8a The Snow Witch Project: Now what do we do?

Meeting the team

We got a good response to our call for writers, who turned up for a preliminary meeting hosted by myself and Roy, to answer the question “now what do we do?” and explain some of the vision we had for The Snow Witch Project, that would unfold over the coming months.

The writers who arrived were a disparate bunch of fascinating souls. The training would set us on a course that would naturally select the core team, as some dropped out due to other commitments. Among those who turned up for the first meeting were old hands at performance and writing such as Christine Lawrence and Eileen Phyall. Both were writers I knew well, Christine having a dark imagination that loved the macabre, while Eileen had performed at various open mic events delivering beautiful and occasionally saucy poems. There were interested younger writers looking to just get involved in something fresh, and try out their skills in a new medium, such as Claire Nowell. Among others, we had a partially sighted woman Elena Sommers and Kim Balouch, a writer who had never done any writing at all before but really wanted to try and felt they had it in them.

Confusion

That first morning of explanation and discussion was again a moment of learning for me, as I tried to make sense of what we were attempting to do. They say confusion is the doorway to understanding. Well, I was right in that doorway, that’s for sure! And here I was, happily leading a team of writers along with me to… well, who knew?!?

For me, personally, the creative process Roy Hanney and I had agreed on was the absolute reverse of how I normally write.

For me, stories are idea-driven. What I mean by this is the structure only forms itself later around the ideas as it present iself and coalesces around main artistic points and scenes that are full of concepts and strong feelings.

By contrast, this story required so much co-ordination and pre-planning that we would need to work out where plot-points would happen in our calendar of events, and then infill what those plot points would contain far later in development, once character and story were certain. So, this would be a structure-driven rather than a content-driven process. I’d never done anything like it.

The story structure

A week before this meeting with the writers, Roy and I sat down and agreed a general shape to the story. The overview we had was so loose as to be almost unintelligible.

Roy’s initial idea was that the story would be about the Hunt for Donitza who is the central character of The Snow Witch. Immediately for me this was something which didn’t really resonate. The elusive and ethereal Snow Witch, I felt, would not appreciate being hunted. She herself would need a purpose, rather than simply being the hunted person. But I watched and learned, because we needed a starting point, and I was sure the story would make itself known over time.

Apart from that, we had a loose stucture, as follows:

There is a crisis at the beginning.

Then there are clues to cause of the crisis.

This is followed by a series of revelations, leading to several live events that would require participation to uncover more clues and solve puzzles.

This would somehow culminate in a gig…

and…

that was it!

It was the roughest of outlines, which would require us to fill in the gaps with characters, events, clues, art, games, further clues, meetings, collaborations, spellcasting and a final theatrical extravaganza.

Gulp

I had no idea what I was doing, and neither did Roy. But Roy was cool about it: “This is how we will learn,” he told the group. “And if it all goes horribly wrong, well that is part of the learning.”

Of course, as someone whose beloved story was going to be the starting point of this whole project, you can bet you I wasn’t going to let it fail!

And so the training began, with Alison Norrington taking the first class, and finally telling us what the bloody hell transmedia storytelling was!

7 The Snow Witch Project: Our first tv appearance

Getting the message across

After getting a hostile reception from writers who we thought would be fascinated to join the Snow Witch project, Roy and I went down a different route. Use the media!

Richard Stringer, a reporter for That’s Solent TV agreed that our story was interesting enough to put out on his show, and one summer day in 2018 he met Roy and me at Southampton Solent University.

This lovely interview shows where we were in our prepping for The Snow Witch project.

It was great – and it succeeded. At our first script meeting, we had over 20 writers turn up, eager to find out how they could take part in this fascinating project!

6 The Snow Witch Project: how to recruit bad-tempered writers?

Curmudgeonly writers

It is a truth universally acknowledged that writers can be cantakerous gits.

Used to working alone and with set ideas about what they expect from their work, some types of writer can view with suspicion or hostility those coming to them with ideas that don’t fit their current take on the world. I admit it, that’s certainly true of me! So, it is not entirely surprising that our early attempts to draw writers in to this genuinely exciting but unique offer of free training was greeted with scepticism in some quarters.

Just so when Roy left a message on Portsmouth Writers’ Hub’s facebook group explained he was looking for writers to come in on a fascinating project. The mistake he made was using a phrase along the lines of “unfortunately we can’t pay you”. This was red rag to a bull.

One or two writers on the hub page kneejerk responded to this invitation to collaborate, projecting their own experience of being approached to do free work and responding with snide comments that we were offering them “free exposure” for their work. This really wasn’t the deal. World-leading industry experts were being invited to Portsmouth to give valuable training that participants would receive for free, and participants would then be invited to practice that training by taking part in a real-world event. The potential for acquiring new skills at no charge completely bypassed most writers after something of an onslaught from one or two voices.

Ouch! We got that wrong!

It was an early setback and quite disheartening.

I reviewed Roy’s approach and could see that it hadn’t been sold properly, with the emphasis on the opportunities and free training missing from the announcement. Even so, the outcry from some quarters was disproportionate in the face of what was actually a real opportunity. The negativity and suspicion suppressed the energy of excitement and forward momentum needed to draw people in. Just a few suspicious words were now playing out in those who viewed the post’s message – and the writers who had complained and started an argument were simply not amenable to discussion, seeking to defend their position when presented with the possibilities the project offered. The approach fell completely flat.

After all our work on preparing this offer, I will admit I took it personally that a few people in the Writers’ Hub should be so negative about something that was genuinely exciting. I felt sabotaged.

However, that said, perhaps it was for the best. It sort of sifted out the people with a negative attitude straight away. So they wouldn’t be on the team with their mindsets later on.

On the other side of things, one or two writers did start to say they would come on board. The fact that we lost so few of the initial team over the coming months was a testament that the at times unreasonable exchange on the Hub had weeded out the self-obsessed, half-hearted and uncommitted. It would be a real commitment that we required from the writers, as I was to discover later on.

As for now, with a few weeks to go before the training was due to commence, where would we get the writing team I envisaged?

Thankfully I had an idea, as the next blog shows!

5 The Snow Witch Project – so many strands!

Big ideas…

To help us get a handle on the project to come, Roy called a core team together. That was me, Portsmouth arts impresario Johnny Sackett, artist and researcher Ausra Vaisvilaite and a handful of others to attend a presentation at his house. He present us with a Gantt chart – a collection of timelines with six parallel strands running side-by-side.

His conception was massive.

Multiple timelines

One strand started with my character Lissitch, who was now transformed into a street artist. He would be posting street art around Portsmouth which would give clues about the story to come. This strand would continue throughout the three weeks the story unfolded, interacting with the publich and with characters in the story.

Art

Another strand incorporated the Snow Witch Art Exhibition being run by Lucille Scott. Some of Lissitch’s art would appear at the exhibition as a clue for people following the story.

Writing

There would be numerous characters, all completely fictional, but living realistic lives on facebook. We would therefore need to create fictional characters “under the radar” in facebook and make sure they weren’t noticed by Admins.

These characters would be created by and owned by individual writers. This would mean another strand would involve training the writers and also getting them to generate the story.

Public interactions

There would be various physical events as the story unfolded where people could meet in real space. We wanted at least one a week: the art exhibition was one, then there would be a meeting at a pub where clues dropped in the game could be unfolded, and in the final week a gig at which the story would be resolved.

Treasure

We also wanted a treasure hunt. The general public who were invested in the game would be required to perform various tasks to help the game along. We’d look at different way to communicate with them – leaving clues around Portstmouth shops, to encourage more people to use local traders and also get the word out about the story to a wider public.

Music

There would be a gig as the culmination of the entire story journey, and this would require the gathering together of a Balkan band and a highly talented virtuoso violinist with black hair, in her late twenties or early thirties to play the role of The Snow Witch herself, Donitza Kravitch. All the rehearsals for acting out this performance would also be needed.

Training of the team

We would therefore have to assemble a scriptwriting team in order to develop the story around which the series of events would revolve. We would need to get them to understand the concept of transmedia storytelling, and find a way to work together to enable the story to unfold. So that required training from industry experts.

Because the story would need to be gamified – that is, people following the story would uncover clues as to what to do next and solve puzzles. Again, we would need to find an expert in gamification.

The big picture

The general broad conception was that there would be other live events, the unfolding of a puzzle and requirement for the players / followers to perform a magic spell to help The Snow Witch fulfil her objective.

And that was all we had. A structure of events, and no story at all to hang on it, except for a vague idea by Roy that it would be called The Hunt for Donitza.

And so the journey into The Snow Witch transmedia storytelling event began…

4 Snow Witch Project: how to get Arts Council funding

The Aaargh of Form-Filling!

The size of Roy’s conception for The Snow Witch meant we couldn’t do it if we didn’t have Arts Council England funding. The application forms to obtain funding are notoriously tortuous. They are couched in project management jargon which appears to be deliberately exclusive – and to someone not steeped in the jargon, the specialist words used appear to have nothing to do with what is actually being asked.

BASICALLY: AAAARGHH!

I know this from personal experience, having stalled on putting in an application for funding for a festival relating to Arthur Conan Doyle and his life in Portsmouth because the forms were incomprehensible. Roy’s insights into what Arts Council England were looking for, and what their jargon-rich language actually meant were thus invaluable.

What do the Arts Council want?

In fact, putting the jargon to one side, the intentions of The Arts Council chime completely with our own. They are about increasing literacy and artistic experience for everyone. It’s all about the dissemination of culture and the creation of new approaches to life and culturally enriching people at a grass roots level.

So, part of the emphasis of our application must be on enriching the lives of ALL participants, both creators and consumers of art. This meant introducing writers and artists to new experiences and teaching them new skills.

What we could offer – something really fresh!

The public must benefit with experiences they never had before. Art in places they had never experienced it. Workshops in producing art – giving kids the chance to create and find their own voice. All this had to be part of the mix.

This also meant that all the writers who took part must benefit in some way. They weren’t going to be paid because we didn’t have a budget for it, but the teaching we were going to arrange for them would be part of their acquiring of new skills. We would test their abilities and stretch them in new directions. In this way, we weren’t inviting writers to contribute for free, or good will, or “for the publicity” as that hackneyed line goes when people are trying to rope in creatives without the intention of paying them. We would offer them valuable training from leading professionals in their fields who would enrich and enhance their creative experience. What we essentially were offering was unique free training with world-class professionals they couldn’t get elsewhere.

Putting our bid together

The first thing to do was find match funding. The Arts Council will match payment in kind, and so I offered my writing experience as one of the project managers for free, as did Roy. It was a commitment that I didn’t realise was going to take up such a large bite on my time when I blithely agreed to it. But it was very necessary. Various other potential partners were approached and asked if they would like to come in to help us. Among others, the University of Portsmouth was helpful in providing training spaces where the project could take place.

Eventually, we had an offer which would involve 9 months of development, through training to creating a new storyline to learning how to write collaboratively on the writing side. Elsewhere, the development of street art, the use of professional artists to give the whole experience a rich multi-layered content was part of the deal. The rehearsals with musicians would also be part of the mix, the use of actors and multimedia. This would be a complete training experience for writers and would leave them with an experience of creating in a brand new way.

Early on I was impressed by this extraordinary size of the conception, even it, at this stage, I couldn’t quite see what that actually would mean in the reality beyond the words on the page.

However, we were about to find out, because at the start of 2019 we had the bid accepted. Arts Council England agreed to fund us to the tune of £15,000. So, now we had better make it happen.

Find out how we made The Snow Witch project come to life >>