Caro Meets Children's Show Interview Theatre Interview

Liza Vallance: The Princess And The Pea

By | Published on Friday 4 December 2020

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been hearing about lots of pre-Christmas family shows being staged in socially distanced ways and one in particular really jumped out at me. Partly because of its clever approach to staying within COVID restrictions and partly because of its approach to the show’s narrative.

‘The Princess And The Pea’ is being staged at Barking’s Eastbury Manor House this week by the brilliant Studio 3 Arts, and I think it sounds fantastic. To find out more about the show, and the company’s plans for the future, I spoke to Liza Vallance, Artistic Director and director of the play.

CM: Most will be familiar with the story of ‘The Princess And The Pea’, but can you tell us a bit about the narrative? Does your telling of it make any changes to the story we know?
LV: It’s the classic Hans Christian Andersen story of a prince testing the sensitivity of potential princesses with a pea under a mattress. However, we’ve flipped the gender roles so our Princess Sky is testing the sensitivity of princes, but not for marriage, for international relations and collaboration. Our Princess Sky is savvy, strategic and very smart.

CM: What themes do you explore through the performance?
LV: There are loads in there about the idea of ‘it’s what’s inside that counts’, and that love, compromise and cooperation can take many forms. The idea of a powerful woman shaping her own destiny comes through strongly, too.

CM: What made you want to create a show using this story?
LV: It’s a favourite of mine from childhood, and I remember my amateur theatre group doing the musical ‘Once Upon A Mattress’ when I was a kid. I like making theatre with old stories, and especially those that have themes and messages that transcend time. This story for me is all about cutting through bluster and being real and honest, a principle for life, in my opinion!

CM: Has the fact that you have to do the show within COVID restrictions affected the way it is presented?
LV: I’ve looked at it as a big creative challenge. How can I stage this story in a way that keeps everyone safe but doesn’t feel overly cautious in its aesthetic, and actually feels like brilliant, immediate, exciting theatre?

I have set the show at the opening of the world’s first ever International Pea Museum. We’re presenting the show in a grade two listed Tudor manor house in Barking, called Eastbury Manor House, with only 20 audience members at a time, who move through the house as the story unfolds.

This keeps everyone safe and adequately distanced but creates a really intimate feel. The building is so impressive that there’s no need for huge lavish sets – the atmosphere and visuals of the house really lend themselves to the aesthetic of the Pea Museum.

CM: Has it been difficult to get the show together during pandemic conditions?
LV: In so so so many ways! Firstly, we weren’t even sure if the tier/lockdown system would let us stage the piece, until Boris Johnson announced London was moving into tier two. This meant everything felt very tenuous for quite a while. There was such a ‘will we/won’t we’ sentiment to everything.

This of course extended to our audiences, who – until that announcement – were understandably very wary of booking tickets for the show. From the day of the announcement there was huge upsurge in bookings!

We’ve had to work very closely with our local authority and National Trust partners to ensure that we’re adhering to all the guidelines, which in some cases vary between agencies. Then there’s been other things like ordering costumes and props and praying that they will come in time!

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the cast?
LV: They’re fabulous. Rose-Marie Christian plays Princess Sky and she brings a street-smart, East London cool to the role that means she sees through the bravado of the princes and cuts to the chase. She has a searing side-eye!

Will Frazer and Razak Osman play the princes – they are both such versatile and playful actors to work with, it’s been so much fun to create characters with them. Through Ashley J’s writing and my vision we see many different iterations of royals – despite this being a fun family show there’s real nuance and depth to the characters and what they represent.

CM: Can you tell us about Studio 3 Arts and what it does?
LV: We are completely rooted in and connected to our community in the London Borough Of Barking & Dagenham.

Driven by our belief that everyone has the right to have their lives enriched by the arts and to fully participate, we co-create a huge array of collaborative projects alongside theatre productions, visual arts, monthly live music, poetry, regular freestyle dance and community art installations.

At the heart of everything is our flagship youth programme Big Deal – offering free dance, drama and music to hundreds of young people every week, all completely free.

CM: What hopes do you have for Studio 3 Arts in the future?
LV: That we can carry on making our work with local people in Barking and Dagenham – that the funding landscape post-COVID allows us to stay sustainable and buoyant.

I would love to stage another huge show to rival our recent production of ‘The Merchant of Venice’, which had a cast of nine professional actors – including Marc Bannerman and Michael Bertenshaw – alongside a community company of more than 100, and got us a glowing four star review in The Times newspaper.

I also want Studio 3 Arts to continue to lead the way in the conversation about working class representation in the arts.

CM: What’s coming up next after this?
LV: Next is a well-earned rest. This has been a year like no other, for everyone, and the pace at which we’ve been forced to work has been truly exhausting. After a nice lie down and a cup of tea, I’ve got some huge things on the Studio 3 Arts 2021 to-do list – most notably the construction of our new world-class arts centre in Barking, which will transform how we do our work in the borough.

Another exciting thing is our ‘Windows In’ commissions – a series of nine artist commissions exploring identity, migration and belonging which will be shown in the windows of Unit 46, our second venue, in Vicarage Field shopping centre, Barking. There’s so much to look forward to. If you haven’t ventured, it really is worth coming over to see us in Barking.

‘The Princess And The Pea’ is on at Eastbury Manor House, Barking, from 10-20 Dec. You can book tickets here.

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