How we put the show together by Artistic Director Heather Fulton
When the idea for Woodland Creatures arose the first thing I identified was the feeling of it.
It was to be relaxed and joyful. A quiet and gentle space to enjoy and appreciate the beautiful setting provided by nature. The light, the sounds, the air, the scents. A chance for adults to sit back and let their children venture from their nests and explore.
That was the idea, then to make it happen.
Frozen Charlotte is a small organisation with only me being the constant. For every project I bring in a producer, a designer, a production/stage manager and performers.
When it came to putting together the company for Woodland Creatures I wanted it to be a positive and stress free experience for the creative team. We've all been through a challenging time over the last year and I had a feeling of us all emerging from hibernation - I wanted to welcome the artists back into theatre with a gentle and uplifting project.
Assembling the team
The bulk of the work in any artistic project tends to be the mountain of administration required to ensure budgets are kept to, permissions are granted, folk are paid and schedules are created.
Aberdeen based producer Cameron Mowat took on this lofty task and as an experienced producer and director with his own company Ten Feet Tall Theatre he skilfully managed to balance what was needed to make the team feel valued, the show run smoothly and safely - all whilst keeping the artistic aims at the very heart of the project.
For the creative team it was important to me that we utilised the experience and talent locally. Given the pandemic there has been a real dearth of work for creative practitioners and particularly in the North East where shows are created and performed less frequently that the central belt.
Kate MacKay, a visual artist based in Findhorn came on board as our designer. Kate came up with the idea of using workwear to create functional and hardwearing costumes for our creatures, inspired by watching children look on mesmerised by tree surgeons at work in the woods at Burghead. With a strong commitment to the environment and sustainability, Kate worked with Lossiemouth based sewer and maker Olivia Rodger to source secondhand workwear that could be adapted to kit out our hard working creatures.
It was not the easiest option as often workwear like high-vis vests are so cheap that people don't bother to resell/repurpose. We put a call out on social media for unwanted bits and pieces and had a good response. We also had a good bit of luck in that many of the items (secondhand boiler suits/dungarees) Kate found online, were ordered before we had the cast confirmed and miraculously they fitted the intended actor!
Anyone who has seen a Frozen Charlotte show before may have recognised our Woodpecker, Actor/Musician David Rankine. Dave has worked with us on so many projects over the last 8 years, The Library, How To Grow A Dinosaur, Island (to name just a few!). Having grown up in Elgin, David is now Central Belt based - as many actors need to be to sustain a career. It was important to me to have someone in this new team that I had worked with before and that I knew was open to ideas, loves performing for children and has great positive energy in rehearsals. Also a talented drummer, Dave's nickname at school (believe it or not) was Woodpecker! The decision was made.
Rachael Macintyre is a Forres based Actor/Puppeteer/Arial Artist whom I had my eye on for a while. Rachael has her own theatre company Jabuti Theatre and has created a strong canon of work over the years. I'd been looking for an opportunity to work with a performer with a strong sense of physicality in their performance. Delightfully Rachael also has a strong sense of fun and seems to enjoy making silly noises... who else better to play a deer?
With this side of the team on board we did an open call to performers in the Highlands and North East, keen to see who was out there that we didn't know. We had a great response from many talented and enthusiastic performers taking part in video call auditions. From this we secured our Squirrel, Dancer/Performer Sara Burr. Based in Inverurie, Sara's energy and playful nature was a great fit. Her gentle engagement with the children has also been a hit - with Sara guaranteed a little posse of squirrel helpers every show.
For the fourth woodland creature I wanted to work with Out of the Darkness Theatre Company (OOTD) due to the amazing work they do with adults with additional support needs and (on a personal note) because of the joyous atmosphere and genuine welcome I receive every time I set foot inside their Elgin rehearsal space. From working with the team there I got to know Simon Dunbar (our Bluebird), Ross Watson (our Siskin) and Hannah Smit (our chaperone). All of whom brought their additional skills and gentle personalities to the team.
Our final addition was our Production/Stage Manager Zoe Williams who I knew would be perfect for the job, given her level of experience together with her enthusiastic 'can do/hell yeah!' attitude. Little did I know that she was also a talented musician and composer and would provide the live music for the show, improvising incredibly catchy tunes on the Ukulele and the Kazoo.
We spent one week in June and one week in August working out what the show would be. I knew I wanted it be be participatory so it was important that we checked in regularly with audiences to see if what we were cooking up was going to work. We spent a chunk of our time in Burghead woods inviting small audiences to come along so that we could try out our ideas and build a picture of how the children could react to what we were offering. The first trial we did was nerve-racking. For the first 15 minutes (felt like a lifetime) the children didn't join in. Then luckily they did.
We now knew our concept worked, so then we experimented with how to get the children engaged sooner and how to add some surprises to keep them engaged throughout the 40 minutes. The quicker engagement we found through giving Sara our Squirrel a bucket - who would have guessed how much children love putting pine cones in a bucket?! Dave our Woodpecker already had a way of engaging by rat-a-tat-tatting his drumstick on any stick a child offered - typical woodpecker behaviour! Both these actions we found to be gentle, safe and clear to our young audience about how they could participate.
One of our surprises took the form of Spike the hedgehog who cautiously appears from the top of Rachael our deer's dungarees. Rachael's skill as a puppeteer brought alive a little sleepy creature, slowly waking up and looking for little faces with whom to enjoy a shared moment.
We had our plan to lay out a path using sticks but if the children came up with anything they'd rather do we were happy to follow - all the performers beautifully adaptable and generous to any suggestion or adaption a child could make.
The thing that we struggled with - which is always a struggle - was how to end the show. The type of show we created could go on forever - how could we create an end that wouldn't jar with the gentle, organic flow of the show?
We tried the creatures subtly slipping away and found that the children just followed...
We tried the creatures indicating to each other (in rather an obscure way to be fair) that the working day was over and inspecting the 'work' achieved. Here we saw a lot of perplexed faces as nobody knew what was happening.
What we needed was a celebration - a joyous moment before we said goodbye. And what better way to create this but to have a slightly random, forrest rave/musical moment with lots of banging of sticks and a makeshift drum kit out of the tea break cups and flask?! What, in rehearsals, started off as sticking plaster, bedded in and became the joyous ending we were looking for. Little bodies bopping away, banging their sticks together.
They joined in and it felt beautiful.
Heather Fulton is Artistic Director of Frozen Charlotte and Director of Woodland Creatures -
if she were to be a woodland creature she would definitely be a rabbit.
Images by Home Highlands Photography & James Chitty