Interview: The Wrong Crowd

The Girl with the Iron Claws, The Wrong Crowd’s brilliant mix of live performance and puppetry, was a huge hit at last year’s Edinburgh Festival. The Guardian praised it as a show “that proves Kneehigh hasn’t cornered the market in putting wonder back into fairytales.”

Now, this captivating tale, an inspired retelling of the Nordic myth of the White Bear King which shares its roots with Beauty and the Beast, is back. It will play at London’s Soho Theatre from Sunday 22 April to Saturday 5 May, before moving on to the Brighton Fringe 2012 as part of a ten-week tour of the UK.

A week before press night, I caught up with The Wrong Crowd co-founders writer/director Hannah Mulder and designer/puppet director Rachael Canning to discuss the show’s appeal, their love of puppetry and the pleasure of transporting audiences to somewhere they have never been before.

What inspired The Girl with the Iron Claws?

HM: A couple of years ago I found myself huddled with a group of others around a wood furnace in a yurt in Dartmoor in midwinter, listening to a storyteller called Martin Shaw, who runs The School of Myth. He told us the story and I just really loved it. When Rachael and I decided to set up the company, I told her about it and we agreed that it should be our first show.

Why did it so appeal to you?

HM: It’s a very powerful story about a strong female protagonist who isn’t willing to conform to what her family and society are offering in terms of what she ought to do with her life. She’s a little bit wild, willful and different and tends to wander off into the forest. Once she gets herself into an adventure, she’s can’t turn back. That’s what sums up her coming of age. Not all of these sorts of stories would work on the stage, but this had a really great dramatic structure. It also had great visual potential and wasn’t that well known. It’s from a tradition of stories with similar motifs, such as the one in which the heroine wears out three pairs of iron shoes looking for her beloved.

Does it have a different vocabulary and rhythm to the fairytales we’re used to?

HM: Yes, I think so. These stories are from the outskirts of Europe and beyond. Traditionally, the fairytales that have come down to us have have tended to be from Western European collections. They’re the ones that have been taken up by Disney, made slightly two dimensional and thought of as being for children. We really wanted to tell stories that work for both adults and children – for people at every stage of their life – as maps for how to live more soulfully.

Many well-known fairytales were re-written and ‘sanitized’ by the Victorians. Why do you think this was?

HM: The Victorians Christianized a lot of stores because they wanted to create a world where there were good people and bad people, rather than exploring the idea that all of us are both good and bad inside. The earlier versions of these stories have a greater sense of that. They have nuance and complexity.

RC: They’re quite dark, with a lot of shadow in them. They also have dark characters that are actually quite powerful. The Victorians tended to strip the power from dark characters because they couldn’t deal with their wildness. In The Girl with the Iron Claws, the heroine is wild and quite naughty; while the character you might consider to be the evil one is quite nuanced. It’s really about the heroine learning to integrate her power on her journey to adulthood.

Was reclaiming these stories part of the reason you formed The Wrong Crowd?

HM: It kind of evolved into that. But in the end what interests us are projects that are driven by story. As a company, I don’t think that we would ever want to restrict ourselves to making one type of work. But it’s a rich seam and we do want to mine it for a while.

RC: More than anything else, we had a feel for the kind of shows we would make as collaborators – amazing material that would make great visual work.

Why the name, ‘The Wrong Crowd’?

HM: It’s a brilliant example of how Rachael and I collaborate! We were brainstorming around the idea of disobedience and rebelling, just messing around with phrases. I said that it was like ‘falling in with the wrong crowd’ and Rach said, ‘That’s it!’ The name also describes us as a duo. We are very different and have different ideas, which is what works so well. And now we really are part of a crowd, with a producer, a composer and a lighting designer. We like to work creatively with people again and again. And in a sense, our audiences are part of the wrong crowd, our gang, as well.

Why did you feel that the story would be suited to a mix of live performers and puppetry?

HM: There are several sides to that. First, there are a lot of aspects, like the animal transformations, that would be hard to do any other way. Puppets also enabled us to show the emotional transformation that happens to the key dark character, the Troll Queen, who grows into a monstrous form. And when we came together as collaborators we always knew that we wanted to work with puppetry.

RC: I’d worked with puppets for quite a while in my design work and had been doing an increasing amount of puppetry direction and designing. It reached the point where I wanted to do my own stuff and the characters in this story just lent themselves so well to that. You could never make the Troll Queen as monstrous as she needs to be with just an actor in a costume. Using a puppet added another level. And actually it isn’t full-form; it’s only a part – the head and two hands – which means the audience has to fill in the rest. I think that’s more powerful, having to use your imagination.

Why do puppets interest you so much?

RC: I started as a kid with puppets. I used to make lots of bits and pieces and I’ve always been interested in manipulation. When I went to college, I did it there and have kept it in my work since. On stage, puppetry lets you take a story further and in different directions.

HM: I’d always loved puppetry but hadn’t really worked that much with it. So that was really exciting. You can do things with puppets that you can’t with actors. And in this high-tech world, the inherent theatrical magic of breathing life into something inanimate – without needing any sophisticated technology – is wonderful. It’s reassuring to be reminded of what we can do without a computer screen!

Improbable’s Julian Crouch has talked about finding character and story in the physical process of making puppets. Is that also your experience?

RC: Yes, I do that a lot. For instance, when I first made the bear head as part of the R&D for The Girl with Iron Claws, it had a strong melancholic feel that I knew I would want to replicate later. It’s kind of instinctive with me. That’s when the character comes out.

HM: Rach and I will talk about a story and think it through, but then we’ll go off and see where our thoughts take us separately. Writing is my way of letting ideas emerge and designing and making is Rach’s. After a while, we’ll get together and see what comes from that meeting of writing and making.

Do you treat the puppets as props or performers?

HM: As performers, definitely. They’re characters in themselves, never just props. We work with the puppets in the same way that we work with the actors on their characters. We do exercises and improvisations where the actors play the characters of the puppets so they understand their movements and internal rhythm. Then we get them to watch each other doing it and feed that work into the show.

RC: I can’t even describe how much it annoys me when people call puppets props! You have to take your time with them. That’s why we set aside specific directing time just to think about their characteristics and movements; discovering all those little details that will make the show better in the end.

What do you hope an audience’s experience of this show will be?

HM: It is really about being transported to another place and another world. I think these stories do something at quite a deep and not necessarily conscious level. Hopefully, people will be moved and emotionally shifted around by it. They might leave feeling like they love people on the Tube that little bit more!

RC: One review in Edinburgh said that watching it was like walking into a fairytale for the first time. It’s important to us that we make work that involves the audience internally. We want to engage them with the puppets, like the actors, to create the feeling that we’re all doing this together. And we really hope it’ll appeal to adults as well as children.

So what’s up next after The Girl with the Iron Claws?

HM: We’ve already done part of the R&D for our second show. We’re not going to reveal what it is yet, but we’re working with some dark stories in a similar vein to The Girl with the Iron Claws.

RC: But this one will be even more insane!

The Girl with the Iron Claws will be at Soho Theatre from 22 April to 5 May. For more information and to buy tickets, see:

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