Ask a child what they want from a Christmas show and you’d get a cross between Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Axe Cop, with added fart jokes, right? Not so, says Tell Tale Hearts‘ Director and playwright Natasha Holmes. The company, which devises theatre productions for children, has been working with a local school to develop ideas for its Christmas show, The Snow Queen. Holmes spoke to AYT’s Eleanor Turney about the show.

Tell me a bit about your usual process – how has The Snow Queen rehearsal/research process been different?

We usually devise shows based on an idea or concept of the Artistic Director. Before developing these ideas fully we always embark on a research and development process that usually lasts for approximately one week, and involves the whole production team and actors. Perhaps unusually, we also always work with children of the target age. When developing The Snow Queen, we used exactly the same process with children from a local primary school in Barnsley. What was different about the process of The Snow Queen was that the ideas were then subsequently scripted into the adaptation. So at the start of rehearsals we already had a working script. Usually when we devise shows I have a loose story board but no script as a lot of the show is presented without words!

Are you nervous/excited about playing the larger stage of the Lawrence Batley Theatre? How has the space influenced your work?

I am extremely excited about playing the larger stage at the LBT. Our promenade style productions (although small-scale) have been an excellent training ground for learning how to use space creatively and imaginatively. Having a larger stage to play on means that we have a greater palette with which to play… that’s an exciting prospect for any artist. The main challenge is in making sure that a much larger audience can still have the same sense of intimacy from the performance even when staged on a much larger scale. Staging the show in the round ensures that no matter where the audience are seated they are never too far from the action! We have a fantastic production team who have plenty of experience of working in larger scale venues so that helps us as a company to make that leap of faith into the mid-scale.

Could you talk about the work you’ve done with local children? How did it work? How was it organised? Was it difficult to get parental permissions and to get the children involved?

Firstly we have to get the school on board! This was easy because the school approached [Silkstone Primary in Barnsley] has had a long standing relationship with the company since seeing our second show, Beneath the Waves. I then agree with my contact teacher the outline of the project and how it will work. For The Snow Queen, we worked with two classes (year four and reception class). Initially, I made a visit to each class to introduce them to the story. This involved me telling them the story as accurately as possible, but from heart. We then did some drama games around certain scenes and characters, and I started asking them questions about the characters and scenes and what they meant to them. The following week the whole creative team came to the school, including actors, writer, designer and director. We split each class into two and set pairs of artists specific parts of the story to research either in a dramatic or visual way. The outcome of these workshops then helped to shape the subsequent devising and adaptation of the story. Getting parental permissions for use of photographs is always a bit of an issue but I think most parents really see the greater learning value of these types of projects and are happy for their children to participate within such a creative process.

Tell me about your relationship with the schools – how important has this been?

Our relationship to the partner school is crucial to the success of the project. Our time with the children is not about us delivering some specific learning goal (although the children’s learning is enormous from a project like this) but about us learning from them. It’s very important that the school and class teachers understand this basic difference, so that they don’t think they are getting a free workshop. We always ensure that the original children involved in the R&D [Research and Development] see the result of the partnership and can see the development of the piece from the research phase into a full production.

Would you work in this way again? What have been the challenges? What have been the high and low points?

I would definitely work in this way again, and I know a lot of the artists we work with value our process enormously. The main challenges are staying flexible enough to be able to shift your ideas in another direction. The high points have to be sharing the outcome of the project with the children. When you see their faces and their recognition of some of their ideas in the actual production it is absolute gold! The low points? Hard to say! I love what I do, and I think I am hugely privileged to be able to do it. So, it is a lot of additional work to work in this way, but it is absolutely worth it.

What have you learnt? What has working in this way added to the finished show? What advice do you have for others wanting to work in this way in the future?

I’ve learnt how to listen and observe children. To try to understand what they are saying even if they can’t yet use words or express themselves articulately. I don’t always get it right, but I am getting better at it. I often feel that children are hugely underestimated in our adult world. I think that working in this way has brought a whole new perspective to some of the scenes in the show and has certainly brought about a much richer, imaginative production to the stage. My advice to others who are interested in this way of working is to give it a go. Recognise the children as artists (as Picasso did) and develop your way of helping to bring about the best of their ideas and perspectives on the world. If you can do this then you truly do have a whole new wonderful world to explore!

Natasha Holmes is Director of Tell Tale Hearts theatre company. The Snow Queen is at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield until Saturday 24 December. For more information and tickets, visit the website here.

Image credit: Tell Tale Hearts