Interview with Nina Hajiyianni, Artistic Director of Action Transport Theatre

Nina_003Nina Hajiyianni is the Artistic Director of Action Transport Theatre. This Autumn, their new production Happily Ever After is touring the UK.

Can you tell us a bit about Happily Ever After and the book that it is based on?  

The production is based on the book ‘King and King’ by Dutch authors Linda de Haan and Stern Niljad. The children’s book tells the story of a prince who falls for another prince, they get married and live ‘happily ever after’. The production tells the same story entirely visually (that is, without any words). The show uses clowning, gesture and simple choreography to present very familiar fairytale images which we then enjoy turning on their head, notably when the two princes first see each other and we see a kind of ‘falling in love’ sequence.

What inspired you to create this show now?

I actually became aware of an adaption of the book in the form of the play ‘Principe Y Principe’ (Prince and Prince) written by an Argentinian Playwright Perla Szuchmacher, through a production in Mexico directed by a friend and colleague of mine, Aracelia Guerrero Rodriguez. I met Aracelia through a global children’s theatre network, ASSITEJ, which aims to support the development of theatre for children across the globe. Aracelia actually translated the play Principe Y Principe with a view to me directing the play in English but when I read it, I realised that somehow the simplicity of the story (for me) seemed compromised, and that I was more interested in the story being ’seen and felt’ without explanation. I think visual storytelling which leaves gaps for the audience to fill, makes the audience very ‘invested’ in the unfolding events as the performers and each audience member have a kind of ‘contract’ working out together what is going on, moment by moment. The big inspiration for me was about taking the ‘fairytale form’ which is so recognisable and then subtly and beautifully subverting it.

This is a play for ages 5+. Some might suggest that such topics aren’t suitable for such a young age range, or that children might not understand – how would you respond?

I would challenge this assumption on 2 fronts. Firstly, the production in terms of dramatic storytelling and style is very age appropriate; much of the action is focused on the relationship between the Queen (played by Portuguese male actor Bruno Mendes) and her son the Prince (played by Irish actor Paul Curley)… it’s actually a coming of age story, how to be your own person in the face of parental expectation… so it’s broader than the same-sex theme. There is a moment when the two princes see each other and they fall in love (played out through dance, and physical comedy) but this depiction is extremely ‘light touch’ and enjoyable to watch.

The second response to the assumption that this topic should be a ‘no go’ for children is actually that homophobia in schools is a problem and children need support and clarity in dealing with it, especially in terms of use of the word ‘gay’ which is bandied around negatively in primary school. During our pilot schools tour, it was noteworthy how many children in primary settings revealed they had gay family members, there were tangible ‘coming out’ moments which we could tell were big moments for that child and the school. It’s really important that art reflects the world in which we live, it’s that simple really, and we have a duty to challenge the invisibility of gay identities in children’s culture and across the arts.

Action Transport Theatre puts children at the heart of the creative process, and the show toured to 8 primary schools in 2014. Given that homophobic bullying occurs so widely within schools, were you surprised by any audience responses? How did involving children help with researching and devising the show? 

ATT works collaboratively with children but not all processes look the same. For HEA we actually worked with a local LGBT youth group, Utopia, and with our partner organisation LGBT Youth West. We did some consultation work with the young people and also brought them into rehearsals where we were able to test out ideas. The actors would work with the young people to identify which moments were important, what was missing etc and how things were coming across. These young people also led some of the post show workshop activity in schools as peer educators which was a really crucial part of the work in schools as the production deliberately has an absence of conflict; the young people’s real life stories therefore created a context for the show and revealed how some endings are not ‘happy’ or at least not initially. So this juxtaposition of the production and then real life accounts of coming out had huge impact. In terms of audience feedback, there was nothing but positive engagement from audiences of children and teachers. Some teachers understandably were nervous beforehand about parents’ reactions and we had to reaffirm a number of times that there really was no need to give parents advance warning. The couple of times that children had been told about the theme of the play and parents had got involved, there were one or two children with some reticence, but that disappeared as soon as the play started.

How and why is theatre for young people a good vehicle for tackling such large issues? 

Because theatre can create empathy and deepen understanding. Art is unique in this respect and theatre especially can connect audiences to stories which are meaningful, offering new insights and which tell us about the world in which we live. We don’t get taught about emotions and human relationships anywhere else.

Can you describe the contribution of LGBT Youth North West to the project?

The partnership really is a marriage made in heaven (sticking with the theme)… LGBT YNW were keen to start delivering anti-homophobia work in primary schools as distinct from the work they were already doing at secondary level and the production offered the perfect vehicle for raising the issue not only for children but also for teachers. The package we offer to schools includes a special INSET day for teachers on ‘how to combat homophobia in the classroom’; we had the biggest turn out of teachers ever for the training day we held at our base Whitby Hall at the start of the project. For an arts organisation, its been really crucial having the kind of expert advice and support in creating the work: in relation to schools for example, we now know that OFFSTED require that homophobia is tackled, they want to see evidence of this and also that the anti discrimination act also requires schools to be dealing with all forms of discrimination.

 What do you hope audiences will gain from Happily Ever After?

My aim always as a director is for audiences to leave inspired, having had a wonderful or important experience. HEA is first and foremost a high-quality, hugely engaging piece of theatre for children which adults will also enjoy. The production offers a shared experience which I hope audiences will continue to feel is life affirming. One audience member in our first preview performance came up to me after the show and said ‘ thank you so much – this show has made me feel happy’.

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One response to “Interview with Nina Hajiyianni, Artistic Director of Action Transport Theatre

  1. Pingback: Twitter accounts every children’s theatre lover should follow |·

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