Feeling confused about sex: The Wardrobe Ensemble on their play 1972: The Future of Sex

Bristol-based theatre collective The Wardrobe Ensemble have been winning plaudits and delighting audiences across the UK with their brand of theatrical ingenuity and irreverent humour. As their acclaimed show 1972: The Future of Sex is published alongside its revival at the Bristol Old Vic this month, ensemble member Tom Brennan explains how the show was conceived and developed, while below, Musical Director and Composer Tom Crosley-Thorne reveals how he raided his parents’ vinyl collection for inspiration…

‘Mum, when did you first have sex?’

We began making this show under the working title The History of Fucking in the autumn of 2014 at Shoreditch Town Hall. We were feeling pretty uncomfortable about the state of sexual politics at the time and wanted to know how we had got to where we were. In those first two weeks, we generated mountains of material. We researched, read, interviewed our parents (see above question), improvised, danced, played and talked. We talked about history, change, gender, identity, choice, equality, power, porn, love, sex, sex, sex. We talked about the inequalities present in our rehearsal room. We felt vulnerable and dangerous. We felt confused.

When we first performed the show  over the summer of 2015, I was surprised by a particular response. Often audience members who grew up in the 1970s talked to us after the show about how recognisable and real the world of the play felt to them. They would ask us how we knew what such and such an experience was like, or how we’d managed to make it feel so real.

1972: The Future of Sex by The Wardbrobe Ensemble, research and development at Shoreditch Town Hall, October 2014

Yes, we did a lot of research into the specific cultural landscape of early 1970s Britain, to make it feel grounded. We made long lists of seventies’ artefacts and cultural relics. We were aware that the era is often depicted in either depressive social-realist hues – a sad vista of strikes, poverty and civil unrest ­– or as a psychedelic orgy of philosophising hippies and social rebellion. But our conversations with our parents led us to find another reality: a generation of young people who (much like any other generation) felt like the party was happening in another room. Their imaginations were perhaps sparked by reading The Female Eunuch or seeing Bowie as Ziggy Stardust on Top of the Pops, but the vast majority of young people weren’t about to join the revolution, however much they wanted to. Instead they were trapped between the future and the past. They were caught between a desire to become that gorgeous butterfly, and the harsh reality of still living as a very awkward, very confused caterpillar.

Feeling painfully awkward and self-conscious about sex as a young person is a pretty universal human experience. And I imagine that’s why audience members felt connected to the show, whether they’d grown up in the 1970s or not. We were tapping into something everyone experiences.

1972: The Future of Sex at The Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol, March 2016 (photo by Jack Offord)

We also made an important decision to build the world of the play around spoken narration. Words are a fantastically useful tool, because they suggest rather than prescribe. Spoken narration is open to interpretation; it allows each and every member of the audience to fill in the blanks with details from their own life. So, for instance, when one character in the play watches a porno, it becomes you watching porn for the first time; when two characters kiss for the first time, it becomes your first snog on a scuzzy dance floor somewhere. In the most powerful moments, the set, the performers and the story all combine to become a conduit for your own personal reflection. As Virginia Woolf said, ‘Words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind… full of echoes, memories, associations, naturally. They’ve been out and about on people’s lips – in the houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries… stored with other meanings, with other memories’.

For anyone interested in putting this play on in the future, I’d encourage you not to overcomplicate any aspect of your production, nor to prescribe too heavily its emotional or intellectual meaning. I’d encourage you to allow space for the audience. Try not to judge anyone, even the least appealing characters. I’m proud of how open this show is. Most importantly, it’s accessible to people from many different generations. And it’s from this place of openness that we can acknowledge our collective confusion – and begin to talk. It seems to me that confusion is the inevitable and appropriate state to be in when talking about sex. Nothing else is true, or honest. So let’s be willing to be confused – let’s be as open, honest and welcoming about our confusion as possible.

Peace and love, dudes.

1972: The Future of Sex at The Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol, March 2016 (photo by Jack Offord)

Musical Director and Composer Tom Crosley-Thorne on the musical influences behind the play:

Music is integral to this play. Before 1972: The Future of Sex, The Wardrobe Ensemble had always made their own music. But for the sound of the 1970s to be ingrained in the play, the group felt they needed to bring in someone external. As a gigging musician I came from a performing, songwriting and music-production background, composing in various styles for live bands, recording artists and short films. But this was my first production.

I was brought in for the first stage of the research and development process at Shoreditch Town Hall. During this time I was introduced to the devising process. It was a fast-paced room where anyone could write, perform or collaborate on anything. Things would get thrown at me, from Al Green to Ziggy Stardust. There was no time to be precious and at the end of each twenty-minute session you had to share. It was a fortnight of wah-wah guitar, space hoppers and glitter.

The process also brought up some challenges: What makes a song sexy? What is the sound of the seventies? How do I steer clear of pastiches or clichés? And how do I perform this music on my own? So I began by asking my parents what music they’d listened to in the seventies and what it meant to them. Out came their old vinyl collections: James Brown, David Bowie, Earth, Wind & Fire, Mott The Hoople, Commodores, The Temptations, Parliament, to name a few… The music evoked a feeling of revolution. It is proud, fun and exciting. It is guitar, bass and drums. It is speaking for what you believe in and saying it simply.

It soon became clear to me just how much this iconic era changed the sound of music today. I was enticed by the simple instrumentation of the early funk records, so I decided that I would set myself the limitation of using only electric guitar, bass, keyboard and drums. It was very important to the group to have a musician onstage as it gave the show a particular live energy in having all of us make everything between us. So I performed lead guitar on top of backing tracks that were sequenced onto a loop pedal. The only music that I didn’t compose is that of the late great David Bowie, as I wasn’t going to do it justice. So there I was, with an electric guitar in one hand and a pedal board in the other, wearing bell-bottom jeans, about to perform 1972: The Future of Sex for the first time. I can still hear my excitement when I listen to the music now.

You can listen to a sample of the music for the show at: www.soundcloud.com/1972thefutureofsex


This is an edited extract from material accompanying the playscript in 1972: The Future of Sex, published by Nick Hern Books on 2 May 2019.

To buy your copy for just £7.99 (20% off the RRP of £9.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website. The Wardrobe Ensemble’s 2017 show Education, Education, Education , revived at the West End’s Trafalgar Studios from 31 May 2019, is also available.

1972: The Future of Sex is at the Bristol Old Vic until 11 May 2019.

Staging our own Brainstorm: an intrepid English teacher on the rewards of devising a show with teenagers

When Steven Slaughter, an English teacher at Rosslyn Academy in Nairobi, Kenya, decided to stage a production of Brainstorm, the acclaimed play about the workings of the teenage brain, he was taking a big risk. The show is designed to be devised by a company of teenagers, putting their own lives and experiences centre-stage. But, as Steven explains, the rewards are immeasurable for everyone concerned…

I’m excited to tell you about our production of Brainstorm, the play by Ned Glasier, Emily Lim and Company Three, at Rosslyn Academy. The process was all that I hoped it might be – an exhilarating challenge for our students and for me, resulting in a show that had a profound impact on our audiences. Afterwards, one parent came up to me and said, “I usually say ‘Great job!’ to the kids. But this time, that doesn’t seem adequate. All I can say is, ‘Thank you’.”

This sense of gratitude, that we had given our community a gift, elevated the experience above other productions we’ve done in several important ways. I want to explain why. Also, I’ll try to address some of the challenges and opportunities of doing Brainstorm as a school play, my assumption being that it will likely most often be done in schools. And I’ll include all the things I’d want to know, as a high school theatre director, if I was considering putting on a production of Brainstorm with my students.

The Process: Spring into Summer

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to meet with Ned Glasier, co-writer of Brainstorm and director of the original production, while passing through London last June. I’d read the original script a few months earlier and loved it. It stayed on my short list, and its depth and resonance just wouldn’t let go of me.

But producing the play in a school context was going to add a bit of complexity. Firstly, I needed to have it approved by my administrators without having a working script to show them. Sure, we had the original script, but that, as it says on the cover, is only a ‘blueprint’ for any production; our version was going to end up being very different by the end of the devising process. And so it was important that they had a high degree of trust in what we were trying to achieve.

Furthermore, as Rosslyn Academy is an international Christian school, there was going to be a significant degree of sensitivity about what could and could not be included in the final version. The challenge of this, of course, is that the edgier bits, the really honest things that give this play its electricity, are the very parts that might be problematic in a religious school context. And so I knew that I was asking a lot – I wanted approval of something not yet written, but I didn’t want to do it at all if all the rough edges were going to get smoothed away, neutering it of its raw power. Thankfully, the administration saw the potential good of this show and trusted that I could guide it along that path.

Meeting with Ned was really encouraging. He answered some key logistical questions, like, “Can we really complete this inside three months?” (Answer: Yes… but it is a challenge.) In June, over our summer holiday, I sent a secret note to the parents of my most committed theatre kids. Since we would also be asking parents to allow their own home lives and struggles with their teenagers to be expressed on stage, I needed to know that they were supportive, willing to take this journey with us. This was an important step for me, because if several of these committed students would not be allowed to even audition due to parent discomfort (especially those graduating this year), I didn’t think it would be fair to them to choose the show. Thankfully, all parents were supportive.

August: The Big Reveal

At Rosslyn, the announcement of a forthcoming show is done with much excitement. But when I revealed what we’d chosen this time, it was met with mixed feelings. Firstly, no one had really heard of it. No surprise there. Everyone was intrigued by the trailer of Company Three’s production and my initial description, but the cast all admitted that the idea of a play that we would in large part create, about their lives, was something that made them nervous. And sceptical. We hadn’t done a devised show at Rosslyn in many years, and some of the students remembered working on a student-written middle school show that they looked back on with some embarrassment. There was also significant scepticism amongst the broader high school population. All through the production, as the cast bonded and faced their fears of exposing themselves so much, they also had to deal with the added challenge of many of their peers believing that it wouldn’t be any good.

I also had to deal with my own self-doubts. I’d never done a devised show before, and desperately wanted to do justice to this subject and to my students. Can I gather all of these pieces collected over many weeks, and fit them together into something theatrically coherent and beautiful? The fear of failure caused numerous 4:00am wake-ups, ‘dark nights of the soul’. However, with the comfort and benefit of hindsight, I can assure any directors aspiring to dive into devised theatre that Brainstorm is the perfect entry point. The script’s ‘blueprint’ section is really helpful, providing dozens of ideas for activities, writing prompts, games, and processes to assist a company wanting to create their own version. This made the process much easier for me than starting with a blank slate.

Still, I couldn’t really tell how strong the script actually was until just a couple of weeks before performances began, when we’d polished the scenes enough to evaluate the final script at its full potential.

Rehearsals, Part 1: Content Generation

Our three-month rehearsal cycle was split roughly in half. Unlike with a typical play, the cast did not get a final script until about the 6-week point – and even then it continued to change quite a lot, all the way up to the performances.

In the first period of rehearsals, we engaged in a lot of different activities, many taken straight from the blueprint. Students produced YouTube instructional videos, gave virtual tours of their bedrooms, filled out surveys, played games, interviewed each other and their parents, and wrote their own material. I collected everything. One tool that we used extensively was the suite of Google Apps, which I would highly recommend. We had content collection documents shared by me and my co-director and our two student leaders. I also used Google Forms at several points, creating anonymous questionnaires for the Brainscan segment and Never Have I Ever game. For Brainscan, one of the most emotionally powerful scenes in the show, a series of statements are projected onto the set and the cast turn on lights – on for yes, off for no – creating a sort of impressionistic data set of how our students feel about themselves, some of their deepest fears, etc. During rehearsal, our list began as the original cast’s list plus a few more that were relevant to the lives of expat and international kids, even some missionary kids. (So, for instance, a statement like “I don’t know if I believe in God right now” was a poignant and honest subject to broach in our Christian school context.) And in the anonymous survey, I included an area for them to propose their own statements, a number of which made it into the show. Google Forms is useful because it instantly gives you the percentages of those who answered yes. This helped us select the most impactful statements to feature. Further, to intrigue their sceptical classmates, we had the whole high school do a version of the survey a month or so before opening. This also allowed us to select the final list that would align fairly closely between the cast and the school population at large.

Ned had told me to think of the process in thirds – content generation, script writing, and actual rehearsal (memorising lines, blocking, etc). For us, the first two really needed to overlap. So while the kids generated content, I began writing the early scenes of the show, and so on, so that we wouldn’t have a time gap before ‘real’ rehearsals began. By the time I passed around the working scripts, we only had six weeks left, but the kids felt very familiar with the content. We did a second read-through, this time of our very own Brainstorm, and then proceeded roughly as we would with a conventional play.

Rehearsals, Part 2: Workshopping, Blocking, Polishing

One part of the process that really made me nervous in advance was workshopping the scenes of conflict between the kids and their parents. Cast members had written first drafts of scenes depicting real conflicts they’d regularly experienced with their parents. I was pleased by the variety of scenes the students brought – some very funny or warm, others uncomfortable and quite angry. I edited and polished these scenes and selected a suitable cast member to play the parent. Once the scene had been rehearsed for a bit, we invited the parents into a 20-minute workshop. This worried me. I feared that parents might get offended – most hadn’t seen the scripts at all. We had a friend, a family therapist, join us in these sessions (just in case). To my delight, all of the parents were great sports. The kids ran the scene, we asked mum or dad for their initial thoughts, then they stepped in and did a cold reading of the scene with their own child. (This was so instructive – and hilarious.) We filmed those for later reference. After this, the student playing the parent asked questions. “When you said X, how were feeling?” … ”You seemed so angry at that point. Why?” This opened up wonderful opportunities for parents and their kids to talk about these ongoing arguments they have, and, I think, to gain some insight into how the other feels and experiences those moments of tension.

As the show came together and tightened up, we made adjustments to the script and worked through the stage mechanics that all plays require. One thing we realised was that, playing themselves, there was a tendency to paraphrase and improvise. This was fine for a while, but eventually we had to insist on actors memorising a final version of their lines. This is necessary because we were trying to create specific moments for the audience, and improvisation, if done badly, can destroy something that has been carefully crafted. It was also interesting to work with students on naturalism. Several commented that they thought it would be easy to play themselves but realised how much they tend to put on the ‘stage version of me’ instead. Working through this was a valuable growth opportunity that none had experienced before.

The Company Three Production and Ours: Similarities and Differences

We created our show using the central arc of the original script – the tour through the brain and the structural elements of the play. This provided a really solid foundation from which to build. In the end, though, perhaps as much as 75% of the script was our own words. We found that, even though we were sticking with the underlying purpose of each scene, most of the text needed to be rewritten to suit our actors – their personalities and cultures and the specifics of their lives. Certain speeches and segments were so beautifully crafted in the original that I kept them word for word (such as the You Say to Me speech used in the voiceover of the Company Three trailer – so beautiful, why would you mess with that?). Others were preserved at a conceptual level, but rewritten by the student or students presenting them, to bring their own voices forward in a more authentic way.

We decided to use quite a lot of video projection in our production. In addition to projecting the group chat (WhatsApp in the Company Three production, Instagram for ours), the ‘Two Dot’ YouTube tutorial, and the Brainscan list, we also created additional slides for various scenes, from a new section I wrote to expand the ‘86 billion neurons’ section to a short slideshow on the limbic system. We even included a few one-off slides to enhance the jokes. For example, one girl is said to have a crush on Spanish footballer Gerard Piqué, so on this cue we did a slow zoom of his dreamy face with romantic music; a moment later, another girl is outed as having had a crush on Cole from Lego Ninjago – yes, a crush on a Lego character – and so the same music plays with a slow-mo video clip of Lego Cole at a romantic dinner.

We also used a lot of music. Since we ran the show without intermission, we had an extended time for concessions before each show and a playlist of teen music through the eras (we had great fun choosing the tracks for that!). We also used music during many scene transitions, under certain scenes (such as a Beatles-inspired elevator musak track under the parent introductions), and very powerfully during the Brainscan and You Say to Me placard-dropping scenes. I’d definitely encourage other productions to experiment with music – it’s such an important part of teenagers’ lives and can lend so much resonance to the emotional impact of a scene.

Conclusion

The whole process of putting on Brainstorm was transformative in a way I’ve never experienced before. I can’t encourage other directors strongly enough to take on this show. If, like me, you’re intrigued by devised theatre but don’t have previous experience of it, Brainstorm is the perfect place to start. You’ll need some experience of managing what is a fairly complex process. And you’ll need to be able to write pretty well. As much as the content needs to come from the actors you’re working with, crafting it into something that works on stage is an act of playwriting. I don’t think a show like this would work very well if left only to the students’ draft writing, without someone doing this playwriting work. But with some imagination and flair, and a good deal of hard work, you’ll create something unique and unforgettable for everyone involved.

Putting the play on at Rosslyn was a profound experience for my students, and we received a number of amazing responses from parents who said it was the most thought-provoking and moving play they’d ever experienced, that it had challenged them to understand and relate to their kids in new ways. At the cast party, I spoke about this idea that art can be more than entertaining – that it can be transformative. I feel overwhelmed and grateful that I was able to create our own Brainstorm with my students, and to give them this experience of a collective transformational piece of art.


Steven Slaughter teaches English and directs plays at Rosslyn Academy in Nairobi, Kenya. He is happy to answer any questions about his production of Brainstorm, or your own, and can be contacted through Nick Hern Books.

Brainstorm: The Original Playscript (And a Blueprint for Creating Your Own Production) by Ned Glasier, Emily Lim and Company Three is published by Nick Hern Books, and is available to buy, in paperback or as an ebook, with a 20% discount here. School groups, youth theatres and amateur companies considering their own production should contact the Performing Rights Manager.

Photographs by Jeff Kirkpatrick.

Putting teenagers (and their miraculous brains) centre-stage: Ned Glasier and Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore on making Brainstorm

After being inspired by a TED Talk about the workings of the teenage brain, Ned Glasier (Artistic Director of Company Three, previously Islington Community Theatre) and co-writer Emily Lim realised they had the germ of an idea for a play that could be shaped and performed by teenagers themselves. Here, Ned Glasier charts the development process, and explains how the resulting play, Brainstorm, has been designed to be adapted and performed by other youth drama groups. Below, neuroscientist Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, who contributed to the play’s development, reports on the scientific angle.

Ned Glasier, Artistic Director of Company Three: Like so many devised plays, Brainstorm started out as a totally different idea.

In 2012, Emily Lim and I began work on a project exploring the coming of age of a fictional boy in the Egyptian revolution. When this didn’t quite work out, we realised that what we were both really interested in was the moment when people become ‘themselves’.  That led us to an inspiring TED Talk by cognitive neuroscientist Dr Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, about the workings of the teenage brain.

As with all Company Three work, what followed was an in-depth and long-term process, working with more than fifty young people through a series of projects, scratch plays, development processes and residencies.

During our early explorations of the subject, one of our young cast members was having an incredibly difficult relationship with her mum. After an early scratch performance, she told us that her mum had come to see the show, and had immediately gone home and called a family meeting to discuss it.  That was perhaps the first time we knew just how important it was to share what we’d learnt.

Brainstorm performed by Company Three (photo by Richard H. Smith)

Brainstorm performed by Company Three (photo by Richard H. Smith)

So we continued to develop the play. We went on residentials, played hide-and-seek, made limbic system dances and created art installations explaining the pre-frontal cortex. We wrote thousands of lists, recorded hundreds of conversations and spoke for hours with Sarah-Jayne and her then PhD student Dr Kate Mills.

Eventually we were lucky enough to take the play to the Park Theatre, the National Theatre and the BBC.

We discovered that not only had we made a play that helped others understand the teenage brain, but we had developed as a company too.  All our work making theatre with young people has been informed and improved by a better understanding of why teenagers are the way they are.

2_tyrelphan_creditrichardhsmithCompany Three’s work is based on a principle of sharing, and we are so happy to be able to share Brainstorm with schools and other young companies. We know from the parents, teachers and other adults who came to see the show how important it is that adults understand what’s going on in the changing teenage brain. And how empowering it can be for teenagers to be the ones to tell them.

The recently published playtext of Brainstorm is both a record of the show, and a blueprint for making your own production. It’s an invitation to take our work and make it your own – to play with it, adapt it and develop it in new and extraordinary ways.

Above all, it’s an invitation to do what the teenage brain does naturally – to respond, to question, to adapt and to experiment.

We can’t wait to hear what you do with it. Do tell us how you get on. There are lots of ways to get in touch, including Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.


845fdaed59d3cd91f98106165c9b07b610615c5b_1600x1200Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience: In 2013, I saw a scratch performance of Brainstorm given by twenty-five teenage members of Company Three (then Islington Community Theatre). The group, together with directors Ned Glasier and Emily Lim, had seen my TED Talk on the teenage brain and been inspired to create a play about what was happening inside their heads. Ned and Emily approached me and my former PhD student, Dr Kate Mills, to talk to them about the science of the adolescent brain.

When I went to see the scratch performance, I had no idea what to expect, but from the first scene onwards I was mesmerised by the imaginative interpretation of the science and the brilliant performances by the talented young people. The play was innovative and clever, and incredibly poignant, telling the stories of the complex relationships between the young people and their parents, set within the context of the science of how the adolescent brain develops.

I wanted to get more involved and was delighted that a grant from the Wellcome Trust enabled Kate and me to spend more time with the directors and young people to develop the play. Our first step on this journey was a twenty-minute performance and talk by the young people and myself in front of four thousand people at the Discovering the Future of Medicine event at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

3_michaeladewale_creditrichardhsmithIt is important that we find new ways to communicate our scientific discoveries to young people and the general public, and Brainstorm is a perfect example of this. The impact of the play on its audiences at the Royal Albert Hall, Park Theatre, National Theatre and on BBC iPlayer has been profound and long-lasting. The cast have told Kate and me stories of parents rethinking how they understand and interact with their children as a consequence of learning about brain development from the play. We have heard about headteachers who have seen the play and returned to their schools determined to do things differently.

And we have learned from the experience too. It’s fascinating and important to learn about how the science of the adolescent brain is interpreted by young people themselves. We learn about their experiences, what’s important to them and what they care about, and this gives us ideas for our next experiments.

It has always been important to me that science is accessible and that everyone has a role to play in communicating it, questioning it and sharing it. I hope the published version enables many other young people to have the same experience of self-discovery that the cast of Company Three’s Brainstorm did, and that many more audience members might start to understand the extraordinary potential of the teenage brain.


FormattedBrainstorm by Ned Glasier, Emily Lim and Company Three is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

This edition contains a series of exercises, resources and activities to help schools, youth-theatre groups and young companies create and perform their own Brainstorm. It also features the complete script of the original production which played at Park Theatre and the National Theatre, London, in 2015.

To buy a copy for just £7.99 (rrp £9.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website now.

Production photographs by Richard H. Smith

Related Blog Post: ‘The whole process of putting on Brainstorm was transformative in a way I’ve never experienced before.’ An intrepid English teacher reports on the experience of staging Brainstorm with his students. Read more >>

‘Wonder tales’: Philip Pullman and Philip Wilson on staging the Grimm Tales

For Philip Pullman, working on a new version of the Grimm Tales was a ‘dream job’.  Here, he explains why they work so well on the stage, while below, theatre director Philip Wilson describes how he adapted and staged the Tales, and what to consider when staging them yourself…

Philip Pullman: When Penguin Classics asked me if I was interested in writing a fresh version of some of the tales of the Brothers Grimm, I had to suppress a whoop of delight. Actually, I’m not sure that I did suppress it. I’ve always relished folk tales, and the famous Grimm collection is one of the richest of all. It was a dream of a job.

Reading them through carefully and making notes, I was struck again by the freshness, the swiftness, the sheer strangeness of the best of them. I was being asked to choose fifty or so out of the more than two hundred, and there were certainly at least that many that deserved a new outing. The most interesting thing, perhaps, from a dramatic point of view, is that they consist entirely of events: there’s no character development, because the characters are not fully developed three-dimensional human beings so much as fixed, flat types like those of the commedia dell’arte, or like the little cardboard actors (a penny plain, tuppence-coloured) we find in the toy theatre. If we’re looking for psychological depth, we won’t find it in the fairy tale.

Nor is there anything in the way of poetic description or rich and musical language. Princesses are beautiful, forests are dark, witches are wicked, things are as red as blood or as white as snow: it’s all very perfunctory.

What we find instead of these literary qualities is a wonderful freedom and zest, entirely unencumbered by likelihood. The most marvellous or preposterous or hilarious or terrifying events happen with all the swiftness of dreams. They work splendidly for oral telling, and the very best of them have a quality that C.S. Lewis ascribed to myths: we remember them instantly after only one hearing, and we never forget them. The job of anyone telling them again is to do so as clearly as possible, and not let their own personality get in the way.

They can be told, of course, and they can be dramatised, in any of a thousand different ways. They have been many times, and they will be many more. This particular version was very enjoyable for me to read and to watch because Philip Wilson is so faithful to the clarity and the force of the events, just as Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were faithful to the talents of the various storytellers whose words they listened to and transcribed two hundred years ago. And they still work.


Wilson, PhilipPhilip Wilson: The Brothers Grimm’s stories have been retold countless times over the past two centuries. Katharine Mary Briggs, Italo Calvino and Marina Warner included versions in their classic collections of fairy tales, and writers such as Angela Carter, Terry Pratchett and Carol Ann Duffy have revelled in inventive variations. In recent years, two films of Snow White appeared, Maleficent re-imagined the story of Sleeping Beauty, Sondheim’s Into the Woods was filmed, and Terry Gilliam gave the lives of the brothers themselves a high-spirited storybook twist in The Brothers Grimm. Moreover, the latest anthropological research indicates that the origins of folk tales such as Little Red Riding Hood and Beauty and the Beast can be traced back millennia.

_MG_0534 Shoreditch

Annabel Betts as Little Red Riding Hood in the 2014 production of Grimm Tales at Shoreditch Town Hall

In 2012, Philip Pullman selected fifty of his favourite Grimm Tales to retell. His intention in doing this, he declared, was ‘to produce a version that was as clear as water’. In the same way, my dramatisations seek to retain the limpid and beautifully crafted character of the original stories. The telling of the Tales is shared between an ensemble of performers, who play husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, princes and princesses, wise kings and wicked witches, snakes and birds.

The original productions, drawing on puppetry, movement and music, were a theatrical celebration of live storytelling. At Shoreditch Town Hall, we brought to life the adventures of Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, The Three Snake Leaves, Hans-my-Hedgehog and The Juniper Tree. At Bargehouse, meanwhile, we retold the Tales of The Frog King, or Iron Heinrich, The Three Little Men in the Woods, Thousandfurs, The Goose Girl at the Spring, Hansel and Gretel and Faithful Johannes. Also included in the published volume is my adaptation of The Donkey Cabbage, a story we didn’t find a home for, but is too good to forgo.

This was a deliberately eclectic selection, which embraced a variety of classic story plots – quests and voyages, rags to riches and overcoming monsters – within the core genres of comedy, tragedy, romance… and, sometimes, surrealist farce! Their appeal lay also in how they have echoes of Shakespeare and Ancient Greek tragedy, incorporating as they do rites of passage, ghosts of fathers, animal transformations. And how they embody the themes of human life: births, marriages and deaths; sibling support (or rivalry); parental cruelty; the hardships of poverty; jealousy and desire.

Leda Hodgson and Nessa Matthews in The Goose Girl At The Spring in the 2015 production at Bargehouse on the South Bank

While it is eminently possible to stage these stories in traditional theatre environments, ours was an immersive approach: the audience were divided into groups, and took different journeys through the various parts of the venue. After each Tale, this group was guided by the performers to another space. On their way, they glimpsed images evoking hints of other Tales untold, as they passed through rooms from which other characters seemed to have only just departed – leaving Cinderella’s pile of lentils by an iron stove; Snow White’s glass coffin, along with seven identical small beds; Rumpelstiltskin’s spinning wheel in a shaft of light, in a room with straw on one side and a cloud of gold objects on the other. And so on…

The world of the play was ‘scruffy salvage’: an elemental world of rough-hewn wood, tarnished metal, unrefined cloth. The costumes were tattered, puppets were constructed from found objects, and everyday items were often used in place of the thing described. All were transfomed by the Storytellers’ investment in them. Wooden scrubbing brushes were sewn onto a duffle coat for Hans-my-Hedgehog’s prickly skin; thick rope stood in for Rapunzel’s hair; an enamel coffee pot became a white duck. This approach both ensured that these dark Tales were not prettified, and gave a sense that the performers had drawn on what might lie around them, to supplement and enhance the storytelling. We invited the audience to complete the picture with their imagination.

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The Three Little Men In The Woods, in the Bargehouse production of Grimm Tales

But that is just one approach. There are as many ways to tell a story as there are stories themselves. You only have to look at how the Tales have been illustrated: a brief internet search will reveal endless depictions in different styles, to offer inspiration. A very brief list might include: Elenore Abbott, Angela Barrett, Edward Burne-Jones, Katharine Cameron, Walter Crane, George Cruikshank, Gustave Doré, Edmund Dulac, David Hockney, Franz Jüttner, Margaret Pocock, Evans Price, Arthur Rackham… In recent years, fairy tales have also been drawn upon by a range of artists, from Paula Rego to the fashion photographer Tim Walker.

Although the stories are uncluttered in language and spare in detail, nonetheless they resonate with all manner of human experience. Philip Pullman is right that on the page, the characters appear flat: these are archetypes, defined by their class, profession or role in society. In fairy tales, people are what they do. This does not mean, though, that there is no room for dramatic characterisation. The stories certainly include tension and conflict. And they deal with universal situations, in which the drama often springs from family ties: the characters could be us.

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Simon Wegrzyn as The Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, in the Shoreditch production of Grimm Tales

In German, fairy tales are known as wonder tales, a term that encourages us to celebrate these fantastic characters and episodes in all their eccentric glory, from the picturesque to the grotesque, and from the magical to the mundane – free, above all, from the sanitisation and lavish naturalism of later versions, not least Disney films.

Although the Tales were written down, shaped and curated by the Brothers Grimm, these stories emerged from oral traditions: they have always been intended to be spoken aloud. There is an innate human desire to gather together and listen to a storyteller, or to witness a group reenacting a tale. My approach has been to divide up the voices among a group of Storytellers. Each Tale starts with some variation on ‘Once…’ (the universally agreed way of starting a story), followed by a brief introduction to the key figures and situation – along with their voices. Thereafter, the words are shared in three modes of speech: dialogue, narration and ‘thinking aloud’. Viewpoint and attitude is crucial throughout. Also, you’ll note how characters move from retelling to reliving events: the intention is always to ensure that the story is immediate, is happening right now – not comfortably in the past.

Philip Pullman compares storytelling to jazz, observing that, ‘the substance of the tale is there already, just as the sequence of chords in a song is there ready for a jazz musician, and our task is to step from chord to chord, from event to event, with all the lightness and swing we can.’ That sense of working in tandem with other players, while retaining an improvisatory quality, is key to staging these Tales. It’s all about the ensemble.

Although any number of these Tales can be told, and in any order, in the original productions more familiar stories were performed first, before the audience was led into darker, less-well-known territories: deeper into the forest. Most importantly, these Tales live most when they are imbued with the imaginations of those who are telling them: so it is not only right but crucial that you find your own path through the text.

Whichever route you take, what’s important is what happens next. Philip Pullman has observed that, ‘Swiftness is a great virtue in the fairy tale. A good tale moves with a dreamlike speed from event to event, pausing only to say as much as is needed and no more.’

My intention has been to tell these Tales with a similar economy, clarity and passion.


Tamara von WerthernFrom our Performing Rights Manager, Tamara von Werthern: I’m delighted to announce that amateur performing rights for Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales are now available on application. Like the very popular Arabian Nights by Dominic Cooke, this version of the Tales is a simple but effective adaptation that harnesses the power of storytelling to take audiences into a magical world.

It also offers you great flexibility: there are twelve Tales included in the published playtext, enough for two complete productions, and companies can choose any number and combination to suit their own requirements (the performing rights fee will reflect the number of Tales to be performed). There is also great flexibility in casting. There are more than a hundred potential roles for very large casts, or the play can be staged with just 4f 4m and lots of doubling.

The Tales themselves range from the familiar ones beloved by children everywhere, to the unexpected and yet-to-be-discovered. So there really is something for everyone.

To enquire about performing rights, contact me by email, phone (020 8749 4953) or via the form on our Plays to Perform website.


FormattedPhilip Pullman’s Grimm Tales, adapted for the stage by Philip Wilson, is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy a copy for just £8.79 (RRP £10.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website here.

Production photographs by Tom Medwell.