Oliver Sykes sitting with a cup of coffee, holding a book

Meet Our New Lead Artist: Oliver Sykes

What do you do as an artist?

I write and perform adventure stories for children, which are often inspired by my own personal experiences growing up on a council estate in a single-parent, low-income family on benefits. 

I strive to be honest, real and brave in the stories I choose to tell, which often combine typical problems that all children face, alongside more serious issues surrounding loss, love and the sharper edges of family life. 

What motivates and inspires you? 

I’m motivated and inspired by all sorts of things, but first and foremost, I’d have to say, my dad. When I was twelve years old, my mum left, and my dad raised my five siblings and me single-handedly.

I’ve always been driven by a desire to make him proud, and when things get tough and I feel like giving up, I always stop and think, ‘What would my dad do…?’ And it doesn’t take long for me to realise that giving up is not an option. 

I’m also very motivated and inspired by my family and friends, and from reading and practicing creative writing daily. 

What are you passionate about creatively? 

I’m most passionate about creating stories, which reflect the lives and experiences of children from similar backgrounds to me. As a child, I never saw myself in the books that I read, and as an adult, I often still don’t.

Yet, story is at the core of our experience as people. Story is how we explain to ourselves, and others, who we are and why we’re here. 

To foster a love of reading in children from backgrounds similar to mine, and to set them up for the best start in life, I believe they need stories in which they see themselves and their experiences, and stories which are written by storytellers from similar backgrounds to theirs. 

How have you developed your career?

Since as long as I can remember, I’ve scribbled stories, poems and songs in journals, and I’ve read and performed them to anyone who will listen.  

In 2010, I graduated from Lancaster University with a first-class honours degree in Theatre Studies. I wasn’t able to get a job in the arts right away so I moved back home and got a job in a factory, making brake pads for cars, which – believe me – was even more dull than it sounds. The hours were long, the pay was bad and the job was a total brain-drain! But a year later, I applied for a paid year-long placement as a Trainee Producer at the Contact Theatre in Manchester (funded by the Jerwood Creative Bursary Scheme) – and I got it! 

It wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do but anything was better than working in the factory on the production line, and most importantly for me, it was a foot in the door! I took to it really well, met lots of wonderful people and worked with lots of incredible artists, including Sophie Willan. I became her Producer in 2013 and we’ve had a wonderful skills-share process ever since; she’s helped me to develop as an artist and I’ve helped her to develop as a producer. 

Over the past decade, I’ve worked as a theatre and comedy producer, mentor and creative collaborator, while also developing my own skills as a Children’s Writer; participating in workshops, masterclasses and writing groups, making work in commission with The Lowry, The Roundhouse & BBC1 Xtra and The Octagon as Associate Artist. I’ve earned a residency at a primary school in Longsight, become a Supported Artist with Manchester Children’s Book Festival and Z-Arts, studied with The Golden Egg Academy, as well as having my debut children’s novel shortlisted for Penguin’s 2020 WriteNow programme. 

I’ve got to say, it’s a far cry from the factory floor! 

Why has this opportunity come at the right time for you? 

To be Stories Of Care’s Lead Artist, and to do it well, I think there’s a tick list of essential things you need to have, including:

  • a deep well of empathy and understanding for others
  • a burning desire to instigate positive social change, and 
  • a distinct and powerful voice as an artist

(Which explains why Sophie was such a brilliant and impactful Lead Artist, and why Stories Of Care has been so successful!)

For me, it’s only now, after working in the arts and developing my craft for the past decade, and being surrounded by an incredibly passionate and skilled creative team, that I finally feel I have the skills, experience and support necessary to take on a challenge as big as this. 

What will you be making with this project? 

In this project, I’ll be following in the footsteps of Stories Of Care Founder and all-round powerhouse, Sophie Willan, exploring my personal story and tapping into a wider social narrative, to make: 

  • Stories Of Care’s second vibrant anthology of short stories for 7-12 year-olds, written by our participants and featuring special guest writers from Care-experienced and low-income, single-parent backgrounds, published by Manchester Metropolitan University. 
  • The creation and publication of my debut children’s novel, ‘Alfie Shields and the Iron Pants Switcheroo,’ which takes readers on the journey of a fourteen-year-old boy called Alfie, raised by his father in a run-down boxing gym, as he discovers the true meaning of the word ‘family’. It’s inspired by my own experience growing up in a single-parent, low income family of boxers. 
  • A children’s theatre adaptation of ‘Alfie Shields and the Iron Pants Switcheroo’, created and performed by myself and directed by Dominic Berry (an established theatre performer/director, also from a low-income, single-parent family).
  • A national tour of ‘Alfie Shields and the Iron Pants Switcheroo’ to libraries, boxing clubs and theatres, with a robust and unique outreach package, ring-fenced for our remit of children and young people.

How does your background inform your work and what you’ll do on this project? 

As one of six kids being brought up by my single-parent dad, we lived on the breadline, in receipt of income support, receiving clothing donations from the local community and free school meals. 

My family background and childhood experiences have had a very big impact on my work.

As a Children’s Writer, I’ve always been drawn to difficult subject matter, from divorce and poverty, to abandonment and grief. I try to find light within the dark, explore sad themes in a safe way, and create life-affirming characters and unforgettable stories that everybody can be comforted and inspired by. 

As a Producer and Facilitator, I’m very passionate about improving access to the Arts and supporting underrepresented artists to tell their own stories and make their own connections in the industry, so they can stand up on their own two feet. 

What do you want the participants to take away from being involved in Stories Of Care Chapter Two? 

My ambition is for every participant to be truly empowered by this project.

I want participants not only to develop their skills as children’s writers, but also to graduate from our brand new programme with their first publishing credit.

I want participants to find their voices on and off the page, working towards becoming creative leaders in their community, and for each of them to feel like, through being a Stories Of Care participant, they’ve been, and will continue to be, a vital part of something big, bold and groundbreaking. 

And finally, I want each participant to have fun, make friends and to have an unforgettable experience. If you’re thinking about applying to become a Participant with us, but you’d like to know more, please keep your eyes peeled on the News section of our website for upcoming taster events and Q&As, and feel free to contact me directly at oliver.sykes@storiesofcare.co.uk.