Preview: The
Snow Queen

Femke Colborne talks to a theatre company that makes it all about the kids

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Never work with children or animals. It’s one of the most famous sayings in show business, and for good reason; but that hasn’t deterred Huddersfield-based theatre company Tell Tale Hearts. For the past eight years, the company has been devising productions that not only appeal to children but involve them directly in the action, inviting them on to the stage and encouraging them to become part of the story.

This Christmas, Tell Tale Hearts will stage a new production of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen at the Civic in Barnsley and the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield. It is the company’s biggest production to date, and is expected to draw audiences of up to 300 – much bigger than the usual crowds the company performs to in small theatres, community centres and schools.

But according to Natasha Holmes, artistic director of Tell Tale Hearts, the company has still found ways of making the production interactive and participatory.

“This is a huge challenge because we are used to audiences of about 50,” she says. “We have had to think hard about how we can still make them feel it is an interactive experience, and we have had to change the environment of the theatre to include the audience more. We are hanging various constructions and materials in the auditorium so that they feel part of the design, that the boundary doesn’t stop at the stage.”

Christmas will come early for two lucky children when they get to star in a scene as Kai and Gerda, who fall in love and must defeat the wicked Snow Queen for the chance to see each other again. Other interactive elements will include songs with audience participation as well as a scene where actors pull children around the stage on cloth sledges. “It’s a bit like a traditional pantomime with a bit of audience interaction to make it an inclusive experience,” says Holmes.

As preparation for the show, Tell Take Hearts carried out workshops at Silkstone Primary School in Barnsley. Actors worked with two groups of children, the first between four and five years old and the second 10 and over. The children were split into groups and asked to come up with ideas for the show. “We made sure we incorporated ideas from both age groups,” says Holmes.

Towards the end of the story Kai has to solve a puzzle, and the answer spells the word “eternity”. “That’s quite a difficult concept for children to understand so we asked them to suggest their own words. Those are the words we will be using in the show.”

Tell Tale Hearts was co-founded in 1997 by Holmes and Isabel Caballero to make theatre for adults with an emphasis on the visual and physical. Holmes was also working as an actor at the time, and soon began to realise her priorities were changing.

“I was doing a lot of work acting freelance for children’s theatre, and I began to feel more passionate about that than about my own work,” she says. “So in 2003 we changed the company but kept the same name.”

Far from being the nightmare it is renowned to be, Holmes finds working with children highly rewarding. “Young children don’t see the world how we see it,” she says. “Their imagination is so rich; when they see a performance their engagement is absolutely complete. There is a real sense of awe and magic, and that’s a sense of magic we are all trying to find at Christmas.

“When you are making work for children, it has to be fun and entertaining. It is really challenging to look at those things, and that is humbling and valuable – in adult theatre, so often that aspect is lost. That doesn’t mean theatre can’t deal with complex issues, but you shouldn’t lose sight of how to engage with the audience, otherwise you are missing the point of what theatre can do.”

The Snow Queen, Civic, Barnsley, 2-9 Dec; Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, 12-14 Dec

Photo image: Gavin Joynt

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