As part of this year’s Sensoria festival, a festival dedicated to all that is music, film and art, musician and writer Michael Somerset Ward brings us a mix of all three with Now Will You Listen. In collaboration with music producers Dean and Jarrod from Sheffield band I Monster, an innovative audio-visual show has been created – a collection of short stories and surreal poetry to take us into the world of the gothic and absurd.

With some exciting guest speakers and many voices you will recognise, the performance and live musical score will take place in the atmospheric Lantern Theatre on 29th September.

What made you want to be involved with this year’s Sensoria Festival?

My involvement with Sensoria goes back a couple of years. I appeared last year with rock ‘n’ roll garage band The Death Rays of Ardilla. We performed a live soundtrack to the Japanese Gothic horror film Onibaba. It was a big hit. I think the festival has real integrity and I was eager to be involved again this year.

What can we expect from the event?

A compendium of conundrums. A box of dark delights. A séance on a wet afternoon.

What were your sources of inspiration?

Much of the influence behind the stories came from real events or things I’ve overheard. One of the pieces, for example, was based on my experiences in a dog rescue centre. Real events magnified can take on a strange visage, something I learned from a lifetime listening to one of the greatest ever poets, Don Van Vliet, Captain Beefheart.

Inspiration came from our own neighbourhoods, Hunters Bar and Nether Edge. ‘The Treehouse’, read by Sarah Alexander, is an example. I got the idea from gazing at the beautiful Edwardian gardens on my strolls through Nether Edge. ‘The Crimson Kite’ was inspired by the hills above Bingham Park.

What have I Monster brought to the project?

I think the individual influences of Dean and Jarrod are strongly felt throughout. Dean’s love of electronic music and vintage analogue synths is a big feature in the music – sometimes ambient, often coruscating. Jarrod is a huge fan of children’s TV from the 1970s, like Mr Benn, Pogles Wood and all things Hammer and Amicus. Those influences can be heard strongly, particularly on ‘The Monster Under The Bed’ and ‘The Boy Who Turned Yellow’.

Have you drawn from a particular genre for the soundtracks?

Each soundtrack is different and was tailored to the piece. For example, ‘Come Out and Play’, read by Tara Busch, has a heavy Velvet Underground feel, with overdriven psych organ. For ‘Furry People’ we created a loop of different dog sounds – panting, barking and field recordings inside a pet shop.

Tell us about your choice to use animation and poetry as forms of narration.

There are three poems in the set and although I didn’t set out to write verse they just began appearing. The poems are some of the most successful pieces and we are performing all three at Sensoria. The animation factor gave us the opportunity to provide a live soundtrack – something we all love doing. Also with all three disciplines involved – literature, film and music – a viewer or listener can have an all-out assault on the senses or can choose to zone in wherever.

The stories themselves – did you take any influence from classic horror?

In one or two of the stories there is a classical horror element, but in most the lingering impression is more subtle. I think I learned something of this from reading the stories of AS Byatt. I love her use of language and what is left out – the ambiguity. I don’t like things to be explained. When I begin to write I have no idea where I’m going. I let my own writing fire and lead my imagination and suddenly I will have a plot and an ending. That’s when I get excited.

In one of the pieces, I decided to write a continuation of an Edward Lear ‘Nonsense Poem’. In another I began to think about CS Lewis and the Christian themes in his writing, particularly the sacrifice of Aslan the lion. This notion of sacrifice really influenced the piece I wrote especially for Gavin Friday, ‘Rain Wolves’. It isn’t for or against religion. It’s about doubt, faith and the power of nature. As Walt Whitman wrote, “That may-be identity beyond the grave is a beautiful fable only.”

Guest narrators on the day will include Michael Fielding (The Mighty Boosh), Julie Stewart (Coronation Street) and Gavin Friday. What can we expect from them on the day?

Michael will be reading ‘The Monster Under The Bed’ in his own inimitable way. Julie will be reading ‘Furry People’, the tale of an unusual pet shop owner. She will also be reading a story of alienation, ‘Come Out and Play’. Gavin Friday will be reading ‘Rain Wolves ‘ and the gothic changeling poem ‘The Reverend’s Daughter’. I read one piece myself as the ghost of Edward Lear, with Dean and Jarrod playing the ‘Two Insect Chums’.

What do you think the use of the Lantern Theatre as a venue adds to the project?

As a theatre originally built for children in the early 20th century, it’s like the opening setting of a ghost story. It couldn’t be more perfect really. Think of all the performances of ‘Peter Pan’ done there all those years ago. I hope all the spirits of past performers will join us. I’ll be looking out for a boy and girl dressed in Edwardian clothes sat on the balcony.

Where is the project set to go after the festival?

There are lots of plans for release in various formats and we plan to present NWYL live again next year. Several projects are in development. I have started a series of short stories based around the notorious Sheffield Jungle pre First World War. The first story is about a young boy who is crippled in the steel works and gains employment in ‘The Jungle’. He befriends a performing bear and they escape to the caves of Derbyshire.

If you were to sum up Now Will You Listen in a few short words, what would they be?

Now Will You Listen! is Jackanory, transmitted from a dark twin sister of planet earth, coexisting in a parallel universe. It’s a bedtime tale told by a naughty aunt – the black sheep of the family.

sensoria.org.uk

Interview by Anna Pintus.