Stories to bring communities together

The cast of Wonderful Beast performing Orla's Moon for their young audience. Photo Denise Brady

The cast of Wonderful Beast performing Orla's Moon for their young audience. Photo Denise Brady - Credit: Archant

Rural touring theatre company Wonderful Beast loves telling a good story and winning the hearts of the community. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to artistic director Alys Kihl about their discovery of a new audience.

The cast of Wonderful Beast performing Orla's Moon for their young audience. Photo Denise Brady

The cast of Wonderful Beast performing Orla's Moon for their young audience. Photo Denise Brady - Credit: Archant

For theatre-makers across the country, reaching new audiences, entertaining people of all ages and all backgrounds is an essential part of what they do.

But, for Aldeburgh-based touring company Wonderful Beast they have found a new, responsive audience in an unexpected area – not just mothers and toddlers but mothers and new borns.

Artistic director Alys Kihl said that the company has always been about the power of storytelling and re-connecting audiences with folktales and stories which come from a shared sense of cultural heritage.

But, this latest venture came about as a result of a residency at the Snape Maltings to come up with a new show to reach an under-served audience.

The cast of Wonderful Beast performing Orla's Moon for their young audience. Photo Denise Brady

The cast of Wonderful Beast performing Orla's Moon for their young audience. Photo Denise Brady - Credit: Archant

“We are extending our reach and we are very grateful that the Snape Maltings gave us time and space to develop this new show. We did a show in 2015 called Orla and the Sun which we toured throughout Babergh and Mid-Suffolk and we found that there was a huge demand from young families for lively, engaging theatre aimed at young children.”

Orla’s Moon is a follow-up to that show and is deliberately aimed at children 0-3 years. “Nearly every show was free and it did help to being people from all backgrounds together and bring lots of people who had never seen live theatre before.

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“We did work with the Seagull Theatre in Lowestoft and they had some amazing feedback from families with very young children who, traditionally, have been very hard to reach.

“We have a very gifted team and very knowledgeable about their audience and they manage to hold the attention of an audience, aging from five months to three years, which is no mean feat.”

The cast of Wonderful Beast performing Orla's Moon for their young audience. Photo Denise Brady

The cast of Wonderful Beast performing Orla's Moon for their young audience. Photo Denise Brady - Credit: Archant

But, for Alys and Wonderful Beast working with toddlers and babies is only part of what community engagement means to them. They are working with three primary schools – Aldeburgh, Leiston and Snape – to develop a project to commemorate the ground-breaking achievements of sisters Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Millicent Fawcett.

“The resulting plays will be performed at the three local primary schools in November. We will be using drama, creative writing and poetry to examine the lives of the Garrett sisters, looking at their early Aldeburgh childhood and how Elizabeth overcame terrible opposition in her quest to become a doctor and how Millicent tirelessly campaigned to get women the vote.

“The aim is to bring the Garrett sisters to life in a way that only drama can, to take them out of the history book and make them live. We want to show how their achievements are relevant to a younger generation.

“It will also be a fantastic opportunity for young people to work with leading local poet Dean Parkin who will be our workshop leader.”

Alys Kihl, Artistic Director of the Wonderful Beasts Theatre Company on Aldeburgh beach

Alys Kihl, Artistic Director of the Wonderful Beasts Theatre Company on Aldeburgh beach

Wonderful Beast are also embracing stories of a much more contemporary nature by starting up a pilot project called Sharing Stories which finds Alys and her team working with recent arrivals from Europe who are employed in local hotels and restaurants.

“We pride ourselves on reaching out to people of all ages, from all walks of life but what about the mainly young people who work in hospitality – people who have here mainly from Eastern Europe for a better life – so what do we know about their stories? So with support from Thorpeness and Aldeburgh Hotels we started having evening sessions and inviting anyone to come and have a drink, a nice social time but to also tell us their story.

“And it is really taken off. We have had sad stories, funny stories, amazing stories and we have found that their confidence is growing as we meet up every week and some, whose English is not so good, have been given free English lessons from our volunteers.”

She said that the stories are in the process of being woven into a script for a forthcoming play or tour.

Alys added that Wonderful Beast will end their autumn season with a community tour of Return of the Wildman, the story of a Suffolk merman caught by fishermen off Orford in the early 13th century.

“It’s a lovely ancient story rooted in Suffolk’s folklore. We first performed the play at HighTide in 2015 and now we are able to give it a full community tour in October and November which will include Orford Castle, the scene of the story.

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