The Sleeping Princess – London and Edinburgh

TL;DR – The Sleeping Princess is coming to the Edinburgh Fringe, and there are two final preview shows in London this week! Details below 🙂

Well, the months roll on and this blog is still pretty quiet – between working on the show and dealing with a hefty dose of personal / health-related stuff, I hope you’ll understand that my energy’s been needed elsewhere.

Still! The Sleeping Princess (alongside Fay Robert’s beautiful The Selkie) has now been to London, Oxford, Cambridge (as part of the In Other Words literary festival) and Stony Stratford (as part of the Stony Live! festival), and I’ve been delighted by the reception. The good people of Cambridge even got some great shots of me performing! (I get very anxious about pictures of myself, so believe me when I say it’s a big compliment that I’m sharing them here…)

And things are heating up even more – I’m taking The Sleeping Princess up for the first week of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, as part of the Spoken Word contingent of PBH’s Free Fringe. I’ll be performing at Silk (Venue 444) at 21:45, from the 6th to the 13th (except the 10th). I’m not listed on the official Fringe website because of the high cost and early deadline, but I’ll be in the Free Fringe’s Wee Blue Book 🙂

I’ve also got two shows on in London this week:

Thursday 14th at the Dogstar, Brixton, as part of Stand Up Tragedy’s Edinburgh previews season. Doors 19:30, Rosie Wilby’s show The Conscious Uncoupling begins at 20:00, and I’m on at 21:15. I’m really excited about this one – I love the Dogstar and have many great memories of it both as a performer and spectator, plus I’m looking forward to hearing Rosie’s show. The Dogstar also does fantastic pizza, so come early and get dinner with your drinks! Unfortunately the Dogstar’s performance space is upstairs, so wheelchair-users may wish to direct their attention to the second performance below…

Saturday 16th at the Poetry Cafe, Soho. Doors 19:00, an open mic begins at 19:15, and I’ll be on directly after the open mic. I’d love to hear other people’s magic-infused poems and stories, so if you’ve got something to share then please do bring it! This was the place where Fay and I debuted our shows back in April, so it feels fitting to finish by returning there. It’s a lovely, cosy venue, serving cake, soup, and a range of delicious drinks both hot and cold. The performance space is accessible via a lift.

So those are my upcoming shows. Hooray! Hopefully see you there?

Why I write the fairytales I do

Originally posted on The Oxford Playhouse website, in advance of my performance on April 2nd. (Said performance has now been reviewed on The Daily Info – click here to read, if you don’t mind some details of the plot!)

I have always been fascinated by fairytales. I grew up with them, and never really grew out of them. This Saturday, I’ll be performing work from my poetry and storytelling project Red Hoods and Glass Slippers – a journey through multiple interlacing fairytales, where every action leaves ripples in the world.

The world of fairytales is one of mirroring and transformation: not just in terms of the magic that can feature in the plots, but of how fairytales interact with each other. Many of the stories we think of as ‘classic’ or ‘canonical’ fairytales are more like snapshots: each one a single preserved moment in the life of a story that has been passed down generations and changed with every telling. Fairytales mirror each other: every single character archetype and plot structure in a ‘classic’ tale can be found in others –there’s an entire categorisation system (the ATU index) dedicating to tracing them.

And fairytales transform: they are stories with lessons, and the lesson depends on the teller and their culture. Red Riding Hood is a story about what today we would call ‘stranger danger’ – but what is its lesson? In early versions, where she tricks her way out and deals with the wolf herself, it’s a lesson about being cunning and resourceful. When the story shifts to her being rescued by a huntsman, it becomes a cautionary tale about the perils of disobedience. And today, the symbolism of the story – a red cloak, a hairy male predator, an innocent girl who has been given instructions on how to stay ‘safe’ – has taken hold to the extent that it’s increasingly hard to find a modern retelling of Little Red Riding Hood that isn’t on some level a Freudian fable about sexual awakening and/or sexual violence.

This rich vein of symbolism in fairytales is one reason they stick with us. These are not just stories about fairies and witches and woods. These are stories about sex, love, death, hunger. These are stories about inheritance and abuse and loss and bravery and kindness and victory. Their familiar patterns offer us comfort and catharsis; their sketched-out characters enact morality plays and rites of passage. Fairytales are powerful. At their best, they teach us how to be human. And so it should be no surprise that as we change, so too do our stories and the lessons they carry.
When I reimagine fairytales, I want to take the mythic weight that lurks behind the deceptive simplicity and bring it to the fore. I want to tell stories about what it means to be human, to love and suffer and want and lose. I want to expose the dark power dynamics underlying so many ‘happy endings’, and make space for tenderness in stories of pain and hardship. I want to investigate the motives behind – and personal cost of – the familiar stories we often take for granted. (What does it feel like to wake from a hundred-year sleep, in a changed world? Why doesn’t Cinderella just leave her stepmother’s home? What kind of person finds a girl in a coffin and kisses her?) I want to tell the fairytales I wish I could have read when I was younger, because someone out there is still wishing for them.

Red Hoods is ultimately an invitation to see fairytales differently – to place yourself in the shoes of characters both familiar and strange, and experience these old stories through new eyes. I hope you’ll join me.

The Sleeping Princess – upcoming gigs

If you’ve been following me on Twitter or Facebook, you might have heard me talking about Red Hoods and Glass Slippers. To put it relatively succinctly, it’s a poetry and storytelling project about fairytales, which invites the audience to see them through the eyes of characters both new and familiar. It’s a project that is constantly growing and changing, but one thing coming out of it is The Sleeping Princess – a poetry show that is effectively “volume one” in a collection of interlinking fables. It’s early days but I’m very proud of it. And you can come and see it for yourself! Gig details below, followed by more information about the show 🙂

Gig number one is part of Bed Time Tales at the Oxford Playhouse (Burton Taylor Studio). It’s Saturday 2nd April, i.e. tomorrow (why yes, I did leave this a little late) – it starts at 7:30pm and you can buy tickets here for ÂŁ10. I’ll be performing the first 40 minutes of The Sleeping Princess, and you’ll also get to hear amazing storyteller Tori Truslow.

Gig number two is a FREE scratch night featuring me and the inestimable poet Fay Roberts, each doing a show-in-development at the (wheelchair-accessible!) Poetry CafĂ© in London at 7:30pm, Thursday 7th April. I’m doing the one-hour version of The Sleeping Princess and Fay will be peforming The Selkie – A Song of Many Waters. You can RSVP to the Facebook event here.

Fay and I will also be putting on The Selkie and The Sleeping Princess together in Oxford (The Albion Beatnik, May 27th) and Cambridge (details TBC), and we plan to bring the shows back to London as well.

If you want to know more about how I approach and work with fairytales, I wrote a blog post about it for the Oxford Playhouse’s website (which I’ll mirror on here once the show has happened). And if you want to know more about The Sleeping Princess and The Selkie – behold, our promotional material!

FBIcon Scratch London April 16

Fairytales tell us a lot about who we were and who we are. Fairytales are encoded secrets, travelling through time. Fairytales aren’t always happily-ever-after, because fairytales are true.

Hel Gurney and Fay Roberts explore two takes on the way we shape myths, and the way myths shape us. Come and enjoy a scratch night of two hour-long shows-in-development at The Poetry CafĂ©, London (wheelchair-accessible). Entry is free, with donations taken, and we would love to hear your feedback…

The Sleeping Princess (Hel Robin Gurney)

A fairy curse. A sleeping princess. A kingdom in turmoil. A story you think you know. All actions have a consequence; all magic has a price. Borrow the skins of beloved characters treading unfamiliar paths, and find yourself spellbound.
Subversive storyteller-poet Hel Robin Gurney invites you to immerse yourself in a dark fairytale of love, trauma, and resilience.

The Selkie – A Song of Many Waters (Fay Roberts)

The seal woman’s skin has been stolen, stranding her on a reef of rage and tragedy. Can she find her true home, freeing her voice? Explore love, family, and destiny in the company of mythological creatures.
Fay Roberts (Other Voices, Allographic, Hammer & Tongue) navigates a modern mythological sea voyage of hiraeth, poetry, and music in this haunting solo show.

“If you like poetry and fairytales and being emotionally destroyed, you are going to love this!” – Hel & Fay

ACCESSIBILITY: The Poetry CafĂ© has a lift down to the basement, and a disabled toilet. If there’s any other access information you need, please let us know!

Clearing the bottleneck

Hello everyone! Goodness, it’s been a long time since I posted much on this thing. There’s been a lot going on for me, and most of my writing time has been going on… MY NEW POETRY SHOW! However, I’d like to get this blog back up and running, so you’ll be hearing from me again very soon 🙂 Stay tuned, friends!

Our opera, “The Lion-Faced Man” – last chance to buy tickets at ÂŁ5!

Hello, internet!

Yes, once again it’s been a long while – I’ve been working on a number of things, and this blog dropped way down the priority list. Oh well! I’ll catch you up eventually.

You’ll be hearing more about this particular project soon, but for the moment here’s the short version: I wrote an opera with CN Lester and it’s showing at King’s Place in London this August. There are two showings a day, on the 8th and 9th, and today’s the last day to get your tickets for a fiver before they go up to ÂŁ7.50.

Would you look at others differently if you knew you couldn’t look away?
Stephan Bibrowski: sideshow performer, urban legend, aspiring dentist – touted by Barnum and Bailey, inspiration to Jean Cocteau.
A new opera for mezzo Alison Wells and static image.
What makes us think we can know the man behind the myth?

Buy a ticket here, if you’re so inclined. Spaces are rather limited, and the show is not suitable for children or people with claustrophobia.

New poem recording – “Blood on the Snow” (happy Yuletide, everyone!)

Hello, internet!

I wish you all a very happy Yuletide, Christmas, Solstice, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Winterval, and any other thing you might be celebrating around this time of year.

Here is a present for you – a wintry tale of the supernatural, from back when faeries and elves were considered rather more terrifying than they are today. The audio is below; If you want/need a textual version, click here for a PDF version (tagged for accessibility in accordance with the WebAim guidelines).

(I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine the Wild Hunt being led by a sparkly flower fairy or one of Santa’s helpers… although now I’ve said that, I’m half expecting to Google it and find pictures of a blood-soaked Tinker Bell with a changeling under each arm?)

[Content note: humans being hunted for sport.]

Note: being happy

I was going through some old notes and found this from September. A friend has requested I put it up on the public interwebs so they can share it, so here it is!

It’s not necessarily a case of making your peace with the way things are and accepting that they will always be like this forever. It’s really not. But if you can’t find a way to be sustainably happy as you are now? That’s a problem. You can’t stake everything you have on making yourself miserable until you reach this mystical goal where you’ve done everything Just Right and now you’re happy, particularly if you’ve never even experienced the circumstances you’re expecting to Fix Everything when you attain them. You need to find ways of being happy, NOW, and then reaching your goal (if you do) is a bonus. Take your joys with you into the landscape of your traumas. Find space outside. Carve a niche where you can rest from it. You can’t gamble everything on working yourself to the bone.

Cops on horseback and post-Ferguson shudders

NOTE (added after writing but before posting): I talk about race and Ferguson and police brutality in this post, but if you’ve not been reading about these things already, then please: don’t read this. Read something else. My voice is not an important one here -I’m white, British, and have never been on the receiving end of structurally racist state violence. Go read what American people of colour have to say about Ferguson and other instances of racist police brutality – there’s a lot at The Root, Racialicious, and Colorlines; if you’re a Twitter person then look at #BlackLivesMatter, #ICantBreathe, #ThisMustStop. They’re the voices that need to be heard, over and above those of white people. But I’m adding my voice on here because – per these two articles about white allyship – silence can be oppressive too. White voices absolutely should not be central to this discourse, but they should be raised in support and solidarity. We should be angry. We should be upset. We should be viscerally horrified by, and ashamed to be benefiting from, a system that is shot through with such prejudice and violence. The post that follows is kind of rambling and written on less than five hours sleep; it is mostly about the internal landscape of me-the-white-narrator and as such is really really not something that should be at all centred in this discourse; but I’m posting it with this caveat because ultimately I think I’d rather say to the world “here are some of my feelings about the police and racist violence” than say nothing at all and be another silent white person awkwardly not posting about this at all. (POC: If I have still screwed up in so doing, please tell me and I will listen.)


I saw three mounted police officers in a built-up area of London today, and my first feeling was one of terror for the people who lived in the neighbourhood.

This was kinda new to me. In the village where I grew up, police on horseback were not an uncommon sight – and indeed, there were generally quite a few people (civilians!) on horseback knocking around the village, so the sound of hoofbeats could just as well mean Farmer Jones or little Jemima’s riding lesson as it could mean Bobbies on Dobbin. (Bobbies. Tommies. Isn’t it funny how we’ve given cute friendly names to the perpetrators of state-sanctioned violence and murder? Names that make them sound like adorable little boys playing dress-up and starry-eyed over Glory and Honour and Serving Their Country?) So – clip-clop cops are things I do not find strange. But in the past few weeks there has been this… relentless dizzying focus on the police as agents of violence, in both broad structural ways and in bone-crunchingly immediate ways. (Mostly the American police, although seriously let’s not kid ourselves that the UK police are saintly – they may not make such liberal use of guns, but political demonstrators are still routinely met with violence, and I hope nobody’s forgotten about Jean Charles de Menezes.)

Ferguson is dominating my newsfeed right now, and on top of that there seems to be a new story every other day displaying the same pattern of police violence against black people going unpunished, unacknowledged, inadmissible. I’m told by American friends that this is the status quo – but the focus on Ferguson means that racist police violence is getting reported more often and disseminated more widely. White officers killing black members of the public with no fucking repercussions, even when they’re unarmed, even when they’re holding their hands above their heads, even when there are multiple witnesses, even when it’s caught on film, even when the coroner literally fucking rules it a homicide. So I see three white police officers clip-clopping about on their immense draft horses, and all I can think is: oh shit. This neighbourhood is somewhere a hell of a lot of economically-disadvantaged people of colour live, and there are mounted police riding around and talking on their radios. Something awful is about to kick off, someone is going to get their head smashed in by a truncheon, someone is going to have their child or partner or parent not come home tonight and not know what’s happened until they see their loved one’s face on the news alongside justifications about why they deserved to die. Shit. It’s going to happen, here, now, and I have no idea what to do or how to help when it does.

And that sense of dread – it’s nothing, compared to what so many people of colour are constantly forced to deal with. It was small, it was fleeting, and it was fear for the lives and safety of other people rather than for myself. It was a glimpse of a very mild version of something terrible that I can’t imagine the extent of. It was a single moment of my evening rather than a constant presence in my life. And I’m still shaken enough to vomit out a blog post about this. It’s not news to me, on an intellectual level, that the police frequently enact structural violence – racism, sexism, queerphobia – but I’ve never really felt it before, an instinctive shudder at the sight of hi-vis vests over dark uniforms, and glossy muscular horses that could run people down easy as breathing.

I hung around and watched them for a while, worried. Eventually I asked an officer what was happening – apparently “there was an incident”, that’s all I got told. There were parents with children wanting to pat the nice horsies – and other adults hanging back, nervous. I hope like hell that nothing happened after I left.

I don’t know how to end this post in a coherent way. So I’ll just say I’m horrified by everything I’ve heard and seen about what’s been happening in and around Ferguson. The white-supremacist world we’ve built and maintained is toxic and violent and none of this bullshit is even slightly okay. I want us to keep waking up to it, to keep listening to those who know what it is like to live under its shadow, to understand even a fraction of the rage and fear and horror that this systemic brutality necessarily merits, and to join the fight against it.

Made-up words

*bzzt – bzzt – crackle*

We interrupt our scheduled radio silence to bring you this important broadcast –

ALL WORDS ARE MADE-UP WORDS. We did not find naturally-occurring words washed up on the beach. We did not crack open fruit and find words spelled out in glistening seeds. We did not hew words out of the living rock. Words are of human origin. WE MADE THEM UP.

Yes, some of them were made up by long slow processes of making noises at each other over thousands of years, while some were deliberately bolted together very recently out of existing words and roots and suffixes and prefixes, and others emerged from the bubbling stewpot of all the words in current usage. And yes, some words have been made up more recently than others. But if you’re discounting words like “genderqueer” and “cisgender” (and “sie/hir”, “intersectional”, “allistic”, and basically any words to come from marginalised groups), I sure hope you’re  discounting words like “smartphone” and “fracking” too.  They’re all as made up as each other. That’s what we DO – we make up new words when the words we have aren’t enough to describe the world around us, or the experiences we have. Language is constantly changing and evolving. Words reflect our reality, but they also set the terms of it. (Hey, didn’t I post an audio poem about precisely that?) Adapting language is not a trivial thing: it is powerfully legitimising. It is adding your truth to the terms which govern and delimit existence – it is expanding the category of the “real”.*

And fellow Anglophones, we really don’t have any excuse for this kind of prescriptivism – the Oxford English Dictionary, i.e. the foremost authority on the English language, adds hundreds of new words (or new usages of old ones) every damn year. If English had never changed then we’d all be reading Beowulf without a translation; and yet there’s always someone who seems to think that English-as-it-is-right-now is the pure, immutable, “correct” form and everything after this arbitrary cut-off point is Wrong. All it takes to see the absurdity is to imagine people tutting over Shakespeare for all the words he “made up”. And then imagine a few generations later: These kids today, with their barefaced assassination of our mother tongue! What remorseless savagery they show in besmirching our majestic language! (Yes, those are all Shakespeare.)

(This post brought to you by a friend’s request that I actually blog the things I rant about in conversation, and this thing in particular.)

* (I have a feeling “the terms which govern existence” is a phrase I’m quoting, but – aptly? – it seems to have fallen into my own idiolect enough that I’m not sure where it came from now, and Google is just presenting me with information about governments. Thanks, Google. Thoogle.)

Where I’m going with #refugepoetry next

The short version: I’m switching from sprint mode to marathon mode. I’ll keep writing postcard poetry (and taking prompts and donations) until I either hit 100 poems, or hit ÂŁ1000, at which point I’ll declare victory in my own personal iteration of NaPoWriMo and send the money off to Refuge. Sponsor me and you’ll get either get a poem written to your prompt sent to you on a postcard, or you can claim an existing (unclaimed) poem written for this challenge and I’ll send you that. If you can’t spare the money, prompt me anyway – you won’t get the card, but you will probably get the poem posted online at some point.

As anyone watching my Twitter or the Tumblr for my #refugepoetry output will have noticed, I did not in fact produce 100 poems on the 15th OR raise ÂŁ1000. But I’m actually alright with that – “shoot for the moon; even if you miss you’ll land among the stars” and all that. And honestly, I’m pleased with myself for prioritising the Life Stuff which came up – namely a trip to the doctor and some flat viewings arranged by my housemate-to-be – and not beating myself up for failing to meet my very ambitious target. Particularly since my achievements from that day included successfully finding somewhere new to live, and writing five poems – one of which I also turned into a rough recording, and two of which got gleefully shared around Twitter and Facebook by the recipients and their friends. Five long poems is perhaps not as numerically impressive as 100 long ones, but I’m really rather pleased with some of them – The Dragon Queen will definitely get an airing at future slams! I then wrote a further four poems on the 16th, but the 17th (and 18th so far) are been poem-free.

So, where next? I didn’t hit my target, but I want to continue raising money and writing poetry for people (particularly since I have a lot of prompts I’ve not yet honoured). I am really enjoying writing poetry to prompts. Sharing my work online like this – in text form on a blog, rather than as a recording on Soundcloud or text published in an online magazine – is quite out of my comfort zone, but I think that’s good for me. As above, I’m going to keep going with this – until I either hit 100 poems or ÂŁ1000. I will try to post roughly one poem a day, even if I have to compose it on my phone while on the Tube or something, and I’ll also aim to have one or two days where I attempt another write-a-thon sprint towards the finish line.

If you’ve enjoyed the poetry I’ve produced so far, please do share it around and point people towards the fundraising page! The list below will be updated regularly with links to newly-added poems.

#1 Prompt: “eating ice-cream on a rainy day”
#2 Unprompted, first line: “i remember jane in the rich red room”
#3 Unprompted, first line: “Jesse was the kind of guy”
#4 Prompt: “Mer-rabbit?”
#5 Prompt: “unapologetic dragon or accidental femme fatale”
#6 Unprompted, exercise in misheard voice/text software, first line: “Middleton roses and whiskers on kittens”
#7 Unprompted, first line: “The fog flattens you”
#8: Unprompted, blackout poem, first line: “The moment the air is clear”
#9 … nothing yet!