Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ The Magic of Objects 3

The Sea-Tray

A large round tray-like object, it’s normally used, so I’ve been told, in the process of sifting rice and dhal. When I use it, however, it comes with a bag of pebbles which, when emptied onto the tray and rolled round, create the sound of the sea. Simple, hey?

My sea-tray as I call it is one of my most magic objects. When those tiny pebbles start swishing round on its surface, it immediately transports me to the rocky coast of North Pembrokeshire where I grew up. At once I hear the tide on Abermawr beach as the pebbles are flung forward by the press of the waves, then sucked back relentlessly as the waves recede. And the great thing is that whoever else is listening seems immediately to know the same sort of thing. They realise this as the sound of the sea – even if, like the Birmingham children I once worked with on a project with artist Catrin Webster – they’ve never even seen the sea.

It was musician-extraordinaire, Kathie Prince, who, years ago, first introduced me to the idea of the sea-tray. We were doing a series of storytelling sessions together at the Commonwealth Institute in London. She used a bodhran, a type of Irish drum, to make the sound of the sea. Onto its surface, she’d tip a handful of beans (not baked beans!) and then roll them around. She showed me how you can vary the sound by using grains of rice which evoke the sound of gentle rain. What a marvellous idea! I gratefully incorporated it into my repertoire of useful techniques for creating a sense of participation and enlivening stories with sound. Sometimes I feel almost jealous of its effectiveness when adults come up to me after a storytelling and it’s the one thing they comment upon.

My first sea-tray was a smaller reed-edged tea-tray that used to belong to my Aunty Mali. Eventually it fell apart when I was on the verge of a trip to New Zealand to take part in a newly established Arts Festival in the Bay of Islands. I decided not to try and replace it until I got there. After arriving, I discovered an abundance of wood-turners’ shops selling bowls and plates and trays carved from the amber-coloured wood of the kauri tree. I went round searching for a large enough plate to serve my purpose and occasionally, after asking the wood-turner’s permission, I’d try one out with my bag of pebbles. Nothing worked until, by weird chance, I went into a vast and disorderly old junk shop. There, standing propped up on its side on a shelf, looking for all the world as if it had been deliberately placed to attract my attention, was the object that has become my much-loved sea-tray.

Taking my sea-tray about, I’ve often been stopped by people from other countries – Ghana and Nigeria, India and Pakistan, Bangladesh and China – who recognise its type from back home. For it turns out that my sea-tray is a kind of item usually used in the process of sifting rice or dhal in order to prepare it for cooking. Sometimes people have carefully examined my tray’s edging to try and identify exactly which region it’s from.

A second more standardised tray I possess (not quite so effective for a rocky-coast sea, better for rain or a palm-fringed island) was bought in a Chinese supermarket in Croydon.

Putting the Sea-Tray to work

When I use my sea-tray with adults or children (though usually not with very young ones because of their natural inclination to reach out and grab), I usually start with a bit of introductory patter –  how it can take you round the world, or backwards or forwards in time, and you don’t even have to buy a ticket. The ticket lies in your imagination.

After demonstrating how the sea-tray works, I ask the children what it reminds them of. The sea? A rocky sea? A desert-island beach? The sea-tray always seems to induce a listening and responsive atmosphere and the answers I get are many and various and often very poetic. Rain on a roof … hail beating down on a glass-house … a dumper-truck offloading a load of gravel…whatever the responses, the sea-tray creates create a kind of storytelling in itself. It’s also an ideal preparation for telling what I call a story-story of the sort this blog will soon come onto, perhaps one from another country or time, and not necessarily to do with the sea.

And when it’s a workshop session where groups of children make up their own stories after my initial input, it’s wonderful to see their concentration when they get to use the sea-tray themselves in that part of the session where they tell the stories they’ve worked on to the rest of their class. It’s usually best to have two or three children holding the tray between them – we don’t want the sea to spill over! – and to share the turning with them until they get the wrist-trick right.

Afterwards, of course, they’ll be desperate to make their own sea-trays and frequently when they send me letters, I see how much the device has affected them by the careful drawings they’ve made.

Resourcing Your Own Sea-Tray

If you’re lucky, you might find one like mine – and remember the Chinese supermarket as a possible source. Meantime, you could try out a large flat drum such as a bodhran. (It will give you a much more intriguing sound than those pre-made ocean drums.) Or try a round tea-tray like my Aunty Mali’s – small trays are easier to carry about and it’s amazing what effective sounds they can give.

To create the sort of sound you want to make, obtain a small pile of pebbles, beans or rice and remember that you’ll need to keep these in some kind of bag or box. (Getting a specially chosen container out of your Story Bag is all part of the suspense and the sound of the contents landing on your tray is sure to grab attention.)

Finally, you need a few moments to practice. The sound of waves is not even – there’s always the moment of pause just before the next wave breaks. You’ll need to rehearse the requisite wrist-trick in order to be truly convincing.

And do let me know how you get on. Don’t hesitate. Just press the button and leave a comment. Oh, and if you’re a travelling storyteller and manage to find a sea-tray like the one in my photos, listen out for people’s remarks as you take it about. As well as all those people who’ve stopped me in schools, on the tube or in performing venues to tell me how they’ve got such things back home – and sometimes they’ve had tears in their eyes, they’ve been so obviously moved at the memory – there’s occasionally someone with a different response including, one time, a man on a train who declared, ‘That’s a big frisbee you’ve got there!’

Next week: two questions as clues:

What uncommonly available musical instrument would make a child say, ‘That’s a bird, that is’?

What commonly available musical instrument would inspire a child to suggest that it’s a person with milk bottles dangling from their ears?

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3 Responses to “Storytelling Starters ~ The Magic of Objects 3”

  1. Jean Edmiston Says:

    Dear Mary
    Fabulous blogs – so many memories of those inspirational workshops in Drill Hall and Holburn.
    My constant companions – a story bag, story cloths and sea sounds,
    And how many stories have started with these over the years – thank you Mary for all the inspiration
    and encouragement over the years. Looking forward to the next blog.
    with all best wishes

  2. Hilary Minns Says:

    I love the inspiration of the sea tray. I remember as a child being told by my mum that I would be able to hear the sea when I held a large shell close to my ear, and your sea tray holds the same kind of magic for children. A wonderful inspiration and one I shall certainly experiment with. Here’s to the next blog!

  3. Kathie Prince Says:

    My Dear Mary, how lovely to see you – and read about you!! Lots of memories have come flooding back – I shall be using my ocean drum next month in a yoga and singing workshop!
    May, Bella and I are still in Dorchester – come and see us!!! How are you both??

    Kathie xxxxxxx

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