As panto takes over the nation’s theatres, Tramway in Glasgow is offering something a bit different with its first “winter show”. Susan Mansfield goes behind the scenes
THE season is upon us when respectable theatres don the knickerbockers of pantomine. With the Krankies in Dick Whittington at the SECC, and Johnny McKnight’s gleefully irreverent Peter Panto and the Incredible Stinkerbell at the Tron to name but two, Glasgow is alive with them.
Tramway, by contrast, is traditionally dark in family-theatre season. That is, until now.
The Red Shoes, based on a dark folk tale about a pair of shoes that won’t stop dancing, is Tramway’s first Christmas show for more than 20 years. Billed as a “winter show” which aims to “honour winter in a non-commercial way by allowing non-religious and diverse cultures to connect with a Christmas event”, it promises a bit of seasonal magic for all ages, while being distinctly different amid the gaudy panoply of panto madness.
The show is the brainchild of Judith Williams, variously known as an actress, performer and jazz singer, who is also beginning to work as a theatre-maker. With a team of distinguished collaborators, she is creating a show which unfolds through music, song and visuals. Williams, in the part of Judy Two-Shoes, is the principal performer, with a team of four musicians, headed by Kevin Lennon, a CATS award-winning actor who is also a composer.
The Red Shoes was one of the tales collected by Hans Christian Andersen, but its origins may be much older. Williams “fell in love with the story” when she read it in Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ book, The Women Who Run With The Wolves, which draws on folktales and Jungian psychology. “It’s a cautionary tale warning girls not to dance in shoes that are too fancy for them,” she laughs.
“It’s about a girl who lives in the forest with her forest friends, but dreams of something else, sees the lights of the city and is lured to them. She goes on a bit of an adventure and a misadventure in the city. She begins in wellies and her heels get higher, she gets more up-rooted from her original self and natural state. It’s the story of a loss of instinct, and the lures that we can get caught in.”
“The original tale is quite brutal,” says Kevin Lennon, who has written original music for the show. “The shoes dance until her skin and flesh falls off and the only way to be free is to have a woodcutter cut off her feet. We’ve lightened it a bit, explored the journey without descending into its demonic depths. We couldn’t really end a winter show for families with that denouement…Merry Christmas everyone!”
Williams says the story also has something to say about the dangers of the city in terms of its relentless pace and rampant consumerism – especially at Christmas. “I guess, slightly cheekily, I wanted to say something about how Christmas has become a kind of capitalist celebration, rather than a time for peace and quiet and connection and comfort. I think there’s a momentum we can get caught up in that doesn’t allow for us to exhale or reflect or take stock.”
The show brings together many of Williams’ varied interests. After seven years of working as an actor, she took a Masters in Musical Theatre from the Royal College of Music. She has appeared in a variety of productions, from the original stage version of Sunshine on Leith (where she first met Lennon) to Cryptic’s adaptation of Orlando (a role she will reprise in New Jersey in 2014). “I’ve always been doing bits and piece of jazz singing and physical theatre, body landscape work, performance art. There’s something about my hunger for the full expanse of what performance is that’s kept me a bit restless. This show is my pick-and-mix, we pepper it with lots of different flavours. Having input into the whole picture has been really satisfying.
“I did a workshop called The Authentic Artist with (director and actor) Kath Burlinson, and she gave me permission to not shrink the possibilities. She said, ‘Well, what would it look like if you wrote and sang and danced and painted?’ That was quite a relief in a way, because I’ve often felt the need to choose one aspect. I think there is something important for me about keeping the child in me that was excited to go into dancing and singing, to keep that energy alive. We can often deaden ourselves to try to fit in to some box of our own or other people’s making.”
Williams made her mark at Tramway when she and dancer Ruth Janssen co-ordinated a day of 100 Events to mark the 100th International Women’s Day in 2011. They also hatched a plan to fill the building with 100 million stitches of knitting. In 2014 she will be associate artist with children’s theatre festival Imaginate, and her next piece of theatre is Grandad and Me for Imaginate, inspired by Jon Bishop/The Earl Grey’s illustrations.
The Red Shoes was partly developed in a three-day residency funded by the Tom McGrath Trust, run by McGrath’s widow Ella Wildridge. “I ended up singing to myself for two days into a microphone and spending a day typing it up,” she laughs. And it might not have become a show at all if Tim Nunn, who was programming some events at Tramway, hadn’t asked her if she had any ideas up her sleeve. “I’m so grateful to Tim because I never would have dreamt of coming into Tramway and saying, ‘Please can I do a three-week run in Tramway 1 for your first ever winter show?’ It was only after I’d said yes that I realised the enormity of it.”
The Red Shoes is being made by a collaborative team which includes Lennon as music director, and Josh Armstrong, a dancer turned designer who has worked with Cryptic and the Hebrides Ensemble as design director. The movement director is Sally Owen, a principal dancer with Rambert for ten years and now a choreographer and teacher.
Lennon, an actor at Dundee Rep for seven years who won a CATS Best Actor award for his role in the Rep’s production of The Elephant Man, says: “It has been a learning process for us all. Each of us is, in a way, quite new to working like this. I’m not new to making theatre, and music has always been part of my life, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to bring into my life professionally as well. We’re learning as we go about how to work together, the decisions are made collectively. I think whatever work you make as an artist, you’re sculpting, you start with something that’s indeterminate and you gradually scrape away layers.”
“It’s like a five-dimensional jigsaw,” says Williams. “The music is reliant upon the movement is reliant upon the design and it’s a conversation between all of those things.” Yet, the chief aim during rehearsals – apart from making a show – seems to be about have fun wherever possible. There is lot of warmth and laughter about. Lennon says: “Hopefully the show will reflect a spirit of collaboration and a spirit of fun, of care and kindness and humanity, all those things.” • The Red Shoes is at Tramway, Glasgow, Friday until 21 December. www.tramway.org