It is testament to the vibrancy of the arts in Yorkshire that new theatre companies are continuing to form, make engaging new work and thrive. Common Ground Theatre Ensemble was founded at the end of last year and the company are taking their first project, a reimagining of A Winter’s Tale, to theatres, art centres and community venues around Yorkshire over the next two months.
A small-scale touring company based in the department of theatre, film and television at the University of York, Common Ground’s co-directors are playwright and actor Hannah Davies and theatre director Tom Cornford. Both have a connection with the university – Cornford is a lecturer in the department while Davies is currently completing her PhD – and together they have adapted A Winter’s Tale, giving it a modern twist and making it more accessible to 21st century audiences.
“As this year is the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth we wanted to mark that and we wanted to take an existing story and re-imagine it,” says Davies. “A Winter’s Tale is a favourite of both mine and Tom’s and is often referred to as one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem’ plays – it is very different in tone in the first half and the second half – but we were looking for a challenge.”
The play opens in the court of Leontes, the jealous king of Sicilia, whose cruel, tyrannical behaviour splits his family and the first three acts are full of intense emotional drama while the final two acts are comedic. The play also famously contains the wonderful stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear”.
Davies and Cornford’s approach to adapting the story included setting up workshops with the four actors who appear in the production. “We spent several months exploring the themes and the events of the play,” explains Davies. “Then we looked at moments where we wanted to intervene. There are bits I have written and bits that the cast have improvised. It was a collaborative devised process.”
They came up with the inventive idea of taking one of the one of the characters in the original Shakespeare play – Autolycus – described as “a roguish peddlar, vagabond and pickpocket” and expanding the role so that the actors become the Autolycuns, a four piece band of players, singers, tricksters and rogues who are the storytellers. They also take on all the other roles in the original play.
Music plays an important part in the proceedings. It promises to be a fun-filled evening of songs, storytelling and some gentle, imaginative audience participation.
“We try and encourage the audience to get involved in different parts of the story,” says Davies. “We ask for their assistance at certain moments in a very non-confrontational and friendly way. They might help us create a bear growl, for example, but nothing too strenuous.” The company are already developing two further projects – Within this Landscape, a site responsive piece of personal storytelling and Baba Yaga, a reworking of a Russian fairytale. The longer term aim is to create a core team of artists and performers.
“We hope to keep working in a way that involves lots of other people,” says Davies. “We want to encourage as many people to collaborate with us as possible.”
A Winter’s Tale is touring from tomorrow. www.comm ongroundtouringtheatre.co.uk