of looping sounds of her own and others’ voices. Inspired by Borges' idea of an infinite universal library, alongside current debates around the future of the book, this story imagines a library set in a hyper reality where readers can experience 'the book' beyond language.

Artist Lucy Coggle then stepped in to perform Future domains (A-Z): a carefully alphabetised index of potential futures encapsulated in a variegated list of web domains.

This was followed by a recording of Ross Sutherland reading his poetic short story, The Prison Librarian, in which a librarian muses on the role of books and libraries in the dark confines of a prison. It was performed with gorgeous projected line drawings by artist Ruvienne Doran, and followed by dance by Michelle Bailey.

The interval came next, but it was not just an ordinary interval; it was a creative interlude with a storytelling twist. The audience flocked to meet book artist Chloe Spicer who helped them to make book art hats in a minute and edible books with a hint of vanilla. Really. They traded their hats and books with each other for miniature stories based on the texts they had been given, while lubricated and fuelled by wine and snacks.

Writer Nikesh Shukla launched us into the second half with his own brand new short story called The Puck, based on his own experience as a tutor for a creative writing class in a young offender's institute. It’s a brilliantly funny, moving and honest tale about a tutor and an inmate battling over the idea of creative writing, storytelling and what is authentic. He accompanied the storytelling with a brilliant series of slides, and there’s a video postscript you can all watch here.

Generously stepping in for actor Maeve Leahy who was ill on the day, Susanna Hislop returned to the stage to perform Isaac Babel’s classic story The Public Library. A vivid portrait of the characters in a wartime library, Susanna mischievously pointed out members of the audience who might be imagined to be the characters being described. Michelle Bailey got everyone in the spirit of vintage wartime solidarity with some charleston-inspired dance.

The next story was set in Primrose Hill Community Library itself, and was a collaboration between writer Ellen Wiles, composer Kate Denholm and viola player Christoven Tan. In Undead in the Library, an elderly local resident encounters a teenager in the library who is into zombie fiction, and discovers the meaning of a literary mashup involving zombies and Jane Austen. The mashup idea was reflected in the performance, which combined recorded audio of an anonymous elderly woman and Ellen reading the story aloud accompanied by viola music, and live readings and viola playing by Ellen and Christoven.

After this ‘domestic’ story we moved faraway to Alexandria: a beautiful and subtle story of things that lost and rewritten, written and performed by Sarah Grochala, with juxtaposed slides of text including definitions of concepts alluded to in the story.

The finale was Ed has his Mind Improved: a kooky story about a talking horse who gets addicted to detective novels and discovers his local library, to the shock of the locals, by Walter R. Brooks. It was preceded by Arthur Honneger’s ‘Dance of the Goat’, played by Ellen Wiles on flute, and performed with great panache by comedy actor Charlie Partridge and an equine sidekick who happened to be an alter ego of artist Lucy Coggle.

After the performance, everyone in the audience left with a gorgeously hand-wrapped gift of a second hand book, lovingly created by artist Chloe Spicer in celebration of World Book Night.

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