Interview: Rebecca Little & Clive Stubbings Talk New Audio Play ‘From Sad Shires’

When things are ‘business as usual’, Little Pixie Productions can be found touring their live work on real-life stages with in-the-flesh audiences. Now, to mark the Centenary of the burial of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey while in lockdown, they have commissioned an audio drama looking at wartime love. From Sad Shires follows the story of Harry and Maisie, taking a look at a story of ordinary people played out against a hugely significant historical background between 1914 and 11th November 1920. The trailer for the play is already available here and the play itself will be released on November 11th 2020. Here, writer Clive Stubbings and director and performer and Co-artistic Director of LPP Rebecca Little provide some fantastic insights into the influences and makings of From Sad Shires…

So before we talk about From Sad Shires, Little Pixie Productions was launched in 2009 as a family affair, helmed by three sisters – yourself, Helena Leonard and Vicky Sklar. What prompted the creation of the company and what’s the vision?

RL: I had been keen to create my own work for a while and had an idea to write a piece of theatre for a family audience about three years earlier but had never got round to do actually do anything about it. I wanted to adapt Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Red Shoes’ but then after reading it decided it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to adapt, but I was still hooked on the red shoes theme. So I thought about writing my own story based around some magical red shoes aimed at a family audience.

I had half an idea for it written down at the end of 2008, when I saw an advert on line for The Buxton Festival Fringe for Summer 2009. I’d always dreamt of creating some work to take to the Edinburgh Fringe but knew this could be costly and the Buxton Fringe was pretty much on my Derbyshire doorstep at the time and looked affordable. So I paid our entrance fee, uploaded the title of our show ‘What Became of the Red Shoes?’ and called our company Little Pixie Productions before I had time to talk myself out of it.

Once that was done I turned to my sister Vicky to ask if she would be interested in co-creating the piece with me and we were going to just concentrate on that but then my other sister Helena expressed an interest in the Buxton Fringe so we thought if we’re taking one show, why not take another! She is an Opera singer so we started writing another piece for her and three other performers called ‘Operatastic! The Accessible Guide to Opera!’ At the time we felt the name Little Pixie Productions worked well for the family theatre piece but perhaps not so well for something about classical music so we called that side of the company Relative Pitch Opera. 

The two sides of the company not only created shows independently within their own genres but eventually started to work together on crossover projects. In 2016 we decided to bring both sides of the company together under the single working name of Little Pixie Productions and had our logo redesigned to work for all genres of the work we present. It was bit topsy turvy how we got going, I think probably that people normally form their company first but as is usual with us, once we started with the idea for the first two shows, we went at it a hundred miles an hour! We had a very successful Fringe and won the Best Family Event Award for our show ‘What Became of the Red Shoes?’ which we have since turned in to a picture book.

From the start our vision for the company has been to create theatre for everyone fusing genres that include imaginative storytelling, movement and dance, original music and song from musical theatre and operatic traditions. Basically drawing on the skill set and professional performing backgrounds the three of us come from. We are dedicated to removing the barriers surrounding classical music genres, making them accessible to all ages with the quality expected from this art form.

We have always tried to take our writing and productions out into the community and rural areas, performing in many different spaces. From community halls, libraries, arts venues, schools and outdoor spaces with rural touring networks, to performing in regional theatres and studio theatres around the country. We believe that there should be no obstacles be it geographical, financial or physical to the enjoyment of experiencing quality live theatre. We make “Theatre for everyone”.

Of course taking theatre out to anyone at all has proved very difficult this year, hence why we are now trying our digital approach on our online digital home for Little Pixie Productions, which we have named Sparrow Studios.

The company is adapting to the times with the commission of the new work From Sad Shires. Is there a feeling that a love story amidst a world in chaos is a timely piece at the moment, or is this a work of simple appreciation for war heroes and their loved ones?

CS: When Becky and I discussed the piece, we were both concerned that we did not wish to make a documentary. There are a lot of good books and online resources around the Unknown Soldier and the First World War and people may already know the history or be inspired to find out more. We wanted to make a piece of drama around the experiences of real people which our audience could identify with and which produced an emotional response.

I hope people will see the piece as about the persistence of love despite everything. The effects of war and people making sense of loss are as relevant today as they were 100 years ago and I would absolutely agree that its themes are as pertinent right now as they have ever been.

What can you tell me about the central characters and how they come to be intertwined?

RL: Maisie Merman is an 18 year old seamstress at a tailors shop, living with her Mother and Father and younger Sister Elsie, in the East End of London. 21 year old Harry Harmes, who lives in digs off Cable Street, is a clerk working for Mr Gold, at the same tailors. He becomes more acquainted with Maisie when he gets fitted for two suits, which are done for him at cost as he is friends with the tailors.

Harry and Maisie court for a short while and he takes her to see Marie Lloyd at the Pavilion Music Hall, which he often frequents with his friend Jack Davey. Jack, who is a bit of a ‘Jack the lad’, is instrumental in persuading Harry to take the King’s shilling to sign up for the war, like he has done.
This is not before Harry tosses a coin to decide whether to propose to Maisie who he has fallen in love with, even though he has to make it the best of five, to get the right outcome.

Having only recently got married to Maisie and with a baby on the way, Harry and Jack go off to fight in WW1.
(Incidentally Clive Stubbings our writer for From Sad Shires, had parents who both met when they worked for Aquascutum, where his Father was a clerk. Although his Mother wasn’t a seamstress but worked in the office, Clive’s Father always managed to get his suits at cost too, being chums with the cutters and tailors there!)

From Sad Shires marks the 100th anniversary of the burial of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey and follows the story of Harry and Maisie from 1914 to 11th November 1920. Can you offer any insight into the connection between the extraordinary event of that burial and the characters at the centre of this play?

CS: The lives of ordinary folks such as ourselves play out continually against world events. The “little” story here is about two ordinary people who find each other and fall in love but are driven apart by much larger events, which they cannot control and get swept up in. Considering the extraordinary numbers of British soldiers who died on the Western Front and have no known grave, the Unknown Soldier was a symbol to represent them all for the loved ones who mourned them.

Reading up on the makings of the play and spotting the importance lying at the feet of underscoring from Adam McCready and the poetry of Wilfred Owen, I have to ask whether I’m going to need tissues for this play? What kind of note is this drama hoping to strike?

CS: I read through the first draft of the play with my wife and she was in tears at the end. However, as I have said, I hope that the audience will see the piece as about the persistence of love, not the end of love, and genuinely a mixture of the funny and the sad, just like life.

And you’ve turned your hand to directing as well as performing this time around, Rebecca. I’m interested in the process here because generally speaking, your work and the work of your company is obviously live, fully fleshed and visual. How have you approached directing for an audio play?

RL: I have had experience of directing our theatre shows in the past but not an audio play. Every project our company has worked on previously has been a very collaborative affair and we always like to make the artists and creatives we work with feel part of the whole process, rather than it being led by just one person’s singular vision. Individual job titles are useful for describing particular areas of expertise but we don’t like to think those people’s artistic opinions outside of those roles are not valued. So we like the concept that anyone can throw their ideas in to the hat.

On this audio drama I was very lucky to have the experience of collaborating with my sound designer and composer husband Adam McCready. Adam has experience in this field and we were able to work together with him providing invaluable advice of how audio story telling works and how you shape a narrative in a purely audio context, whilst I had directorial experience from a live theatre background.

A perfect partnership then! It hasn’t been plain sailing getting this production off the ground though, has it? Tell me a little about the journey.

RL: After two unsuccessful arts funding applications for From Sad Shires, Helena self funded this project using some of her savings. It was also helped, by using some of the revenue that the company receives from our Friends’ Scheme so that the actors and creatives involved were paid for their work. Something that is always important to Little Pixie Productions but especially at the moment in this current climate.

Now it’s one thing to record a high quality audio play under socially distanced conditions, but it’s quite another to know that the play has been recorded from aboard a wide beamed boat named Sparrow! How have you managed it all?

RL: So I mentioned earlier that our platform for Little Pixie Productions’ on line digital work is called Sparrow Studios and it’s simply because we recorded the audio drama on board the boat that myself and Adam live on, called Sparrow. Because of Covid-19 we couldn’t physically get together to record on board in Adam’s studio. Although even if Covid-19 hadn’t been around, the boat wouldn’t have been big enough to record that many performers anyway!

So everyone performed their parts in the Audio Drama remotely from their own spaces. They were able to act scenes together via the specialised audio communication tool ‘Clean Feed’. It’s used in the Podcasting world, I believe, to enable Podcasters to interview people. The performers basically clicked on a link within an email invite to the recording session and they were all suddenly there, talking to each other on our boat! Adam was then able to record them all and act as producer / engineer as I directed.

The drama itself lies at the centre of a four part podcast, with the final episodes including various interviews and delving into the background history. There’s a sense that this has been a real labour of love from a team genuinely engaged with the social history of the era – are there history buffs amongst the team or is this a classic case of theatre-maker fascination with lives caught up in a bigger picture?

CS: Becky and I agreed on the theme of the piece exactly for the reason of ‘lives caught up in something bigger’ and the scope for an interesting and engaging drama. However, I have always been interested in history and as a boy and young man read the famous books on the First World War, ‘Goodbye to all that’, ‘Memoirs of an Infantry Officer’, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, ‘Storm of Steel’, ‘Her Privates we’. I read the war poets at school and probably learned a few by rote. These books formed some of the background to the story; together with interviews the Imperial War Museum conducted in the 60’sand some other fantastic online resources, including the Cabinet Papers around the preparations for the ceremony.

My gran was already married by the start of the First World War and my Grandad was a soldier and was invalided out.  She was in service prior to marrying and Harry’s sisters are based on her.  In fact, there are a lot of my family in there. 

The other input was utilising the company’s talents to the greatest extent, not only great actors, but singers, musicians and Adam’s skills as a composer and sound designer. Right from the start, before a word was written, we decided that this podcast was going to have a unique and integral sound scape and I was eager to include some Music Hall songs and comic patter, again because some of the acting company have years of experience in that field. As it turned out, a Music Hall song is pivotal to the piece.

So with From Sad Shires launching soon and the latest news for the arts being a further extended period of hiatus from live performing, can we expect further audio play projects from Little Pixie Productions?

RL: Definitely. I had dipped my toe in the water re Podcasting back in 2017 when I was on tour with the fabulous Shakespeare company, Oddsocks. Thanks to a fellow actor and now dear friend on the tour, Gavin Harrison, he convinced me to do a weekly Podcast with him whilst we toured with the company. We mainly sat in the tour van and even the odd cupboard or anywhere we could create a fairly quiet ‘studio’ every week and chewed the fat over the week’s tour. He taught me the little I know about the Podcast world and I came off tour with the idea of doing something else myself in the Podcasting world.

I then procrastinated for a few years (there is definitely a theme here – look how long I took to actually getting round to writing my first theatre show from question #1!). As per my usual style and because of the hiatus in performing live, it suddenly forced my hand in to getting on with it all. All of a sudden in a matter of only a few weeks we had Clive working on the script, talks with the actors involved and me trying to re learn and glean more information all about the world of Podcasting. Even booking an invaluable online course with an incredible Podcast coach, Clare Freeman from A Small Fury Bear Productions. We have still so much to learn but we definitely want to explore doing more audio plays and Podcasting in general and I’ve currently got loads of ideas whizzing around my head! 

I’m glad to hear it! And finally, thinking optimistically about when the world turns right-side-up again, what’s the hope for Little Pixie Productions?

RL: We look forward to the opportunity to playing to live audiences again because at heart we are live performers and we are especially keen about and touring our theatre productions out to the people and communities. However, we’ve really enjoyed creating work digitally and definitely wish to carry on doing more of that, if we can be successful with funding or finance it for ourselves.

So there you have it! You can listen to the trailer for From Sad Shires here, where you will also find the audio play itself when it launches on November 11th. In the meantime, you can also keep up with all things Little Pixie Productions via their website, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube pages. If you are able to do so, please consider supporting the company via donation here.

Image credits: Rebecca Little headshot: Drew Baumohl From Sad Shires production graphic: Little Pixie Productions

Cast List for From Sad Shires: Performed, in alphabetical order by: Michelle Grant – Elsie Merman, Mrs Merman. Darren Johnson – Mr Merman, Comedian 2, Officer 2, Sergeant Joseph Johnson – Boy newspaper seller. Helena Leonard – Soprano vocalist. Edward Little – Wilfred Owen. Rebecca Little – Maisie Merman. Carl Penlington-Williams – Pianist. Adam Pettigrew – Jack Davey. Joshua Sklar – Harry Harmes. Darren Southworth – Maurice Hankey. Jeremy Stroughair – Comedian 1, Officer 1, Soldier 2 Additional parts played by members of the company.

All songs and music performed and played by members of the company. Claire Storey – Credits

Creative Team: Written by Clive Stubbings. Adam McCready – Sound Design and Composition. Rebecca Little – Director. Produced by Little Pixie Productions

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