Most of us have come in contact with an array of folk tales, whether we know it or not. From stories about fairies and trolls to Cinderella, folklore transcends geography and culture.
The English theater group 1927, known for such Spoleto Festival USA productions as “Golem” and “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” explores some lesser-known folktales in its world premiere of “Roots,” which opens Friday, May 24. The troupe will use its visually distinctive blend of animation and multimedia to bring to life elemental tales from around the world.
“The stories are from England, Lithuania, Spain — they’re very universal,” said 1927 co-artistic director Suzanne Andrade. “It was very rare when sourcing the stories to find a story that only existed in one country. There were variations of the same themes and types and plots over and over.”
The “Roots” production includes live music performed with unconventional instruments such as donkey jaws, Peruvian prayer boxes and musical saws. Every piece of the show’s puzzle, even the instruments, harken back to history and tradition, according to Andrade.
“Percussion has always been used in folk music,” she said. “Instruments that played music were actually banned in Peru in history, so turning anything around you into an instrument — a donkey’s jaw, a prayer box, this type of instrument — ties in well to folk tales."
Composer Lillian Henley said she was interested in finding instruments that had folk roots but weren’t what audiences might expect. The aesthetic is entirely different from story to story, which meant the music had to change with each piece, too, Henley said.
“It felt really fun to try lots of instruments, not just do the classic sort of folk sound,” she said. “We wanted to surprise the audience. You’re respecting the story but also trying to make the story heard as clearly as possible.”
After pulling the stories off library shelves, Andrade rewrote them, often with a modern audience in mind. She brought them to Henley and other members of the 1927 creative team, including animator Paul Barritt, who creates moving art to accompany each performance. From there, the team created a vision that fuses the past with the future, Andrade said.
“I would really like for people to think about the stories we tell each other and how conditioned we are into hearing certain types of stories, and how swayed we’ve been from Hollywood narratives, and how we need to start writing new stories for our future and our children's future,” she said.
This future-facing narrative can be seen in one of the show’s first stories, “Three Wishes,” based on an old tale about a man who was given three wishes and wasted the first two before wishing to look and sound exactly like the king. In Andrade’s version, a young woman playing the fruit machine at a 1970s English pub wins and uses her final wish to look like the president of the United States.
“We have to realize we can’t just go back to the past and change and rewrite our stories,” Andrade said. “We can’t just pull out a patriarchal character and replace it with a strong woman, it’s not quite that simple. Things can’t change just by whiffing off the top. We need to go back to our roots and totally rewrite it.”
Although 1927 has gone on to do operas and other big productions at places like the National Theatre in London, Spoleto Festival was one of the first to book the company, back in 2008, so it's like coming home, Andrade said.
Mary Walrath is a Goldring arts journalist at Syracuse University.