Natasha Holmes is the Artistic Director of Tell Tale Hearts, and co-writer, and director of Snow White.
Snow White opens at the Lawrence Batley Theatre this Christmas. How have you reinvented the classic fairytale for the stage?
Our playful and vividly inventive twist on the Brothers Grimm fairytale is set amidst Yorkshire’s striking landscape. The traditional dwarves are reinvented as a group of ex miners who have formed a brass band, The Coalface Crocodiles, to make a living after pits closed.
In our version the story starts at the end – with Snow White trapped in the magical looking glass (mirror), instead of the traditional glass coffin. This is the magic mirror belonging to the evil step mother, re-invented for our production as, Mystique Stardust a singing diva who fears her career is on the decline. The Coalface Crocodiles set the story in motion all in a quest to discover how to free their beloved Snow White from Mystique’s magical mirror.
Given the engineering strengths of Pif-Paf we knew the production would have an unusual industrial feel for a Christmas show, so we wanted to bring sumptuous design and a bit of Christmas sparkle into the costumes. These contrast fabulously with the fantastic transformational structure designed by Pete Gunson from Pif-Paf. This structure, inspired by the pit heads of the coal industry, is cleverly transformed in front of the audience so that we can weave aerial feats, live music and shadow puppetry in a truly thrilling experience for all the family that will keep you guessing right to the end!
The production relates the miners of Snow White (the seven dwarves) to Yorkshire’s mining history. Is the production inspired by Yorkshire in other ways?
We’ve been rehearsing at the National Union of Miners Hall in Barnsley so it is hard not to be inspired by this environment and imagery. Although our production is in no way political, it does touch on the warmth & humour of the ex-mining communities in Yorkshire. Other Yorkshire influences have been the landscape of the moors, the Lawrence Batley Theatre itself and the legend of the fantastical black puma that has been sighted on the moors. We have been inspired by all of these Yorkshire influences.
How did the collaboration with Pif Paf come about, and how have the two companies worked together to create the show?
Pif-Paf are one of the most pioneering & exciting companies on the outdoor theatre circuit at the moment. We are fans of their poetic & maverick theatrical style and have been brewing this collaboration to bring them into the indoor world of theatre for three years.
I originally met Eleanor Hooper (from Pif-Paf) back in 2004 when I taught her clown as part of her ‘circus in performance’ course at Greentop. Subsequently she worked for Tell Tale Hearts as a performer in ‘Space Hoppers’ and I also worked for Pif-Paf as a freelance director to help remount one of their shows. After creating The Snow Queen for Christmas 2011, I dreamed of what might be possible if we worked in collaboration with Pif-Paf and brought the excitement and sheer dare-devil ingenuity of their company into the indoor theatre circuit.
I think the partnership has been highly rewarding on both sides. Tell Tale Hearts have provided the organisational infrastructure, our inclusive research process, knowledge of children/families and devising/scripting & directorial skills. Pif-Paf have brought trail blazing ingenuity to the show including the design concept, structural engineering, shadow puppetry, music and story boarding. The process has been genuinely collaborative and has challenged and enriched both organisations.
Children were included in the research process – can you talk about their involvement and how it influenced the development of the production?
Tell Tale Hearts are passionate about putting children at the heart of what we do. All of our shows benefit from taking the time to research ideas with children from our targeted age range. To explore ideas for this pioneering collaboration we worked with a class of 8-9 year olds to draw out their best ideas to help inform a new take on the story. For instance in our version Snow White is not encased in a crystal coffin but trapped in her step mother’s magic mirror, caught in a maze of reflections – the idea for trapping a character in the mirror came from a wonderfully imaginative 9 year old boy! The concept of updating the original dwarves from the story to a group of ex-coal miners based in Yorkshire also came from our workshop session with these school children. I can’t reveal any more of the children’s ideas that we implemented without giving away some of the ending, so if you want to know more you’ll just have to come to see it…
Why do fairytales like Snow White remain such firm Christmas favourites?
Snow White has captured the imaginations of children and artists for generations ever since the brother’s Grimm printed their original version in 1812. Walt Disney famously re-mortgaged his own house in order to create the first ever full length animated film. Nowadays we take for granted the commercial success of re-invented fairytales like Snow White; perhaps what makes them so eternally popular is that they are such great stories to dramatise. They are complex, dark and offer such evocative symbolic imagery open to theatrical exploitation.
The compelling, destructive relationship at the centre of Snow White; of the innocent daughter surpassing the step mother in beauty and natural gifts is just as potent for families today as it ever was. Arguably in today’s society, where step-children/parents are much more of a norm, this story has increasing resonance.
We like to think that our collaboration with Pif-Paf has also challenged us to create something truly original/innovative whilst still having great family entertainment at the heart of the show. We also worked with award winning writer, Mike Kenny, as mentor to help keep us on track & to not lose sight of Snow White’s emotional journey with all our ambitious ideas.
You founded Tell Tale Hearts in 1997, and the company originally toured comic physical theatre shows for adults. Why did you switch to focusing exclusively on children’s theatre? What are the differences between creating work for the two age groups?
Whilst setting up Tell Tale Hearts, I still worked for other companies as a freelance performer. I was lucky enough to work with Penny Bernand and Sue Buckmaster for Theatre Rites on their show, SleepTight, as a moon spirit. Performing the show to fifty 3 – 5 year olds at a time & being perceived as a magical creature by them was life changing. No matter how difficult or hard your day, as soon as the show started your audience transported you to a wonderful world of imagination, play and possibility. To see the play through their eyes, helped me to see the world through their eyes too & the world of adult theatre just didn’t seem as meaningful to me anymore. The future of Tell Tale Hearts as a children’s theatre company was just inevitable after that experience.
I still see adult theatre that I think is transformational, but for me personally I like the challenge of making theatre that directly takes account of its audience as its prime driver even before that of the artist making the work! I love investing in the way children might respond to the chosen story or concept and challenging myself and the creative team to be inspired by some of these amazing and quirky ideas. I think making work for children is more humbling than adult theatre, as children are not bound by social niceties and let you know quite obviously when they are no longer engaged.
What are you working on next?
Another co-production, The Wind & the Sun, for the outdoors this time with an emerging company, called In Situ Circus Theatre. This will be touring in spring/summer 2016.
Also, WAVE – a vibrant multi-sensory play for teenagers and young adults with profound learning disabilities, and autism and their companions. Originally produced by Nottingham Playhouse, we are retouring the show between April – June 2016. It is a show I worked on as a freelance director for Nottingham Playhouse and couldn’t bear to see it put to bed before another outing. It is written by Gill Brigg, inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and explores the relationship between a parent and their child as they reach adulthood and leave home. It is truly transformational for many of its audience and it is for this reason that I couldn’t let it go.
Finally, a question we ask everyone: Why do you love children’s theatre?
Quite genuinely I think children’s theatre offers some of the best theatre practice in the UK. I think the most exciting work is often generated by children’s theatre companies, which often isn’t given the same status as the adult work. But the main reason that I love children’s theatre is because I love children. I think theatre is even more powerful and transformational when seen through their eyes.
Snow White will be at the Lawrence Batley Theatre from the 11-27 December. For tickets call 01484 430528 or visit www.thelbt.org