Chris Titley talks to the director of a play based on a classic tale for children which premieres in York – and ends up in Singapore
Everyone knows the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Left in charge of a flock of sheep, the young shepherd repeatedly pretends a wolf is on the attack prompting the villagers to race up the mountain to his aid.
When the wolf really does appear, alarm-weary villagers ignore the boy’s calls for help. Result: all the sheep are killed. Moral: don’t be a liar.
Except in Tutti Frutti’s stage version of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, which opens in York on Thursday, September 26, director Wendy Harris isn’t in such a rush to judge.
“I wasn’t really interested in the moral, that you shouldn’t tell lies, because I think the more you investigate that the more you realise that most people, most of the time are telling untruths in one way or another,” she says.
“People gossip, people often don’t tell the truth to protect or help somebody. I’m not interested in telling moral stories to children, or pointing the finger.”
In her production, aimed at three to seven year olds, she recasts the boy, Silus, not as a fibber but a storyteller.
“He is a bit of a dreamer, and he certainly doesn’t want to be a shepherd. He wants to be an astronaut or a tightrope walker or a storyteller.”
As is typical for a Tutti Frutti production, three actors have to play a whole cast of characters, from the main family – Silus, his mother and grandfather – to various villagers and some very silly sheep. “Then of course, there may be a wolf or two but you’ll have to come and see it to find out about that,” says Wendy.
“Wolves figure in so many iconic children’s stories. Think of Red Riding Hood, or Three Little Pigs, or all those stories that have lasted so many years. And they’re such beautiful creatures.”
Now 50, Wendy has made theatre for children for many years. Along with writer Mike Kenny, who wrote the Theatre Royal’s adaptation of The Railway Children, they know how to entertain the youngsters, maybe scare them just a little, and then deliver a positive ending.
“Those iconic, fearful characters are very important in stories,” she said. “The children are both scared and fascinated by them. In the story we go to that scary place and as long as we’re brought back to a safe place in the end, we’re all happy and OK.
“There’s a very celebratory ending to this show.”
Tutti Frutti are known for creating visually attractive and musical shows – the actors play guitar, accordion, ukelele and violin in The Boy Who Cried Wolf. “Live music is something we’re increasingly trying to do because children respond very physically to see live music performed in front of them.”
For the last six years the company has worked with the Theatre Royal to open a new show in York before touring it round the country. And this year they are going a step further, taking The Boy Who Cried Wolf to KidsFest 2014 in Singapore and Hong Kong.
“They may not have the same cultural references,” Wendy admits. “But I think funny sheep, scary wolves and young boys are fairly universal.”
Her introduction to drama was through the Theatre In Education companies who would perform in schools for free. That movement has long gone.
“Now we’re in very challenging times. I worry for the arts. I worry that with less money, and less government funding to the Arts Council, that there will be a tighter squeeze.
“My fear is the big institutions get saved and the smaller grass roots organisations and the touring companies can very easily be cut.”
That could see our youngest audiences losing out. “It’s really important that our children have cultural experiences that have meaning that’s for them, that isn’t part of some marketing strategy about making audiences for the future,” Wendy said.
“Theatre enriches children’s lives and helps them develop empathy and it helps them to see different points of view and it stimulates their imagination. As well as just a really fun and entertaining thing to do it has other benefits, around literacy, around listening to music and stories.”
Despite the challenges, Wendy remains upbeat. “I always believe that we’re doing good work, people love what we do, and we’ve just got to keep on being positive and making the best work we can.”
- The Boy Who Cried Wolf is at the York Theatre Royal studio from Thursday, September 26 to Saturday, October 12, at 11am, 1.30pm and 6pm
- Tickets cost £10 for adults and £6 children. For more information see the Theatre Royal website
- For more theatre stories, click here