Literature events company to create 'immersive' festival performances

Literature events company to create 'immersive' festival performances

A new literature events company called Story Machine Productions plans to "revolutionise the experience of books" by creating "immersive performances" at festivals inspired by book content alone.

The outfit - spearheaded by Norwich publisher Sam Ruddock (pictured), a former Waterstones bookseller - aims "to do for literature and human knowledge what Secret Cinema has done for film: create exciting celebrations of the written word". This it will do by remaining "100% faithful" to chosen texts while working with filmmakers, dancers, actors, musicians and visual artists to widen their appeal, presenting what it hopes will be a creative new platform for publishers and authors to promote their books and "stand out in a crowded marketplace".

Since soft launching in January, Story Machine Productions has managed to secure project funding from Arts Council England and is receiving up to £5,800 funding from the England European Regional Development Fund via the StartEast Small Grant Scheme. It is also backed by organisations including the Booker Prize Foundation, the National Centre for Writing, Norfolk & Norwich Festival and Granta Books, all of whom have commissioned the company to create live events during its first six months.

Ruddock, a director at Norwich indie Gatehouse Press, was spurred on to create the production company after working on a live epic with National Theatre Wales. The experience of working on what was "essentially a six-hour live reading" in a theatrical capacity - whereas, he argued, most literature festivals that would find it hard to countenance more than a 10-minute reading - led him to wonder "how we could make the text - the actual literature - the heart of public consumption of the art form and put it front and centre".

The idea, he explained, is that the company's commissioned performances will add to literary book tourism by mixing up literary programmes dominated by 'in conversations' with authors, and create opportunities for publishers whose writers have difficulty attending promotional events in person, for example if they are internationally based or have caring responsibilities.

Ruddock called it a "labour of love" for what he hoped would prove "an effective and useful tool", complementing promotional author appearances as opposed to replacing them.

"I don't want this model to be anything other than complementary. I know there are authors who love touring their books and are fantastic at it," he said. "But there are a number of writers who really struggle and who can't get their books in front of audiences. There are challenges around diversity as well as around health, geography, caring responsibilities that can pose a big barrier. We want to be a broadening of the literary format; performance and 'in conversations' can work collaboratively ... We want to broaden opportunities for those for whom presenting their own work is either impossible, difficult or unpleasant."

He added: "Philosophically we don't want publishers' decisions about books being influenced by what authors can do. We want it fundamentally to be about the best books being published, and then the job of promoting them can be done in all sorts of different ways but it's about getting great, great writing published."

Dancer Sam Thompson carries a bison skull leading the audience through Norwich Castle Gardens as part of Kumkum Malhotra (credit: Thom Law Photograhy, property of National Centre for Writing)

The first show Story Machine Productions will put on since its public launch celebrates the Man Booker Prize's 50th Birthday with a performance in honour of JM Coetzee's Life & Times of Michael K at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 15th August. Commenting on the launch, Dotti Irving, chief executive for Four Colman Getty, which agency has been put on the Man Booker 50th campaign, said teaming up with Story Machine Productions would help it to widen its reach. "Coetzee is one of only three writers to have won the prize on two occasions - this production creates a way of sharing one of the great books in the prize’s history, and reach new and old audiences alike," she said.

For Granta, Story Machine Productions meanwhile premiered "Whiskey & Ink" in May, "a response" to Leslie Jamison’s 2018 book, The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath, sharing a personal story of alcoholism. Lamorna Elmer, senior campaign manager at Granta and Portobello Books, said Story Machine Productions was a trail-blazer, "doing something that almost no one else is – creating events without the presence of an author with the book itself firmly at the heart".

It is also putting on an audio and visual installation for a novella authored by Desmond Elliott Prize-winner Preti Taneja published by Gatehouse Press, Kumkum Malhotra, and performances for a sales conference intended to show what the company can do.

Story Machine Productions' services currently command a price upwards of £4,500 - but, with an ambition to produce seven different events next year (ideally for seven different publishers), depending on publishers' circumstances this could be subsidised by as much as 50% to help spread the word. The company advises that the shows - ranging from theatrical experiences to audio and visual installations - are performed at least five times over a 12 month period to maximise the commercial benefits while publishers are also able to retain photos and recordings for promotional use.

The company has worked on collections of short stories as well as abridgements and extracts of novels. It even has produced events for non-fiction. Looking to the future, according to Ruddock, it will be having conversations with exam bodies about how it might make set text more accessible to students through performance and has set its sights beyond literature to how it might even democratise access to scientific research. 

Ruddock said: "At a time when books profitable but author earnings continue to shrink, we can also help release writers from the chains of publicising their books, leaving more time for writing and other activities that earn money ... But by collaborating with Story Machine Productions, great books can reach the readers who will love them, regardless of the ability of their author to tour. We want to work with authors, publishers, prizes, festivals, exam bodies and even researchers to do for literature and human knowledge what Secret Cinema has done for film: create exciting celebrations of the written word."