Q&A with Sam Ruddock, Story Machine Productions

By   Hannah Bickerton 6 min read

Sam Ruddock is a reader. He has been a bookseller for Waterstones and Programme Manager at the National Centre for Writing in Norwich. The first Story Machine events were created for Norfolk & Norwich Festival in 2016 and 2017 and Story Machine Productions was founded in early 2018. We asked him about the inspiration behind the company and how it strives to create an experience as immersive as reading the book itself.

1. Tell us the premise behind Story Machines Productions and what inspired you to start this venture.

Story Machine Productions is based on a simple notion: that text is king in literature, and that nothing should get in the way of stories and words being shared directly with audiences. We’ve been going to festivals and events for decades, listening to authors discuss their work, their process, the journey of their book. We’ve sometimes found it frustrating to see readings crammed into three or four minutes, almost apologetically. But it wasn’t until we saw National Theatre Wales’ production of The Iliad, which is essentially a six-hour live reading of Christopher Logue’s translation of it as War Music, that we realised we didn’t need to feel embarrassed about presenting text in events. Audiences want to experience text. We create an environment conducive to listening and engaging with that text; a feeling of authority and confidence that allows the audience to relax into the story, a set of curated distractions that somehow enable the mind to focus on the words.

So this is what we do: celebrate great writing through performances of new and great writing. We work with a wide range of artists, from film makers to dancers, actors to visual artists, technologists, musicians, and more, to bring books off the page and alive in the room with us. Sometimes, we like to imagine we are Dr Frankenstein animating a wondrous thing that was previously inanimate. We hope our shows are as charming, questioning and revolutionary as the Creature he creates.

2. Are your performances designed for an audience who have read the book or for prospective readers?

Story Machine Productions are designed to provide an introduction to a book, a way in, a tantalising flavour of what to expect that encourages further reading. We want to help readers discover books they may not have discovered, read authors who might otherwise not have crossed their mind. We do for the event what a curated selection in a bookshop does: draw attention to specific books that deserve wider readership. Of course, just like any author event, if you have already read the book you may get more from the event.

3. Your aim is to make the experience as immersive as reading the book itself – how do you start to go about planning such an event? How much do you collaborate with the author?

There is nothing more immersive or joyous than reading a book quietly, to oneself. That quiet space for reflection and immersion is one of the most fundamental joys of reading. It lies at the heart of the neurological benefits of reading, too. I love a quote by Edward P Morgan: ‘A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face. It is one of the few havens remaining where a man’s mind can get both provocation and privacy.’

Story Machine Productions wants more people to read more. That is our aim. We do not seek to replace or supplant. However, we do believe that there is a need to find new ways to discover books, and to recreate the shared imaginative space that comes from reading aloud.

We start this journey by diving into a text. We ask ourselves what is at the heart of the book, the key emotion or story the author wishes to express. We then try to draw this out and to imagine what type of art form would best help us communicate this. So for instance we made a show around the brilliant short story ‘The Quiet’ by Carys Davies. That is a story all about bodies, and how they can draw us together and push us apart. It was about what they hide and what they tell about us. So we had to use a physical art form to tell this story, in that case dance.

Each book is different. Each show is different. We sometimes work with an author closely, consulting on all aspects and sharing this creative process. Other times the author is barely involved at all. Our motto is that we work with an author and their publishers, agents and friends as much as they want us to. We want writers to be able to focus their time and energy on what they do best – putting words on a page, telling stories and communicating experiences.

4. How do you make sure that your performances reach a wide, varied audience?

Our shows are sensory and immersive. We seek to engage the sense of smell, taste and touch as well as sight and sound. We try to bring books alive for audiences, to help them step inside a story and feel what it is like to see the author’s mind at work or be one of the characters. Because of this, our experience has been that our shows tend to attract a slightly younger, more experimental audience.

We are a new company, so at the moment we’re just trying to get out there and reach as many audiences as possible. We pitch shows to all the literature and book festivals in the UK, and will soon pitch to cross-art festivals, venues and more. By presenting our shows at a variety of locations we believe we can develop a loyal audience base who seek out our shows, tell their friends about them and create a buzz. We want our audiences to be integral to the company. My experience has always been that involving readers as widely as possible makes a project more radical, impactful and fun. In the long run I want to find ways for readers and audiences to be engaged in the development of shows and to help select the books we produce shows around.

5. How do you think this will affect the future of publicity in the publishing world?

The publishing industry in the UK is healthy and successful. It does brilliant things, and is full of great people. What Story Machine Productions hopes to do is broaden its publicity tools further, and create opportunities for books to reach audiences in ways that would not otherwise have been possible.

In the long run, if we can encourage publishers to take more risks on authors who can’t easily tour their book, then that is great. If we can help widen diversity in an industry that desperately needs to find ways to be more inclusive, then publishing will be in a better place. If we can enable brilliant new authors to reach the readership they deserve, so that work is sold on its quality rather than the celebrity of its author, I will sleep happy.

But fundamentally we just want to have fun with books. To celebrate the joy of reading, words, knowledge and stories. And to collaborate with exciting writers and artists across all mediums.

You can find out more about Story Machine Productions via twitter or their website.

Watch the trailer film for Life & Times of Michael K.

Alternatively, you can find Sam Ruddock through his personal twitter.

Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.