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Justin Audibert & Rachel Bagshaw on Aesop’s Fables at Unicorn Theatre: ‘Working in theatre for young audiences is a total privilege and helps to make you a better artist’.

Justin Audibert

Justin Audibert

Unicorn Theatre are known for collaborating with the boldest experimental theatre-makers with work for young audiences, and this new spin on Aesop’s Fables is no exception. Each session will include a handful of stories, retold for the 21st century.

There are two shows for children aged 4-7 that include plays by E V Crowe and Annie Siddons) and aged 8-12 (that includes plays by Chris Thorpe and Somalia Seaton); both are directed by Justin Audibert and Rachel Bagshaw.

I caught up with them during rehearsals and had a chat about what audiences can expect, why Aesop is timeless and other things.

Hello! You’ve been busy working with some top-notch writers on reimagined Aesop’s Fables – in what ways have these commissions surprised you?
What has been really delightful about working on these short plays has been the sheer variety and playfulness of theatrical form and content that we have had to tackle. Every single one of the 8 plays has thrown up a different set of challenges for us, our creative team and the actors. These range from staging a ten minute musical in Frankie and the Crow, to replicating a naturalistic rehearsal room and then anarchically busting free of the Fourth Wall in The Wolf and the Shepherd, to the theatrical practicalities of exploding a ‘frog’ in To Be An Ox, or eating several giant slices of cake in Ant and Hop. Every single piece has thrown us a curve ball or two and solving these has been a joy.

With so many digital distractions why do you think storytelling is still one of our favourite things?
The urge to sit communally and listen to someone spinning an entertaining yarn emerged at the same time as the first humans made fire. It is inherent in our cultural DNA. The particular quality of concentration and the suspension of disbelief theatre requires, is unique because it is such an active and participatory experience. We relish seeing our fellow humans perform as something bigger and more exciting than real life.

What are the main differences between directing shows for the different age groups?
What has emerged as we have sat through previews is that there is a sense of unvarnished wonder amongst the 4-7 year olds and they readily enter into the adventures whereas the 8-12 year olds have much more of a questioning nature and are really keen to challenge the actors and the ideas in the plays.

Can you give me an example of something that felt like it was out of your control during Aesop’s Fables rehearsals?
Our set, without wanting to give too many spoilers, is very ambitious and the actors really use every part of it. In rehearsals it was difficult to imagine how some plays would be staged because of the practical limitations of not having the set in the rehearsal room. We were making guesses on how we would do things. Once we were in tech we had to adjust lots of what we had originally conceived. Thankfully Lily Arnold the designer, our stage management and crew and the cast have all been really adaptable and flexible and willing to alter things through tech and preview.

With changes to the curriculum and the arts and humanities in our state schools – how important are access to theatre and culture for young people?
If the aim of school is to produce happy, informed and engaged citizens then giving them the experience of theatre and culture more generally is one of the best ways a government can spend money. Theatre is a medium to explore what it means to be a human, theatre encourages us to question conventional wisdom – Aesop’s Fables being a prime example, and the theatre is a place where we can truly grapple with complex and sometimes conflicting emotions. All of this is vital to a rich and rewarding life.

Why do you think Aesop’s Fables are still so popular?
Aesop’s Fables have maintained their popularity for thousands of years because they have a certain wry, scepticism in them that leave them open to multiple interpretations. Through the ages people have taken different views on what Aesop was getting at and this is precisely what has kept them alive rather than becoming petrified in time and also why we wanted to re-imagine some of them for a contemporary audience.

Many artists find true creativity to be hard work and reward-free; have you ever felt that in your career(s)?
It’s true to say that artists do not often get the financial reward that they deserve for what they do, but then the same is just as true for nurses, teachers, carers and many other professions but the act of being creative is incredibly rewarding in itself and that feeling of really using art to express something about how you feel about the world never loses its thrill.

What is the most important lesson Aesop has taught you?
That no moral is absolute in nature, that if you just butt heads over something rather than seek a compromise you will probably just both fall off a log into the abyss, and that you should ALWAYS eat your cake!

Why are some areas of theatre valued over others, particularly theatre for young audiences?
Adults, like crows, are often attracted to what is shiny not what actually has inherent value. Famous people are shiny. Lots of them also have plenty of value but that has nothing to do with their fame and everything to do with their talent and humanity, it’s just that all too often that isn’t recognised. Fortunately young people are often excellent at spotting the real from the fake and so working in theatre for young audiences is a total privilege and helps to make you a better artist.

Aesop’s Fables runs (Ages 4-7) 16 Jul- 4 Aug & (Ages 8-12) runs  21 Jun – 3 Aug at Unicorn Theatre, London