Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Suitcase Dramaturgy: Beth Dawson @ Edfringe 2016

Written by Jacqueline Wilson, adapted by Vicky Ireland
Directed by Beth Dawson
Performed by ETC.
5th-13th August (excl. 7th) @theSpace on Niddry Street (v9)
14.25pm (running at 1 hour)

Spending one week at Mum’s house and then one week at Dad’s, Andy feels as though she lives out of a suitcase, so she escapes into her imagination and into the wonder of her memories of Mulberry Cottage. 

This moving, magical and engaging family show by Children’s Laureate and bestselling author, Dame Jacqueline Wilson, is a musical journey seen through the eyes of Andy and her rabbit friend, Radish, as they learn to adjust to their new homes after Andy’s parents’ divorce.

What was the inspiration for this performance?

The book 'The Suitcase Kid' was well-known to some of our company. In particular its positive messages about blended families appealed and I had read it with my own daughter when she had to get used to having two homes. It has a 'gritty' feel to it too - it's not laid-back easy viewing - there are some difficult issues tackled and we like the fact that it doesn't try to provide a 'right answer' or patronise. It sort of says: yes, blended families are hard to get used to, but it can work. But in a colourful and imaginative way which will appeal to families.

How did you go about gathering the team for it?
We are quite a well-established team and have previously brought work to the festival in 2011 and 2013. We work together full time so our process has become instinctive and intuitive and we often don't even need to speak out ideas out loud any more. We all read the book and had to come up with one word to initiate our ideas - colour was chosen by all five of us. We work with large, young casts. Auditioning for this show was fun because we included puppeteering, workshopping, singing and acting - looking for multi-skilled performers who did not appear to patronise. 

As soon as you say "This is a family show", there is a tendency for auditionees to become melodramatic and lose the truth of the dialogue. We were lucky to find some fantastic performers who make up a large ensemble cast of eighteen - a big number for a fringe show. There are four cast members who were part of our last Edinburgh performance; The Shakespeare Revue, so they understand the way we work and what we look for. We are always searching for a cast who will gel and create a true sense of team. That's very important to us because we are a large team of creatives. In theatre, the more eyes and voices, the better!

How did you become interested in making performance?

We are a really busy company and we make a range of performances from contemporary verbatim pieces to traditional musicals. Ideas come from our five directors and sometimes from members of the company. Then one of us takes the lead as director of a given production. As the director of The Suitcase Kid, I've been making performances for a long time, and as my own tastes have changed and my own family has grown, I've become more interested in making performance for families. 

It's about generating a young audience for theatre and catching them with the wonder and magic at a young age. It's also about the willingness of children to suspend their disbelief so that you can create moments which engender gasps or smiles. The family audience is more vocal so the rewards for a performer or designer/director can be more immediate.

Was your process typical of the way that you make a performance?

Yes. I always start with a visual image and we were lucky that Nick Sharratt (illustrator for Jacqueline Wilson) has allowed us to use some of his images. They are vibrant and bold and this automatically gave us a starting point for the performance, which we want to be equally as bright. 

From the initial image we were able to design costumes, stage furniture and set and we use a 'puzzle piece' approach where we look at creating 'moments' of wonder - in this performance these are the snow, the lake sailing and a tiny house inside a tree. We work as a team of MD, designer, puppeteer and director to imagine and interpret these key moments and then we full in the blanks - the moments around them, once we get the company together in July. 

We cast early (December) and keep the cast informed of all design progress so that they arrive to us in July with lines learnt and a sense of the overall aesthetic. Then it's just about seeing if the ideas work in practise. Of course, being an Edinburgh performance in a small venue with only a three hour tech rehearsal can limit us more than when we have the theatre for a week before our London shows, but we try not to let it.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

Something which literally makes them open their eyes. The colour palette we are using for this show is like a cartoon, like 60s pop-art. There's nothing quite like the feeling of watching the wide-eyed engagement of children at the theatre and that's what we are aiming for. It means that you can tackle tough content and issues, once that engagement is in place. On a personal level as a keen advocate of all that collaborative co-parenting can do in a blended family, I hope that message gets through too.

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?
We love to experiment with puppetry, song, magic and light effects. Particularly with recent developments in LED technology, lighting effects are now more portable; a massive advantage in an Edinburgh show. We work with a puppet-maker who is also a magician and his ideas help us with the 'moments'. 

A well-placed song or piece of music can also help plan for a response from the audience. In this performance there is one song, sung by Andy, the central character, which is poignant and moving and breaks up the lighter parts of the show. We focus on crafting a range of emotional responses - in this way we can also appeal to a wider age range and ensure that adults who are watching aren't bored! 

So many times I've taken my own children to a 'kids show' and been thoroughly disengaged. It's a common error of family theatre to forget that parents/adults have to sit through the show too! That's why this performance hopefully packs an emotive punch as well as being entertaining.

Do you see your work within any particular tradition?
The style of the show is essentially protagonist self-narration, in the same first-person wording as the book itself. This means we see things through the lens of a child, which offers scope to be more imaginative. We were heavily influenced by 'Full House Theatre Company' and their family style. 

There is a mix of song, fantasy sequences and traditional dialogue, so in that way this could be seen as musical theatre. Puppetry has a long historical tradition of use in storytelling and can transcend language and age barriers, so we are excited by its potential to story-tell.

Based on the 1992 novel which won the Children’s Book Award and was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, The Suitcase Kid has been adapted for the stage by top children’s playwright, Vicky Ireland.

The play is a funny and reassuring look at blended families and is told through magic, puppetry and song. Performed by a large company, this bright, colourful production will enchant and delight family audiences with children over the age of seven. 

The Suitcase Kid will be performed at theSpace on Niddry Street from 5th to 13th August (excl. 5th) at 14.25pm.

Jacqueline Wilson's bestseller is brought to life with puppetry and song by a large cast. Vicky Ireland's exciting adaptation tells the story of young Andy and her rabbit friend, Radish, as they adjust to their new homes following her parents’ divorce. With moments of magic and colourful wonder, this vibrant story by the Children’s Laureate will engage and delight. After sell-out successes in our last two visits to the Festival, ETC returns with a family show suitable for children aged seven and up.

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