For better or worse — usually worse — we as individuals are a collection of stories.
There are the tales your parents pass down from their own lives, likely aimed to impress you with who they were before you were born. There are the half-remembered truths of your ancestors. The fully fabricated exploits of your friends. Then there are the stories of your own, the ones you hope never to tell. But whether you choose to breathe a word of these stories, they’ve likely been told before. No moral. No planned outcome. Just a twisted web of tales tying you to the world. This is what English theater company 1927 has in mind when they whisk us all back to our roots.
Drawing from an extensive catalogue of folktales, the artistic directors of 1927 bring the world premiere of their newest work to Spoleto. Overlaying film animation, stage actors, and live music, Roots is a high-wire act grounded in a diverse collection of stories preserved for hundreds of years from across the world.
“Each story is quite different. I’ve got to say, they’re not really like ‘Red Riding Hood’ and all of that. The tales we’ve chosen are quite obscure, and a lot of them came from these sort of peasant tales,” says 1927 co-artistic director Paul Barritt. “They’re almost like little jokes and things like that. The nature of the ones we chose, we were always thinking we could do it like this or we could do it like that, but we just looked at the material and thought ‘what is the best?'”
Roots began in earnest as Barritt’s fellow artistic director Suzanne Andrade delved into the British Library’s folktale collection known as the Aarne Index. Combing through this exhaustive index of lore, Andrade decided to allow the stories to guide her.
“It was almost completely random in some ways. There were so many wonderful folktales in the Aarne Index in the British Library, so many brilliant ones to choose from,” she says. “I would just sort of sit in there during the day, and I would just flip through. Anything that caught my eye, that I thought was unusual or it was funny or there was something beneath the surface of it, I would scribble it down in my book.”
Andrade explains that whereas most people working with folktales or poring over anthologies have something particular in mind, she was simply searching for stories that sparked her imagination. Then, the following morning, Andrade would open her notebook and see what legends and myths had escaped the library.
Andrade and Barritt would then examine the stories she had mined and develop an aesthetic for how these folktales would be presented on the stage. One folktale would later be dressed up in the style of a cowboy Western.
“Different aesthetics have come according to the different pieces really. We just worked on them, getting inspired,” says Barritt. “There’s a wide variety of different aesthetics we are using for each piece. The way it changes, you won’t be able to guess what is coming next.”
While combining projected film pieces on top of live actors, all of which work in unison with the live music, proves to be a painstaking process, 1927 manages to expand their performances beyond the limitation of a typical stage show. Scene transitions can occur in a snap, moving the audience from the Old West to anywhere in the world. This flexibility only serves to further drive home 1927’s goal with Roots — that being, make up your own mind about what the show means to you.
“When you are doing a long narrative, you’re always thinking about telling the story. With this, you’re telling lots of little stories, and I like the idea that the audience is choosing their own threads,” says Barritt.
Some stories are bleak, lacking the comforting moral of more contemporary fairy tales. Some stories just end — resembling many failed relationships and sexual encounters. As for Roots‘ creators, they are reluctant to say exactly what the performance means to them. Instead they simply want you to consider the personal and the timeless stories set to unfold and unfold again.
“When I was pulling together the stories, part of me was looking for some theme — just some nice, neat theme,” says Andrade, who found an incredible blend of commonality and uniqueness among the various national folktales. “I thought I might find all of these themes, but at the same time what happened is that they are completely random. It’s this funny mix of how much we have in common, and yet, at the same time, how defined we are by our heritage, as well.”
With a refreshing bit of frankness spoken by an artist at the end of a long day of rehearsals, Andrade adds, “It’s either going to be a rich tapestry or a dog’s dinner. But it’s come from a place of truth and love, so I hope that shines through.”