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Tall Stories

15th April 2011

This practical workshop was held in Rose Bruford College’s Barn Theatre, as part of the TYA strand of their annual symposium. It was led by Tall Stories’ Joint Artistic Director Toby Mitchell and company member Louanna Priestman. The participants were under graduate students from Rose Bruford College’s School of Performance and students from the MA in Theatre for Young Audiences.

Tall Stories are an unusual company. They receive no public money, other than occasional Arts Council project funding for their small-scale work, and yet they tour to number one venues around the world. Their stage versions of Julia Donalson’s books The Gruffalo, The Gruffalo’s Child and Room on a Broom are enormous commercial successes. The company, however, still maintains a core artistic team and a distinctive physical storytelling style.

More information on the company can be found at their website.


The session was largely practical, but began with an introduction from Toby in which he talks about:

  • Tall Stories’ journey from a company making work for an adult audience, to one that now specialises in what he describes as ‘family theatre’.
  • How a staff of two and a half full time employees manages to tour shows around the world
  • How they managed to get the rights to one of the most popular children’s books of all time: The Gruffalo.
Watch the film clip:


Toby then introduces the practical work that reflects some of their approaches to physical storytelling for children and families.

He begins with a series of warm-up games, including:

  • The chair game – a physical game that promotes a sense ensemble from participants, who have to work together to prevent someone from sitting on a vacant chair
  • ‘A Very Silly Stretching Game’ – with their hands on the wall the participants are asked to find every single way of looking at the soles of their feet. This is then developed into character, including voice and with a focus on rhythm.

They are then divided into four groups and asked to develop ‘still pictures’ in response to a trigger, without conferring. Toby is looking for images that are clear and that tell a story. The trigger titles given are:

  • A Swimming Race
  • Murder
  • A Deep Dark Wood
  • My Mate Fancies You
  • A Family Portrait
  • A Bicycle
  • A Dragon
  • A Family Outing in a Car


Watch the film clip:


Toby and Luanne distribute several cards, then ask the groups to tell the stories on the cards in as few pictures as possible. Each group is to keep the contents of their card secret. The rest of the groups will guess what the stories are at the end.

They are given three minutes and Toby and Luanne’s help; their instructions include: ‘think about the transitions’, ‘ it doesn’t have to be naturalistic’, ‘think about letting us see the faces’, ‘find interesting stylised ways of moving between them’, ‘find an opening position where you project yourselves as story tellers’, ‘start neutral and then find an interesting way of getting into the first image’, ‘you can use minimal sound only’

The cards contained the following nursery rhymes:

  • Little Miss Muffit
  • Three Blind Mice
  • Jack and Jill
  • Hey Diddle Diddle
Film Clip:  

They are then asked to develop the tableaus further, by adding ‘neutral narration’ from as many people as possible within each group. Again Luanne and Toby assist. They remind participants that it is not the character narrating but ‘an actor’.

Film Clip:

The groups are then asked to add dialogue.

TM: The main thing I would say is to keep it light and don’t make anything too labored; aiming for this family audience, so the kids are laughing at the silliness and the adults are not feeling that you are patronising their kids.


Watch the film Clip: Tall Stories: final showing


Toby ends with this exercise (watch the film clip):

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