How do you know the difference between a story and a lie? According to British spoken word artist Polarbear (aka Steven Camden), a lie is selfish, but a story is a gift. If that is the case, Polarbear’s engaging autobiographical one man show for children 8 years and older, Mouth Open, Story Jump Out, is Christmas come early.
As you walk into the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Gallery, Polarbear is casually hanging out in his hoodie and mismatched sock-feet, brimming with excitement to see the audience. It’s as if he simply cannot wait to share his story with you. He’s sitting in a chair in front of a wall covered in a collage of sorts including kids’ drawings, a world map, names and pictures, the significance of which will be revealed throughout the show. The floor is cluttered with paper (both blank and covered in writing and drawings), markers and chalk to write with. It looks like a massive brainstorming session has exploded all over the stage.
Right from the start Polarbear puts you at ease, inviting everyone – adults and kids alike – to come closer and connect with him. He wants to know where you’re from and what you had for lunch. Every response is met with enthusiasm. Aw, pizza! I love pizza! I wish I had pizza right now! His effusiveness is so infectious, everyone was smiling and shouting out answers in no time. By the time the show started, he had a captive audience.
Fittingly for a storytelling show, the main plot revolves around the moment Polarbear realized he had a talent for crafting stories. 10-year-old Polarbear is not a nerd, but he’s not cool either. Then one day, his father left his family and never came back. When he’s called in front of the class soon after to give the book report he forgot to do, he finds himself telling an outrageous lie about his father’s whereabouts. As it turns out, he’s really good at making up stories. His classmates actually believe him! Not only that, but they start to think he’s actually pretty cool! So, he tells another lie. And another. And another. Soon, he has a web of lies so complicated an entire wall of his bedroom is devoted to keeping track of all the details. How long can he keep this up? What will the consequences be if people find out (as they inevitably will)?
Mouth Open, Story Jumps Out
closes May 28, 2017
Details and tickets
It’s a universal story told with warmth and humor. Polarbear skillfully paints a vivid picture of his elementary school and the students and teachers who populate it. More importantly, he gives us insightful glimpses into the mind and heart of his 10-year-old self. There are parts that could be a little difficult for kids to follow: he speaks quickly and uses British colloquialisms like school “terms” or “football pitch”. In other parts, he introduces characters, like his mom and sister, who never really show up in the main narrative, leaving me wondering why he spent so much time describing them. Nevertheless, Polarbear keeps his audience enthralled for the duration of the performance. No small feat, considering there were at least three generations in the audience: kids, parents and grandparents.
One way he does this is by interspersing interactive elements throughout the show. In these moments, he takes audience through simple storytelling exercises – from coming up with an idea to developing character. He even gives out a booklet of more writing exercises at the end of the show. The message is clear: writing stories is fun, and you can do it, too! In other hands, transitioning between the exercises and the main narrative might seem jarring. Here, they meld together well. It makes sense to talk about how to craft stories within a show about doing the same.
If a story is a gift, teaching others to tell stories is a gift that keeps on giving. Here’s hoping Polarbear inspires some budding artists. But even if he doesn’t, I’m glad he invited me to come closer and connect.
Mouth Open, Story Jump Out . conceived, created and performed by Polarbear. Produced by Battersea Arts Centre. Co-commissioned by Southbank Centre. Dramaturgy by Yael Shavit. Design by Marie Blunck. Presented by The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Reviewed by Amy Couchoud.