“Jub’s job was important and she was very proud of it. Each evening when dusk was removing the outline of things, like a rubber, Jub had to shoulder her big green sack and carry all the Happy Endings of stories from one end of the forest to the other in time for everybody’s bedtime…”
So begins Carol Ann Duffy’s tale about a deep dark forest, a wicked witch and a golden pen that can write on the fabric of night itself. First published by Bloomsbury in 2006 as a picturebook illustrated with jewel-bright and gorgeously gilded artwork by Jane Ray, The Lost Happy Endings tells the story of Jub, a six-fingered girl who climbs an oak tree every evening with a sack of happy endings that must be shaken into the night air, where they fizz and float away across the forest. One day Jub’s sack captures the attention of a miserable old witch, who steals it. That night in homes up and down the land, bedtime stories end badly. Children are frightened and upset, and their parents cannot comfort them. What’s to be done? Jub is about to give up when she discovers a golden pen. Using it to describe a question mark on the night air, Jub notices her handwriting glowing brightly in the darkness. And so begins a story-within-a-story, as Jub describes a very particular ending for the witch. But is it the only ending? And what is the role of the storyteller in all this?
This is a story that reminds us of the timeless folktale places we once visited – a footpath through a tangled forest, a clearing by a gate - and in the fine tradition of our oldest narratives, it asks some questions along the way. What happens when children’s innocent enjoyment is corrupted by greed or malice? What happens when they’re driven to retaliate? It also suggests answers. With imagination, energy and courage, we have the power to change our stories. And stories have the power to change our world
Power – and its abuse – is a major theme throughout the narrative, and Jane Ray’s illustrations reflect this. Like the traditional folktales it references, The Lost Happy Endings doesn’t shy away from events and ideas that may disturb its readers, and as a result it has attracted mixed reactions from some of the adult gatekeepers controlling children’s access to books. Many teachers and parents have welcomed the challenge and reward of working with such arresting words and images – this is a picturebook well-suited to exploration by older audiences – but some have found it too difficult, particularly the description and depiction of the burning of the witch. But in supplying Jub with a magical golden pen, Carol Ann Duffy reminds us that nothing is fixed, not even an ending – with vision and courage, we can change things, one step at a time, in ways that may have major consequences.
Traditional tales have always been told and re-told, with successive tellers adding their own ingredients to the bare bones of the story, and modern published works also generate new interpretations – something we see frequently in the adaptation of so many children’s books for stage or screen. And so it is with The Lost Happy Endings, which has just been brought to the stage as a stunning piece of dance theatre by balletLORENT. Aimed at the whole family, balletLORENT’s new work has been created by award-winning director, choreographer and company founder Liv Lorent in collaboration with an internationally-respected team of creative partners including Carol Ann Duffy, Murray Gold, Nasir Mazhar, Neil Murray and Joanna Lumley. Carol Ann extended and altered her original story to enable balletLORENT to explore its emotional landscape in greater depth, working closely with Liv throughout the rewriting process to provide alternative endings for existing fairytale characters, introduce additional characters and explore the witch’s backstory, thereby allowing her a happy ending of her own - one that she has “never read, or heard of, or imagined….”
balletLORENT was established in 1993 by Liv Lorent, a young choreographer who’d recently graduated from the Laban Centre in London. Invited by Dance City to undertake a short project in Newcastle with the local community, Liv discovered such an affinity with the North East and its people – and so much support for her work – that she ended up staying. More than twenty-five years later, balletLORENT’s productions have won numerous awards and tour internationally, but local communities remain at the centre of the company’s creative process and the company still has a special place in the region’s heart.
As a new work for dance theatre, The Lost Happy Endings has just had its premiere at Newcastle’s Northern Stage and will tour throughout the UK in 2020. Featuring an ensemble of professional dancers together with a local community cast of eighteen children aged 6-11, The Lost Happy Endings is a visually impressive, emotionally affecting and deeply memorable work that will appeal to children aged 5+ and adults alike. Joanna Lumley narrates the story, but speech is not the primary means of communication– we are too busy being swept away by the music, by the visual impact of the magically-lit set, by the unexpectedly imaginative costumes and the sheer expressive physicality of the dancers in this performance to pay much attention to the presence or absence of a verbal narrative. This show immerses us in a profoundly affecting and mostly non-verbal experience and in so doing, raises important questions for audience members who are educating and caring for children and young people. Why is story so important? What’s the process and value of enabling learners to physicalize their involvement in story? How can we tell and re-tell a story in multiple ways?
Earlier this month, Cast of Thousands chatted to balletLORENT’s Education and Projects Manager James MacGillivray before a performance of The Lost Happy Endings
We started by talking about the importance of creative collaboration and partnership. Liv Lorent has always worked collaboratively with local communities and young dancers as well as other professionals, and makes work for a variety of different audiences. “We’ve had works for adult audiences and site specific works as well as works in theatres, and very often involving community members,” James said. “Right from the beginning, that’s always been a feature. Liv’s worked with families, with babies, with pregnant women, with a whole range of people from local communities, but they’ve always been integral to the work. It’s not an add-on.”
James MacGillivray trained at Central School of Ballet. He toured internationally as a dancer with Scottish Dance Theatre and was appointed Lecturer in Dance at the London Contemporary Dance School, where he taught ballet and contemporary before joining the team at balletLORENTballetLORENT’s collaborators frequently stay with the company through many productions, demonstrating the creative buzz and mutual benefit of these relationships. As James points out, “there’s a difference between commissioning somebody to design for you, and collaborating in the true sense of the word. And when Liv works with these collaborators, it’s a meeting of minds and she will be guided by these people.”
This is a really interesting point, and one that resonates when working with children and young people. Do we offer genuinely collaborative opportunities, where outcomes can and will be shaped by children’s input? Even in the most difficult of circumstances it’s worth reflecting on when, where and how children can contribute in ways that have a genuine impact on outcomes.
Many of the creative professionals working on The Lost Happy Endings had collaborated with balletLORENT on previous works - including Carol Ann Duffy, who’d already adapted her own retellings of Rapunzel, Snow White and Rumpelstiltskin and now turned her attention to her Lost Happy Endings picturebook text. Other collaborators included children aged 6-11 and their teachers in four local schools. As James explains, “there’s a great warmth up here in the North East, but there’s also a lot of hardship, deprivation and need, and that’s one of the reasons why we work with these communities. When we go out and meet them, we find creative children and young people who would not otherwise have had the opportunity to perform on stage, or think creatively in that way, or move creatively. And they’re unaffected by formal dance training or preconceptions about what dance is, or what the artform is, or how to turn a story into dance. So we’re meeting them at a raw, fresh stage.”
As a result of balletLORENT’s interventions in school, together with an opportunity for some of those children to perform onstage with the company as an integral part of the story, James says they’re “seeing the children turning into intelligent, creative young artists in their own right with confidence, self esteem and self belief growing within them.”
“It’s made me very, very happy because when I do it, it doesn’t make the outside but the inside better.” Pupil feedback from The Lost Happy Endings community dance programme
“When we knew we were going to work with this book, I looked online and there were a lot of reading and creative writing resources, but nothing that really helped us in terms of dance. So we had to invent our own resources that were about creative movement from this story, which was a real opportunity for us to be creative. What’s this story really about? Who are these characters? And how can we draw them out, how can we make them into creative movement tasks - something tangible for children who’ve never danced before that will inspire them to say “I get that, I want to move like that, I want to embody that character…”
When we first went into the schools, we took the book with us, and we looked at the visuals and tried to understand more about the characters. Why is Jub alone in the forest? Do her six fingers matter? There are all these questions you come up with. It took a long time for some of us to realise that where the picturebook text goes into italic in the second half of the story, it’s an invention – so there are all sorts of text and story conventions in this book that young audiences may not understand and that may need to be explored.
When we deliver work in schools, we don’t teach dance. We go in with an idea and a theme – so with The Lost Happy Endings we said to the children ‘what are your alternative endings to the stories you’ve grown up with, that your mum and dad used to tell you, or that you’ve heard from your grandparents? What are these stories that you know well, and what would happen if they took a twist and a turn?’ So immediately the ball is in the children’s court and it’s their story they’re telling. And then we said ‘so how can you make that creative? How can you start moving with that? How do you physicalize that story?’ We looked at some of the more well-known fairytales, asking what would happen IF …Snow White wasn’t woken by the prince; the shoe didn’t fit on Cinderella’s foot…. How would these characters and their lives be different? What would be different if they were more empowered or less gender-stereotyped?
We also engage children in working with ordinary everyday objects. For The Lost Happy Endings we used pillows, because of the bedtime story theme in the middle of the book. So we took 30 pillows into every dance workshop, and every child had a pillow, which became their safe zone as well as a prop. It became something to hit with, because you can hit a pillow without hurting somebody. It became a hat, it became something you could put around your legs, it became wings. It became something you could slide on… It became all these different things. I remember one teacher writing in the feedback after the project, “I never thought of using pillows!” and that approach - taking an object, any object, and exploring it physically – can be your takeaway. Just leave it to the children, they will come up with the idea. You don’t have to have all the answers!”
In the final stage show, the pillows were used extensively, firstly to suggest comfortable, contented family bedtimes, and then – once the happy endings had been stolen - to provide children in the cast with objects on which they could vent their disappointment, disenchantment and distress. It’s refreshing and empowering to see such a direct relationship between work done in schools and the final production on stage.
Understanding the role of the witch in the original picturebook (and how some families would view that) also affected the way balletLORENT explored the story in schools.
As James explains, “we were aware that in some cultures witches and witchcraft are perceived as very real things. As ever, we were culturally sensitive to these views, realising that some children and/or families might not engage with the story or our work in schools if we made the witch the main focus.” Of course, there are families who are more accepting of traditionally-portrayed storybook witches, and they may actually welcome the scarier side of this picturebook - being able to confront and examine difficult emotions in the safe space of a book or other artform can be profoundly important. Because of the cultural sensitivities, though, balletLORENT explored other aspects of Carol Ann’s story during their schools project. As James says “it wasn’t about the burning witch, it was about Jub’s resilience and how she could invent new endings.”
This extended conversation about the role of the witch has clearly had an impact on the final show, where the witch’s nuanced life-history was a striking departure from the original picturebook. As James explains, “we wanted to find out why the witch wanted to steal these fairytales. What was her rationale? Something must have happened to her that made her bitter and twisted. She didn’t want other people to be happy or believe in happy endings, but why? So we started to investigate, and we’ve developed that back story in the show.” And it’s hard to empathise with a character and then burn her - so they didn’t. Instead, they gave her a new ending; one that reinforced the narrative themes of individual agency and multiple retellings.
As Carol Ann Duffy says in the show programme, “we found we weren’t only dealing with The Lost Happy Endings, but also the alternative middles.” Which brings us right back to the pillows that balletLORENT were using in the workshops. Their role as props in the final production enabled the young performers to bring astonishing energy and skill to the central section of the work, exploring the emotional heartland of the story by unleashing a moving display of grief and anger that prompted a marked response among adults in the audience. It may ‘only’ be theatre, but we don’t like seeing distressed children, and we want to see things put right.
Extending the middle section of the picturebook wasn’t all about bedtime tantrums and distress, though. balletLORENT worked with Carol Ann to introduce new characters including animals and insects as well as other (less expected) figures. “We wanted to see how the forest could live,” James says, “so we’ve got dancers playing the trees and the fog coming through the forest. We’ve even got dancers playing bits of rubbish blowing through the landscape…”
It’s clear that balletLORENT are doing more than simply ‘dancing the picturebook’ in this production. They are dancing Carol Ann Duffy’s story – a story that has been shaped by many different collaborators – but they are dancing it in a way that brings something new and powerful to the telling. As balletLORENT Trustee Paul Jackson observed, the stage show illuminates rather than illustrates the text and creates something new in the interaction. Good illustrations provoke a similar dynamic on a page - there will be much to notice and experience in the interplay between text and images, and images will not simply reproduce the text – but the potential for depth and impact is increased by the introduction of another artform. Carol Ann’s text is being used as an inspirational starting point for something new, something that will reflect back on the original picturebook, changing our understanding and prompting us to seek it out, explore it and reflect on it.
So how do dancers tell stories? And what can we learn from this to apply in our classrooms, homes and other learning environments?
In balletLORENT’s case, one of their key collaborators is actor and dramaturg Ben Crompton. As Director and Choreographer, Liv Lorent’s focus is on the big picture – what the work looks like visually, how the dancers are moving and interpreting what’s going on - but it’s Ben’s role to concentrate on the story to ensure its narrative energy and integrity. As James explains, “there’s a lot of text, so some of it will be narrated, but much of it won’t. Some of it will be danced, some of it will be implied, some of it will be literal. The role of the dramaturg is to make sure that the story we’re telling makes sense, that it’s coming across on stage the way it should.”
And it isn’t just verbal storytelling. Conceptual and visual story continuity is also an issue - “if Jub runs up one tree for a particular purpose, she can’t use the same tree for a different purpose later on, because the children will notice” - and Ben needs to create an appropriate sense of narrative urgency and pace. No matter who you are – dramaturg, teacher, child - one of the most effective questions you can ask in respect of a story and its telling is why? As James reflects, “you can’t just make a beautiful piece of dance. When you’re telling a story, you’ve got to have that continuation, like directing a film or a play, you’ve got to have a purpose. Often when you’re creating dance you can get indulgent and go into really dance-ey bits, and think ‘this is great, let’s expand this’ … but you have to ask why?”
And it may be that this approach – interrogating every aspect of a story to remove limitations and tease out possibilities - is one of the things we can take from balletLORENT to apply in our own practice. Another may be the knowledge that exploring a story via physicality and movement will help children connect with it more deeply and develop a greater sense of insight, agency and confidence, which may in turn lead to children articulating that story more eloquently and recording it more successfully in written form. Put another way, participating in dance and movement won't just improve physical and emotional wellbeing. It will enable all sorts of positive learning outcomes right across the curriculum.
Trained and experienced dance professionals in companies like balletLORENT are always going to bring an extra something to working with our kids - as non-specialists, we're unlikely to be able to replicate their work. But we can learn from them and be inspired by their approach to develop our own practice. Arts organisations are motivated to share tips and ideas, and the smallest changes can have a big impact. As James says, “we want to empower teachers because we want that work to continue once we’ve left the school. You don’t want to be a drop-in group that gives the children a great experience but goes away and leaves the teachers not knowing what to do with it. You want to give the tools to the teachers; to say ‘we’ve just scratched the surface but here’s a load more ideas.’Schools working with balletLORENT on a project receive comprehensive guidance around dance activities and session follow-up. If you’d like to know more about this or any other aspect of balletLORENT’s educational work, you can get in touch with James via balletLORENT’s website here or scroll to the bottom of this blog for further links.
Cast of Thousands:
I was taking a look at your website when I found something by one of your trustees that grabbed me. It was when Paul Jackson was talking about what your performances add to a story text, and he said “in these works the movement rather than illustrate the texts, illuminates it, creating something new in the interaction.” And I thought that was really interesting, because the best illustrations do that in a picturebook, but most of them will be flat on a page. So the three-dimensional potential of the stage plus all the opportunities of your artform bring something completely different to the mix.
I think the worst of theatre is when it’s being described completely. There’s no room for interpretation. I think the best theatre is when you as an audience member can come away with an understanding that is yours alone – it’s up to you how that work connects with you. And if you’re too literal, there’s no room for that. You’re being told how to think and what to feel. But if you can come away and you’ve been able to see something that somebody else may not have seen, or you’ve been able to relate that to your own life, then that’s the best theatre. And I think sometimes you need silence to do that. Sometimes it’s not moving, sometimes it’s not dancing, sometimes it’s letting things ride, or letting the motion sit for an audience to then interpret. You can’t tell an audience what to think. And I think that’s true also with this book. Like you say, when you’ve got a flat page, every kid will have a different imagination to interpret that, it’s not coming at you, it’s not telling you. There’s so much of that story that isn’t on the page.
And in a good picturebook there’s likely to be stuff going on in the picture that isn’t in the text. And there’ll be gaps, and the two will interact with each other.
I mean, look at that picture of the witch, there’s so much to read in it, isn’t there? Things that aren’t mentioned in the story. The bones around her, the way she’s sat, her body posture, the loneliness…
Absolutely. And you could use that picture as the starting point for so much work with older children! Some adults are wary of using picturebooks in that way with older kids, unfortunately, but you get such wonderful responses when you do.
But you’ve got to give teachers the confidence and tools to do that, haven’t you? And credit where it's due - in a lot of the schools we go into, there are some fantastic teachers working like that. We went in to one school to deliver The Lost Happy Endings workshops and their whole topic was fairytales, so they were doing not just our creative dance but the whole curriculum was based on fairytales. So it does happen. But I do think some teachers don’t necessarily have the confidence to know where to start.
It can be tough! Maybe thinking about how to link creative dance or movement with a literacy-based follow-up might be helpful...
And approaching it in a cross-curricular way. A dance class can feed through into other subject areas.
Agreed! So what would you like this work to inspire in your audiences?
Good question. One of the questions on our feedback sheet is “what does The Lost Happy Endings mean to you?” We’ve got one idea, but we all have different ideas, so we want our audiences to tell us what they think. And that can be adults or children.
I think I would like people to come away from this with feelings of hope for our society, of challenging some of the stereotypes and gendered societal challenges we have at this stage in our lives. I think there’s something in here that’s about being creative and about being resilient, it’s about this character Jub who despite all the odds has to come up with an alternative. She has to come up with something that will help young children find their happy bedtimes. At the end of Act One there’s a scene where the children are having tantrums because there are no happy endings. So as an adult, how do you resolve that, how do you come through that? And that’s where the narrative will go to in the end. It’s about the resilience of parents, who on a nightly basis may face imperfect bedtimes, because not every parent gets it right every time. And sometimes when a child isn’t happy or you’ve approached parenting in a way that for some reason just isn’t working, it’s about the resilience of trying again, of keeping on trying to figure it out, and Love being the reason you want to keep doing that…. It’s laying it out there and saying it’s OK not to be perfect, but there’s a point to trying.
That’s a really interesting way to look at it. So if you think of your life as a story, and bedtime has suddenly gone all wrong, then I guess tomorrow’s bedtime allows you to start again and create a different story. Which can bring hope, even when things seem very difficult…. there’s a real sense of empowerment about Jub, isn’t there? In that she’s got this pen that can write on darkness itself. She has agency by force of vision and imagination, she can change the world….
Yes. And the moment you step away from thinking about the ‘norm,’ you can find alternatives. It’s like those fairytale characters in our show, where we have a whole montage of ‘what ifs’ and their stories change. It’s meant to be aspirational; we’re saying that it doesn’t have to be like this just because it’s always been this way. If you broke the rule, you could imagine something new. And you can do that, anybody can do that. This is our offering, in the show, but actually we can all do that. And individually, your ending isn’t written. You may feel it’s inevitable but you can do something different.
You can take the magic pen and do something about it….
To read a review of The Lost Happy Endings picturebook in the online children’s books magazine Books for Keeps, click here
To find out more about balletLORENT and its work, click here
To watch a trailer for balletLORENT’s production of The Lost Happy Endings click here
Carol Ann Duffy was the UK’s Poet Laureate 2009-2019
To find out more about her poetry via The Scottish Poetry Library click here for www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk
Or via The Poetry Foundation here
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