INTERVIEW: “It’s always exciting to be given a whole new world to play in” – Playwright Emma Reeves on Ugly Duckling

tutti frutti and York Theatre Royal are bringing one of Hans Christian Andersen’s best known tales to life. With a menagerie of mischievous animals depicted through inventive physicality, and live music that quacks and trills, their new co-production of Ugly Duckling plays with the importance of identity and self-worth, taking audiences on a journey to discover inner beauty.  The production’s award-winning writer Emma Reeves chats to Children’s Theatre Reviews about bildungsroman, breaking the rules, and more…

How did you get involved in writing Ugly Duckling for tutti frutti? 

Wendy Harris, Artistic Director of Tutti Frutti, asked me to do it. We had previously worked together on Snow Child (2015) and luckily Wendy was obviously happy enough with my work to ask me back.

IMG_6175-Writer Emma Reeves. Photography by Hannah Carter-Brown.jpg

Photo: Hannah Carter-Brown

How would you describe the show, and what can audiences expect?

It’s pretty much the definition of a bildungsroman – that’s a pretentious but accurate description. It’s about a duckling’s journey of growing up – asking all the questions we ask ourselves. Who am I? What am I doing here? What’s my place in the world? Where do I fit in? How do I learn to “be myself”? Who is myself? We have three actor-musicians, and between them they tell the whole story with music, movement and puppetry. I hope it will be a warm, uplifting experience which inspires young audiences with the simple magic of storytelling.

You have a lot of experience adapting stories for the stage, including Jacqueline Wilson’s novel Hetty FeatherSnow Child which was based on a very old folk tale, and now Ugly Duckling, Hans Christian Andersen’s much-loved fairytale. Does the type of source material change the way you adapt the story for the stage?

Yes, obviously the source material makes a difference. With some of the more recent novel adaptations I have done such as Hetty Feather, Cool Hand Luke, Anne of Green Gables and Carrie’s War, I was entering a very fully formed world with rounded characters, and it was my responsibility to make those characters speak to a modern audience. With a myth like Snow Child, or even a very old story like Ugly Duckling (which has been reinterpreted so often it’s taken on the status of myth) what you’re given is the shape of the story – and even that can be altered. The characters, and the world they inhabit, is up to you and the rest of the creative team. With Carrie’s War for example, we were transporting the audience to the 1940s; with Ugly Duckling we bring the story to 2017.

What do you enjoy about the process of adaptation, and what are some of the challenges?

It’s always exciting to be given a whole new world to play in. It’s an immense privilege. The challenges vary from story to story but there’s always a fear of letting down fans of the original – or the author themselves, if they’re still alive! I’ve been fortunate enough to work with Jill Murphy, Jacqueline Wilson and the late, brilliant Nina Bawden – I always felt a great responsibility towards the much-loved characters and stories that they had created.

Ugly-Duckling-for-web

As an award-winning screenwriter, you have also worked on television adaptations including Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch and Jacqueline Wilson’s The Story of Tracy Beaker. What is the key to creating a successful adaptation for young audiences, and does this change depending on whether it’s for TV or theatre?

It changes according to the remit. Although some TV series are straight adaptations, often there will be a demand for the story to be stretched out, and/or new stories to be told with the same characters. So then it’s a case of finding ways to stay true to the author’s world whilst creating new stories. In that case, you’ve got the characters but you have to invent the story. On other occasions, such as when I’m working with myths like Snow Child, you have the basics of the story but it’s up to you to work out who the characters are.

I can’t pretend to be an expert on stories for young people, although I’ve written a lot of them – I mostly try to write something that interests me, and hope that it will also interest someone else. I think it’s important to have a young person at the centre of the story. That young person should be active, and the plot should turn on their decisions, rather than being the passive victim of events. Adults should not come rushing in to save the day; they can be helpful but they can also be flawed. Above all, never patronise your audience or talk down to them.

Those are the rules I try to stick to, but I’m sure there are many occasions when I’ve broken them!

The target age of tutti frutti’s audience is younger than that which I normally write for, so I’m still finding my way towards getting it right! I test out material on my nieces and nephews, but frustratingly it turns our that every child is different in terms of what they understand, what interests them, what bores them, what frightens them etc. So it’s all a learning process for me.

What was your experience of theatre growing up?

I remember vividly having theatre in education shows coming to our school, and also being taken on school trips to the theatre. My nearest professional theatre was Theatr Clwyd in Mold and I was a member of the youth theatre there for two years. It’s very important for young people to have access to these sorts of opportunities.

What are you working on next? 

Some new projects for CBBC (they’re quite exciting but I’m not allowed to say yet!) and a stage adaptation of Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch.

Ugly Duckling is for ages 3+. The show will premiere at York Theatre Royal from 28th September – 14th October, and will then tour until 3rd February 2018. For more information, including full tour details, click here

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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