Last year, Carina Rodney worked with New Writing North when they adapted Val McDermid’s picture book My Granny is a Pirate into a theatre production aimed at children under seven. That show toured libraries, schools, village halls and community centres in North East England, garnering good reviews and surprising statistics. 78% of audiences said they had never seen theatre at those venues before; while 54% described themselves as not normally engaging in the arts at all. Many of the performances sold out, and clearly there was a need for high quality performance in places where the opportunity to take part in the arts was slim.
Carina jumped at the chance when she was asked to work on a second production and adapt The Worst Princess by Anna Kemp and Sara Ogilvie. In fact, she was already a fan. ‘I had been sharing the book at home with my son,’ she explains. ‘It seems like when children start nursery, they start coming home with ideas about what boys should be like and what girls should be like. So we were reading the book and talking about, what if you didn’t want to be that kind of boy or that kind of girl.’
The picture book turns gender expectation on its head. Princess Sue has waited 100 years for a prince to come along and rescue her. But when it turns out her prince intends to keep her in his castle and expects her to wear dresses, Sue is not impressed. With the help of an equally disgruntled dragon, Sue goes her own way, having fun and wreaking havoc in picture-book-land.
Carina’s adaptation opened in Gateshead on 29 September and is touring throughout October. Like the book, the play is about ‘challenging gender roles and being comfortable with your own identity,’ says Carina. But there are differences. In the book, the prince is a rather unlikeable character who is described as a twit. Mindful of the young boys in the audience, Carina was keen that the prince would go on a journey of his own. ‘I wanted him to become a character that the boys in the audience could connect to as well.’ Instead of the production being about girls who do things differently, it has become about people of both genders who feel free to be themselves.
It was important not to change the overall message of the book though. Carina says, ‘A big concern is to honour the author’s vision and their story.’ Another concern is that the children who have read the book want and expect to find plenty to recognise in the theatre production. This is where designer Andrew Stephenson comes in. His set is styled to look like the 2D drawings of a picture book and takes inspiration from Sara Ogilvie’s brightly anarchic illustrations. Other characters, a frog and a squire, were created directly from the illustrations, despite not being mentioned in the text. ‘If you came to the show knowing the story, you would recognise it very clearly,’ says Carina.
Still, Andrew didn’t have an easy time of it making a set that would fit 40 different shaped spaces on the tour, from large school halls to the tiny corner of the children’s library. Touring community venues means no special lighting or technical wizardry, although he does fit a fair few surprises in his portable set.
‘Part of my job was expanding the layers of the story without changing the story’, says Carina, who adapted a 32-page book into a 50-minute play. Much of the action of the play came out of Carina carefully examining the illustrations and picking up on the smallest details. An example is the yoyo which Princess Sue plays with on a couple of pages in the book, which becomes a running joke throughout the whole play. The trick, says Carina, is to ‘read the book as if you were a young child and really pay attention to the illustrations.’
In fact, she says that writing a script has many similarities to writing a picture book text: in both cases, it is not just the words you write that do the whole job. ‘You have to try really hard to not explain everything and control everything with words,’ she explains. ‘You have to leave space for a child’s imagination when you’re reading a book. In a picture book, the illustrations tell half the story, and on stage the actors do the same.’ The Worst Princess is a musical production, which means leaving spaces in the text for songs to tell part of the story too.
All in all, it’s a very collaborative process, with director Ruth Johnson and designer Andrew Stephenson building upon Carina’s script in to create a physical world for The Worst Princess, before the actors, who are also musicians and songwriters, add their own layers of comprehension.
In picture books, author and illustrator collaborate too, albeit in a very different way. While that pair might never meet, the team behind The Worst Princess theatre production spent four weeks in the same room, writing songs, testing ideas out, and making each other laugh.
The Worst Princess is touring North East England until 31 October, with additional dates at Off The Shelf in Sheffield and Manchester Literature Festival. Visit the website for full tour dates and more information.
The Worst Princess by Anna Kemp and Sara Ogilvie, Simon and Schuster, 978-1847388766, £6.99pbk.