Interview: Sarah Pitard

While Oscar Wilde is best known for his works for adults, novels like The Picture of Dorian Gray and plays such as The Importance of Being Earnest, he also wrote numerous children’s stories during his lifetime. These fairytales, which he first composed for his two sons, have been staple bedtime reading for generations of families.

Now, American writer and London resident Sarah Pitard has brought together and updated two of Wilde’s best-loved short stories – The Nightingale and the Rose and The Happy Prince– to form a two-act play set in Germany during World War II. Tackling unconditional love and self-sacrifice, Freedom, Books, Flowers, and the Moon is the second show to be staged as part of new repertory company Paradigm Theatre’s inaugural season, ‘The Many Faces of Love’.

Pitard is Paradigm Theatre’s founding artistic director. She also wrote the company’s first show, The Inappropriateness of Love, which was warmly received when it played at the Hen & Chickens in September. Cat Robey, Paradigm Theatre’s resident director, is responsible for bringing both productions to the stage. Earlier this year, she was nominated for an Off West End ‘Offies’ Award for her work on Ondine at the White Bear.

A week before Freedom, Books, Flowers, and the Moonopened at Waterloo East Theatre, I spoke to Pitard about adapting Wilde, the ageism of new-writer programmes and the advantages of being artistic director of London’s only repertory theatre company.

Why adapt Oscar Wilde’s children’s stories?

I have loved Wilde forever, for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, my dad used to read the stories to me; not all of them, but a select few. One of them was The Happy Prince. Every time he got to the end, he couldn’t finish it, because he would choke up with tears. I thought that was just amazing, because I’d never seen my Dad cry before – he never cried! It was fascinating to me that a piece of literature could do that to a person. Even though I was too young to understand the gravity and moral of the story, I knew it was good writing.

Why did you decide against a straightforward adaptation?

I had wanted to do an adaptation for quite some time, but wasn’t sure how. I knew that it was going to be difficult because you’re dealing with animals here – birds and all sorts of non-human things. I wanted to avoid people dressing up like trees! And as I thought about it, I realised that the stories work in the way that they do because so much of it is about imagery; it’s not dramatic in terms of theatre. So I needed to add a layer, to up the action.

Why did you set your adaptation in Germany during the 1940s?

I wrote the act based on The Happy Prince first, and I thought to myself, ‘When would it be illegal for someone to do something kind for another person’? I immediately thought of Germany, gypsies and World War Two and all of these people who were hiding people in their homes. And I thought, ‘that’s it, that’s what I’m going to do’. After The Happy Prince, I adapted Rose, because both stories were about birds and they were quite complementary. They go together really beautifully, and it works well. No one really talks much about the gypsies at that time. They’re the forgotten group.

What do you see as the appeal of fairytales?

They’re available to everyone. Anybody can listen to a fairytale and be amazed by them. And with this project, it was about juxtaposing the fairytale with the harsh reality of Nazi Germany – finding kindness and beauty in a time that was anything but kind and beautiful.

What prompted you to create Paradigm Theatre?

I moved to the UK and got my MA for writing for stage and broadcast media at Central. I graduated and realised immediately afterwards that I had passed the deadlines to apply for any of the young writers’ programmes, because I had just turned 26. Suddenly, it wasn’t really an option anymore. London theatre is quite ageist in terms of the way that they accept new writing and new playwrights. They really only help you if you’re under 25. So I thought, ‘I’m just going to start producing my own stuff.’ I’ve never really trusted submissions. You have to wait for ages, and I’m not very patient. I always want to do it now!

What was your next step?

I had a short play on at a little festival, asked Cat Robey if she’d direct it and contacted various actors that had been recommended to me or that I had seen in productions. The show went down incredibly well, and we had such an amazing time, I thought: ‘You know what, this is it – theatre is people, and these are people I want to be working with’. That had never happened to me before. So I invited them to make a company, and told them I wanted it to be a repertory company – the only one in London!

What are the benefits of being a repertory company?

Basically, it prevents us from ever going without working. I think in this economic climate, at this point, a lot of actors – especially women, and we’re a company of women – aren’t getting work because there are so many of them. And a lot of bigger theatres have become very particular. They will only take people from a certain school. So this is a way for me to guarantee everyone in the company work, all the time, all year.

Do you think it enriches the audience’s experience as well?

Yes, I do. I think that audiences find it fascinating. Also, if they like the company and the work, then they will trust that every time we do a show, it’ll be good. They know that they’ll always have an outlet to see fringe theatre they’ll enjoy.

Why did Paradigm Theatre choose ‘love’ as its first-season theme?

We are really selective about our actors when we cast externally. It’s been great because we’ve not had a single bad experience with anyone so far, because of that. So to make love the theme of our first season is a reflection of our compassion for the people we work with, and that we’re nice people! We also looked at the plays we had and thought about what it was that was similar about them. We chose the pieces to complement each other.

Why is Waterloo East the right venue for this production?

We are doing this at Waterloo East because the train runs over the theatre. That sounds weird, but because the play centres on people being carted away in trains to concentration camps, we thought that these would be great acoustic triggers for what we were trying to convey artistically. It’s never going to be something that’s ignored by the actors. And the tunnels themselves are quite secluded and hidden, which is exactly what the characters are experiencing.

Why should people come to the show?

Anybody who is a Wilde fan should come and see it. This is the first time these short stories have been adapted in this way. It’s not a direct adaptation – only 10-15% of the lines in the play are actually from the stories. It will be interesting for people to spot the differences. I also think it will be good for school kids who are studying World War Two, and for their parents and teachers. And if people don’t know Wilde’s short stories, they should definitely to come see this. If they like it, they might want to read more – and they’re all brilliant.

Freedom, Books, Flowers, and the Moon is at Waterloo East Theatre from 6 to 25 November. For more information, and to buy tickets, see:

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