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Brief Encounter With ... Wendy Harris

When tutti frutti’s production of Rapunzel opens in York Theatre Royal’s Studio on September 27th, it will mark 21 years of performance by the Leeds-based company. As befits a company aiming its productions at 3-7 year olds, tutti frutti is small-scale in production style: in her productions artistic director Wendy Harris has used a maximum of four actors (a minimum of one!) and tours take in primary schools and village halls together with studio theatres. The company is similarly small-scale administratively, Wendy being the sole full-time year-round employee: a Company Manager and Tour Manager are also on the permanent staff, but part-time. But the company punches above its weight in many ways, not least the range and status of its tours. In the middle of a nationwide tour, Rapunzel will settle into Sheffield Crucible Studio for a four-week Christmas run.

Wendy Harris, who has directed tutti frutti for the last seven of its 21 years, gives many reasons for its success: the writers, for instance. Rapunzel is written by Mike Kenny whose recent triumphs at York have included The Railway Children and this year’s Mystery Plays.

“Mike is our leading children’s writer,” says Wendy. “I believe he’s the most produced children’s writer in the country, and we’re very lucky to have him living in York. With Rapunzel he takes a well-known fairy story and puts a spin on it. We’ve taken the main elements of the story and the main characters and played with them, but with care! Mike always says, ‘Play with fairy stories at your peril’ because they’re brilliant. They’ve lasted for a reason because they deal with archetypes, they externalise children’s internal world. So he doesn’t like to play with them too much and we still have the key elements: we have Rapunzel, we have the tower, we have magical hair that is longer than you can imagine, we have someone to protect her and someone she befriends, but we’ve given those characters a different spin. Mike’s brilliant at things children need, like finding the right language, with rhythm and repetition that children recognise and can relate to. It guides them gently through the story.”

Another quite different element in tutti frutti’s success is the fact that the company is now a National Portfolio Organisation of the Arts Council. This means not additional funding, but guaranteed funding. Tutti frutti will be Arts Council-funded until at least 2015 which enables Wendy to plan long-term. With two major tours each year (the Rapunzel tour is a 5-month affair to the end of February), writers to commission and scripts to write, some certainty about where the company will be in a year or two is essential.

Then there is the “absolutely fundamental relationship” with York Theatre Royal:

“When we’re making our creative work we come and live here. We’re like a favourite cousin who turns up at the family of York Theatre Royal and they clothe and feed us and look after us and make sure we’re OK before we go out to play. The relationship is that special – they also give us some pocket money towards our play! Damien Cruden, the Artistic Director at York, has a fantastic philosophy about inclusivity and they make work for all ages here. We are in an organisation that makes theatre not for the people who run it, but for all the people of the region.”

Above all, though, the major element in the success is the dedication to, and identification with, the target audience. Wendy takes account of a child’s eye view of the drama, recognising that it can be “quite a scary thing” for a 3 or 5-year-old to go into a theatre setting for the first time, so everything must match up with their feelings and expectations:

“Children are unpredictable, so yesterday (this was two weeks before the first performance) I took the team into a York primary school. We were there all afternoon and worked with the reception children. We took the rehearsal of the play, the costumes and the music and some of the things we weren’t sure about we tried out with children. We wondered if some things would be too scary and it was good to let the actors see how the children react.”

From previous productions by tutti frutti that I have seen (most recently Hare and Tortoise at York) my guess is that the reaction when Rapunzel opens on 27 September will be one of wonder and delight.

Yorkshire dates already confirmed:

27 September-13 October York Theatre Royal Studio

15 October Shine, Harehills, Leeds

10 November Georgian Theatre, Richmond

11 November Barnsley Civic

29 November Otley Courthouse

11 December-5 January ’13 Sheffield Crucible Studio

22-23 February ’13 Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield


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