Magic Box: From actor to storytelling, via motherhood

Her hour-long storytelling sessions in east London’s Walthamstow have kids between the ages of 18 months and four years old utterly captivated. We ask Lottie Allen – actor, mother, storyteller and founder of Magic Box – how she brings her stories to life…

Lottie Allen, 43, lives in Walthamstow with her husband, George, and two daughters: Edith and Mabel.

Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
I grew up in a village called Green Street Green, near Orpington – so, strictly in Kent, but on the very edge of south-east London. My parents still live in the house we moved to when I was just four…

I lived with my big sister and brother, and remember a lot of time playing outside. Riding my bike, playing in the garden, big walks in the nearby woods. I was quite a tomboy when small, but still did ballet classes and learnt the violin (my mum still has a photograph of me from the front of the Sunday Times when, as the youngest person in the school orchestra and playing in a schools’ competition, I was snapped helping the double bass player carry his instrument).

I loved reading – and, most of the time, loved school and learning. I remember feeling safe, happy – and eating a lot of great home-cooked food. My mum and dad always took us to the West End in school holidays – and we always saw a big show in the February half-term. Maybe that’s where my love of theatre began…

Do you remember having a favourite book, as a child?
Now that’s hard! I was an early reader and, when quite small, I remember loving a pop-up book about life on the farm. Oh my god, I read that book over and over. Then, I started reading Enid Blyton, and loved the Magic Faraway series. Then, ‘Mallory Towers’ – I thought boarding school sounded so exciting.

I progressed on to Noel Streatfield and ‘Ballet Shoes’, and all the others. And then ‘Anne of Green Gables’ – loved all of those. And Agatha Christie. So, it’s very hard to choose as I devoured everything! I do have a soft spot for ‘Goodnight, Mister Tom’ – absolutely beautiful book.

You’re an actress as well as a storyteller – growing up, did you have dreams of either or both career?
I definitely had dreams of being an actress – from about the age of 12 or 13, that is all I wanted to do. I had no idea about being a storyteller!

What was your favourite subject at school?
English – totally. But, having said that, I loved history and almost chose to study that as my degree – and French. I love learning languages – wish I could say I could still speak French very well, but I’m quite rusty now.

Where did you train to become an actress?
I did a degree in English Literature and Drama at Hull University, which I loved. Then, I went straight into a 12-month post-graduate course at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts. And the most important part of my training? Learning on the job…

What work were you doing before having children?
I was doing bits of acting (filmed a very small role in ‘Eastenders’ when pregnant with Edith), but I was also doing some editing and proofreading work. The acting work was a bit quiet, and this allowed me to earn some ‘proper’ money before getting married/having a baby.

How did you come up with the idea for Magic Box?
It was after the birth of my second daughter. I had assumed I’d carry on doing some freelance editing around the girls, but the area of work I was in was drying up – or only after full-timers which I didn’t want to/couldn’t do.

I started looking into the idea of a kids’ class franchise – and obviously I was looking at ones involving drama. I even went so far as to have a meeting about signing up with a particular franchise. But buying into a franchise is expensive – and the pressure is on to succeed immediately! And, when talking to various friends, they all pointed out that with the combined backgrounds of myself and my hubby (George is a musician and a primary school teacher), I could set something up myself.

So I took the plunge – George and I talked about it, about what kids enjoy/need… and I started writing and developing three stories to launch the Box. I honestly can’t remember who came up with the idea of having a Box – me, George, or my good friend Jess!

Where do you find inspiration for your stories?
Always from kids. And my sister, Rebecca, who is an amazing writer for (slightly older) kids and who now helps me write and develop stories. But when I started, I wrote the stories alone, and tried to write around themes I know kids are into – like pirates and astronauts. Now, I like to write with Rebecca as it’s so much more fun, and we really bounce ideas off each other – and it’s a lot easier than scratching my head on my own at home. Each story is about a certain genre – eg. dinosaurs, circus, jungle – but maybe that will change in the future. And the bespoke stories we write for parties are totally inspired by what the kids want – we ask them to give us three things they want in the story…and we write a story around them.

How much is pre-planned and how much is improvised?
Most of the story is pre-planned and written. There are certain points in the story that I have to get to – but along the way, there are plenty of opportunities for the kids to throw in ideas and add extra bits. So, the story is led and the kids know there’ll be a beginning, middle and end – but the bits in-between can be created, changed, enhanced by the kids.

Children are captivated by your tales and performance – how do you ensure you keep their attention?
Oh wow – thank you! I’ve really learnt a LOT since I started about this. The most important thing, I think, is to be on their level – wherever that level is. Kids aren’t stupid – if they know you don’t believe what you’re doing, then they won’t. If you talk to them as if they’re babies, they’ll switch off. When I tell a story, I believe it. I can see what I’m talking to them about. I see every session as an actual performance, not just telling a story – and I try to give 100% every time.

I also think that music is important. Throw in some songs for a change of pace, and it’s great for everyone.

Why is storytelling important for kids (and adults)?

We’re all made up of stories. Stories are who we are. Stories can help us deal with difficult times and celebrate amazing times. They can help us channel what we’re feeling.

And for kids, the power of imagination is incredible – the ability to make up stories, to pretend – it’s just fabulous, and it can completely enrich their lives. It’s also free and accessible to everyone. To play a game, to pretend to be someone else, you don’t need fancy dressing-up clothes – you just need your imagination…and often a box. Cardboard boxes are the best! And stories can take kids to places they may never visit, open their eyes to the way other people live, other cultures – in a truly emotional way that makes understanding easier.

You started Magic Box to fit in with motherhood, do you have the work/life balance you were looking for?
Actually, I think I do – the work just needs to bring in a bit more money now. I take my kids to school every day, and am able to pick them up every day. Then I spend time with them, and do more work once they’re in bed. I can see, especially as Edith is getting older and bedtime is later (!), that I may have to sacrifice a school pick-up and work through till 6pm on one or two days, just so I can keep on top of all the exciting new projects that are coming my way. But I’m really happy that I’m around so much for them. I wouldn’t have it any other way right now.

Are you happy running storytelling classes for the foreseeable, or would you like to also return to the acting you were involved in pre-kids?
Ah, you’ve caught me at a tricky time! I would love to return to ‘grown-up’ acting – and, every now and then, I do do some – but I was chatting about this the other day. And, right now, I don’t miss the nightly routine of being on stage, or the really long days of filming – and I never ever thought I’d say that! I also like being in charge of what I do, after years of being at the whim of others.

I’m sure that, in the future, I’ll be yearning for more acting –  but right now, I’m very happy where I am. And, who knows, Magic Box might have something more theatrical up its sleeve for the future…!

Can you share some tips for parents to make bedtime stories/storytelling more exciting?
Don’t be afraid to look or sound silly! Do different voices. Make silly faces. Don’t see it as reading a book to your kid – see it as reading a book that you love… and you’ll end up making them love it too.

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