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Meet Derbyshire’s Red Earth Theatre

PUBLISHED: 10:39 22 December 2014 | UPDATED: 10:39 22 December 2014

The Gingerbread House

The Gingerbread House

Robert Day

It’s hard to find a unique voice in theatre but one Derbyshire company has created a respected niche for itself with its accessible productions that cater for hearing and deaf audiences at the same time

Three witches: Stephen Collins, Caroline Parker and Amy AlexanderThree witches: Stephen Collins, Caroline Parker and Amy Alexander

It’s hard to find a unique voice in theatre but one Derbyshire company has created a respected niche for itself with its accessible productions that cater for hearing and deaf audiences at the same time.

Derby has the largest deaf population per capita outside of London, so although Red Earth never set out to make shows specifically for those with hearing difficulties, it has proved a logical step.

Founded in Derby in 1999 by Wendy Rouse and Amanda Wilde, Red Earth was formerly the resident company at the Guildhall Theatre, launching its shows at the city venue before touring them around Derbyshire, mainly to schools. More recently, as the group has grown, it needed more space and moved to a new home in Cromford.

Wendy says: ‘We had accumulated so many things over the years, props, lighting equipment and so on, that we needed more space. Unfortunately, we now need to move again, so we are currently looking for another new home.’

Amy Alexander as Gretel and Stephen Collins as HanselAmy Alexander as Gretel and Stephen Collins as Hansel

From the start, Red Earth worked very closely with community groups – the pupils at the local village school in Cromford helped with the recent production of Emil and the Detectives.

Wendy says: ‘Even tiny tots just starting school got involved so that was a real joy. We have those kind of relationships with schools and groups and that’s why we developed strong bonds with the deaf community.

‘We never had a mission to produce deaf inclusive theatre or work that way; we were asked to do it and people wanted a show from us with sign language for deaf children to enjoy.

‘We were thrown in at the deep end really. Amanda and I had a limited experience of producing this kind of inclusive theatre but, once we tried it, we really enjoyed it. What we have looked to do since is to straddle both communities. We aren’t deaf ourselves and we already had an audience of hearing people, so what we tried to do was to maintain a mainstream audience but to give access to people with a range of communication needs.

Caroline Parker as Maud, the witchCaroline Parker as Maud, the witch

‘We also find that children whose first language isn’t English are finding it easier to access our theatre than alternatives.’

Wendy says that producing shows that fit this inclusive bill isn’t always easy.

‘It is very challenging at times as you have to ensure that the two languages fit together seamlessly,’ she says. ‘We don’t want anything to stick out like a sore thumb; we want to honour the deaf and hearing communities. What we try to do is to revel in the way we tell the story.

‘Ultimately, what we are aiming for is to break down the barriers to people joining in. What most hearing people say is that after the first couple of minutes of one of our shows they don’t notice the sign language – it’s just part of the performance style.

‘We don’t want to put any people off, we want everyone who comes to have fun.’

Wendy and Amanda both worked together at a children’s theatre in London before founding Red Earth. They have also both gained experience as drama teachers.

‘I guess we clicked and one of us said “we should set up a company”,’ said Wendy. ‘We had independently done some teaching at the University of Derby and therefore thought the city would be an excellent place to develop children’s theatre.’

The craftsmanship and quality of Red Earth’s work has earned them support from the Arts Council.

Wendy says: ‘It’s an accolade to the unique nature the company has developed to have been awarded Arts Council funding. We are now growing the company slowly – but always with the focus on storytelling.

‘We are at the stage now where we are opening out to different writers. Over the next 12 months we will be working with different people but not in the typical way of a commission but with the writer working in the room with us and the actors, developing the work from there.

‘We have always had a strong design element to our work as well. Our designer is from Derbyshire, our stage manager, Ben Dew, was Mayor of Wirksworth in his early 20s. Our lighting designer is from Wirksworth as well, so our core team are all Derbyshire people.’

Red Earth will be performing Hansel and Gretel at Derby Theatre in the run up to Christmas.

The company generally opts for classic tales at this time of the year.

Wendy says: ‘We never get bored of telling fairytales. But we also like to do adaptations of books, such as Emil and the Detectives, which was written in the 1920s and which also attracted an elderly audience who remembered it from their childhood.

‘But there are also new stories we want to do. That’s hard to do these days as audiences like titles they recognise and feel safe with and theatres find new material harder to sell. But, if the storytelling is good, it still finds audiences.’

Wendy is delighted to be at Derby Theatre this Christmas.

‘It’s a perfect match,’ she says. ‘There is a lot of support for us from the theatre and we are interested in what they are trying to do in bringing people into theatre as a learning process and involving students and young people. It opens it out and it’s a good relationship.’

Derby Theatre’s artistic director Sarah Brigham believes that the company fits in well with what the venue is trying to achieve.

She says: ‘When I came to Derby, Red Earth were one of the companies that I already knew about. I was keen to develop work with them from the start. We are also trying to develop our relations with the deaf community. We had deaf actors in the Kes company for example. So the fact that in our Studio at Christmas we can offer a fully-integrated performance for deaf and hearing audiences is brilliant. The fact that it’s Red Earth, a company of really high quality will make it a great evening and it will be a real complement to our main house show, A Christmas Carol. There’s something for all the family in the main house and something for a younger age group in the Studio.’

This Christmas re-telling of the favourite fairy story will be told in English and sign language.

The three-strong cast take us on a colourful journey with a strong visual element and songs.

Red Earth’s Wendy Rouse explained: ‘It’s a little bit dark in places, as all good fairy stories are. The set is looking gorgeous and the gingerbread house is a surprise but hopefully a moment when audiences will go “ooh”. We have some lovely songs in there too. And our witch does a tango dance while she bakes the gingerbread house.’

Wendy says having the show performed with sign language adds a visual element to Hansel and Gretel as well as making it accessible for the deaf community.

She says: ‘Children don’t see it as odd or different, just part of the way the story is told. We add songs and dance to move the story on but doing the story in two languages also takes it on and often we get children leaving shows thinking they are experts in BSL. If we are doing it right the two things blend seamlessly.’

The cast features Amy Alexander, a Scottish actress, singer and dancer, who plays Gretel and the stepmother; Stephen Collins, who plays Hansel and the father, and the witch is played by Caroline Parker.

Caroline is known as The Sign Song Diva. In 2012 she was the headline act, signing alongside Beverley Knight in the Paralympic opening ceremony. She was awarded an MBE in 2013.

Wendy says: ‘Stephen is a deaf actor who was also involved in the Paralympic opening ceremony and he signs the songs while Amy is singing. It makes the songs both visual and funnier. Caroline’s speciality is signing popular songs. She is very experienced and very funny. We want her to scare the children but also to make them laugh.

‘Our Hansel and Gretel isn’t saccharine; it’s a real story but a very theatrical one we hope.

‘It’s a Christmas show but absolutely not a pantomime. It’s good honest storytelling. We have developed the story in a way that everyone in the audience can access it. That’s what makes it a success for us.’

Prior to reaching Derby Theatre, the show will be on tour and developing it for different venues has also been a challenge.

Wendy says: ‘The Studio space in Derby is quite small so we have had to work things out for that as well as opening it out when we go on tour. So it has to be built for myriad different spaces and shapes. Hopefully, wherever people see it they will love it.’

Hansel and Gretel can be seen at Derby Theatre Studio from 9th to 28th December. Go to

www.derbytheatre.co.uk or call 01332 593939.

Find out more about Red Earth at www.redearththeatre.com

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