Learn more about Les Enfants Terribles’ The House With Chicken Legs with insights from the show’s cast and Co-Director, James Seager.
This is a transcription of a Q&A during the run of The House with Chicken Legs at HOME, Manchester.
Eve De Leon Allen
Co-Director & Les Enfants Terribles’ Creative Director
What was your favourite part of The House With Chicken Legs?
You get that storybook element. The smaller parts are my favourite. Personally, because you get to create this crazy cinematic scene, you tend to value so much else. So that’s my favourite part.
At the start, I would’ve said Jack, but now there’s so much more. There’s a small part called Mark that comes in at the end and has absolutely no right to be in the story. He runs off stage and yells “Bloody hell!” from the wings, so probably him.
Probably Ben. Baba Yaga is fun, but I like doing Ben because he’s just at the very top and then comes back at the end, and all the kids tonight were really funny because they’d say “Oh my god, he’s back!” and don’t quite know what is going to happen. That’s my favourite.
I really enjoy playing Baba, but my favourite of the show is actually House of Cards and despite everything that it made me wear, it was fun.
[The show] seems to be drawing on lots of different types of folklore from around the globe and smashing them together. Where have you taken [the show] in order to balance traditions to do with the dead without diluting individual cultures, given there are so many bunched together?
It’s a good question. For those of you who have read the book, Sophie Anderson never specifically says where something is set in the book. You can think, “Oh that may be Morocco” or “Oh that may be somewhere else” but she never specifically says and I think that’s why.
It’s quite open deliberately. I think Oli, who adapted it, wanted to keep that flavour as well. Obviously, we’ve got New Orleans and the amazing projections that give inclinations of where it is.
Quite early on, with Al Wolfe in writing the music, we discussed whether the music should change in the different locations or “if we’re going here, should the music be influenced by this location?” and we decided a little bit against that, except in New Orleans. There was a bit of a New Orleans feel to it there.
I think what Oli’s done is capture the essence of the book quite beautifully, as well as the geography and culture of the book, without going to as many places because it’s a long show, but if we did everything in the book, we’d be here until one in the morning!
We also wanted to capture what Sophie did in hinting at these cultures but not going totally with them and I think the music lent to that as well.
What was the hardest thing logistically?
The house is really heavy. As we got to tech week, logistically, that was the hardest thing. We rehearsed things in a room with two screens as the walls of the house. Obviously, they take twenty seconds to move. But actually, that scene change is going to take a minute and there’s no real way of avoiding it, so that logistically was complicated.
I think sometimes when you have problems like that, the best creativity comes out when you find yourself operating around a restriction. So the house was very restricting, but you have to be extra creative to work your way around that thing. In some ways, the bigger problem you have, the bigger the creative solution you’re going to have as well. That’s quite nice.
I remember rehearsing and being like, “so how big are these legs going to be?” We were told that they were human height.
Really? Did I say that?
Yes, you did. “They’ll be human height. It’ll all be fine.” But it was fabulous and Sam (the Costume and Puppet designer) made it as easy as possible, but doable. It’s doable. It’s sometimes a bit painful, but it’s fun and it’s great.
Where was the whole idea born? Was it you who read the book and thought oh we could really do this and commissioned a playwright or how did it all come together?
Well the book came out first five years ago and Oli’s writing agent, who knows our work very well, saw this new book come out and knew [we] should read it because it fits the Les Enfants type of show.
Oli and I read it and fell in love with the book and said, “We’ve got to do it.” We got in touch with Sophie, the writer, and she said, “yeah, you can have the rights,” which was amazing.
How does it feel to play a child?
Not that hard! When I first took the job, I was talking and they very much did not want me to play down my age. I didn’t want to be a twelve-year-old. It’s kind of changed a little bit as the show’s gone on, like my voice changes and everything, but I think it’s approaching everything my character does without a filter because when I was that age I didn’t have a filter.
If I felt an emotion, I was feeling that emotion, and you were going to know I was going to feel it. I think that’s the thing when you get older, trying not to play an adult is trying not to put layers over what the character is feeling.
I think I’m just playing my age! I get to come to work and play and it’s so much fun. So that’s what I’m doing, living my best life and having a great time.
I’ve played a lot of children. I probably will for a little while. I’ve never constantly felt, “Oh I’m playing a child now so I’m going to adapt or think about things differently,” because I don’t think you need to. If it’s in the writing, which it is, then it’s already there. Also, I’ve got four younger siblings, so I just think of what they would do. My little sister is eight, so I just think about what she would do and do that.
The audience does a lot of the work for us as well. Your own imagination lets you suspend your belief to believe they’re kids even though they’re not. In the same way you can see me attached to the puppet, but you go “that’s a bird.”
How did young audiences react?
People come up to us afterwards seeming almost bewildered. It’s a lot to take in. It’s a big show and it has a lot of big themes in it, but the feedback I’ve gotten back about it has been so enthusiastic and they love it so much because it doesn’t talk down to them.
It doesn’t go, “well you’re young so we’re going to explain death to you in a really condescending manner.” It’s a beautiful story and they just fall in love with the characters.
We had this email from a school that said “oh we thought Nina and Marinka were going to end up together.” That is so cute that they thought that. They literally have no filter. They can just imagine whatever they like and that’s what they decided to take from it. I think that’s brilliant.
I want to hear a little bit more about your influences and inspiration in terms of design: costumes, set, etc. I think the design aspect is really fun so when the animation showed up with all the silhouettes, I thought, “Oh lovely!” I’d be interested to know if there are any artists, movements, or cultural design practices that influence the way that the show looked.
Nina Dunn, the video designer, was influenced by the illustrations in the book. There aren’t many in the book, but that’s what she looked at. Also, she worked very closely with Jasmine Swan, the set designer, and her influence early on when she started doing mood boards and showing Oli and I the very Slavic [inspiration]. I think she found a house in Eastern Europe that looked very similar (to the house in the show), including the colour. That was her influence from looking at Slavic folktales as well as stories.
Obviously, Baba Yaga is quite a well-known trope and well-known Eastern European folktale. It’s more well-known on the continent than over here. However, if you Google it, there’s lots of literature, stories, and illustrations and we trolled through all of them. But I think Jasmine, from the house point of view, was looking at Baba Yaga folktales [from] 200 years ago, illustrations from the book, and illustrations that had been input from the folktale.
Sam Wyer, the costume designer, again worked quite closely with Jasmine and quite early on he decided what [the actors] wear at the house. These beautifully blue things that they wear and things that he made, he came up with drawings from the house as well. Again, it was quite Russian and Slavic in terms of concept and those were his influences as well. Jasmine, Nina, and Sam worked very closely and were very much looking at 200-100 years ago more or less Slavic illustrations to come up with this language.
How many crew do you have?
James: Backstage, there’s quite a lot of them! I think there’s 10 or 12.
Helen: There’s four of us pushing the house at any one time. Then we also have two on sound, one on lights, one on wardrobe, and me as a spare.
James: So nine.
Matt: Don’t forget our dressers that help with our quick changes!
There’s a lot of skeletons on stage and corpses to represent the physical dead, but you also have a requirement in the show to play dead people and completely ignore the skeletons. The only time they are acknowledged is for a joke that they are the [living] people. How do you go about physicalizing the dead and deciding what they look like given that you didn’t want to go with skeletons or corpses or anything that physically had a literal sense of being dead?
There’s quite a big thing in the book of this fence and even the illustration in front of the book has this skeleton fence in there, so very early on we wanted that in there.
We talked quite a lot with Sam in terms of how to represent the dead. The masks were an early idea. I like the idea of the dead being uniform. It was Sam’s idea as well to make them all grey. Then it’s almost like you’re shedding your body as a suit. The analogy is when you die, you take off a suit. It’s just a vessel.
I like that idea with the mask. You take your mask off and then your soul is your real thing. It was quite early on we decided we’d have mask work, represent the dead all the same, and have that language when they go through the gate of shedding their skin.
The music came from that in terms of how the dead would speak to each other and with Baba and we understand them just from the music. That came from the masks.
How do the actors feel when they are waiting in the wings?
It feels good. With these sorts of shows, you’re always doing something. You can’t really relax, so even though it’s nearly three hours, it doesn’t feel like that.
There’s certain bits, but you’re always doing something. I remember when we did our first show, we all had our little bit of paper that makes sense to no one else except you in your own language. “Pick up [the] accordion, go over there, do this.” Then gradually, most of us got rid of them. So sweaty, but nice.
I love this job, but the first three shows I would be in the wings and Helen would tell me to get reset. I’d think, “Why did I choose to do this? Why have I done this to myself?” It was absolute panic and terror. The sickness, nausea, and everything made me think, “I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this.” Then I go on and within ten minutes, I literally just forget about everything else and it’s just me and the other people on stage.
I think a lot of people have had that. When you’re in the wings, even now, you get a little bit of “Ooh, we’re about to do a show,” and it’s a little scary, but you know it. You do get those bits where over the weekend you think, “Do I remember any of my lines?” But on stage it really does feel like a dream sometimes. You just do it and you’re completely immersed in this world. Obviously, you know you’re doing a show because you’re not delusional, but it’s a beautiful feeling.
I love it. I start act two on the stage, in the house. Once I’m there I just think, “Mmhm. Let’s do this.” Then when I’m on, I’m like “Yeah!” Also, because my character is very interactive with the audience, I’m just enjoying it. I say, “Hey, come along! Hey, sing along! Yay!” I love it. In the wings I feel really relaxed and then I go on and just have fun. It’s a beautiful show, it’s wholesome, and there’s a lot of joy in it.
Has anyone seen Noise is Off? It’s a comedy about putting on a play. The first act is what you see out front and the second act is what you see backstage. It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen and it would be the same as it is here. You go off that way having to start at the house, then you have to absolutely leg it all around the back to come up here, move the house, grab Jack, etc. So you’re never going to sit still. I’ve never run so much in my whole life.
The only time we’re all backstage is actually when the projection at the end when Marinka goes to the stars and we all sort of turn to each other and we say, “Tea break!” It’s the only time in the show where we’re all off stage.
How do you prepare to be a bird?
Good question. I watch a lot of videos of jack dolls. Although Jackdaws are tiny black birds and Jack is more of an enormous crow, so I watched videos of jack dolls and crows.
I’m going to sound like such an actor, but at drama schools, they do animal studies. There’s a lot on how an animal breathes and how to act when he’s not moving. So I watched a lot of birds breathing.
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