Pupils who made sure fairy tale really is child’s play

Artistic director of the Lawrence Batley Theatre Victoria Firth, left, and artistic director of Tell Tale Hearts Natasha Holmes
Artistic director of the Lawrence Batley Theatre Victoria Firth, left, and artistic director of Tell Tale Hearts Natasha Holmes

With a new production of The Snow Queen about to open, Sarah Freeman speaks to the creative team behind the collaboration

Natasha Holmes knows that when you decide to involve children in the production of a new play, you should leave any preconceived ideas at the door.

A few months ago the artistic director of children’s theatre company Tell Tale Hearts began the process of adapting Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen for the stage.

However, instead of sitting in front of the computer and shutting herself off from the rest of the world, Natasha decided to ask primary school children in Barnsley not only what they thought of the story, but how, given the chance, they would bring it to life.

“The first thing I did was sit down and tell them the story,” she says. “Every so often I would stop and ask them questions about what they thought would happen next, what they imagined the various locations of the story looked like and how they thought the various characters would react to various situations and it all spiralled from there.”

In this production the story of how Gerda travels through icy landscapes via floral glades and deep forests to defeat the evil Snow Queen and rescue her friend Kaj is recreated by the sprites of Andersen’s original story. When we speak, Natasha is just coming to the end of rehearsals and admits many of her initial ideas were shelved after the workshops with the children.

“Originally the set was going to be based on roof tops which could be changed into the various different landscapes,” she says. “However, during one of the workshops a group was playing around with giant letters and suddenly they became caves, trap doors and just about anything else you could imagine.

“All of us were really taken with the idea and those giant letters now form the basis of the final set.”

Putting on elaborate children’s theatre is not easy in an age of budget cuts. However, The Snow Queen is a joint production between Tell Tale, the Civic in Barnsley and Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre, which has allowed resources to be pooled. However, like much of Tell Tale’s back catalogue, there are no expensive special effects and no 3D glasses required.

“In the past I think there has been a tendency to underestimate children’s intellectual understanding. They don’t need to be spoon fed theatre, you really just need to fire their imaginations. Children spend most of their time playing and coming up with incredible stories and that’s what they really respond to on stage.

“I loved the story of The Snow Queen when I was a child, but revisiting it now it made me realise that one of the great things about it is that it doesn’t patronise or belittle children in any way, and I hope we have done it justice.

“There has been a bit of renaissance in children’s theatre in recent years, which is partly down to the internet and the fact we have the ability to share ideas and see what’s going on in other parts of the world, but it’s also down to the hard work of organisations like Earlyarts, based in Holmfirth and Theatre For Young Audiences which have really raised the bar of children’s theatre.

“There’s always a bit of a last minute panic that the audience won’t get what you’ve done, but I’m as confident as I can be that this show is not only true to Hans Christian Andersen’s book, but also to the children who have had so much input into its production.”

The Snow Queen opens in Barnsley this Friday before moving to the Lawerence Batley Theatre and in both venues it will be performed in the round.

“Part of my job is to push the boundaries of what the theatre can do,” says Victoria Firth, director and chief executive of Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre.

“Putting this show on in the round is part of that and it also helps create a really intimate atmosphere where the children really feel part of what’s happening on stage.

“We have done a lot of work over the last few years to get families from around the area engaged with what’s going on in the theatre and that is really starting to pay off.

“For a theatre like ours, Christmas has always been a bit tricky, because financially we can’t afford to buy a lavish production straight off the peg. However, there is something incredibly rewarding about working on a project like this where you produce something really quite magical from scratch.”

In fact, the only thing that could dampen spirits is if the snow, which caused massive headaches for theatres up and down the country the last two years, returns.

“We now have an emergency plan to make sure the theatre is open and the cast can get in,” says Victoria.

“The actress playing The Snow Queen is actually staying with me, so whatever happens I’ve said that I will get her to the theatre even if I have to drag her there on a sleigh.”

The Snow Queen, Barnsley Civic, December 2-9. 01226 327000. Lawrence Batley Theatre, December 12-24. 01484 430528.

Classic story of good and evil

The Snow Queen was first published by Hans Christian Andersen in 1845 and is widely considered to be one of his best stories.

The story revolves around a young girl called Gerda who goes in search of her best friend Kaj when he falls under the spell of a mirror which reflects only evil. Once imprisoned by the Snow Queen in her icy palace, Gerda has to defeat various enemies before securing the help of a magic reindeer.

The story has been adapted for film and television numerous times, including a 2005 British animation for which Patrick Stewart and Juliet Stevenson provided the voices.