Portuguese Fairy Tale Theatre: The Art of Transformation
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Portuguese Fairy Tale Theatre: The Art of Transformation
Quote:by Howard Gayton


In the autumn of 2006, I was asked to direct a group of drama students from the ESMAE theatre school in Porto, Portugal, in their third year theatre production. It was to be performed for children from six to eleven years old, and was to be a 'devised' show (i.e., a show whose text and stage movements were to be created by myself and the students). I decided to base the play on a Portuguese fairy tale, so I put out a request for stories on the Surlalune website's fairy tale discussion board, via Terri Windling, and received two good collections.

I chose a story called 'The Big Fish,' in part because Porto is by the sea and I wanted a sea theme, and in part because the story seemed to lend itself to an ensemble interpretation, with enough parts for all the students. (For a short synopsis of the story, click here.) I had taught at the school previously, and had seen the theatre that the show was to be produced in. There were three alcoves on either side of the audience, and I had the idea of immersing the audience in each of the three kingdoms described in the story — the Kingdoms of the Fish, Birds and Seals — by the use of lights and image, and of having simple scenery made up of muslin curtains and wooden boxes.

I had the opportunity to explore themes from the story further at the World Fantasy Convention in Madison, Wisconsin. I attended a panel discussion by Terri Windling, Jane Yolen, and other folklorists talking about how one might use the motifs of classic fairy tales to make modern stories. This inspired me to realise that I needn't adhere strictly to the plot of 'The Big Fish.' but had the freedom to play with it and bring other fairy tale motifs into the show. I also talked with novelist Midori Snyder about the symbolism of the three sisters in the story who are taken away by the Big Fish. In terms of the story's deeper meaning, they can be interpreted as parts of the boy. They need to go off, in a sense be sacrificed, in order for him to have his quest.

Before I went out to Porto to commence the project, I had a sequence of discussions with Terri Windling, talking through the story and some of the visual ideas I had about possible scenes. I decided that in my version of the story, the old man in the tower had cast a spell over the three kings to transform them into the animals. The spell stipulated that if their wives ever left them, then the three kings would die. The hero is then set a task by the three kings to retrieve three animal skins from the tower in order to break the old man's spell. I envisioned a "Dorian Grey" scenario, with the old man keeping himself alive by having these pelts. Another change in my version is that the Fish gives the fisherman the three items, not money, when he takes the daughters so that the family is still poor at the start of the boy's adventure. This way I can cut the encounter with the three brothers, which theatrically seems to go nowhere.

This was my thinking before going to Portugal to start work. What follows is my diary of events over the next five weeks as the cast, the crew and I worked to bring the fairy tale to life in a dramatic context.

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Send me the pillow... The one that you dream on.
2013 Apr 14 07:44

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