"All the world is on the tip of the tongue" (Turkish proverb)
Helen was born in Colombo, eyes closed, "all the better to hear
She grew up listening and learning, tuning her tongue, and bending her
in England, Norway, Nigeria, Italy, Iceland and occasionally Ireland,
telling stories to send her sister to sleep,
and writing cliff-hanger serials for her friends
(she first had work published when she was eight).
"a library on legs" (Mary Medlicott)
Helen finally settled down in London in 1979,
when she met Rick
and started working for Lambeth libraries
(outreach storyteller for Brixton housing estates and centres)
But she continues to travel whenever she can (in the last decade to Singapore,
Australia, N and S America, Egypt, Indonesia, India and all over Europe
and the UK)
to record and to write, to tell and to teach, and to enable others to
'journey' with her.
"Your stories transported me completely; I was with you all the way."
(Faculty director, Viseu Polytechnic, Portugal)
In 1981 Helen she co-founded the influential group Common Lore
(inter-cultural storytellers and musicians),
and from 1987-90 she was Director of the National Folktale Centre.
In 1993 she was also a founding member of the National Society for Storytelling..
She has also directed several major regional projects, including
Shropshire's oral lore project 'Breaking the Silence'(1994)
Kent's 'Charting the Changes'(1995-6), and Southwark's Storyswap (1997),
as well as participating as an artist in many innovative collaborations,
particularily mixed media /cross art form (with dancers, sculptors, film
makers, puppeteers, environmental artists etc.) For one such project, The Trodden Path(2002-3), Helen was researcher, writer and performer for the performance side and for its subsequent exhibition Yatra (2003).
In 1998 she 'returned to school' to a do a PGCE at the Institute of Education
(gaining distinction in English and Maths),
using this knowledge to inform her teacher training work,
and to initiate an exploration into the potential for oracy within the
National Literacy Framework (Expanding the Frame). In 2001-2, she was storytelling tutor for Talk Tent - a National Theatre / Art of Regeneration project that highlighted tales of journeys. She also designed and produced the accompanying board game and resource pack.
"We didn't have big books we had fun, and we sang, and wrote our
so now we can help other classes to read"(Yr. 1 participant, Culloden
Since 2002, Helen has regularly led storywalks in Shropshire and the borders, mixing history, folklore and local history. She has also led storywalks in Kew Gardens London.
During 2002, Helen also ran the Sure Start 'Ocean of Stories' scheme creating books and 'lifethread' wallhangings to represent life stories of Bengali mothers living on the Ocean Estate, and 'Gift of the Gab' - a 6 week storytelling course for adults. At this time, she was also writer / tutor for the Poplar Partnership & Museum of Docklands project for parents as writers, and for a children and parents bookmaking scheme.
Spanning 2002 /3, Helen undertook commissioned work for Surrey Art Galleries. The resulting exhibition 'Yatra - Sacred Journey' featured Helen's recordings of the stories of Surrey-based Asian families and incorporated educational workshops. 'The Trodden Path', a groundbreaking mixed media theatre piece, arose from this exhibition.
Over the next year, a variety of work included story / textile work with Bromley Sure StArt, the Epping story Picnic project and storytelling residencies at secondary schools in Shropshire and Hampshire. Following this, the Ifton Heath Creative Arts Project worked across this community exploring past and present, concentrating on the former colliery and mines and those who worked in them. Helen organised a number of events as well as creating a cd of miners' stories.
In 2004 Helen ran the Saltney Storybox - a collecting, compiling and retelling project of local stories with 45 teenage tellers, community volunteers and the local history group. She also ran family workshops, making Ramayana Kavads, for the Unicorn Theatre. She also started a long story creation stint 'Kahini' for a Creative Partnership scheme in Tower Hamlets in conjunction with Apples and Snakes. This lasted well into 2005. Later that year, Helen toured extensively in South America, with Rick Wison, telling stories for language development in both primary and secondary schools.
In 2006, Helen took part in 'What If',a multi-arts project based at Severndale school in Shrewsbury backed by the Children' Fund and was part of 'Raising Voices', a storytelling project for Word Up, and 'Story Quest', both in Liverpool. Ongoing work for 2007 has so far included the 'Festival of Words', a Creative Partnership with SLD primary children in Leicester and a CARA 2 Research project on creativity through storytelling with KS3 and 4 at Wakefield High school. She has also completed an extensive and very successful Sure Start story cloth scheme (with fabric artist Lucy Wells) around Oswestry district. She also undertook a second Creative Partnership in Draycott in the Clay primary school in Staffordhire. Summer 2007 touring work with Beyond Boundaries took her all over England and Scotland telling stories at many locations used in the Harry Potter films.
Other work in the year has included storytelling at the Eastham Garden of Rememberance on the Wirral, sessions at the Tolkein weekend in Birmingham and Whitby Folk Festival and a stint at 10 Telford libraries. As part of Powys Arts month, she and Rick led Cross Country Crossroads, a storywalk across Llansilin. She is also part of 'Unbridled'- stories relating to people who are silenced- a performance piece arising out of community arts workshops and mixed media collaboration. This work teams her with storyteller Shonaleigh Cumbers and musicians Hassan Erraji and Rick Wilson.
2007- Creative Partnership literacy and storytelling project with St Augustine’s First school,Draycott-in-the-Clay, Staffordshire.‘StoryCloths for All’ –music, story and textile/making project with children, parents,carers and staff for Surestart groups in the Oswestry area (with Lucy Wells)- “One of the most successful “arts” activities I have ever run” (Anne McKinnon, area co-ordinator).Llansilin ‘Cross-Country’ Story Walk conceived and performed with Llansilin school and community. (with Rick Wilson).Also-‘Festival of Words’ Creative Partnership project with Bamboozle Theatre Co. for SLD primary school children, Leicester. Focus on development of speech and communication through story.
2008- Telford Culture Zone. Storyteller/Writer for schools creative evaluation writing
workshops KS1 and 2.Barbican Project ’Children as Storytellers’: Tower Hamlets school + Barbican Theatre, London. Knowsley, Liverpool ‘Telling Tales ‘ schools project.
‘Apples and Snakes’ Creative Partnership project with E.London school –exploring use of
story across the curriculum. Yr 1 topic –Homes explored through story, music, rhyming games
’creation of picture ‘book- houses‘ used as scenery and puppets in performance.
Yr ¾ topic ‘Tudors’ –created a ‘living’ museum with student curators.
2009-‘Dingle Infants School Seaside Storytelling Project –creation of an indoor seaside
for stories of the sea –and side- retold by every child in school.
‘The Portal Project’ BC Creative Partnership with Meadows school, Oswestry
to “use drama and storytelling techniques to develop 7/8 yr olds self-confidence
and ability to express themselves, use their imagination, ‘enter other worlds’,
improve language and creative writing, to expand the expertise of class teachers
and other staff throughout the school, and to create a semi-permanent inspirational
indoor ‘portal’ space for structured play for small groups.” Involved facilitating creation
and projection of images through static and rotating projectors.
William Martin school, Harlow, Storytelling, retelling and Storycloth making project.
Maesydre Literacy Project for Powys CC. Whole school storytelling project leading into
formation of a storytelling performance group –representing all classes,
Welsh and English- to create a community ‘story fair’ event.
2010 Term-long literacy project at Marner junior school, London (with Debbie Gunaratne);Lines of Desire - story and visual image project for Oriel Davies Gallery, Newtown for various Powys schools; Whizz - a term-long story/rhythm and skipping project (with Rick Wilson) at Trefonen junior school, Shropshire. Also, smaller projects and schools visits to Heathfield Middle school, London; Middlewich school, Cheshire; Woodside primary, Oswestry; Llanfyllin High school, Powys, Severndale School, Shrewsbury, Exeter Children's Festival and The Big Chill Festival. Created and started performing The Woodcutter's Wife - an extended story performance piece for adults, with Rick Wilson.
2011 After Offa - Living Life along the Border - 4 schools and communty social history research project- Shropshire/Welsh borders;publication of picture book - How the Olympics came to be- for the British Museum with promotional tellings at the Cheltenham and Word Up Fetsivals; Another extensive tour for Beyond Boundaries in England and Scotland exploring the sites of the Harry Potter films; culmination of Lines of Desire project;schools visits to Hall Green, Birmingham and Parkfield Community school, Wrexham
2012 Conclusion of After Offa,producing a double cd, book and story map; term-long story/book-making and music scheme at Maesydre primary,Powys (with Lucy Wells and Rick Wilson); appearance at the Bath Literature Festival promoting Olympics book;story development work at Keele university, at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh and at Ripley Arts centre, Bromley, Kent. School visits to Bishop Hooper,Ludlow and Penn Hall schools,Wolverhampton.
2013 Publication of London Folktales (History Press)- a collection of 30 stories. The Kensington Palace project - 5 original stories for under 5s, written and performed by Helen. Also, Festival of the Word - site specific story walks and performances around Islington and a writing/storytelling residency for children at Whitechapel Hospital,London. The Unicorn Children's Theatre, London present Dora, a production based on Helen's 1988 picture book Dora the Storer.
2014 Na Chllcied Na Chlo was a story and music Literature Wales Commission that was performed 30 times (with Rick) in collaboration with TAULK (USA). City Fables was another
commission (Apples and Snakes) as part of their ongoing Home Cooking podcasts. With Rick, it is a 60 minute story and sound collage for broadcast in 2015.Helen also worked
in Jordan for the British Council /Apples and Snakes. She was a contributor to the book- Stories for a Greener World -which was published in May. Again with Rick, she worked
in various London schools, often through Everyday Magic. Other storytelling projects happened at VTEC (Shropshire), Newham City Farm and Rich Mix (London) and the Outdoor Learning Centre
(Sandwell). With artist Lucy Wells, she started the Book in a Day programme (Flintshire), a pairing that also realised White Crane - a meeting of Tai Chi and storytelling.Amongst
all these activities, Helen did many one-off visits to schools around England.
In 2015 Helen concluded the Book in a Day Project and continued her work for Everyday Magic as well as other schools in London, Newcastle, Powys, shropshire and Staffs, including the Apples and Snakes project Spin. Together with Rick, she created and performed The Moon's Two Wives and also Sounds of the City - a commission for the Museum of London. Helen also returned to Jordan twice, first to run a week's intensive workshop for storytellers and then to participate in The Hakaya Festival. In addition, she received the Storytelling World Resource (USA) Award for 2015 for her book London Folktales.
In January 2016,Helen worked in South Sudan for the British Council on another intensive week of training storytellers and later on, trained National Trust staff and guides at Powys Castle. With Amy Douglas, she perfromed Travelling Together,an appreciation of some of the great storytellers and ballad singers of the travelling people of Scotland. With Rick , she performed in England and wales, including The Moon's Two Wives in Manchester and Derby.
2017 saw Arts Connection Powys commission Helen to storytell as part of their Wilding the Senses project to transform a community garden. They also enabled her to undertake story / writing projects in 2 schools as part of their Arts Extravaganza scheme
2018 Helen has completed a term-long residency with Rick at Black Lane primary school, near Wrexham. This is a literacy -based project in conjunction with Creative Partnerships Wales.She has also completed 'Cloth of Dreams, a community project based in Church street Westminster with storyteller Debbie Guneratne. This combined artwork on fabric expressing the feelings about past, present and future amongst a mixture of older residents and more recently arrived, mostly, refugees.
But the majority of Helen's time continues to be spent "simply storytelling"
for anyone and everyone, from presidential parties to pensioners to pre-schoolers,
children with learning difficulties to educationalists,
urban youth to families on forest walks.
As well as writing and publishing she has created and collated
all sorts of exhibitions, maps, recordings and artifacts relating to
oral lore, memory, and the changing world.
She is always happy to undertake interesting new writing commissions
( Toledo exhibition, Whitechapel Art Gallery (2000)
and Shropshire FATE millennium commission 'One Helluva Day' -2000)
"It was really cool; weird; bit scarey -worth sitting up all night
(Teenage boy in audience at FATE premier.)
"SWEET TALK TURNS THE ELEPHANT AWAY FROM THE GARDEN PATH"