This post originally appeared on the LAIP in April 2016.

It’s our pleasure to welcome Ellen Wiles, founder of Ark Short Stories, to the site today, to talk about her project to bring short stories to life–in library spaces, of course! Read on! ~Laura

by Ellen Wiles

What happens when short stories spring out of their pages, join hands with dance, sound, live music, film and illustration, and lead audiences around library spaces? That is the question at the heart of Ark: an experimental project to celebrate, subvert and transform libraries through performance. It is a form of live literature, but not as you are likely to know it.

I came up with the idea for Ark during my PhD research on live literature, when I became all-too-familiar with the standard formats of authors reading short excerpts from their new books, answering audience questions, and signing copies afterwards.

I wished there were more performative, dynamic and creative literary events happening that would make me feel, as an audience member, more like I often do at theatre and live art shows: caught up in the moment, and transported somewhere new.

I also care deeply about the demise of public libraries in the UK, thanks to chronic under-funding from Government and, perhaps, a lack of vision about not only the key to what those libraries are and have always been – temples of books and imagination, accessible to all – but also what they could be in the future. Some public libraries are truly fantastic architectural spaces which have plentiful potential in terms of performance. I wanted to explore ways in which those two ideas could come together.

Each Ark show is curated around a themed selection of newly-commissioned and pre-published short stories, performed by a mixture of actors and writers. Each one is site-responsive, entailing movement of the audience around the library space, and involves various cross-arts collaborations and modes of performance, ranging from dance to live illustration. The first series, funded by Arts Council England, comprised three shows, each growing in scale and scope: A Literary Coup was on a theme of libraries and reading, and happened in the petite Primrose Hill Community Library; A Literary Bestiary was on a theme of curious creatures, and happened in the fabulously modernist and multi-level Swiss Cottage Library; and Literally Fantastical was on a theme of fairytales and wonderlands, and happened over five floors of the one and only British Library.

Short stories in the shows have included Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Phoenix, about a daring librarian risking his life to rescue books amidst a violent apocalypse, performed by actor Susanna Hislop with newly commissioned film by artist Lucy Coggle; a series of one-sentence stories on a theme of bestiary written and performed by the audience around a circular balcony in Swiss Cottage Library; a new story by Joe Dunthorne about an amorous encounter with a dog performed by the author with a newly commissioned soundtrack by composer Kate Denholm; a classic but still wild and daring Angela Carter story, Wolf Alice, performed by actor Adjoa Andoh with live illustration by Gabi Froden, and fairytale songs performed by singer Maeve Leahy, interacting with dancer Rob Hesp, amidst a British Library reading room that we had transformed, with the help of props, plants and lighting, into an enchanted forest.

Photo by Emily Stein.

Maeve Leahy. Photo by Emily Stein.

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Timothy Allsop. Photo by Emily Stein.

It was a hugely challenging project to direct, involving not only curation and commissioning, forging new artistic collaborations, and maximising the use of limited budgets, but also the significant technical challenges of turning libraries into immersive performances spaces involving various media and staging posts when they are not set up with the necessary equipment, finding rehearsal time when libraries have readers using the spaces during the daytimes, and working with librarians who have often never encountered this kind of project taking place out of hours before. But I was lucky enough to find some wonderful writers, artists, technical wizards and library collaborators, who all helped to make this project into something which could bring short stories to life in exciting ways for new audiences, and which encouraged the re-imagination, transformation, subversion and celebration of library spaces through performance.

Public libraries do not have to be static or stagnant institutions, but nor do they have to forfeit their traditional role as places of literary discovery for communities in order to be relevant today. The Ark project is a way of shining a light on libraries by engaging with and in them through literary storytelling, drawing upon the aura of the books on the shelves, and leading new audiences through their doors for new imaginative experiences.

You can find out more about Ark, see pictures, watch videos and find out about future shows at: www.arkshortstories.com.

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