Interview: Button Tree Theatre on exploring loss & handling gender in Tilda’s Magic Attic

Athenoula Sophocleous and Eleanor Buchanan have a history of collaboration together as part of Snickelway Theatre, a young person’s theatre company. Having since earned degrees in their respective fields, they are now renewing their partnership and putting their training into professional practice, with the creation of a brand new company, Button Tree Theatre, and the debut of their first show, Tilda’s Magic Attic, at the Edinburgh Fringe. 

Button Tree Theatre is a brand new company – how and why did the company form?  What type of work do you want to make, and what are your aims as a company?

Before we both went to university, we worked together several times as part of a young person’s collective. We found we had a particular knack and love for creating children’s theatre. Tilda’s Magic Attic is actually an idea that was initially formed during that time, but we weren’t able to do anything with it before we parted ways. Now that we both have our degrees, we wanted to put what we had learned to use! We knew we loved working together, and that we had a shared vision for what children’s theatre should be, so it seemed natural to come together to finally see through this idea. We aim to continue producing original pieces of drama for young people, which explore challenging topics through fun and imaginative avenues.

Button Tree TheatreYour show Tilda’s Magic Attic is at the Edinburgh Fringe this year. What can audiences expect from the play?

Tilda’s Magic Attic explores the difficult subject of losing a parent as a child. The whole play is really an invitation from our heroine, Tilda, to come into her imaginative world and be a part of her own healing journey. Tilda is a very creative little girl, so her audiences can expect lots of interesting twists and turns, as well as some very charming hand crafted props!

What inspired you to create the show?

Well, Tilda O’Grady is not only the name of our heroine, but also the name of a very dear friend of ours. And her family home has an attic full of gorgeous antique furniture and a random but charming assortment of junk. It really does have a magical quality to it. Eleanor said “Tilda’s Magic Attic – that’s a good name for a show” – and the idea just stuck. Five years later, we’re here! There have since been many other influences and inspirations behind the development of the show, but it’s original conception was literally conceived in Tilda’s attic.

The show explores some pretty big themes – loss and identity. What makes theatre for young people a good vehicle for tackling such large issues?

Whilst loss is a common trope in media for young people, we find it rarely appears as the main theme. Big production companies like Pixar have proved the value of exploring the issue in finer detail, and the popularity of films like Up have also proved that grief and loss is something children can enjoy exploring. We don’t believe in preserving children’s ‘innocence’ by distracting them from the hardships they may face – we believe those hardships should be explored empathetically through art which reflects their stories. Whilst grief is universally feared, it is also inevitable, and demystifying it is key in encouraging open expression. Children themselves are naturally empathetic beings, and we can use that to our advantage in what we are trying to achieve. What’s great about theatre, and especially important to our show, is that the children are confronted with a real person, who is talking to them face to face. Their natural empathy means they invest all the more in that character. And by giving them a character like Tilda – a girl their own age who is facing colossal changes in her life – we can help them interface with the complex and the terrifying in a language that is both resonant and honest.

Captain Sillybeard.jpgI was excited to see that you are political theatre makers with backgrounds in feminist performance. Have you found ways to incorporate politics and/or feminism into Tilda’s Magic Attic?

We’ve never intended this to be a ‘political piece’ with any particular feminist message – and we don’t think anyone will come away from it feeling that way about it. First and foremost, it is a fun and compelling piece of storytelling – but it has definitely been influenced by our politics. Our main concern has been handling gender. For many children, their narratives and the way that they engage in play can become dicated by gender from a very early age. But what if that were not the case? We have used the show to paint the portrait of a child whose imagination has not been limited by gender stereotypes. In Tilda’s world – what might first seem to be a mermaid is actually a non-conforming merman – and Captain Sillybeard the pirate has depth and vulnerability as well as bravado. Then, of course, there is Tilda herself, and her relationship to her gender. What we think is important is that yes, Tilda is a strong female lead, but in the context of a story where her gender is not an issue. In Tilda’s world, the fact that she is female is neither a hindrance or an empowerment, it is simply a fact. This is the kind of reality that we believe feminism can bring for children – that their narratives about themselves and other people are not dictated by their gender.

Eleanor is the writer and performer, and Athenoula the director – how do you work together, what is your creative process?

The reason we like working together is that we have a shared vision whilst both bringing different things to the table. Whilst Eleanor has a wonderful way with words, and can paint beautiful pictures through her storytelling, Athenoula is brilliant at keeping everything grounded; digging down to the root of the story and making sure that it’s presence is always felt. Our shared vision and respect for each other’s opinion means that we really trust each other when it comes to the creative process. For this particular project, Eleanor had already been working on the script independently before coming to Athenoula. So the show was half formed before Athenoula came on board. We are excited to see what we can do in the future by working together from the get go.

Why did you want to create theatre for children?

As an audience, children are much more honest than adults, and if your show isn’t good, their boredom will be palpable! It makes it challenging at times, but also extremely rewarding when you get it right. We also care a lot about what kind of media children are receiving, and what impact that will have on them as they develop and grow. It feels good to be putting something out there that we believe will have a positive impact on young minds.

Which other children’s theatre companies or artists do you admire?

For a few years, writer Mike Kenny and director Gail Mcyntire collaborated at the West Yorkshire Playhouse on some beautiful reinventions of classic fairytales. Aesthetically and stylistically their work really spoke to us – and continues to inspire us today. We also absolutely love Bootworks Theatre – The Many Doors of Frank Feelbad is a great example of valuable and meaningful children’s theatre and we can’t wait to see more from them.

What are you most looking forward to about the Fringe?

The last time we were at the Fringe together we were doing a feminist piece for adults in Princes Mall. It’s safe to say that this will be a totally different experience! We’re really excited to be working with theSpace – as we’ve seen brilliant productions in their venues before – and we just can’t wait to have our first audience for this show. There is a great sense of collaboration at the Fringe, and we are sharing a venue with some exciting up and coming children’s theatre makers! We really look forward to meeting them and seeing their work.

Tilda’s Magic Attic is your debut production – are you working on anything else or have any future plans?  

At the moment, all of our attention is on Tilda’s Magic Attic – but we definitely do want to produce more work in the future. Tilda’s Magic Attic as an idea has been growing for over five years, and it’s style and aesthetic has always been an important part of it. But we know our strength lies in original storytelling, and we would like to see how far we can strip the theatrics back, creating low-baggage, flexible shows that can pop up anywhere, yet still contain the same spark that we have captured in Tilda’s Magic Attic.

Tilda’s Magic Attic is on at the space @ Surgeon’s Hall 4th-5th August (previews) & 7th-12th August. For ages 7-11. For more information & to buy tickets: https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/tilda-s-magic-attic

Children’s Theatre Reviews exists to help plug the gap in criticism and writing about theatre for young audiences. It is run entirely voluntarily, and needs support to continue covering and supporting the sector. For more information and to help give children’s theatre the voice it deserves, please visit our Patreon page.

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