Category: Devising Theatre

Creating a Theatre Piece from Fairy Tales

Yesterday, Jake posted a question on the Your Handy Companion to Devising and Physical Theatre’s Facebook page, asking for tips on creating a physical theatre piece based on fairy tales. The answer is far too long to be posted on a Facebook page, so I thought I’d write a post instead. Jake: thanks for the inspiration.

Frog Prince

Fairy tales are a wonderful stimulus to devise from: they have strong stories, well defined characters and you can set them wherever and whenever you want. They are usually set in interesting locations that will give you a lot to play with: a forest, a castle, a hut, a cottage, a tower… all locations which you will not be able to create literally and so, you HAVE to use your imagination and stimulate the audience’s to take them where you want to.

So, your first questions should be:

– When are we setting the piece?

– Where are we setting it?

– What style shall we use?

The term “physical theatre” is very broad – will you use masks, still images, will your characters have stylised physicalities, will you have one or more narrators, how will you move between scenes? What visual experience will the audience have: A black and white one, a colourful one or a mixture of both?

Will you be telling the story linearly or start at the end, for example, your story could begin with a woman who obsessively cuts her hair. When somebody suggests that she try growing it, just to “see how it looks”, she tells them the story of how she hates her long her: she grew up in a tower, enduring her mother climbing up her hair constantly. (In case you haven’t guessed, I’m talking about Rapunzel.)

Sleeping Beauty poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson
Sleeping Beauty poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson


Working with more than one fairy tale – do your research.

If you are working on more than one fairy tale, just pick three. Three is a nice number to give you enough variety. See whether you can link them in some way: by theme, location or character. Or decide to make them completely different.

When Forbidden Theatre Company created Spell, the story began with Frog Prince, where a Prince was so annoying he was turned into a Frog by a witch. The woman in question did not know that she was a witch, but her rage at being ignored by the arrogant prince turned into magic powers. This was the first time that she realised she had magic powers and she decided to use them for good. But after helping the King and Queen conceive, they neglected to invite her to the child’s party and she began to use her powers in an evil way (Sleeping Beauty).

In order to link a few fairy tales together, you will have to read plenty of them, to spot the possible connections.

Don’t just take the story that you all know as your starting point. Look at poems, ballets, films, paintings and illustrations that have been inspired by the tales and all the different versions  that have been created.

Split personalities

Fairy tales are beautifully crafted stories. There will therefore be a moment in the hero/heroine’s journey when they have to make a decision that moves the story along. What would have happened if they had made a different decision? If you are working on one tale, this can be the moment where you can change the story, by showing a different resolution or by presenting more than one story.

Use improvisation to try this out – it will be hard, as the well known decision will be on everyone’s mind, but it’s worth seeing where your instinct takes you.

Arthur Rackman's illustrations can be used as inspiration
Arthur Rackman’s illustrations can be used as inspirationing where your instincts take you.

Create new characters

Make the stories your own. Don’t just create your characters around the obvious protagonists (and definitely stay away from using the Disney versions as a base, look for the Grimm/Andersen /Perrault which will be darker and hence, more interesting). Create characters from inanimate objects. Going back to Spell, the Spell Book became the Witch’s sidekick and was able to provide a different perspective and energy on stage.

Use music and movement

There is no faster way to take an audience somewhere else than through the use of music. Look for instrumental pieces that are rarely heard, to avoid the audience making connections to their own memories. Search the Foreign Film Soundtrack catalogues, they’re a great source of inspiration.

Use movement sequences to show us what a character is thinking, to accentuate an important moment in the piece and to move the audience.

This is by no means a guide on how to create a theatre piece from fairy tales, but I hope it can inspire you or start you off. Do leave your comments and questions below, maybe we can come up with more tips together.


Physical Theatre Bites

I am cleaning up my computer and found this video from our Freestlye Performances, days when we got to experiment with physical theatre by trying out our own work in front of an audience.

Key to this was giving the audience food during the intervals – watch the video, you’ll see all their happy faces! I suppose it was a bit like bribing the audience. But hey, no-one else was doing this: an Ensemble of young professionals getting together for the day to present short pieces written by themselves. The day was full of the spirit of collaboration, as different people took on different roles (writer/director/performers) during the day, supporting each other along the way. All put together brilliantly by our wonderful stage manager Tracey.

Here it is, enjoy!

Freestyle Performances from Pilar Orti on Vimeo.

Devising Theatre: Are You Stuck?

Don’t know where to start with your piece?

The stimuli you have is not inspiring you anymore?

Are you stuck?

Here, try something different. Don’t worry about whether it fits in with your piece or not, just see where it takes you. Answer the questions below.

What are they saying?

Who are they talking about?

Are they women… or witches?

What kind of world do they live in?

Who are their neighbours?

What sounds can they hear around them?

If they were talking about your story, what would they say?

If they were talking about your characters, what would they say? Who would be their favourite? Who would they hate?

(Remember, talk about the story and the characters, not you as performers and your piece as creation.)

Devising Theatre Stimulus: Goya’s Caprichos

If you are creating your own piece, why not make sure it is set in a different world?

In a distant place, full of grotesque characters who make us just that little bit uneasy to keep us intrigued.

Change your physicality;
Then let it affect your voice;
Find different ways of relating to others.

Using the same stimulus for all characters will give your piece a sense of Ensemble, a sense that you are all working in the same style, embodying the same space.

Here, try these.


For more, visit Goya’s Caprichos Wikipedia page.

Work Songs – Edinburgh Fringe 2012

I saw this show today in Edinburgh and loved it.

Work Songs
August 2012
playing from the 13-26 August at ZOO, Venue 124, at 1.15 PM everyday.

created by Broderick Chow and Tom Wells
the dangerologists

You could write a thesis about this play.

It’s about dependency, working in an office, job satisfaction, vocation vs profession, friendship, rivalry and office furniture!

The most exciting thing about the piece for me was the style, reminding me a bit of Frantic Assembly’s Tiny Dynamite. Fluid movement merged with text, literal and abstract fused into one. And plenty of humour.

Tom and Broderick work in an office. They’ve been told to “work as a team” (chuckle, chuckle) but they can’t even decide the best way for them to both make use of a chair. My favourite bit of the play was this scene – imaginative, punchy, slick…

I don’t want to give much away – the story is simple but engaging, the characters are so well defined. There’s even some interaction with the audience. My boyfriend was a bit reluctant to sit on the front row, in case “they talked to you”. “Don’t worry, not in this one.” Bingo! Famous last words. However, this was the least cringe-worthy audience-interaction moment ever and my boyfriend didn’t mind one bit. Like my friend (who was sitting to other side of me and also got asked a few questions) said: Broderick genuinely listened and conversed with you. Not a small achievement when you consider that his fellow performer Tom crawled up his back.

The show is the perfect length (about an hour) but I could have sat there for longer. I loved the script – subtle, simple and actually took a direction that I didn’t expect. I laughed a lot, loved the choreography and physical moments and was moved.

What more can you ask from the Fringe!

Work Songs
August 2012
playing from the 13-26 August at ZOO, Venue 124, at 1.15 PM everyday.

created by Broderick Chow and Tom Wells
the dangerologists

The link below takes you to the photos from their Manchester production.

Work Songs at Contact, Manchester.

via Work Songs – Edinburgh Fringe 2012.

The Theatre Ensemble

It was always a dream of mine to have an Ensemble-based company. A group of performers, designers, directors and other theatre practitioners who regularly worked together, supporting each other, learning through each other. The financial reality meant that it was impossible to have salaried ensemble members all year round; but creative ways of bringing people together resulted in a small group of “satellites” who were happy to be part of the Forbidden Ensemble.

The Ensemble-based company has become a bit of a utopia in the UK but companies continue to have their “unofficial ensembles”: groups of freelancers who regularly work together and have a shared theatrical vocabulary.

An Ensemble will have shared different rehearsals processes together and so will have grown together; ensemble members will be used to talking to each other about their craft, their ideas, their insecurities… It is this openness and understanding of each other that can speed up the rehearsal or creation process.

Having debriefed and learnt together allows performers to evolve: learning from what did and didn’t work before. It is the only way of not being afraid of taking risks: knowing that even if you fail this time, you will use your mistakes to feed your future successes.

Devising Theatre – suggested timeline

Assuming you have ten weeks to develop your piece, your time might be used in the following way:

Week 1

Improvisations around stimulus. Research on stimulus (if appropriate). Decide on style. Building the ensemble. Discuss creating and rehearsal process. Do as much research as you can during the first three weeks of the process. This is the time where you are likely to be experimenting and therefore not needing to do much work on the piece itself in between rehearsals, such as learning lines. Once you have decided on the theme/s likely to appear in your piece, research them, and make sure you allocate time to share your findings. Also, do not forget to look into which theatre practitioners are likely to influence you. Again, you will need to research their work.

Week 2

Share your research. Decide on where the piece is going. Maybe the full storyline. Maybe a strong definition of characters.  Begin research on themes.

Week 3

Continue improvising. Individual character work. Character profiles. Research on practitioners suited to the piece.

 Week 4

Set the story line and outline of the piece. Begin CREATING the piece. Order of scenes. What happens in each scene. Begin scripting. Start thinking of set and costumes.

 Week 5

First drafts of set and costume designs.  Continue creating the piece. More character development. Character-led improvisations which will lead to development of plot.

 Week 6

Begin rehearsals. Continue Development.

Week 7

Final set and costume designs. Purchase or identify set and costume elements. Continue rehearsing and development. Ask people to be your “outside eye”.

 Week 8

Rehearsals. Define scene changes (if applicable).

Week 9

Have written down the final script. Run-throughs. More rehearsals.

Week 10

Tech Rehearsal. Dress Rehearsal (x2 if possible) Performance!

Once a schedule has been created, suggest that it is revised at the end of each week. If a group manages to hit on a wonderful storyline on day 2 of Week 1, then maybe they can start detailed character work earlier on so they can give themselves some more rehearsal time. Devising is not only group specific, but project specific too and the process varies continuously.

At the end of Week 1, ask the students to discuss how they envisage carrying out the creation and devising process as a group. Will each member be responsible for a session? Will they want a tutor to run a session on Character Development so that all group members can work on character at the same time? Similarly, ask them to discuss who will be running the warm ups for each session. For some sessions they will need longer warm ups than others, but you should encourage them to always do SOMETHING together, even if it is a quick game of tag to get them all making physical contact with each other before beginning each rehearsal.

Just as it is paramount to schedule an exercise to bring everyone together at the beginning of the session, it is vital to wrap up the session too. Five minutes at the end of each session to reflect on what has (or hasn’t) been achieved are very useful, as is making sure that everyone agrees on what the next steps of the process are and what shape the next session will take.

Structuring the Devising Process

The creation of a new piece will be a roller coaster: some days enormous amounts of material worth keeping will be created, while other days everything created seems useless. Remind students not to give up, not to be discouraged as this is all part of the creative process! It is precisely through creating material that does not seem to work which will help define more clearly where the piece is going. Sometimes it is just as important to discover what does not work as it is to create material that does work.

Usually students will have a long time during which to develop a piece (usually in short, sporadic lessons over 10 weeks). This is good news: it means they can experiment with ideas, dedicate sessions to developing character, incorporate the research gradually into the piece… you name it. But in order to keep the process fluid and give themselves room to experiment and play, they need to be extremely well organised.

The first thing to encourage is to set themselves some deadlines for the completion of the practical aspects of devising, such as the costume and set designs and a written script for the sound and light operator. Ask the students to set some deadlines and stick to them – after investing all their creativity in the piece, they probably do not want the practicalities of theatre to get in the way of their greatest enjoyment: the performance.

Different groups work at different speeds. In any case, remind them to use their time together productively. It is no use allocating a lesson to character development, where everyone sits down and writes their character profile individually, when this could be done at home.

Remind them that their time together as an ensemble is incredibly valuable and limited. Similarly, ask them to use your contact time with you and other tutors wisely. If they show you a section of the work during one lesson, they must make sure the next time they ask you to watch their piece, that section has been developed further.

If the students need a script for their lights and sound operator but there is little or no dialogue, they will need to describe what is happening on stage and how the plot is advancing. If there are specific visual moments to act as cues for lights and/or sound, remind them to describe them in detail in their script.

Building the Ensemble – The Empty Chair

This game works best with at least 7 people. Distribute evenly the same number of chairs as people playing across the space. Everyone but one person, the Walker, sits on a chair. The empty chair must be at one end and the Walker will start the game at the other end.

The aim of the Walker is to sit on a chair. S/he will do this by walking towards it at an even, slow pace. Everyone else must prevent the Walker from sitting on the empty chair. This is done by leaving their chair and sitting on the empty chair. This will leave another chair empty. The Walker will then try to get to it but someone else from the group should go towards it and sit on it. Everyone but the Walker can move as fast or as slow as they wish.

Note that once a member of the group lifts their bum from their own chair, they can’t go back to it and have to sit somewhere else. When the Walker finally sits on a chair, the game ends and whoever was not sitting down, becomes the Walker.

Once you have played this game a few times and are familiar with the strategies that work, try to play the game in silence. Of course there will be cries and laughter but try to avoid communicating with words and avoid telling others what to do. This will help you to develop your ensemble skills, where everyone in the group shares the responsibility of achieving a common goal.

Warm Ups – why?

It is essential for performers to warm-up at the start of the session, to get their bodies and minds ready for the work to come. The importance of warming up together through working on the body individually and playing games, cannot be emphasised enough. Its benefits go way beyond “getting ready”. Here are just some of the reasons why warming up together is essential – some of them apply especially to physical and mask work, but most of them are relevant to all actor training.


  • Connecting the body and mind.
  • Developing physical and emotional awareness.
  • Training spontaneity and “being in the moment”.
  • Training taking risks.
  • Training making mistakes together.
  • Practising communicating in ways that don’t include words – a look, a smile, a gasp, a laugh.
  • Isolation of body parts.
  • Warming up of joints.
  • Spatial awareness.
  • Practising humility, collaboration and commitment.


The list goes on…. For those students that don’t like playing games because they want to get on with “proper acting” this list can provide a good reminder of how the exercises will help them to be better performers.


Don’t feel like you need to vary your warm ups or play different games each time you begin a session. Practice makes perfect and some of these games become really interesting once everyone is skilled at playing them. This is also a very good way to train the craft of acting: an actor does not change character or script at every rehearsal; the skeleton of the work is the same and it is a skill to be able to explore different things within a tight framework. And once the professional actor is in performance mode, they need to find the freshness of the first performance every single time, through their trained spontaneity.