Emily Garside caught up with actor and writer Alun Saunders ahead of his retelling of the Brothers Grimm classic, The Magic Porridge Pot, showing at The Sherman Theatre over Christmas.
Alun Saunders: The Saunders family have ALWAYS loved theatre. Although my parents never worked in theatre, they always had an interest in it, and would take us to see the annual Llanelli pantomime at Theatr Elli. I’ve got a memory of my Dad knowing some of the performers in it, such as Terry Whitelock, and Denny Twp… Although I’m thinking that may have been a stage name. The other cool thing about my Dad knowing some of the performers was getting to go backstage to meet them afterwards, and that was probably my first experience of seeing the stage ‘from the stage’, when the lights are out and the curtain’s down. It felt magical, like we were getting an insight into that world.
Emily Garside: As a Dad yourself, what kind of theatre for young people/families would you like to see more of in Wales (and beyond!)?
Alun Saunders: That’s a really good question… I don’t think you can ever predict what your kids are going to enjoy or engage with – they may love rugby or opera or running or animals… They may not be interested in theatre. I feel kinda lucky (and, yes, ridiculously relieved!) that mine enjoy going to the theatre.
It’s awesome to engage little ones with theatre as it’s stupidly powerful, and such an important emotional experience for them – it’s not simply watching a programme on the TV or tablet, it’s actual human engagement – but if we let them ‘drop off the radar’ once they reach the age of seven, then we’re letting them down.
Emily Garside: You’ve been an actor in Christmas shows as well as a writer of them, how is that experience for an actor? Is there a particular ‘magic’ around shows at Christmas?
Alun Saunders: Holy Minogue, yes. Being a part of a theatre production is a magical thing in itself… It’s not just a job, it’s more… But being in a Christmas show – even if it’s not an altogether ‘Christmassy’ show, is special. I think audiences come in for more – they’re not simply coming to watch a piece of theatre, they’re coming in for ‘that Christmas theatre experience’… They’re coming to see your show (in my opinion) for a shared experience; to watch a story they can relive and retell; to create a memory.
I mean, some parents will be coming in to sit in the dark for fifty minutes and hope for the noise to stop – that is okay. It’s okay. I’ve been there… We’d rock up in our van, often in snowy conditions, unload the set, get everything in and then people would arrive for a little mulled wine (the grown-ups, obviously!), and enjoy some wintery tales. Okay, weird thing, I’m actually a little emotional thinking about how lush that was. I’ll move on…
Emily Garside: Tell us a bit about Magic Porridge Pot? What sort of magic can families expect?
Alun Saunders: Rachel O’Riordan had chosen The Magic Porridge Pot as a title for this year’s studio show, and it was one of her favourite stories. It’s a brilliantly simple story, really, so the main challenge for me as the Writer/Adapter was to create a 50-minute script from that. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve Loved that challenge – it’s about taking an old tale and finding what’s relevant to an audience – to a younger audience – today.
What we see is Aggie, a young girl who lives with her mother in a village, which could be anywhere. This is the story of how Aggie finds her voice, how she absolutely loves to help, but her offers of help, more often than not, get turned down because… Well, because grown-ups underestimate her because she’s a child. For me, the story’s magic comes from Aggie discovering her power and ability… But there’s also some visual magic as well… But I’ll let you be surprised by that!
Emily Garside: Do you have key ‘ingredients’ when putting together a show for young people (See what I did there haha!)
Alun Saunders: This is interviewing as it should be done…! I absolutely have some key ingredients when I’m putting together a show for young people. Fun and silliness (in any order) are probably first and foremost. Especially at this time of year, I think that people are coming – as I mentioned – to escape the world for a joyful shared experience… More so these days when you switch the TV on and are faced with tragedy, tension and difficulty. That’s not to say that shouldn’t be a part of what we watch at the theatre… I believe in reflecting the world we live in… To a certain extent… But also laughing about it. We have to laugh at how ridiculous the world can be; how ridiculous people can be; how ridiculous WE can be!
For me – and not all might agree, which is fine – I think that it’s vital that a family show for a family audience engages with * EVERY * SINGLE * MEMBER * OF * THAT * FAMILY *. I typed it in a special way because it’s one of my core beliefs when creating this work. The first thing is to create a piece which engages the young audience and tells the story in a clear, yet exciting way. The next thing is, vitally, to keep the grown-ups engaged, be they parents/grandparents/uncles/aunties/guardians/teachers. This is one of your (well, MY) key ingredients. Be it a nod or a wink or a joke every now and then, which acknowledges that we’re all here in a darkened room watching people playing about on a stage (it’s so much more than that, but when you boil it down, y’know…).
I’ve been there – on that stage – when you’re engaging with the kids who are sat near you or perhaps, apprehensively further back on a parent’s lap… The show’s going well, they’re on the journey with you, and you look up to engage with those further back only to spot a teacher doing their marking; a parent on their tablet with their headphones in.
I have many words for this experience from a performer (or any creative)’s experience, but why is this happening? Have they been to a show for younger audience which was boring and subsequently decided that they’ll take the kids but do something else with their time whilst there? Have they just got something really important to do? I find that sad, because they’re ‘there’, they’re in the room, but disengaged… SO, in my opinion, if you engage the adults – hey, let’s face it, the ticket-buyers – then you’re not only gaining a returning audience, but more importantly, you’ve got a parent or teacher who’s also enjoyed the production and will leave there full of conversation about and excitement around your show. For me, that’s a no-brainer. That doesn’t mean writing jokes which constantly go over your younger audience’s heads – it simply means aiming to write for a more universal audience. Ooh I’ve gone on about this a lot. Can you tell I’m passionate about it
Emily Garside: Can you talk about the process of essentially writing the same show twice in Welsh and English?
Alun Saunders: Writing a play in Welsh and in English, that is, two versions of the same play is a very different process to writing one bilingual play… It’s just a totally different way of creating.
When I wrote my bilingual play, A Good Clean Heart, I kinda just wrote it as it came – scenes or lines in Welsh, scenes or lines in English. With The Magic Porridge Pot, or writing a back-to-back production, the way I’ve found to work most ‘efficiently’ – at this point, subject to change – is to create and develop it in one language, but to always have it in the back of your mind that, eventually, it’ll need an adaption in the other language.
My role as the writer on this project is, I guess, to present two versions of the play which are of an equally high standard. If one version is ‘better’ than the other, then you’re letting down half of your audience, and that’s not on. If a joke/gag/moment of silliness or wordplay works well in English, you CAN’T simply run that through Google Translate (other programs are available) and expect it to work. No. You have to work at finding an equally funny/touching moment in the other language, or simply not dwell on it and move on… Look for the other opportunities for play in each version.
I don’t believe in creating a carbon copy of a script in two languages… Sure, this makes the actors’ job a little easier, but actors are also intelligent and playful and LOVE a challenge, so there’s no real need to rely on the idea of a carbon copy back-to-back script.
Writing dialogue in Cymraeg is, I find, a much greater challenge than writing it in English. When you’re writing in English, I find that you can give characters text which can be interpreted in many different accents, dialects, rhythms… Whereas in Cymraeg, you tend to have to ‘make choices’ as you write – you have to decide whether you’re writing in a more formal way, which is more like written Welsh than general spoken Welsh, and then there’s such a distinct difference between the words used by North Walian Welsh-speakers and South-Walian Welsh-speakers that, if you begin to write informally, you pretty much end up giving the character their accent, with less room for actors’ interpretation. IT’S A MINEFIELD!
Emily Garside: In terms of ‘switching’ your writer brain, how has this work been a different challenge to the recent work you’ve written bilingually for ‘grown ups’?
Alun Saunders: Yeah, as I’ve mentioned above, this is a totally different challenge to writing one play in multiple languages (although, saying that, I’ve made Aggie’s world a very multilingual one, so there are multiple languages heard in both the Cymraeg and English versions of this play!).
Perhaps the next step is writing bilingual plays for younger audiences? I’d love that. I find that children are far more fluid and accepting of multiple languages than grown-ups. Controversial!
The question I have with this is probably that there’s such little Welsh-language theatre provision, especially for younger audiences, that there may be a (rational) worry that the provision is further ‘diluted’. I believe that younger audiences should be able to have multilingual theatre experiences, and I also believe that, with so much monolingual English-language theatre about, we should also enjoy and revel in a wealth of monolingual Welsh-only performances.
Emily Garside: Speaking of “Grown Ups” what will bigger kids who come along to The Magic Porridge Pot get out of it?
Alun Saunders: I really, really hope that bigger kids, the brothers and sisters who’ve been dragged along to see a ‘kiddies show’, but also the parents, uncles, aunties, and grandparents will find a little magic in this show. It may be the plight of the characters; something familiar in their family dynamic; a little aside which gives them a chuckle, or simply indulging completely in Aggie’s story…
Emily Garside: What are you most excited for audiences to experience in The Magic Porridge Pot?
Alun Saunders: I’m properly excited for people to have a heart-warming theatre experience. In writing this play I’ve reminded myself how vital it is to let my own kids help out when they actively ask to do so. Life is busy, true, but so what if a job takes sixty seconds longer? So, what?
If one little’un is inspired to believe in themselves and realise what they’re capable of, I’ll be happy… Similarly, if one grown-up is inspired to take a breath and draw their little’uns in for a cwtsh and to hear what they have to say, that would also be brilliant!
Emily Garside is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.