Tag Archives: Forest Forge

Reinventing old stories, making the ancient contemporary

Sophie Stone in 'Woman of Flowers' by Kaite O'Reilly

Sophie Stone in ‘Woman of Flowers’ by Kaite O’Reilly

How do we take old stories and make them new, and relevant to our time?

We know (or we should know) there is no such thing as ‘original’ – the same plots have been going around for millennia (there’s only seven plots, apparently). I’m pretty sure the average soap opera concerns the same things ancient Greeks sat down to watch thousands of years ago – and I would like to include Chinese historical soaps in this, for they also cover warring dynasties and great battles.

Human beings are endlessly fascinated with other human beings. We gain great pleasure from watching ordinary people deal with extraordinary situations and grow, change, learn new skills, succeed, fail… We root for the underdog, we fair-minded gentle folk secretly love the dastardly ‘baddie’ – we project ourselves onto the protagonist, identifying with her, breathing with her. We have such an appetite for narrative it is extraordinary we never use all the possibilities up… Which brings me to reinvention, and finding perspectives pertinent for our times.

We know that Shakespeare used many received stories, and that the ancient Greek playwrights consistently revisited the same store of deities, symbolic figures, and conflicts. Today, adaptations of existing work are immensely popular. A glance at the mainstream London theatre scene for this week alone throws up reinventions of The 39 StepsThe Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare in Love and Ostermier’s participatory An Enemy of the People. I saw this update of Ibsen at the Schaubühne in Berlin two years ago, filled with cover versions of Bowie’s ‘Ch-ch-ch-changes’ done with acoustic guitar, live on stage. I don’t feel Ostermier succeeded fully in making the piece contemporary, but it was a bold move, and one that’s proved popular.

So how do we make the old new, with resonance for the times we inhabit? I ask this question often in my work. Over the past few years I’ve been involved in exactly this – reinventing existing texts and stories. My version of Aeschylus’s Persians for Mike Pearson’s 2010 site-specific production on MOD land for National Theatre Wales won the Ted Hughes Award for new works in poetry, and my latest play, currently touring, is a reworking of the the myth of Blodeuwedd from the fourth branch of the Mabinogion.

For me, the first stage is obsession. It’s all very well deciding to update an existing work, but if something about that story doesn’t grab you by the ears and pull you face-first into the narrative, don’t even consider starting.

I’ve been obsessed with Blodeuwedd for years, ever since I first moved to Wales and discovered the ancient text. It is fascinating and compelling: the woman of flowers made to be wife to a man cursed by his mother; the woman made to serve, who discovers desire and plots to have her way; the unnatural creature reared in nature red in tooth and claw, transformed into an owl as punishment for her transgressions… I could write many other versions of the story from different perspectives, which is what makes ancient texts so rewarding to work with. In my reworking of this myth in a commission from Kirstie Davis from Forest Forge, I had to settle on one approach, and one which I felt would have resonance to the times we inhabit.

The second stage is to find the angle that reverberates with current events. Without giving the game away too much, for me approaching Woman of Flowers, this involves the rise of all kinds of fundamentalism, and the corresponding belief systems, creation stories and values made through rhetoric and words. In the original, Blodeuwedd is made by Gwydion, the greatest living storyteller, from the flowers of the forest. I wanted to explore the power of language in this retelling, especially as we use visual language (theatricalised sign) as well and spoken and captioned English in the production.

I have also been very concerned with the rise of modern slavery – disturbing stories in the media of intolerable working conditions (the recent SOS written on clothes labels for Primark), and people kept against their will and treated as slave labour (a case most recently on a farm in Wales).

A further stage when remaking is to respect the original, but not to be strait-jacketed by it. As writers, we need to be free to work with the material as we see fit, but not to be directed into a dead-end by details, nor be imaginatively contained. I’ve had to shake off many ‘I really should…’ compulsions, ‘but the original…’ doubts. The aim is to have integrity in the handling of the material and its original elements, and to respect it, but not be dominated by it. We sometimes have to work against the authority of the text in order to find new ways of saying old things.

woman_of_flowers-96x148-1The text Woman of Flowers has been published by Aurora Metro and available at performances as well as here

The Forest Forge Theatre Company production opened in September and continues to tour nationally until November 1st 2014. Full tour details with links here and below.

Woman of Flowers tour

October 2014

Tue 14 19.30 Quay Arts, Isle of Wight, PO30 5BW 01983 822490

Wed 15 20.00 Brixham Theatre, Devon, TQ5 8TA 01803 882717

Sat 18 19.30 West Stafford Village Hall, Dorset, DT2 8AG 01305 261984

Tue 21 19.30 Ibsley Village Hall, Hampshire, BH24 3NL 01425 473065

Thu 23 20:00 Lighthouse Poole’s Centre for the Arts, Poole, BH15 1UG             O844 406 8666 BSL interpreted show

Fri 24 19:30 Bridport Arts Centre, Dorset, DT6 3NR 01308 424204

Sat 25 20:00 Dorchester Arts Centre,Dorset, DT1 1XR 01305 266926

Tue 28 19:30 Mere Lecture Hall,Wiltshire, BA12 6HA O1747 860163

Wed 29 19:30 Aberystwyth Arts Centre,Wales, SY23 3DE 01970 62 32 32

Thu 30 19:30 The Spring, Havant, PO9 1BS 023 9247 2700

November 2014

Sat 1 November 19.30 Greyfriars Community Centre, Ringwood, BH24 1DW 01425 472613


Making language visual

Turning written text into visual, physical language – transforming words on the page into signs and gestures that take flight….  I love working with Jean St Clair. In her London apartment this week, I worked with her and Sophie Stone, transforming written text from my new play Woman of Flowers into flowing, beautiful visual language.

Jean St Clair's encouraging feedback

Jean St Clair’s encouraging feedback

Although I’ve been working with Jean now for a dozen years on translation and recreating English text into theatricalised sign, I always feel very privileged to be part of the process. We last worked together on Forest Forge’s production of my play peeling, also directed by Kirstie Davis. It’s wonderful to have Jean as our creative sign director.


I send her the speeches from my play which we want physicalised in advance and then Jean asks me questions about my meaning, intention, and preferred aesthetic via email or text. When we gather, she will have already explored possibilities, but will always be led by the performer – in this case Sophie Stone, who will be performing the part in the Forest Forge production when Woman of Flowers tours the UK in the Autumn.


Woman of Flowers is a new play, inspired by elements of the ancient Welsh treasure, The Mabinogion. I’ve been obsessed by the story of Bloudewydd for many years, since I moved to Wales to live.


The story tells of a female ostensibly made from the flowers of the oak and trees in the forest to be companion to a young man cursed by his mother never to have ‘a woman of our race.’ Quite what this ‘ideal’ woman might be has enthralled and perplexed me for years. I explored the notion of  computer generated avatars in Perfect, a piece I made with John McGrath and Paul Clay ten years ago at Contact Theatre, and which won the Manchester Evening News best play of 2004.

Jean St Clair and Sophie Stone working on 'Woman of Flowers'

Jean St Clair and Sophie Stone working on ‘Woman of Flowers’

Woman of Flowers, commissioned by Forest Forge and directed by Kirstie Davis, will be very different. A mixture of prosaic everyday dialogue in spoken English, and the poetic inner thoughts of Rose (played by Sophie) using theatricalised sign, will hopefully be visually stunning and emotionally effecting.


Our rehearsed reading at Salisbury Playhouse earlier in the month left some of the invited audience in tears. Many spoke afterwards of the lyrical nature of Sophie’s spoken and signed language, mentored and polished by Jean’s experienced eye.

I have asked Jean and Sophie if they will guest blog about their process, working between spoken and signed language, between Deaf and hearing cultures. They have agreed, and I can’t wait to share more of this part of the creative process, which is often invisible, hidden from view.

Tour details: http://www.forestforge.co.uk/shows/woman-of-flowers 

20 Questions: Kirstie Davis

What if I took 20 questions, and gave them to directors, artists, playwrights, poets, actors, novelists, burlesque performers, short story writers, devisers, stand-up and sit-down comedians and anyone else who seemed interesting in between, and asked them to respond to as many or as few questions as they liked, as briefly or meandering as they chose about art, culture, and the creative process… wouldn’t that be an interesting series?

Or that, at least, is the thinking behind a new series of interviews I’ll be posting each week, 20 Questions. I’m delighted that director Kirstie Davis agreed to be the first subject…


Kirstie Davis

Kirstie Davis

Kirstie has worked at many theatres around the country including the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith and Salisbury Playhouse . For six years she was the Associate Director and then Acting Artistic Director of Watford Palace Theatre. Plays included: The Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Crucible in History, Mother Courage and her Children, Fear and Misery in the Third Reich, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Daughter-in-Law and Top Girls. She has also directed Fable and Brecht’s Lehrstucke for the Nuffield Theatre and most recently she ran the Studio Theatre at Cheltenham Everyman where she directed Man to Man and led on their New Writing, Outreach and Professional Mentoring programmes. Since joining Forest Forge as Artistic Director in January 2009, Kirstie has directed Around The World In 80 Days, Ashputtel, Free Folk, For The Record, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Peeling, The World Outside, Bloom, The Phoenix and The Carpet and Midnight is a Place.

See www.forestforge.co.uk for more details


What first drew you to writing/directing/acting?

I fell in love with film from an early age and wanted to be a film director. But at university I discovered theatre and changed paths. I love working with actors and the immediacy of theatre. The rehearsal room is my favourite place.

What was your big breakthrough?

I am not sure that I have had one! In terms of being allowed to direct- I assisted Jane Howell at BADA and she was inspirational and allowed me to direct the first act of Top Girls. I now always have an assistant director if I can.

 What is the most challenging aspect of your work/process?

Funding applications! I enjoy the challenge of new writing- as it is all to be discovered.

Is there a piece of art, or a book, or a play, which changed you?

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. I saw the play, then the film , then read the play…. An extraordinary haunting piece of work.

What’s more important: form or content?

Both are equal in my eyes

 How do you know when a project is finished?

I don’t think a project is ever really finished- it is just going through a new transition

 Do you read your reviews?

If they are good

 What advice would you give a young writer/practitioner?

Have faith in your abilities and don’t let others put you off. There are many reasons to not pursue a creative career- but if you have to do it, you will.

What work of art would you most like to own?

Anything by Rodin

What’s the biggest myth about writing/the creative process?

That it is easy. That anyone can do it.

 What are you working on now?

The Boy at the Edge of the Room by Richard Conlon. This is an adaptation of a Victorian novella by Lucy Clifford that is the inverse of the Pinocchio Story. A young boy called Tony wants to be a puppet and there are dramatic consequences because of that wish. It is a gothic fairytale for adults, which we think explored autism for the first time in literary form.  (see below for information of the tour)

What is the piece of art/novel/collection/ you wish you’d created?

Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights

 What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?

To not worry so much. To enjoy the moment and not worry about the future.

What’s your greatest ambition?

To be a Theatre Director for the rest of my life

 How do you tackle lack of confidence, doubt, or insecurity?

Good friends who aren’t in the theatre industry

What is the worst thing anyone said/wrote about your work?

I try not to read bad reviews

 And the best thing?


If you were to create a conceit or metaphor about the creative process, what would it be?

Pure collaboration

What is your philosophy or life motto?

Just breathe in and out and move forward.

What is the single most important thing you’ve learned about the creative life?

There are sacrifices as well as gains

What is the answer to the question I should have – but didn’t – ask?

I think that covers it!

Kirstie’s latest production: THE BOY AT THE EDGE OF THE ROOM

The Boy At The Edge Of The Room.... Forest Forge

The Boy At The Edge Of The Room…. Forest Forge

  • The Boy at the Edge of the Room
  • Written By
    Richard Conlon
  • Directed By
    Kirstie Davis
  • Designed By
    David Haworth
  • Composer/Music By
    Rebecca Applin
  • Choreographed By
    Junior Jones
This show tours from 7th Mar 2013 to 20th Apr 2013.  Venue details: http://www.forestforge.co.uk/shows/boyatedge


‘He was not like other boys….He did not see the world through the same eyes as us.”  A boy called Tony struggles to fit in and find his place.  He has a different way of looking at the world and longs to retreat to place where he can be ‘’nothing more than small and far off’. Those surrounding him have little patience for his dreams, with the exception of his mother who will do anything to ensure his happiness.When a mysterious ‘dealer’ offers Tony the chance to make his dream come true, his mother must face a future without him, and the audience is forced to confront an unsettling and moving ending.

The Boy At The Edge of the Room is a fairytale for adults, inspired by Lucy Clifford’s 1882 story Wooden Tony. It focuses on a character who displays many of the classic traits of those on the autistic spectrum. It is a beautiful and moving examination of difference and acceptance, brought to life through song, movement and puppetry. Recommended age 12+  Created with help and advice from the Hampshire Autistic Society.

That was the year that was. But has anything actually changed?








The sublime Mandy Colleran in rehearsals of In Water I’m Weightless, National Theatre Wales, November 2011. All Photos: KO’R.

I began this blog back in August 2011 after I realised that 2012 would bring an embarrassment of riches production-wise. As the forthcoming work is diverse in aesthetic, process and content, I felt much might be learnt, and writing a blog might help externalise my learning, publicise the work and document the process(es).

For they are process(es)… Devising, playwriting, co-creating, collaborative montaging… I’m excited by what 2012 will bring, and the diversity both of the work and the creative approaches I’ll be involved with. It challenges that stereotype of the solo dramatist writing away, misunderstood and alone, in her garret – and the notion that there is only one way of writing plays/drama/performance work (delete as applicable).

But before moving forwards into 2012, and The Echo Chamber, the first project (which begins full rehearsals on December 28th 2011 and will be written about, here), I think it expedient to look back over the year at some of the projects I’ve made and the people I have collaborated with, particularly within disability arts and culture, and ask have we moved on? Has anything actually changed?








Ali Briggs, in rehearsals of Forest Forge’s production of ‘peeling’, directed by Kirstie Davies, March 2011.

peeling’, first produced by Graeae Theatre Company and designed and directed by Jenny Sealey in 2002, had a revival in Forest Forge’s production, touring rurally. The director, Kirstie Davies, had been keen to find an opportunity to produce the script for some time and it was fascinating to return to an old script and see what had stood the test of time, what required updating, what was no longer relevant…

Perhaps it’s a sign of how far we still have to go in perceiving disabled and Deaf people as equal citizens and not ‘other’, but we discovered the cultural and socio-political aspects parodied or challenged in the play were still as relevant in 2011 as 2002. The only changes to the script I made were updating celebrity names. The stories in the play of being patronised, feared, or discriminated against still held – and the off-duty conversations we had in the green room about the challenges disabled and Deaf women face when working in the creative industries were as familiar and tiresome as they had been first time round, at the beginning of this Millennium.

Photocall: ‘peeling’ with Kiruna Stamell, Nicola Miles-Wildin and Ali Briggs.




As I wrote during rehearsals in February 2011:

Ali, Nickie, and Kiruna are powerful, comical, and poignant… I am congratulating Kirstie Davis, artistic director of Forest Forge, on her superb casting and her liberating, inclusive attitude – for it is still extremely rare. Sadly, in my twenty plus years of professional experience in theatre, I have largely found a reluctance for companies to cast disabled and Deaf actors, even in parts written specifically for them. Perhaps this is based on fear, or ignorance, or uninformed preconceptions – things are certainly changing and improving – but we certainly need more like Kirstie in the industry.

I am also extremely excited by ‘peeling’s rural tour – bringing this work and this company to village halls and community centres. The fact large famous London theatres are still casting hearing, non-signing actors in Deaf, signing parts only highlights how quietly radical Forest Forge’s work is….   http://www.forestforge.co.uk/posts/45

This radical aspect to Kirstie’s programming was also appreciated by Mark Courtice writing about the production in April 2011 in reviewsgate:

Forest Forge, in taking [peeling] to the arts centres and village halls of Hampshire and Wiltshire,  demonstrate the sort of courage and enterprise that make the recent Arts Council decision to cut their grant seem more than usually incomprehensible. 


Here is one area where I feel there has been a change: the 2011 reviews of ‘peeling’ were not as toe-curlingly insensitive or offensive as some had been, the first time round. Perhaps the influence of the Medical Model has begun to wane, but here were no lingering descriptions of the performers’ bodies or impairments, nor morbid fascination with physical difference. Thankfully, there was no polarity between ‘handicaps’ and ‘real people’ as there had been in The independent in 2002.



And so from a remounting of old workmade new, to a new piece so new it has not had a production yet:






Christopher Fitzsimmonds, Kiruna Stamell and Peader Kirk in workshop, ‘Your Tongue; My Lips’ , June 2011. 

‘Your Tongue, My Lips’ is work in progress exploring disability and sexuality, and part of my Unlimited Commission from LOCOG and the Cultural Olympiad, to develop new work inspired by disability experience. In June 2011 I had a residency at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff, working with director Peader Kirk and performers Mat Fraser, Kiruna Stamell, Christopher Fitzsimmonds, Sara Beer, Tom Wentworth, Ben Owen Jones and Carri Munn.




Mat Fraser




I feel there has been a shift in many ways towards some of the work coming out of disability arts and culture – but it isn’t necessarily from the mainstream, but from what used to be snootily or suspiciously called ‘the avant-garde’.  In many contexts disability arts and culture has been viewed as either therapy or amateur expression – I have been wrestling with this for more years than I care to count. It comes then as no real surprise that many of the allies to my crip culture work have been artists working experimentally themselves, or gate-keepers to institutions or venues which value experimentation. Such was my experience when working with Peader and the actors at Chapter, and my interactions with James Tyson, former programmer of the venue, and Richard Huw Morgan of Good Cop Bad Cop, and Pitch, Radio Cardiff,  98.7FM.  

For a lengthy interview with the performers and me about this work, please follow the link below to Pitch,  ‘a cool arts magazine, but on-air’ (The Guardian’).


It is an archive recording of programme 6 and the interview between Richard and I starts 31.58 minutes in.

In the second part of this blog, I will write about my work in the latter part of this year, working more in the ‘mainstream’.

‘Cripping up is the twenty first century answer to blacking up.’ Peeling and The ‘d’ Monologues.






Kiruna Stamell and Ali Briggs in Forest Forge’s production of ‘peeling’, directed by Kirstie Davies, Spring 2011. Photograph by Lucy Sewell.

Some years ago I received a Creative Wales Major Award from Arts Council Wales, to begin a project I called The ‘d’ Monologues – short dramatic solos written specifically for Deaf and disabled performers. There is a dearth of plays with disabled characters, and when these are produced, the parts are invariably played by non-disabled or  hearing actors. Those who know me and my play peeling will know I’m not a fan of this kind of casting. As one of the characters says in peeling, a play all about performance: ‘Cripping up is the twenty-first century answer to blacking up.’

The Western theatrical canon is full of disabled characters: From the pathos of the blinded Oedipus to the personification of evil in Richard III, the impaired body has often been used as a metaphor for the human condition. But seldom have the plays been written from a disability perspective, or performed by disabled actors. This was the impetus for my writing peeling in 2002 for Graeae Theatre. I wanted to write an edgy, inventive, and humorous play specifically for Deaf and disabled actors, which used Sign performance (theatricalised British Sign Language), and reflected the experience of disabled and Deaf women. Unfortunately so often in the media, we are portrayed as the victim or the villain – the object of sympathy, or charity, or superhuman inspiration. In peeling I wanted to create women who were witty, sexy, complex human beings who made difficult decisions about their fertility and potential offspring; women whose lives didn’t necessarily differ so much from non-disabled, hearing women’s lives.

A triumph in its original production, directed and designed by Jenny Sealey, and remounted earlier this year by Kirstie Davies of Forest Forge, peeling garnered prizes alongside outstanding reviews and is now seen as a watershed moment in the relationship between disability arts and culture and the ‘mainstream’ media. It was arguably the first production written, directed and performed by disabled and Deaf practitioners to be reviewed widely and seriously by all national press. A similar response came from within the specialised disability press: ‘Disability art grows up’ was one heading. The play was – and remains – controversial in elements of its content, politics, and depiction of disabled and Deaf women – but also for my refusal for it be performed by anyone other than Deaf and disabled performers.

I find non-disabled actors impersonating people with physical or sensory impairments extremely problematic – akin to the now offensive ‘blacking up’ of white actors to play Othello. This is not me being overtly PC, simply my rejection of what that message implies – that there are no black or disabled actors good enough to play these parts and that Caucasian non-disabled actors will always do it better…

I remember when it was announced the first black performer was going to play Othello  at the RSC. If my memory serves me right, I was in my early teens at the time and horrified when this came up, presented as some kind of celebratory cutting-edge news item on the local television station. “What?!’ I remember thinking. ‘There hasn’t been a black performer playing that part until now?!’

Everyone interviewed seemed to be most relieved this prejudice had been finally put to bed and shook their heads over the onerously-held negative opinions of actors of colour in the past. There would be no more boot polish and burnt corks smelling out the dressing rooms of the RSC or the UK regional repertory theatres. Caucasian actors blacking up to play the Moor owing to their supposed superior acting skills, knowledge of the Bard and ‘his’ language no longer held sway… And I look forward to the time – in my lifespan, I hope – when a similar change occurs regarding disabled performers and characters with impairments, whether congenital or acquired.

In the meantime, I’ll grit my teeth when every Oscar-hopeful pulls off their studied gimp impersonation and offer resistance by writing what I hope are interesting and subversive parts for Deaf and disabled actors.

I’ve been writing plays with disabled protagonists for almost twenty years. Throughout that period I have heard the same argument from theatres and directors from both sides of the Atlantic: How will they cast it? Where will they get good, experienced, professional actors who identify as disabled or Deaf? They just don’t exist! The audience or critics or theatre cat won’t accept it! and yada yada in finitum blah de blah until fade…

These preconceptions are incorrect. There is a vast collection of talented, professional performers, theatre practitioners, and live artists – and the numbers are growing. An incredible amount has been done to change perceptions and open up opportunities for training and professional work since my acting debut with Graeae Theatre in 1987. There is an army of the great unsung who have worked tirelessly and continuously to raise the portcullis of fortress professional theatre in the UK and elsewhere – but this has also predominantly been our own actions, created or ignited within the disabled community, working with allies.

Bringing this talent and experience centre stage on major platforms has become something of an obsession, and I’ve spent the past four years developing several projects which now are coming to fruition – projects I’ll be writing about on this blog in coming months.

When I received my ACW Creative Wales Major Award back in 2008, I spent a year exploring the form of the dramatic monologue, seeing solo work in Europe and the US, meeting and being mentored by experts of the form, like Sara Zatz and Ping Chong Company in New York. I shadowed part of Ping Chong’s  Undesirable Elements Series, watching testimonial theatre in various school halls and community centres in Brooklyn, the participants/performers using their own autobiographies to address the experience  and reality of being disabled in NYC.

Throughout this period, I was writing monologues in a variety of styles and dramaturgies, informed and inspired by my interactions with Deaf and disabled people across Wales. Unlike Verbatim, or the testimonial theatre of Ping Chong Company, I chose not to use the actual stories I had been told, but used  these anecdotes and experiences as inspiration, and created fictional drama informed by these interactions.

At the end of the year, the experiment proved to be a success and worth persevering with. A script-in-hand sharing of early work at Unity Festival at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff brought outstanding reviews and I later brought what I coined ‘The Cymru Crips’, a group of performers I’d been working with in South Wales – Sara Beer, Rosaleen Moriarty-Simmonds, Kay Jenkins and Macsen McKay – to The National Theatre Studio in London, for a further script-in-hand showing when I was there on attachment in 2009..


Kay Jenkins, Macsen McKay, Rosaleen Moriarty-Simmonds, Sara Beer, Phillip Zarrilli, Kaite O’Reilly and Maggie Hampton at the National Theatre Studio 2009.

I was further encouraged by receiving an Unlimited Commission from the Cultural Olympiad, part of the celebrations to develop the project across the UK. But that is a further story…

Part of this blog originally appeared in: http://www.forestforge.co.uk/posts/45