Meet Hannah, master of puppets
FI FIRST heard the story which inspired The Girl with the Iron Claws on Dartmoor. I was attending a weekend with the School of Myth founded by wonderful storyteller Martin Shaw.
He told us his version of an ancient Norwegian folktale and it always stayed with me. That was back in 2008. When Rachael Canning and I decided to start The Wrong Crowd last year, it was this story I told her that first evening, hoping she would be as excited as I was about it being the subject for our first show.
I had moved to Devon after graduating from drama school in 2006, for a variety of reasons, not least of which was the desire to live away from the big cities I'd been in all my life — London and Edinburgh.
My brother was living on a smallholding near Totnes and I had a few friends in the area, so it seemed the place to set up camp for a while. I had the desire to experiment, to make theatre in barns and on beaches, to find people to collaborate with and to immerse myself in other ways of thinking. It was idealistic and exciting.
I got very involved in Transition Town Totnes, which was launched the month I arrived: a community initiative addressing the twin challenges of peak oil and climate change.
I ran a project making imaginary news films with local schools visioning life in 2030. I also started to train in Playback Theatre, a form of improvised theatre practice in which actors and a musician 'play back' experiences and stories from the audience on the spot, with local organisation Playback Theatre South West, with which I'm still involved.
Pretty soon I gravitated towards the Barbican Theatre in Plymouth.
Mark Laville, its brilliant artistic director, has boundless energy for supporting emerging practitioners and young people and an extraordinary way of bringing people together.
He set up a series of Playspace practitioner workshops, where writers, dancers, actors, musicians and more from across the South West, came together once a week to play and to share skills and ideas. Sessions were eclectic and lively, ranging from group drawings, to automatic writing, to anarchic physical games.
One week Mark introduced a bit of text I'd shown him to the group — a few sketches of scenes. It might seem a small thing, but was very important to me, that first acknowledgement of something I'd written and seeing it come alive with actors.
I continued to work on pieces of writing and, out of the blue, a few months later, I had a call from Mark asking if I wanted to write the text for their summer production at the Barbican, which had been commissioned by Plymouth Summer Festival and was to be a promenade show at the Royal William Yard with the Barbican's young theatre and dance companies.
Exploring issues around resource depletion and where we're heading, he knew I already had lots of passion for the subject and of course, I said yes! Having never written anything on that scale before, he took a punt on me, for which I will always be enormously grateful.
We had a ball.
The show, called One Small Step, was vast and unwieldy, but beautiful and powerful, performed with consummate skill and commitment by its young participants.
The following year was the anniversary of Darwin's birth and I was invited again to be the writer in a diverse collaborative team, which included young people shadowing each different creative area, devising a piece about Darwin's work and its legacy.
Voyage played at the Barbican, outdoors in the city centre and at Port Eliot Festival. During that time I was also a shadow writer on the Hidden City Festival in Plymouth, curated by Part Exchange Co, celebrating and exploring the hidden histories of some of Plymouth's most fascinating buildings and I was involved in other exciting projects, as a writer and director, at the Theatre Royal and Exeter Northcott.
Eventually though, London, where I had grown up, called me back. I had continued to work with a London children's choir, Finchley Children's Music Group, throughout the time I'd been living in Devon, directing their summer productions. They had commissioned a new opera, The Jailer's Tale, to celebrate their 50th anniversary and asked me to direct.
With 120 young performers, adult soloists and performances planned at the artsdepot in London, it was an opportunity I had to take and decided it was also the time to head back to the capital for a time.
I'm very thankful that I did, as it was on that show that I met designer and puppet director Rachael Canning.
That show didn't involve any puppets — a few vulture heads, but no puppets.
It wasn't until I saw her puppetry work in Into the Woods at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre that I realised we had to make some more work together. She was at a similar place in her career to me, working as both a designer and with puppetry and receiving the message that she should be specialising, but not wanting to. I was likewise both writing and directing and we both wanted to find a collaboration in which we could continue to do both things.
We finally met up at Christmas 2010, sat down with our drinks and she said 'Do you want to start a company with me'?
I said 'I was going to ask you exactly the same thing'. That night we went back to my flat and started to talk about what sort of work we would make together and what our first project might be. That's when I gave her this story.
The Girl with the Iron Claws is based on a tale usually known as Valemon, The White Bear King and exists in many different versions.
Rachael had known a connected story as a child, called East of the Sun, West of the Moon, which is a somewhat sanitised version, in which the heroine ends up winning her man by washing his shirt cleaner than any of the other women.
We definitely didn't want to tell that one!
The story shares its roots with Beauty and the Beast and also has links to the Cupid and Psyche myth, so it has many familiar fairytale motifs but is also a lot more twisting and epic, with all sorts of unexpected moments. If you've grown up with the children's collections of fairytales, which have been sweetened and made into bland oppositions of good versus evil, you might also find this a bit darker and wilder than you were used to at bedtime.
As a company Rachael and I want to make work that is delightful and inventive. We want to celebrate the things that only live theatre can do and embrace the imaginative potential of the audience.
If you come to see The Girl with the Iron Claws you'll see characters played by both actors and puppets and a simple, pared down set in which epic worlds appear. You'll laugh, probably quite a lot, and you'll also be swept along by songs. Our audiences say it's a little bit like being taken to another world for an hour and that feels, to us, like an enormously exciting thing to be doing for people. We feel very lucky to be doing what we're doing and have had support from countless people to do it, as well as from Arts Council England.
It's very precious to me to be bringing this, our first show as The Wrong Crowd, to the South West and to complete one of the little circles to where it all began. And if I ever make it out of London again — well, I know where I'll be heading.