Rumpelstiltskin | One Year On with the Cast

It can't come into the light, and the light can't come into it...


A year ago our production Rumpelstiltskin took place in the atmospheric New Room, Bristol - the world's oldest Methodist chapel hidden in the heart of Bristol's busy shopping district of Broadmead. Since then the world has been turned upside down by the Coronavirus pandemic and the future of theatre remains in jeopardy.


Director Hannah Drake caught up on Zoom with cast members Norma Butikofer (King/Rumpelstiltskin), Katie Tranter (Millie) and Dan Wheeler (the Miller) to find out how they've been getting on in this extraordinary year: talking Lockdown challenges, favourite memories and legacy...

Hannah

So… dare I ask how have you guys found the last year?!

Norma

Such a year! I think, like everyone, I’ve had extreme highs and extreme lows - I don't even mean career wise. I just mean emotionally!

I've been in London the whole time; I was furloughed from my job at the yoga studio but to start I was doing OK. And then there was a lot of nothing and a lot of going on runs, a lot of cooking...And then I did some voiceover jobs as well. So that's kept going because it's quite safe. You know, you’re just in a studio by yourself and so that's a good thing to have. In July, the yoga studio opened again so I just started going back to work, which was so weird and worrying because it was all very..."I don't think England is ready to open up again" and yet it still is. But that's been a sort of slow reintegration....I live a sort of half normal half not normal life right now.


Hannah

Katie you were you were by yourself for the majority of official Lockdown…

Katie

Yeah. You know, I actually sort of miss those days. There were elements of it that were really difficult - I was lonely and I did hug trees in the park! Because I was just like…I need to feel a living thing in my arms and the closest all I had was the trees in the park!

But I was really lucky because I was in my own flat and actually, having nowhere to be and nothing to do allowed me to do some amazing resting - I've never been so healthy! No one could make me go and audition in London at the last minute or, you know, no one could email you and say, “right, we need you here tomorrow to do a thing…” It was quite nice to be left alone for a while.


Sometimes it was lonely and frustrating and weird but I kind of wish we were back there in a way because at least it was clear what it was and what we were doing. And no one in our industry could work. It was an even playing field. And now it is not like that. Some people's careers are fine. Some people's are completely non-existent and I feel like mine is somewhere in the middle.

Hannah

Did you pick up any new hobbies in Lockdown? With all that time…

Norma

I haven't really been taking up other hobbies or anything but I've started taking screen acting classes.

Hannah

Oh cool – very appropriate!

Norma

Most of my experience is in stage, so I thought it would be nice to explore that. But that's the only sort of new thing I've been getting up to. Really.

Hannah

Dan what about you?

Dan

I've been spending a lot more time sat in front of a computer screen; partly I had to try and find some way of making some money so I've been doing proofreading and editing, which has been really interesting, something I haven't really done much of before. It's nice to have a mix of different stuff to work on. I told you the other day Hannah that I wrote a play! It's a one man show that's been ticking around in my head for ages, which is something that I would like to do one day.

But I'm sort of feeling….I think maybe, a lot of us are…I'm feeling so detached from the industry; that there isn't really much industry. I was quite passionate about writing [the play] and I'm actually not as passionate about performing it as I thought I would be. Maybe that will change as things start to open up a bit more.


In terms of hobbies, I'm doing a weekly online roleplaying thing called Call of Cthulhu. It’s something I did once or twice ages ago, but became something you could do socially without actually being with each other (because there's only so many Zoom quizzes you can do!). Zoom is quite a good format for roleplaying games. It's also been a really good creative outlet that doesn't feel like it's got any purpose beyond having a good time: not about “how is this going to further our careers?” It's just sort of telling stories together. So that's been great. And I think I'll keep that up for as long as possible.

Katie

I went through different phases during lockdown… near the beginning I went through a phase where all I wanted to do was to record songs and put them online. That's all I wanted to do. Or do little clown challenges and film them and put them online. That was all I did. And then I went through a phase of teaching online where I was like, OK, I'm going to teach clown online, teach mime online. And then I got really into going to classes: actually, just like training online. And things where you're not retraining, but things like the Insane Root Play Reading Group - that's one of the big ones that I've just held onto. Dan hit the nail on the head there it's not about product, it’s about community.


You can go to big Equity or Theatre Bristol meetings where you will have big chats about the future of Theatre but I find those distressing because I have to sit on a call with, like, one hundred and fifty people, all of whom are sitting there looking back at you with all their anxieties too. And I'm not sure that this meeting is actually going to help any of us.

Hannah

I've been to a lot of those on behalf of Insane Root, and I think that the difficulty in a way is we're still in the middle of it all.

Katie

Yeah.

Hannah

So we're having to keep reacting to what is present as opposed to really be able to think forward. And you can be in those meetings, but you can have no power to actually make a change. At Insane Root we have a small amount of money but we don't have the power to really influence the rest of the industry or ...to save people. For us, it's just about whether we can survive and keep going? So, at some point, we can come back with a show.

Katie

It’s tiring trying to navigate the situation. [That said,] I've just been really excited by how you can do things that you normally wouldn't have access to. So I've been training with a mime teacher in Barcelona because I can do it from my room, you know, some really cool things.


Hannah

Tell us a bit about Witcheroo.

Katie

Witcheroo is a Covid Secure act. I'm not going to call it a show at the moment, I'd say it's an act. Me and Robyn, who I run my theatre company with, we play two witches both called Miriam and we go out doing “spell deliveries”. We started out with someone on a street booking us for their community and we would just go and do a 20 minute kind of clown ritual. We’d use some music, draw out things on the pavement, and then people bring offerings. We'd say “dig deep into your soul”... And they bring out fluff from their pocket and put it in the circle and it's just a really stupid thing but people love it. It's quite personal.

So we're starting to get bookings for it. But it's that classic thing. We're just developing it with no money. Every time we make a bit of money from busking, or we're paid a fee, we just put that straight back into the show to get it to the next level. It's a labour of love.

Norma

It sounds great though

Katie

Yeah. It's good. Now we've got a version that's good for the park, and a version that's more child friendly that we could do birthday parties with or like a walkabout. We did Bedlam Fair in Bath a couple of weeks ago, and we had to develop a circle show for it, which is a bit different again.


Hannah

Thinking back to Rumpelstiltskin – what are your memories of the show now?

Norma

I had such fun doing that show. I loved the script. I loved rehearsing it. I loved the little family that we all became because it was such a small cast. It was such a lovely experience for me.

I remember this one performance we did where we were all on the platform. And I don't know if the lights were a cue behind or cue ahead, but it just went completely dark! We were just lit by the candles. I almost lost it on stage because it was just so funny. Like the three of us were just helpless actors who couldn't help but continue to say the lines, but like, kept looking at each other. It was so funny. Yeah. I felt I felt loved and supported in that moment. And throughout.

Katie

There's something really joyful about holding in laughter when you're on stage because that means that we're having a good time. It means that we're connecting to each other and we're really in it. I always find that really life affirming.

Norma

I think almost broke when I looked at you Katie, I think I did the line “some terrible things happened to you” or something, and I was looking straight at you and was just like… *laughs*

Hannah

Do you think there was something about the project that kind of engendered that connection? For example, having to build the set every day?

Katie

Yeah, that was really full on but it quite literally strengthened us physically and as an ensemble.

Hannah

I imagine it involves a different level of responsibility to each other.

Norma

But it wasn't just building the set. We did a lot of work on the script together, with Matt [Grinter] as well, but we all sort of moulded it together. So as well as building the set, we built the script in the show a little bit. Not to take away from, like, the gorgeous writing or anything.


Dan

Sometimes it felt like Matt was there, like the fourth cast member, because all the words were his but he was so generous - there was that scene where John [the Miller] was imprisoned and didn't we all sort of feel like actually that didn't really sit in the version of the play that we were doing? Matt was so generous about saying, fine, OK, if that doesn't work for you [take it out]. It felt very much a play that we all made together, you know: director, cast, writer, composer. It was all a really lovely collaborative process.

Hannah

I'm just having flashbacks to the many hours we spent trying to solve out the "final form" of Rumpel!

Katie

Yeah, there was a lot of creating to be done. I really enjoyed when Peter Clifford came in to work with us. I really love it when you have someone else come in and throw something else into the mix. That's always an exciting bit of the process, isn't it? Fresh material. And also Peter Clifford's so sweet.

Hannah

Was there any thing you found particularly difficult?

Norma

I don't know much about puppeteering so that was really difficult. I guess if we had had more time, I would have wanted to do more pure work on the mechanics of it, out of the context of the show.

Hannah

Your work ethic was incredible - taking the puppets home to practise. You could see every time you brought them in that you'd done the work.

Katie

I felt like I was ever so slightly on the back foot from the beginning because I'd come off a really intense run of shows in London straight into rehearsals, into a piece of new writing. And I'm not that experienced with new writing. I get asked to be an actor musician a lot because I play the accordion and I get asked to be a puppeteer a lot... but I don't often get asked to be part of a process like this. Matt's writing style is really distinctive; some of it feels so contemporary or it feels really natural and it flows. And then other scenes I was just like, I literally don't know how to say these words!

Norma

You're right. His writing is kind of like a like a fairy tale or something not quite natural. It's a bit heightened.

Katie

I was really lucky in 2019 that I pretty much did shows back to back all year, but I would normally get bigger breaks in between shows. So I knew I had to eat really well, sleep really well, study hard.

Hannah

Do you remember how you felt going into the new room for the first time?

Norma

I do, actually! I was underwhelmed. I went in and I thought, this is really nice. It's a little oasis. It's cool. But then I saw it lit with candles and I was like, oh, this is really cool.

It’s a great space to do this show in because it's quite simple; it's not opulent or ostentatious in any way. So when you go in, it's not like you're wowed by, you know, stained glass windows or intricate carvings or anything like that. But then it's just a very peaceful calm place. So I don't think it's meant to bowl you over when you go in.

Hannah

I remember going to see the space in candlelight for the first time. I was really scared that it wasn't going to pay off, but it was so eerie! You suddenly felt the shadows in the corners because, even though it was never a pitch-black space, you got the sense that there were lots of areas that people could hide. And you wouldn't know they were there!

Katie

About halfway through the run, I started to get a bit freaked out by the space. Towards the end, I was just like, oh my God, so much darkness. I think I need to go to the Canary Islands or something! Like someone put me on a sunbed; because I felt like I could feel it creeping into my soul a little bit.

Hannah

I think especially for me, you know, you'd go out the front door of the New Room and suddenly there's Broadmead and shopping and capitalism and fluorescent lights. And then you step back into the New Room and it's wooden and with the candles, and everything, it is quite disorienting.

Katie

Like stepping back in time.

Dan

I thought it was going to do a lot more of the work for us, if I'm honest. I thought, oh, great, it will be this amazing setting and especially around Autumn/Halloween - that will just automatically make us feel so spooky. And actually, I think we had to work a lot harder because it was much more of a blank canvas than I was expecting.

But at the same time it felt quite special to be in somewhere that has such a long and extraordinary history but which is still a working building; it's not a ruin. So that was really exciting. And like Norma said, it isn't so ornate and you don't walk in to go, oh, wow, what a building! Actually, it's a bit more of a thinker.

Norma

Yeah. And actually working there was quite cool. The staff were all really, really accommodating and nice. And I think I was really lucky: I got to work in the entire space, in the balconies and on the podiums…

Hannah

Was there a particular moment that you enjoyed performing in the show more than others?

Norma

I loved some of the king's bits – it's really fun to play someone who's completely self-serving. And there are some speeches that Matt wrote for the creature [Rumpelstiltskin] that I thought were just really beautiful, imagery wise. So working on those and trying to create those images vocally was something that I enjoyed.

Katie

I used to absolutely love the bit on the upper pulpit where I would name the creature. I felt like a superhero! The character Milly suffers so much and I would have to go on her journey twice a night. She's in fight or flight for the whole show, which is quite a state to have whip myself up into, twice nightly, five nights a week. But that moment was when I got to be like, “f*ck you! Take this! You cannot take my freedom.” It was a really empowering moment.


Hannah

Cathartic.

Katie

Yeah really cathartic because also you're physically high up, you're in that place of power. It's the one time I got to stand at the pulpit on my own.

Hannah

Dan, what about you?

Dan

The bits I enjoyed for two really different reasons were where Norma and I were playing Rumpelstiltskin together; her always doing the vocals but us sort of sharing the puppet. The bit where we were throwing the cloth back and forth or the bit where, you know, I would do the puppet for a bit and then it would go and she’d take over the puppet in a different part of the space. That felt so theatrical.

And if you've got all the tech in the world, there's no reason why you would need two people very obviously on stage to be playing the same person. It's the ultimate theatrical thing. And that was just really fun. That's why that's why we do theatre, isn't it?

The other bit for a really different reason was the scenes between John and Milly. You know, nice sort of domestic scenes, the one at the start and the one at the end. They felt really nice and cosy and quite natural and sort of free: you could play around a little bit with tiny little tweaks in timing and enjoy actually just playing opposite another real person in a very natural way on stage. So I guess the same thing – both ultimately theatrical experiences, but one very stylized and the other one very natural.

Norma

One of my favourite things to do was the bird iteration of Rumpelstiltskin. Because that's where the creature reveals its hand in a way - that's the point that they've been leading up to. All along [Rumpelstiltskin is] like “get the kid, get the kid, get the kid” and then Milly finally agrees to the bargain. And so, yeah, that was a really nice scene for me.




Hannah

Do you think doing the show changed you at all? Did you learn anything new?

Katie

It was a massive learning curve. I don't often get asked to hold that central perspective [as Milly]. And I had to be there for her all the time. Not the person who's madly changing costume and putting on a puppet whilst playing a penny whistle in a pair of leggings – that's normally what I'm doing! So it was good. It was like, yeah, I can do that too. I can play the heroine.

Norma

Doing my two roles was really challenging because it wasn't like either role was tiny, you know, a one scene guy. Both were two completely full people or things. And that was a challenge; but a really fun challenge.

Dan

[Rumpelstiltskin] was the first and so far (thanks to COVID) only time that I've gone into a rehearsal room as a parent. That was a really interesting personal process to work out what the right balance is of being committed and passionate about the work, but at the same time knowing that actually there's something more important at home. And I think previously I've gone into a rehearsal room and it's like nothing else matters. So that was a really interesting process of balancing those two things. Especially in contrast to doing Romeo and Juliet [Dan took over the role of Mercutio halfway during our 2018 production run], where it was a case of turn up, learn the lines, do the blocking… it's such a different process to be making the show in the room.

Hannah

If you had to describe the show now to people who maybe didn't get to see it, how would you give them a sense of what the show was?


Norma

I'd say something like “extremely demonstrative storytelling” or something like… I mean, you are just being told the story and it could be really simple, but we've lifted the fairy tale off of the page.

Katie

It's an experience. I don't want to use the word immersive because that's overused and also not used to refer to this sort of theatre, but it's got that sense of an event; rather than just being an observer, you're part of the world as well. It's very involved and engaging and it's intimate.


Hannah

Thanks everyone!

Rehearsal photography by Lisa Hounsome

Production photography by Jack Offord

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