Movement and drama can bring alive a story, says Parshathy J. Nath after she witnesses a Scottish tale unfold

“Picking mountain Thyme… O! Lassie...” Teachers and students of the Yellow Train Grade School sing aloud, and along with them sing two guests, Michael Ritchie and Fiona Oliver-Larkin. They are from Voice Box Theatre from Edinburgh. Michael and Fiona tell the children Scottish tales of the selkie, a mythical creature that takes the form of a seal but can also assume human form. There is action, drama and acrobatics as the story of selkie and the sailor progresses. Fiona climbs on to Michael’s shoulders as he strides across the stage Then she gracefully slides off his back saying, “Even though the selkie was happy she would gaze into the sea longingly”. Finally, the sailor decides to free selkie by giving her back her seal skin. The moment is touching and even the restless kids sit still and listen. “Here is your skin my selkie, my love. Go forth and be free,” Michael sings. The story telling concludes with the children playing with the marigolds strewn on the stage, as Michael plays the recorder. Music and the excited squeals of children break the silence of the night.

A night worth remembering

Says Santhya Vikram of the school: “It was a learning experience to see Michael and Fiona use their body to tell the story. We do not have enough trainers to tell us how to use body and gestures while teaching. Expressions are so important to learning.” Michael and Fiona found Yellow Train online. They shortlisted the school from a list of Waldorf schools in India. They will conduct a workshop for the teachers of the school before they leave, says Santhya.

Voice Box Theatre Company

Body movement forms the core of the two-year-old Voice Box Theatre Company at Edingburgh. “We are movement specialists. We combine circus tricks, acrobatics and dance to convey a story,” explains Michael. Body is the main prop in their productions, says Fiona. “You do not need a lot of props to narrate a tale. The body has so much potential to narrate a story. Physical theatre can trigger children’s imagination as it opens up new possibilities.”

Fiona and Michael are currently on a tour around India. They have held workshops in Waldorf schools across the country and with slum children in Dharavi, Bombay.

Children in India responded positively to their workshops, observes Fiona. “Here, the children are free when they interact with you. But once you put them on stage to perform, they turn shy and their body language changes,” notes Fiona. However, the most memorable response was at Door Step School where the children, who wore grubby vests and torn trousers, showed so much more promise than their peers in the posh schools, observes Fiona. “They were smiling, jumping and were eager to learn and show off their skills.”

Selkie tales

Selkie Tales is an ancient Scottish tradition of story telling. They capture the lives of sailors and their adventures in the sea. Male selkies are supposed to be handsome and will respond to the call of women who shed seven tears into the sea. Women selkies fall in love with sailors, who steal their skin so that they never return to the sea. The selkie will even give birth to children but they live in the eternal longing to get back to the sea. The conflict between the sea and land is the main theme of all the selkie tales. In many stories, the children of the selkies come to their rescue and give them back their seal skins so that they can return to the sea. While most of the selkie tales end on a gentle and emotional note, a few have dark endings with a revengeful selkie cursing an entire coast to destruction!