Images by Tim and Cheryl Byford
Shortly before 10pm on Sunday 24th April, a rapt audience at Stroud Valleys Artspace collectively gasped; hands flew to faces, strangers turned to one another in surprise. Then, just as quickly, shock became laughter, frowns became smiles and the awkwardness that had filled the room suddenly evaporated. This extreme reaction was prompted by Ken Popple’s short story, A Very Special Day, a tale that was as clever and vivid as it was disturbing.
If you have never been to a story-reading event before (as I hadn't until this particular evening), then you’ll be unaware of the journey you’re embarking on when you sit down; unaware, perhaps, that you’re about to enter a handful of different worlds with a group of people you have never met before; unaware that when it’s over, you’ll be united in a shared experience, one that will never be repeated in exactly the same way again.
The Stroud Short Stories event, organised by local author John Holland and held biannually at SVA, gives writers with a link to Gloucestershire and South Gloucestershire the opportunity to read their stories aloud to an audience. On Sunday, ten selected writers – Rommy Collingwood, Tim Byford, Jan Petrie, Jane Gordon-Cumming, Rick Vick, Ali Bacon, Sarah Hitchcock, Mel Golding, Ken Popple and Mark Rutterford – bravely took to the stage with narratives that were not only entertaining, but highly original. From Tim Byford’s surreal tale of ‘workers’ inside a child’s intestines to Mel Golding’s heart-breaking account of a young boy with autism, each author brought to their reading something that was quite unique – their own performance.
Jan Petrie’s Half a Chance and Ali Bacon’s Silver Harvest became all the more touching for the women’s measured recitals; Jane Gordon-Cumming’s Settling In and Sarah Hitchcock’s New Glasses prompted additional smiles thanks to the pair’s perfect embodiment of their characters; and Dia De Los Muertos by Rommy Collingwood, Mayfly by Mark Rutterford and The Execution by Rick Vick, though entertaining stories in their own right, became even more engaging, even more gripping, (and in Rick’s case, even more gruesome) for the authors’ confident, assured deliveries.
Though reading is often a solitary activity, listening doesn’t isolate us in quite the same way; in fact, sitting together and absorbing the tales that are performed in front of us doesn’t just connect an audience to each other, but, in listening to an author’s own interpretation of their work, we are given the opportunity to discover nuances and subtleties that we might otherwise have missed. For an author, reading their stories aloud must (I say ‘must’ because I’ve never actually done this myself!) instil a new sense of confidence, a sureness in their ability not only to write an entertaining tale, but to tell that tale in an entertaining way, fuelling their courage and inspiring even more original, engaging writing.
In Stroud Short Stories, Gloucestershire and South Gloucestershire writers have been given a platform for their endeavours that doesn’t just promote the importance of oral storytelling for author and audience, but one that promises to push our community’s growing creative talents to new and exciting levels for years to come.
To celebrate Stroud Short Stories fifth birthday a special event will be held at this year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival! The next SSS event at the SVA will be held on Sunday 20th November. Submissions will open at the beginning of September.
Leah Grant is a writer and photographer with a keen interest in art and literature. On her blog, Bellyful of Art, you can find reviews of exhibitions, installations, dance performances and literary events as well as her own lovingly created pieces of short fiction artbellyful.wordpress.com