This year's City of Literature programme at Norfolk & Norwich Festival 2016  features a brand new style of event for the literature sector - The Story Machine. Powered by literature and oiled by theatre, this is a unique interactive and immersive experience where stories from world-renowned writers seduce participants at every turn.

As a brand new event with a lot of surprises planned for the day, what can we expect in advance? Sam Ruddock, WCN Programme Manager and the driving force behind The Story Machine, will present a series of blogs over the coming weeks that helps to shed light on how he will bring The Story Machine to life and why it's such a ground breaking literary event.


The Story Machine is the literary festival I have always wanted to produce: a funhouse jam-packed with interactive, immersive, and brilliant short stories. There will be no lecterns, no audience sat quietly in ordered rows, no discussion about the author’s childhood or where – and on what – they write. Nothing but brilliant stories given the space and time to shine as brightly as they do on the page.

In the first of a series of blogs about The Story Machine, I want to share some of how we came to produce it, and what you might expect if you come along to its premier in May. 

It all started with a team discussion of the art that’s made our hearts sing and our brains fizz over recent years. As we talked, what became apparent was that we all loved immersive experiences : theatre that asks the audience to get involved and shape it alongside the actors, Secret Cinema showings that let you step inside the world of the film, exhibitions that you can touch and feel and sometimes even taste.

Why, we asked ourselves, had we not encountered a literature festival experience like that? One answer that came immediately to mind was that we don’t need festivals for that. We’ve long believed that the reader is an active co-curator, conjuring the story in their mind every time they open a book. Recent research into the neurology of reading has even suggested that there is little more immersive for our brains than deeply settling in to read a book. So we changed the question: how we might recreate that immersive feeling of reading in a literature festival?

In searching for the answer, two things came in handy: the mass production of Moby Dick at the Southbank Centre’s London Literature Festival and Iliad by National Theatre Wales. I had never seen any literature festival treat a text with such dedication, respect, or joy as these did. In doing so, each showed that great literature, great writing, and great stories might be right at the centre of an event, rather than a small add-on as it so often is. Back at work I sat in the glorious glass-fronted gallery at Dragon Hall pondering these questions and came across an article about those amazing short story vending machine that had appeared in Grenoble. In that moment, it all came together in my mind.  

This building might become a machine for discovering and engaging with great stories. An idea was born.  

Stepping into The Story Machine will feel like you are entering a secret garden, or disappearing down Alice’s rabbit hole. There might not be a magic potion that shrinks you down to size – or for that matter a talking Mock Turtle (one day, one day!) – but as you explore our 15th century Grade 1 Listed home at Dragon Hall, you’ll encounter all sorts of beguiling characters and tales taking place in nooks and crannies in, outside, and under, this wonderful building. Over the course of three hours you’ll plot your way through stories by thirteen hand-picked writers from all over the world, sample story-themed food and cocktails, and uncover secret stories where you’d least expect them.

Jon McGregor – whose provocation at the National Conversation also helped shape some of our thinking – will tell a story from the driver’s seat of a car. Israeli superstar Etgar Keret – one of the most cheekily playful writers I know – will whisper true stories across space and time in the dark of our cellars. In the Great Hall an unpublished new story by Sarah Hall kicks off a series exploring the relationship between humans and nature, that which we can create and that which we cannot control even in ourselves, life and art. We finish with a glorious crescendo as Norwich-based writer Anna Metcalfe’s debut collection blinds us with a moment of pure transcendence.  

In curating the Story Machine we read hundreds of stories to find the ones that thrilled us. We weren’t short of talent, and I emerge with a renewed belief in the vitality, creativity and heart in the writing of this most difficult of forms. Along the way, we’ve been delighted to work with The Special Relationship who produced Moby Dick at the Southbank Centre, Granta’s exceptional New Irish Writing edition, our good friends at Galley Beggar Press, and Cathy Galvin’s Word Factory. 

What is literature when it steps off the page to dance with us? What are stories when we find them to be so much more, or less, than we imagined? Come along to The Story Machine, and you might just start to find out. 

Happy Reading.

Sam

Illustrations by Adam Avery.

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