Judy Mackie is whisked away to Aberdeen Art Gallery for a fairy-tale experience
Once upon a time, there was a beautiful art gallery, full of wonderful paintings and strange sculptures. And tucked away inside that art gallery was a large empty room, which in grander times used to be a restaurant. The only interesting object in the room was a magnificent stone pulpit, which would often be admired by visitors who happened to peep inside on their way to the coffee shop next door.
Then one snowy weekend in February, a marvellous thing happened to the room. A band of talented young artists appeared and set about working some magic. A colourful collage footpath began to take shape, winding its way through a cluster of raffia trees and past a hump-back bridge of card to a gingerbread house built from coloured muslin and bursting at the seams with giant eastern-style cushions.
The rather stern pulpit was transformed into a tower for a papier-mache Rapunzel, whose golden paper locks flowed to the floor in a sinewy search for her prince. Suddenly, the air exploded with the rapturous song of springtime blackbirds, the burble of a brook and the lazy drone of bumble bees. The empty room had become an enchanted forest - and anything was possible.
"Enchanted", Aberdeen's first storytelling festival, has breathed new life into an ancient art, sparking eager young imaginations and rekindling a glow of nostalgia among teachers, parents, librarians and booksellers throughout the city. Launched in celebration of the National Year of Reading by Aberdeen City Council's departments of education and arts and recreation, with support from the Scottish Arts Council, the month-long festival has provoked an astonishing response among pupils and professionals alike.
Daily storytelling sessions - free to all nursery and primary school participants - have been sold out, while staff development storytelling workshops for teachers, librarians, pre-school providers and community workers (also free of charge) have been extended to include an extra "twilight" session to satisfy demand.
Like all the best children's stories, the festival is free of fuss. The simplistic setting of the enchanted forest at Aberdeen Art Gallery, the voice of the storyteller (a visiting professional, or a volunteer from a local bookstore), and the minimalist magic of puppets and interactive drama, are all that are required to fire the participants' imagination.
"We believe this is a great way to captivate children's interest and encourage a real enthusiasm for reading," says Aberdeen's arts education co-ordinator, Jacqueline McKay, responsible for the whole idea.
Ms McKay belongs to a local authority group set up to promote the National Year of Reading within the city. Among some of the school-based initiatives are a parcel exchange, which involves children swapping mystery book parcels; dressing-up days, on which young people come to school dressed as their favourite book character; and the city council's promise to give every Primary 1 child a free book at the start of next session.
"Aberdeen schools have a fairly good record in terms of developing literacy skills, but there is always room for improvement," says education officer Anne Park. "And if we can make the process as interesting and enjoyable as possible for everyone concerned, so much the better."
Assistant director of education Charles Muir, a self-confessed storytelling fan, agrees: "Thisfestival is demonstrating that basic storytelling is still very important to both young people and adults. It is an enriching experience which has a place in the classroom, at home and throughout the wider community, and we have a responsibility to ensure that it is never allowed to die out."
'Enchanted: Storytelling Festival', until March 12, contact Jacqueline McKay, tel: 01224 346029, fax: 01224 346243