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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.