The Fairytale Casebook is a physical theatre performance project about fairytales, folklore and myths, their echos in our contemporary time, and the influences they may continue to have on our ways of thinking, our behaviour, and contemporary society.
The idea for The Fairytale Casebook came from my strong fascination with fairytales, their twisting and rich narratives loaded with colourful images and metaphors, which seem to be ancient on the one hand, and yet strangely contemporary in their continuing presence in our daily lives. Thus it appears that fairytales play a significant role in our collective and personal subconsciousness. Like the myth researcher Marina Warner has said, they are as ‘fluid as a conversation taking place over centuries. The audience is not necessarily assembled in one place at one moment - the circle loops out across the centuries, forming a community across barriers of language and nation as well as time.’[i] They keep popping up everywhere around us, be it in Disney films, in new blockbusters like Game of Thrones, or simply in everyday language where we can still find phrases like “once upon a time”, “she is being a witch”, “it was like they have been swallowed by the earth”, or “to wish upon a star”.
Whenever I become aware that something influences me subconsciously, I get uneasy and start searching and enquiring myself. From this the idea of a theatre performance about fairytales and myths from different cultures was born. It was meant to relate and enquire. The aim was to be immersed in their world, meet them face to face, find these traces of old transferred morals and behavioural patterns in them, and their roots in me. Then to step out, re-evaluate the encounters and see which of these themes are still commendable and applicable, both for myself and the world we live in, and which ones are tying us to old beliefs that have been abandoned since and keep us in a dangerous moral loop. An inspiration that fueled the work of many physical theatre practitioners I admire is Jerzy Grotowski, who in his work, as he phrased it, felt a need to ‘attack [myths], go beyond them, or rather confront them with [his] own experience, which is itself determined by the collective experience of our time’[ii] Like him, I wanted to work physically because I felt that in this way I was best able to tackle this project by listening into myself, seeing how my body, my emotions, and my mind responded to the stories, and reacted to them impulsively.
In terms of how to make this encounter happen between me, the audience, and the fairytales, it quickly became apparent that a real approach to them - an immersion into their inner logic and world - was only possible by encountering them on their own terms. For me in the case of fairytales, this meant through the oral tradition. ‘This is the essential point: fairytales on the page invoke live voices, telling stories aloud. A memory of a living narrator reverberates in the genre, even when the story is manifestly a highly wrought literary text. Authors like Giovanni Francesco Straparola, Giambattista Basile, and the Countess D’Aulnoy are playacting, stepping into the roles of Shahrazad or Mother Goose, because one of the things that fairy tale promises is an unbroken link with the past.’[iii]
I felt a real chance here to involve the audience in a familiar fairytale atmosphere, where the voices carry the story, emotions and evocations that potentially resemble their own childhood experiences, and at the same time mirror fairytale history and tradition, which is based on living voices. So I soon decided to work with audio-recordings: recordings of different, real people from different cultural backgrounds. I started to ask around among my friends if they would be willing to narrate their favourite tales or some that stirred their senses. The results were breathtaking due to the sheer energy and authenticity that was audible in people’s voices. The individual life the fairytales possessed shone through, while at the same time the narrators’ own interpretations, emphasis, and feeling gave a strong direction and drive to the stories, according to their own position in relation to them. Everyone recorded their tale in English and their native language because I wanted the original feeling and sound of the fairytale to be heard and preserved, as well as their meaning to be understood by the whole audience. In the end I assembled these recorded audio clips in an order that followed one of the texts, and at the same time, allowed all the tales, including the ones I did not intend to speak about directly in the performance, to have their individual moment, and for the audience to get a glimpse of all of them. I wanted the voices to sound chorus-like. Sometimes, individual voices would get solos, but other times they would overlap and fade from one into another, because I believe they are able to form bridges in people’s minds between different topics and ideas. At the same time, a wild range of voices, I hoped, would convey the immense number of different stories that exist and that mix together in us, battling to be heard and giving us sometimes conflicting impulses.
The result is a performance project, which I potentially want to extend and continue to work on in the future. It is meant as continuous active engagement with the stories that shaped the skeleton of our contemporary cultures, and continue to shape us and the way we perceive the surrounding world through the lenses they have given us. A stepping out. A re-assessing. A re-evaluation. And a conscious stepping back in.
Nele Czerwinka is a recent graduate from Aberystwyth University (Drama and Theatre Studies). In her project 'The Fairytale Casebook' she researches the influence of folklore on the collective subconsciousness and contemporary society.
[i] Warner, M. (2014) Once upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[ii] Schechner, R. & Wolford, L. (eds) (2006) The Grotowski Sourcebook. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.
[iii] Warner, pp. 51-53