Shona Reppe has built a global reputation for creating innovative children’s theatre. In her new show she invites audiences to visit a pop-up art gallery
Who is Atlantis Banal? The publicity for her show tells us that she was born on an island, struck by lightning and raised by a dry cleaner, and that she is “an artist like no other”; but chances are that this latest stage heroine also represents another face of the brilliant woman who invented her, the internationally acclaimed and much-loved Scottish theatre maker Shona Reppe.
If you haven’t heard of Reppe, it’s probably because most of her work is small-scale, and made for the famously ephemeral world of children’s theatre. Yet over the last 20 years, this remarkable artist – writer, designer, performer, puppet-maker, director and music-maker – has been jointly or individually responsible for some of the most internationally successful shows ever created in Scottish theatre. Later this month, Catherine Wheels’ legendary show for tiny tots, White – with exquisite design by Reppe – makes a brief appearance at the Traverse before a two-city tour to China; this is the one that, shortly after its 2010 Edinburgh premiere, was seen in New York by Sarah Jessica Parker, who brought her children along and declared it the best 40 minutes of theatre she had ever seen.
Last year, the wonderful and dazzlingly visual show Baba Yaga – which Reppe co-devised and performed with Australian theatre-makers Christine Johnston and Rosemary Myers – won a series of nominations at the annual Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland, not least for Reppe’s superbly vivid design concept; the show has since been seen across Australia, in China and Norway, and recently in London.
Her 2016 children’s show Black Beauty – co-devised with Andy Manley and Andy Cannon – has become another legend of children’s theatre, as has the wonderful 2013 Catherine Wheels installation show Huff; and that’s to say nothing of her wonderful small-scale solo shows, ranging from a magical table-top version of Cinderella to miniature magnifying-glass epic The Curious Scrapbook of Josephine Bean, about a heroine roughly the size of – well – a bean.
And now, Reppe is about to return to the Traverse with her latest show Atlantis Banal: Beneath The Surface, a two-handed piece – with Reppe’s husband Tamlin Wiltshire on stage as sound engineer – that invites audiences to visit a pop-up art gallery showing Atlantis’s latest exhibition. Co-created with French theatre-maker Charlot Lemon, the show is – by Reppe’s own admission – harder to market than something simply called Cinderella. Yet like all her work, it’s driven by a powerful inner impulse to keep making new worlds, and never to repeat herself in content or style; and she hopes that the questions it asks about where art begins and ends will bring adults and slightly older children together, in an entertaining hour of theatre-cum-installation.
“It’s hard to say what attracted me towards theatre in the first place,” says Reppe. “I didn’t see much of it when I was growing up near Stonehaven in the 70s and 80s; just the occasional pantomime or ballet in Aberdeen, as a special treat. And I didn’t do any theatre at school. But I was good at art; and I also had this practical urge to be making and creating things. I suppose theatre brings those things together; and it’s also collaborative, in that it gives you the chance to work with other people even when you’re making a solo show – and I love that.”
After a first degree at Glasgow University which included theatre studies, Reppe went to the Welsh College of Drama for a postgraduate qualification in theatre design. Back in Aberdeen, though, it took her a few years – and an inspiring visit to the 1994 Puppet Festival in Edinburgh – to begin to glimpse her true vocation in theatre, storytelling, and visual design and making, often involving puppets.
In the late 1990s – after a completely self-organised world tour with one of her first puppet shows, Little Red Hen – she finally settled in Edinburgh, founded Shona Reppe Puppets, and has never looked back. Today, she and Tamlin live happily in Inverkeithing with their two daughters; but she emphasises that for all her international success, it remains difficult to piece together a living from small-scale theatre, particularly for artists who want to tour at home in Scotland.
“You certainly wouldn’t do it for the money,” she laughs. “And I can’t help noticing that many of the smaller venues now seem really strapped for cash for things like publicity, which makes it hard to build an audience. But the international work helps financially; and I’m just so grateful that I’ve had wonderful organisations like the Imaginate Festival, the Manipulate Festival and Catherine Wheels Theatre, to produce and support my work here in Scotland, and to give it an international platform.
“As for Atlantis – well, this is a strange show, no question. I love playing all the different roles in it, including Atlantis herself, and the gallery gift shop lady – I love a gift shop! Ideas about art have changed so much over the last half-century that it seems to me that children should be involved in that discussion, alongside adults.
“And no, I don’t ever feel like moving over into ‘adult theatre’ – in fact, even if I did, I don’t think the shows would change very much. I was devastated, once, when a man who brought his child to one of my shows said he had brought a newspaper along to read during the performance, because he didn’t think it would be relevant to him. Because my shows have always been about bringing adults and children, and the adult and child in all of us, together in the same magical, imaginary world; and I hope Atlantis Banal does that too, in a new and slightly weird way.” Atlantis Banal is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, from 21-23 November; White is at the Traverse from 27-28 November