Find out what inspired Sophie Anderson to write The House With Chicken Legs, as she sits down with Oli Lansley, the Founder and Artistic Director of Les Enfants Terribles and Adaptor and Co-Director of our production.
You can read the transcript of the interview, or watch it in the video below.
My grandmother was from Prussia, so when I was young, she used to tell me loads of stories, Russian and Polish and Slavic, fairy stories. And so I’ve had them rattling around in my head, my whole life, really. And I think the character of Baba Yaga in particular has fascinated me because she’s quite an ambiguous character in most of the fairy stories.
She’s portrayed as a kind of cannibalistic witch, but as I sort of got a little bit older, I started seeing these hints that she’s so much more than that. And even though she’ll threaten to eat people and be really quite scary, she also sometimes helps the hero of the stories. She has this kind of benevolent side.
So I think as a child that really fascinated me. And I think probably for years and years, every so often I’d wonder about her. I didn’t start writing until I was over 30, but at that point, I think I naturally went back to those stories for inspiration. And so I started to read more and more about Baba Yaga.
I learned about her origins, she was probably like a pagan goddess of life and death. And I could just talk about it for hours. She just absolutely fascinated me. And then I always knew that I wanted to write a book with her in it, and I always knew that I wanted to explore that kind of side of her.
I wanted to explore why some people would be scared of her and think she was bad, but then she’d be kind, and I think slowly, just this idea forms of her being…
This term actually, like one of my editors called her ‘midwife of death’ and I thought that’s kind of perfect. And that’s what I just started to see her as.
The House With Chicken Legs that she lives in borders this world and the next and the whole sort of aesthetic of that is a journey from life to death.
So I knew I wanted to write a book with that aspect of it in children’s fiction.
I knew the main character would be a child. As soon as I put a child in that setting, the story kind of wrote itself. It’s the way I knew a child in that setting would probably not want to be in that setting. They’d probably want to be off living a life, not surrounded by, you know, sort of dead people and that whole sort of midwife of death thing. It’s very interesting, but it’s not really what an 11-year-old wants to be doing. And so the story sort of wrote itself that way and that’s kind of how it came about.
I think I thought about writing it for a long time. And the reason I did when I did was that several family members or people close to me all died within a couple of years of each other. I went through this period of just intense grief and I found it quite difficult to write. And what I was writing was really, really dark.
And then I got to a point where I wanted to move on, and obviously still grieve, but grieve in a healthier way. I wanted to celebrate the people that had died and so I think that’s a huge part of the book. I sort of wrote it to comfort myself through grief and to just make sense of that whole thing.
I want to write a book that would help children see death as the circle of life and try to portray death in the most positive way that it can be portrayed. Obviously, it’s sad and it can be a little bit scary, but if we talk about it and portray it in the right way, it’s just a whole process.
It can actually be. I think it can actually be weirdly wonderful because I think death can actually inspire us to live more, which I think has ended up being the overall theme of the book that we have to grab our lives and live our lives. So yeah, that’s kind of where it came from.
I’m just intrigued myself. So the idea of Baba Yaga being the guide from life to death, that wasn’t something that came from one of the stories, that was something that you’ve completely brought to it yourself?
I think it did, there are hints of it, not so much in the stories. If you look at the most popular folk stories and fairytales, it’s not really there though.
I think sometimes it’s possibly hinted at, but I think if you start to think deeper and you start to look at the pagan beliefs of the Slavic people, way back when, and you start to research some of the gods that are possibly linked to where Baba Yaga sprouted from then you start to.
I researched a lot of this, what the death ritual was, might have been, and obviously, there’s not much written, but there are artefacts. I remember reading about these graves that have claws in them, and the archaeologists think that possibly they’re there to help them climb out of the grave and then climb the glassy mountains.
There are glassy mountains in the book. I can’t remember where I read that, but that was from one of these old texts. This idea that death is a journey, which of course occurs in lots of cultures, not just Slavic cultures. Sort of rainbow bridges and glass mountains and oceans to cross.
Then I think that the stars came from me. But again, obviously, lots of people have talked about going to the stars when you die. And so the whole thing is quite a mishmash of a lot of mythology and pagan beliefs and stories that I had read. So I’m not sure if anything is truly original, but it’s just the way that I cobbled it all together.
Yes, because I couldn’t find that, I didn’t find that reference, but it all makes so much sense. I was like, it must’ve been somewhere and I wondered how much of that was you or if there was a story somewhere that I hadn’t seen.
I’ve never heard a story where she’s portrayed as this, all the imagery is the boundary of life and death. The skull and bone fence and all that imagery feel like this is a boundary between life and death, but the guardian of the gate idea definitely came from when I was researching more the mythology.
There are a few gods that she may have been, but no one could obviously say Baba Yaga’s definitely come from that god, her name is much more ‘witchy’ or ‘wise woman’ but there were a lot of female Slavic goddesses of death that also have snakes, which is quite often associated with Baba Yaga as well.
I felt that was her origin somewhere way back when, but obviously, the stories that have been passed down now have been changed so much by Christian influences when the Christians came to Russia and they wanted to change the stories. Over time, by a little bit, stories change.
Yeah. I just love the idea of how the whole idea of how it was there to scare off the living because the living aren’t ready for it yet, but actually then you realize that it’s not scary. When you learn about the other Yagas, they’re the same character but all in different cultures.
It’s always been the scary woman who lives at the end of the town and that everyone is scared of because she’s really old and she’s got all this macabre stuff. But actually, you realise that you know those kinds of folk tales have been built from these people. These Yagas that have been all around and formed their own different folk tales across the world and different cultures have their own way of them.
Yeah. Baba Yaga is that wise woman, isn’t she? She’s the wise woman at the edge of the village that will probably birth children and help people as they’re dying.
And she will be the healer. And I think going back to when there were Christian influences, these sort of patriarchal Christian societies didn’t want these wise powerful women. So they were often portrayed as witches, and this is, I think where the witch thing comes from – a very wise and very powerful woman.
And like you say, a lot of that scary imagery would have been made scarier in the telling. Like I said, my grandmother would tell me these stories and she’d include the skulls and the bones and the scary stuff. And I wanted to keep that in the book, but I absolutely wanted to make it not scary.
I wanted it to be there, but just purely as – ‘we do this to scare people away’.
That’s what I love about Marinka, because none of this has been framed negatively to her. She spends her day building fences out of bones and her pet is a jackdaw. Dead people turn up on their doorstep, but because it’s not been framed in a way that she should be scared, she’s not.
It’s one of those other things, which particularly for children is so important. When you talk about death, it’s about how you frame it and that the idea with spirits and ghosts and bones and all of that are the qualities we bestow on it and that’s what makes them scary. But actually, Marinka has been freed of that and I think that’s a really interesting frame for a young child.
It has to be, because I have four children and all of them at various stages of their childhood, even quite young, are not scared of any of these things, if anything they’re fascinated.
They tell me about death, tell me about bones, tell me about these things. And I think that’s why it was lovely writing it because I know that children have all these questions and books are just the perfect safe space to talk about all of this. All of a sudden death doesn’t have to be scary. I think in British culture, we shy away from it so much.
I think so much of that fear comes from everyone being shushed and saying ‘we don’t talk about that’. And all of a sudden it’s scary because it’s something we don’t talk about.
Yeah, so often with children, they’re not scared of the thing itself. What they’re scared of is the grownup’s reaction to it.
They see grown-ups being scared, they think well, maybe I should.
Well, I think it’s really interesting. I think we have a similar sort of sensibility. From the stuff that you write and the stuff that you’re attracted to, I feel like it’s the same for me. With Les Enfants Terribles, I’ve always been attracted and fascinated by the more macabre children’s stories, whether that’s Brothers Grimm or Roald Dahl.
Those, to me, were always the stories that pulled me in. And I think, as humans, we’re just inherently curious, and actually, I think the pull of those sorts of stories as children is because they hint to the greater world that I think we try so hard to protect children from. Which I think is sometimes can be a false economy because the world is the world, and these are parts of the world.
That’s what’s so great about this book, it gives you the language to discuss these things. And it gives you a kind of forum to be able to discuss these ideas because kids aren’t stupid, kids are aware of everything.
They’re aware of pain and loss and grief and fear and danger. But they’re often not given the tools to be able to discuss it. And, what that does is it starts a pattern of behaviour, which everyone gets into in their entire life, which is about burying it and disguising it and not confronting it. Internalising all that kind of trauma.
I remember, my agent said about the theatre interest and just straight away, I thought that that would just be perfect. I mean, before I knew anything about the production, just all of a sudden your imagination starts going wild and you start thinking about what could happen with a theatre production. I think there’s something just so magical about theatre compared to a movie, you know?
As soon as little snippets started coming through my email about, they might do this and they’re planning to do this, it was just wonderful. It was just so amazing. And I just knew it would be perfect no matter what direction.
As soon as I saw Les Enfants Terribles, I saw some of the aesthetics and some of the stuff you do. And I just thought that it was just going to be perfect. I just know it.
We’re so excited to be bringing it to life.
Also, it’s our first proper adaptation. We’ve done Alice’s Adventures Underground that of course was based on Alice in Wonderland and stuff like that, but this is the first time we’ve ever really done something like this. It felt like such a good fit. It felt easy in that regard.
I think the thing that you’re always trying to do is ask ‘what is the essence of this?’
And once you tap into the essence, then you get a lot more confident. You can then play around with the other bits because you’ve already tapped into the heart of what’s important.
I think for me, that was the first part of my journey. I was trying to tap into the essence of what I felt was important about the book and what the key was. Also what the heart of Marinka is in that journey.
Like at the start you feel like she’s a young woman, a young girl, who’s very much in this world, and that is her world. And to me, part of the journey of the book and her journey is seeing the world get bigger as, as it goes – which is what growing up is.
And so part of her journey is learning to adapt to a world to suit her. So I think as the play goes on, I think we start to open up the world away from the Slavic elements.
The other thing that fell in love with, which is what we talked about earlier, was the idea that Baba Yaga is this Yaga but that’s the version that lived in the Slavic forests. And her legend has developed that way, but then as soon as Marinka thinks ‘what, there are more of these people?’
And she sees the photos and asking ‘what’s that? Who were those other ones? Who is the Yaga that was on the outskirts of the villages in Africa or the Yaga who lived at the north pole?’
Then starting to think ‘so who are those other figures in other folklore?’ And I think that was something that we try and just get a little taste of as well because it’s Marinka’s world – it’s huge, but it’s also really small. She can go everywhere, but her world is also the house.
And so, kind of wanting to mirror that journey for the audience. She thinks this is what the life of being a Baba Yaga is, and as she learns more and she meets more people, she starts to see that there are other ways, people do things in different ways and there are other stories.
Also with the music, we start with the balalaikas but then as the story grows, we start to open the world up as Marinka’s world starts to open up as well.
The same thing sort of happens in the book. Obviously I want to have a nod to the original places in these folklores and that these characters came from as I have heritage there, but I’m not from there.
So I have my version that was told to me in Wales. And when the book came out, I was actually really worried that Russian people wouldn’t like what I’d done with it. But then I’ve met so many people from lots of different places who have.
As you said Oli, everyone has their own version of Baba Yaga that you nod back to. They know it’s from that part of the world, but they have their version that their family would have told them when they lived somewhere else.
She is, as everyone and just like how folks always travel around the world, they change as they do. The book did start off with just this one, Baba Yaga, and then obviously, it was opened up.
There has to be more to this, it can’t just be here, it has to be a bigger thing and you have to be able to make it your own, because that’s the theme of the book as well, that you can be whatever kind of Yaga you want to be.
I think the book just landed perfectly in everyone’s sweet spot. So everyone just read it said ‘yeah, of course, of course!’ And so, it’s been a really exciting, having so much material for us to use.
I think because it’s based on folk or fairy stories, they have these universal themes that we can all relate to in some way.
When I do zooms with kids and they ask me about writing advice, I say it’s like you have to move out the way of yourself because it’s all inside. You have to trust your subconscious.
And I think folk and fairy stories are the same. I think they’re so old, but the core message is what is inside and it’s just universal themes that transcend time and space.
They’re just things that we all naturally somehow relate to, even if it’s in slightly different ways. It’s a very human experience.
It feels important.
I’m sure thousands of years ago, there was probably somebody putting on a show with a house with chicken legs. These characters are thousands of years old and so to be working with them feels like a link in a chain, it’s like, I’m sure there would have been some old storyteller telling their story once.
You know, in Les Enfants Terribles, we’ve always seen ourselves as a bunch of old travelling players who rock up and tell some stories.
We try and feel connected to that type of storytelling, which is kind of primal and instinctive. And it’s how we learn, how we all as humans learn about being a human.
But one of them has to be quirky. In amongst all the important deep stuff, it’s a quirky house. It’s a quirky story – a house with legs is fun and even though some of the old stories are terrifying and scary, I think as soon as you start imagining a house with legs, you can’t help but smile a bit, your imagination starts going. Even in the older stories, the house turns around and you can’t help but think, ‘is it going to jump?’ Is it going to dance?’ So quirky!
There may be something primal. I think it feels like one of those stories that teach us about something bigger, something human.
I remember reading so much deep stuff, not long ago about the sort of collective consciousness that humans have. And so maybe the word primal relates to that a bit. Possibly we don’t understand it yet.
And perhaps that relates to the journey to the stars. One of the things I tried to do with the book is not say what happens after we die, because I love that lots of different cultures and different people have lots of different beliefs.
I didn’t want the book to interfere with that. I just like the idea that we leave here and go somewhere else.
It’s one of those things where it draws you in.
There’s something about Marinka’s kind of emancipation and independence and empowerment. Because I think that’s such a big part of the story, for Marinka, it’s as much about empowering herself from herself as it is from other people.
I always describe Marinka’s journey as being like she has to learn how to carve her own destiny.
And a lot of the time she’s walking that line between being selfish and being independent and, in the book she messes it up, but it’s all about learning that she needs to be empowered to do what she wants to do.
Actually, one of the images that we’re trying to bring into the show is the babushka, the Russian doll. And I think the book is a Russian doll, it’s this thing and then you open it up and then, oh, there’s actually, it’s this other thing inside. And then, oh, actually, it’s this other thing! You keep discovering different layers of it. And I think that is such a strong image to me.
You can read the different levels, a child can read it one way and an adult read it another. Or you can read it three different times in your life and get three different ways. I think that is what good children’s books do, that’s what I aim to do. To have, like you say these layers. So that everyone can enjoy it at different levels and everyone can get something out of it, that it’s something that you can return to and get more out of.
So this is why I know this show is going to dwell on people’s minds. I haven’t seen loads of theatre, but I remember every show that I’ve watched. I remember it because you’re so present there.
And the show is right in front of you and it’s so magical.
Particularly when you know you’re making a show that young people are gonna see because this might be their first-ever experience of the theatre and I think that’s always something that is a big responsibility, but really exciting as well.
Absolutely. I remember all the shows, like school trips to the grand theatre in Swansea.
It’s so wonderful to know that, as you say, younger people, older people, families and individuals are gonna see this theatre production. And I just know it’s going to be something that stays with them and then becomes part of them, as these things do. Magical.
About The House With Chicken Legs
The House with Chicken Legs’ is a brand new stage adaption of the much-loved novel by Sophie Anderson. Rooted in Slavic folklore, the story follows Marinka – a young girl with an unusual house trying to forge her own path despite pressure to accept her destiny.
Marinka’s world is brought to life through a blend of live music, puppetry, video projection and moving set pieces from a team of actors and creatives. The show is a co-production with HOME Manchester and played from 29 March – 23 April 2022.
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