Fairy Tale Theatre: The Art of Transformation

by Howard Gayton


In the autumn of 2006, I was asked to direct a group of drama students from the ESMAE theatre school in Porto, Portugal, in their third year theatre production. It was to be performed for children from six to eleven years old, and was to be a ‘devised’ show (i.e., a show whose text and stage movements were to be created by myself and the students). I decided to base the play on a Portuguese fairy tale, so I put out a request for stories on the Surlalune website’s fairy tale discussion board, via Terri Windling, and received two good collections.

I chose a story called ‘The Big Fish,’ in part because Porto is by the sea and I wanted a sea theme, and in part because the story seemed to lend itself to an ensemble interpretation, with enough parts for all the students. (For a short synopsis of the story, click here.) I had taught at the school previously, and had seen the theatre that the show was to be produced in. There were three alcoves on either side of the audience, and I had the idea of immersing the audience in each of the three kingdoms described in the story — the Kingdoms of the Fish, Birds and Seals — by the use of lights and image, and of having simple scenery made up of muslin curtains and wooden boxes.

I had the opportunity to explore themes from the story further at the World Fantasy Convention in Madison, Wisconsin. I attended a panel discussion by Terri Windling, Jane Yolen, and other folklorists talking about how one might use the motifs of classic fairy tales to make modern stories. This inspired me to realise that I needn’t adhere strictly to the plot of ‘The Big Fish.’ but had the freedom to play with it and bring other fairy tale motifs into the show. I also talked with novelist Midori Snyder about the symbolism of the three sisters in the story who are taken away by the Big Fish. In terms of the story’s deeper meaning, they can be interpreted as parts of the boy. They need to go off, in a sense be sacrificed, in order for him to have his quest.

Before I went out to Porto to commence the project, I had a sequence of discussions with Terri Windling, talking through the story and some of the visual ideas I had about possible scenes. I decided that in my version of the story, the old man in the tower had cast a spell over the three kings to transform them into the animals. The spell stipulated that if their wives ever left them, then the three kings would die. The hero is then set a task by the three kings to retrieve three animal skins from the tower in order to break the old man’s spell. I envisioned a "Dorian Grey" scenario, with the old man keeping himself alive by having these pelts. Another change in my version is that the Fish gives the fisherman the three items, not money, when he takesthe daughters so that the family is still poor at the start of the boy’s adventure. This way I can cut the encounter with the three brothers, which theatrically seems to go nowhere.

This was my thinking before going to Portugal to start work. What follows is my diary of events over the next five weeks as the cast, the crew and I worked to bring the fairy tale to life in a dramatic context.

Monday, 14th November

The first day: I started by meeting with everyone involved in the project in order to share my vision of the show, and of the magical nature of theatre. I explained that I wanted the children to be enchanted, and that in my view fairy stories and theatre are about transformation. I talked about the need for simplicity, and that the nature of my process when working on ‘devised’ theatre means that we will not know exactly how the show will be performed until very near its opening. This often causes problems for the technical crew as final decisions are not made until they absolutely have to be, which can bring about a clash of working schedules when technical needs conflict with those of mine as the director. This is one reason that it is best to keep things simple!

My assistant, Nuno Loureiro, had researched the story prior to my arrival and found that ‘The Big Fish’ is in fact three different fairy stories that have been glued together. It confirms my approach to the story that it seems to be divided into three sections that we can present with three different dramatic approaches.

I also looked at scenography proposals from the design students today. There was one (which was done in a great hurry, apparently) that changed my own ideas about the design. Out go the muslin curtains and the boxes, and in come coiling designs that give a definition to the space, looking like abstract seaweed or coral.

Before the actors entered the rehearsal space, I burned white sage and ‘smudged’ the room with its smoke, which is a ritual act of purification performed in Native American and other cultures. It clears the space and prepares both it and me for the work ahead.

When the actors arrived, I began with a standing meditation, in a circle. I always start work with the group in a circle, as the circle is a powerful symbol of unity, and meditation helps to focus both them and me. We then played a ball game, the object of which was to keep the ball up in the air as a group. This again brought the group together and forced us all to be present and awake.

The first day was very much a ‘try things out’ day, to see whether my ideas for an ensemble performance piece were practical for the group, and to find a way into the work. First I told the group my version of ‘The Big Fish.’ I made it up as I went along, discovering new details in this way, improvising on the structure, and trying to elicit as much humour as possible out of the interaction between Nuno, who was translating into Portuguese, and myself. This telling showed up some interesting glitches in the story. What is it that keeps the three kings in their kingdoms? How do they help the boy to get inside the chest? It also made me very aware of repetition, a common fairy tale motif, which will mean that we will have to vary our ways of performing the story so it doesn’t get boring.

Before my arrival in Porto, I had requested that each student bring in a picture that resonated in some way with the themes of the story. This was both to provide us with some visual stimuli to begin work, and to engage their intuition and imaginations before my arrival. When we set these pictures out, it was remarkable how closely they related to the version of the story I had just told. Splitting into two groups, each group took one picture and presented it in sound and movement. We then took one of the performance pieces they had shown and worked on it further. It had an interesting sound that I thought might relate to one of the animal worlds.

In groups of four, they then told little pieces of the story by taking four ‘titles’ and making an image for each one. This was successful in terms of the images created, the flow of the pieces, and the use of voice in their storytelling.

At the end of the day, I spoke about how important theatre for children is. As performers, we are enchanting them, casting a spell in effect, so we have a responsibility not to patronise them, and for what we are putting into their heads. We hope the next generation will make less of a mess of the world than we have — and we can aid them in that challenge by telling stories properly. If we create a magical show, then we also have a chance of getting them to fall in love with theatre. It is both a privilege and a challenge to perform to children, because they are such an honest audience.

A good first day. The question I am left with is: how does one co–ordinate twelve people into an ensemble?