Tell Tale Hearts

Imagination Stage invited me back to work with Kate Bryer and the Imagination Stage team to develop our collaboration, Inside Out, ready for final stage rehearsals next year.  We had a draft script that both Kate and I wanted to pick our way through and develop some additional scenarios.  We decided to stick with the concept of giving all children who see the show a laundry bag with three items that they will use during the show; a T-shirt for folding, a sock to find its matching pair and animate in the sock dance and a glove to become their fish!  The performance has been developed in a horse shoe configuration to enable the children to easily get up and become involved as well as to sit on clearly marked spots for the performative parts of the show.

Imagination Stage wanted a definite narrative for this show, so we looked at developing the narrative scenario that had been so strong from our first phase of development – Julia’s lost special scarf.  We wanted to reverse the social stereotype of boys being messy and girls being orderly and therefore changed the character roles within the piece.  Bradley was now playing the tidy and organised boy who inadvertently loses his special hat during the course of his play with his messy younger sister – Megan!   The two characters then go on a wild and wonderful adventure to find the missing hat inspired by the worlds you can create and what creatures you can find through playing with & animating clothes.  

Our sharing on Friday included staff from Imagination Stage and invited parents with children aged between 1 – 5 years to come and see the fruits of our play.  We used mock ups from the costume store and workshop, so that we could use the week to determine exactly what was needed in order to inform the set & costume design process.  So, without the enhancement of lighting and using these rudimentary mock ups, we were really able to test the content of the show to see if it would really engage the children and parents; and most importantly would the children connect with the emotional content of the piece as we hoped?

The children who came were clearly engrossed and particularly loved the sock bombs, the creature who found different identities through trying on different shoes & the sock dance.  But what was really fantastic for Kate and I was to see the children’s faces during the emotionally charged moments of the show; even the baby aged 18 months was clearly following the emotional journey of the lost hat and its impact on Bradley.  They clearly understood why he was upset & their body language showed that they empathised with him (particularly the boys).  Watching their expressive eyes and faces really showed us that they were taking away so much more than just entertainment from the experience.  I would love to know more about how they respond to the show… and I would love more children to be able to see it…

So, we plan to produce it on two continents: Imagination Stage in the US, and Tell Tale Hearts in the UK.  The show will be premiered at Imagination Stage in March 2014, and in the UK in autumn 2014.  Hopefully many more children will be able to access and identify with the show.


Inside out - Tidy up time!

Peg your clothes to the clothes line to make a new landscape!

Inside Out – collaboration with Imagination Stage to research and develop a new show for early years inspired by children’s relationship to clothes and getting dressed.

Some memories of what clothes meant to Bradley Foster Smith as a kid

Some memories of what clothes meant to Bradley Foster Smith as a kid

 Team of artists: Kate Bryer – Producing Artistic Director (I.S)

Natasha Holmes – Artistic Director (TTH)

Julia Patterson – early childhood mentor / performer (I.S)

Bradley Foster Smith – performer (freelance)

Zac Gilbert – Lighting and design (I.S)

Tim Guillot – Music (freelance)

Megan Godfrey – apprentice (I.S)

My 2nd week in DC was spent sharing Tell Tale Hearts’ process in developing a new show for very young children with children!  The first day was an opportunity for the team of seven to bond over shared insights into what clothes meant to them.  Kate Bryer, Julia Patterson and myself jointly planned the day and each took turns to lead different exercises.  We looked at some design ideas making sculptures from coat hangers inspired by some of the mobile sculptures I had seen at the Hirshhorn Gallery in DC at the weekend.  Zac really ran with this idea and came up with some fabulous structures.  What came to the fore was how much clothing reinforced our identity – how much we are an individual and how we identify ourselves as part of a group or community through our clothing.

The 2nd day we visited Petals nursery in Bethesda to observe how two and four year olds played with and related to clothes.  We made a clear choice not to take in dressing up clothes, but instead took regular adult clothing including; socks, trousers, skirts, shorts, dresses and shoes. Out of these observations we made three vignettes to take back for the next day (day 3) and present to the same children.  The vignettes consisted of the following:

Field trip to Petals nursery

Field trip to Petals nursery

1) Getting dressed wrong

2) Animating clothing – creating a puppet creature and a little story out of selected items of clothing

3) Creating a participatory sock dance

All three performances were a huge hit with both children and staff.  We then worked on some further activities with the children after the showing to explore more potential material for the show.  These activities included folding, finding matching socks and pegging clothes on a washing line. The 4th day gave us a chance to bring all the vignettes together along with some of the participation ideas and look at the storyline.  Working collaboratively gave Kate, and I, a chance to see potential narrative possibilities and take the best of the ideas on offer to make a loose story based around what happens to Julia’s special scarf.  Part of the idea for this came from Bonnie’s lost hat (an event that happened to my fantastic host’s hat on my first day at IS) and also bearing in mind how strongly very young children can become attached to a specific item of clothing.  

coat hanger ballerina by Zac

coat hanger ballerina by Zac

Setting up for a sharing

Setting up for a sharing

On Friday, our 5th and final day, we were able to present our work in progress within this story frame with some fantastic live musical accompaniment from Tim Guillot.  The end result of this sharing is that we now have a very good idea of what the new show is about and know that it has huge potential to be a great success for both of our companies…

Imagination Stage – Washington DC, USA

Two for the price of One!  The US is widely regarded as the capitalist centre of the world and with less public subsidy for the arts I was surprised and delighted to be invited over to work with Imagination Stage’s award winning creative team on not one but two exciting projects.

Pulling up at Imagination Stage in Bonnie Fogel's well imagined set of wheels!

Pulling up at Imagination Stage in Bonnie Fogel’s well imagined set of wheels!

Project no. 1 was to recreate our show, ‘From here to there’ for their spring 2013 Rep season working with an American cast and the Imagination Stage production team.  The request was to reconfigure the show for in the round, and to do this we worked with a new designer for the project.  In reworking the piece over here it became clear that for the final mini world puppetry section to work, we would need to create an end on area for the performance.  So ‘in the round’ became a horse shoe configuration, with some additional benches behind the audience seated on the floor cloth.  However, it has been really exciting to work on a new staging of the show and a new cast who bring a different cultural perspective to the piece.   It was fascinating to see the responses from the Imagination Stage staff and Honolulu Theatre (also visiting to develop an exciting physical show on the main stage – Anime Momotaro) as part of our design run.  There was a real sense of ‘here is something new’ and a freshness to the approach that clearly excited both Janet Stanford (Artistic director) and Bonnie Fogel (Chief exec).  Bonnie’s comment was; “This is creativity for early childhood fully realised!” The show certainly celebrates imaginative play which is a huge part of the classes they offer for children as young as one here!  Creative & imaginative play is such an important part of very young children’s development which is increasingly being recognised by child development and education specialists.  Research conducted by the likes of Professor Suzanne Zeedyk in early child development only serves to reinforce this view.

design run of 'from here to there' in the Reeves Studio

design run of ‘from here to there’ in the Reeves Studio

From here …to there

Renee our wonderful stage manager with I.S. brochure

Renee our wonderful stage manager with I.S. brochure

opens in early March in the Reeve Studio theatre and I am so excited at the thought of our work reaching a completely new audience on a different continent.  An audience that I hope will be equally as open to the creative heart of the piece as they were in India!

I can’t believe it’s been 3 years since my last time at the Royal bank of Scotland, Imaginate Festival, Edinburgh.  Widely regarded as one of the UK’s leading international theatre festivals for theatre for children and young people.  I love this festival!  I always enjoy Tony Reekie’s programming and find some great examples of inspirational work as well as the contentious ones too – an essential part of any good festival programme.  The best festivals always have a show or two  that raise debate and discussion amongst colleagues, and this year was no exception.

It struck me that the Scottish work showcased, really highlights how much Scottish artists have gained from having such a strong festival and advocate within Scotland.  You can really see now a wealth of fantastically strong young children’s theatre emerging from many Scottish companies.  And you can also see how some of the international work from previous years has clearly influenced some of these artists.  Nowadays, White, is seen as an international sensation, made by Andy Manley and Shona Reppe for Catherine Wheels – this has really raised the profile of Scottish theatre to international programmers as well as local audiences.  But there are many more artists in Scotland creating some wonderful work too!

Cloudman by Ailie Cohen Puppet Maker was a beautiful detective show with real heart.  Performed in a subtle and genuine manner by…. The treats in this show take their time coming, and kept the young audience we were watching with, on the edge of their seats throughout the performance.  I loved the way the children’s imagination was captured by traces of evidence found of the cloud man and stashed away, screwed literally into jars.  I would have loved more of a build up to the final climatic decision but this is a niggly point in an otherwise beautifully conceived and magically executed show.

Paperbelle, by Frozen Charlotte Productions, clearly was an audience pleaser and I loved the way Paperbelle herself was characterised by musical string pluckings – the children and adults both understood exactly what she was saying!

Titus by Lu Kemp and Oliver Emanuel in association with Macrobert was a brave inclusion.  The whole performance took place on the edge of a table top, and yet for all the wonderful treats we usually expect and anticipate in theatre, this show used none of them, and it didn’t need to either.  The actor, script and direction made this an absolutely compelling performance and I know this would work sensationally in class room settings.  For teenagers this would be a hard show to ignore or feign disinterest, you could feel the absolute attention of its audience, I am sure this show will go far…

On the international stage there was a fantastic new production by Archosm, Traverse, which raised the question; ‘is this show particularly for young audiences?’  It’s certainly dance theatre at its best, and older children and teenagers shouldn’t be excluded, but the themes explored seemed most relevant to me to young adults embarking on independence and a working/non working life.

For me the most exciting event was the international exchange project, ‘Fresh Tracks Europe Event’ Chalk #2.  I found the exploration of our identity as artists and how we involve children in the process of making work for children a fantastic theme.  It was brilliantly innovative, absolutely engaging and relevant to a young audience.  Probably the furthest you can come from a patronising experience of children’s theatre.  I would love to see the final piece, and will be watching out for it in the future…

There were many more shows on offer, than I could fit in, so if you want to see more of the shows on offer, click the link:

Tell tale Hearts with Paper Balloon and Liebelulle Theatre

Tell tale Hearts with Paper Balloon and Liebelulle Theatre

And although I didn’t get chance to see Aston’s Stones by Teater Pero (Sweden) on this occasion, it was the highlight for me from the Assitej World Congress in 2011 and shows that the rest of Europe can still compete for providing some of the best children’s theatre in the world.

So, now that I am back home, I still find myself envying Scotland the fantastic festival and resource they have in Imaginate, and wish we had a festival of equal weight and advocacy in England.  Maybe that’s what Take Off is becoming?…

Why was From here to there so successful in India?

Having just returned fromIndia I am still full of the memories of rapturous faces, wonderment, fabulous creative play sessions & sparkling eyes in adults and children alike.  Sitting in the comparatively spacious and silent home we have here in rural England that is a million cultural miles from the buzzing enterprising metropolis that is Mumbai I can’t help questioning, ‘why was our show such a success?’  I guess there are many reasons for this… Jumana’s hard work in providing detailed pre show information, reworking elements of the show for an Indian audience, one of the main reasons must surely be the hunger urban Indian families have for any creative, interactive opportunities for their children.  There is very little on offer in Mumbai, more in Delhi!  However, for me the big reason of the show’s success with such a culturally different young audience was not any of the above reasons or down to the universal theme engaging them – building bridges through play! – although this also had a part to play in our success.  For me, it was the connection between the show’s visual theatre style with the visual language of the Indian culture.  This connection really made a great bridge of understanding!      

shadow play in entrance of wealthy Delhi school

Epic post show constructions


The main reason our theatrical style worked so well for children and adults alike has a lot to do with how people read visual imagery and symbolism.  If I could find a culture or country that could be a natural home for Tell Tale Hearts’ work thenIndiawould be that home!  The visual symbols and icons that form part of the religious and cultural heart toIndiaare read by rich and poor alike.  Serious and poignant ideas are portrayed using visual imagery and minimal words, but the depth of the idea is still there even if there are few words to articulate that principle.  The visual narrative of our shows always has a structure and an idea behind it but it is often a montage structure where the spectator or participant needs to imaginatively or thoughtfully make the connection of the narrative & the meaning for themselves.  I believe young children often do this more readily than their adult counterparts as we are all meaning seekers.  Young children have more practice in seeking meaning in every ritual and action around them because they have so much more to decipher; whereas adults often need to travel, or have/work with young children to put themselves in the position of young children again and see the world and seek out its meanings with fresh eyes!  Interestingly art also provides adults with this fresh view in my opinion…     

Astrid by many headed Ganesha. Her chosen God.


So, as a traveller and mum maybe I have had the lucky good fortune to be closer to a young heart and mind in experiencing the many tastes & languages of India.  I certainly feel that my heart has been opened to a culture that I yearn to understand more!  I have taken home some profound ideas and a strong belief that the meaning of children’s theatre should not be underrated.  It is not just some western embellishment it is part of the heart and soul of life’s wonderment!   I certainly hope to return with future work and continue to build our bridge with this intoxicating and exciting continent!  Thank you to Jumana and London Talents for such a rich and rewarding experience.  

farewell toast to India

2nd India Blog

Audiences in Mumbai have been effusive in their response to ‘From here to there’, clapping after clear highlights & occasionally we have had to step in to stop some of the children from literally joining the actors on stage.  When we reached Delhi, Fahad (Jumana’s assistant) explained to me that the children would be far quieter here and more disciplined.   I was interested to see if this would be true…

spacious Delhi - snapshot from moving taxi of boulevards


Ganesha, Emma & Tash at entrance of Step by Step school

… Delhi itself is hugely different to Mumbai.  It wasn’t until we reached the spacious and relatively clear boulevards of New Delhi that we began to miss the mad, chaotic charm of Mumbai.  Delhi is much more organised as a city, much calmer and well, more disciplined.  So I began to wonder whether the environment of the city would have an impact on the children’s behaviour and indeed whether their response to the show would be different.  How much would the children’s behaviour reflect the inherent characteristics of the city they lived in?  We spent the first 3 days in one school, ‘Step by Step’ which was an enormous primary that was incredibly well structured and organised.  I recognised some familiar teacher tactics to back home, rhythmical clapping to get the children’s attention, and dividing the class into sub groups.  The children’s behaviour definitely reflected their environment, the youngest group (3 – 4 year olds) were orderly in their behaviour but still reacted individually to the performance, calling out, “share!” and when Emma says, “One child liked to draw!”, a little girl stated, “I like to draw too!”.  They are examples of the children’s clear and concentrated engagement, and the play sessions, although huge with up to 100 children at one time, were constructive, creative and fun.  This wouldn’t have been possible in the schools we had visited in Mumbai, where the play sessions had to be managed in two halves for the larger numbers.

setting up for the show step by step in Delhi

Inspiring designs for creative sand pits for out door play







My general feeling, although this is purely anecdotal and not scientific, is that the behaviour of the children in both cities does indeed reflect the characteristics of their environment.  The reactions to the show and play sessions whilst no less enthusiastic in either city definitely exposed some differences that I found very interesting.  Speaking personally as a creative artist, I value the freedom that creative thinking gives me, but I also value the boundaries of context and discipline – these are the important elements that help give meaning to your ideas and substance to a show.  Likewise, I believe young children need both freedom & creative stimuli to explore their own learning and discipline and guidance to help them contextualise their learning and reach their potential.  What is exciting to see here is how much emphasis is given to creativity as the major factor in nurturing young children’s collective & individual learning journeys.

sunset in Bandra, Mumbai

The inset sessions with teachers have been a fantastic opportunity to engage with teachers in a dialogue as to what their observations have been regarding their children and the show, as well as an opportunity to impart some practical exercises that they could use with their classes.  I have been bowled over with the ecstatic response we have had from ALL teachers and their readiness to embrace this kind of visual theatre experience not just for their children but also for their parents as well! Our approach seems to knit perfectly with each school’s individual philosophy and reminds you of why creative learning is so important particularly for young children.



Tell Tale Hearts devise and deliver participatory touring theatre productions exclusively for primary children and younger years in schools, theatres and community venues.