Seven Stories are currently engaged in a research and development project with Tessa Bide Productions entitled 'The Anarchist’s Mobile Library '.  Tessa Bide looks back on the project so far.

"'The Anarchist’s Mobile Library ' is a new show in development Tessa Bide Productions (TBP)- co-produced by Seven Stories (7S), the National Centre for Children's Books. This partnership is totally new; we discovered 7S when researching museums and institutes that hold stories at their core, to collaborate with on the show. They couldn't be more perfect - an incredible, interactive museum and archive with over 30,000 children's books, some dating back to the 1800s. We planned to do a week of Research and Development, to test out our relationship and see what it was like working together on a brand new project.

This opportunity provided a lot of 'firsts' for TBP:

  • A residency - and partnership with an organisation - based outside of the South-West. Previously, the highest we had taken our work in England was Stockton-upon-tees (and we've zoomed up to Scotland before) but we'd never been to Newcastle. All of our previous residencies have been in the South-West.
  • A residency with a good amount of flexibility. Normally, by the time we've got to do a funded R&D we have a tour booked of what we imagine the finished show to be. It then restricts the R&D and denies it of taking dramatic, unexpected twists and turns.
  • Making a show in a caravan! We made a site-specific, intimate show in a tent - Arnold's Big Adventure - in 2014 and toured it until 2016 but the caravan will bring a whole new challenge.

This partnering is also the first time Seven Stories has co-produced a touring theatre production. They've toured dozens of exhibitions all over the UK, and hosted theatre show, but this will be the first touring show with their name on.  

Here's a vague run through of our week in residence at Seven Stories...

  • We arrived with the idea of researching 'A Giant's Kingdom' - making miniature worlds within the caravan so the child feels like a giant when they enter. They are in control and decide how the story is played out. Our key provocations for the show were to make it:
  • Interactive: the child takes control and determines the outcome of the story Small-scale: 2/3 audience members at a time within the caravan. Short in duration: 13 minutes
  • On Monday we arrived after our long journey, and spent the day getting lost in the archive. We began by looking at giant-themed books but they were a bit 'samey' with no great message or meaning behind them. However, one title in particular stood out: A Giant Can Do Anything. They didn't have the book with that title, just an illustration in the archive, but it instantly made me think of the show.
  • We explored some of 7S's amazing archive material: we saw the makings of a book called Sunshine from draft illustrations to Board books; fan letters to authors and communication between authors and their publishers. We started getting drawn towards the 70s, and learnt it was an era of great change in children's literature:
  • Books were starting to be more representative of working class children. A series called Nippers by Leila Burg is a great example, and a series we really enjoyed. In one of the Nippers series, one event (one of the children getting their head stuck in some railings!) was seen from four different siblings' perspectives. The same events took place but they were seen through these different lenses and had slightly different importance as a result. This stuck in my head and I couldn't shake it...
  • BAME children also started being featured, for example The Trouble with Donovan Croft by Bernard Ashley, and occasionally their ethnicity was incidental and not integral to the story.
  • We were also drawn to the 70s due to the amazing design, colours and patterns that the decade is famous for. The caravan interior is VERY 70s and it feels a shame to do anything but celebrate the amazing oranges and browns! It was also an interesting political era with heavy strikes, climate change entering the public domain and the heavy anti-war vibe carrying on from the 60s - all juicy subjects that feel present and 'hot' today.
  • On Tuesday we stumbled across the 70s picture book 'Rosie's Walk' and got a bit obsessed. The design is excellent and there's something lovely about a very nonchalant hen casually dodging her impending doom at every corner, leaving the reader unaware of whether it's conscious or not. She comes across as a very bad-ass hen. The farmyard obstacle course she travels through is also really fun - lots of different levels, challenges and textures. We also got really excited about pop-up books. The caravan is pop-up so of course we need to have pop-up/paper-engineering in the show!
  • Wednesday had a big break through. In the morning I spoke to my Mum about the 70s and she said that people didn't know as much then (!), it was harder to find things out. There was obviously no internet so you had to ask people or look in books to find answers. Perhaps, she suggested, the character could go on a quest and they have to solve their problems by consulting books!
  • This made me think about perhaps creating a kind of unconventional - slightly magical - mobile library where the content from the stories have started to escape from the books and all jumble up with each other. Perhaps the audience get to pick a character that's fallen from a book, and then they help the character go on a journey around the interior of the caravan - which is decked out with a mash-up of different locations and scenarios from some of the best, and most interesting, children's books throughout history.
  • We will still play with scale, and the fact that the audience will be huge in relation to the worlds around them and with that size comes their power.
  • Two titles of the show were swimming around my head - 'A Giant Can Do Anything' but also something around 'The Anarchist's Mobile Library'. We realised there needs to be a time-travelling element to the caravan because, although we are keen to set the characters and the caravan itself in the 70s, it would greatly reduce the amount of material and characters we could use if we couldn't include anything younger than that period. There's a danger of not engaging our target audience if they don't recognise any of the characters, and also we want to make the worlds as rich and diverse as possible, and books have been becoming steadily more diverse since the 70s (to the still shocking 1% of chidlren's books in 2017 being published with a BAME central protagonist, with disabled or LGBT characters even scarcer says The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education),
  • Before we could get too excited about this idea, we called John from Seven Stories for a chat about the logistics of this idea - might it be a copyright nightmare trying to get the rights to use dozens of characters, props, illustrations and ideas from these books? Is he happy with the direction we're taking the show? Luckily - he was! He was excited about the idea, the fact that it would use the archives but in an unconventional, interactive and exciting way, and what that could mean for Seven Stories' offerings. He said not to be put off by the copyright issue, but that it would be easier for them to make contacts with the authors - or estates of the authors - that they currently have in their archive, so that we should start by looking at those authors.
  • The next day we had a workshop with a local primary school organised for us to engage with the show's future target audience. We wanted to see what books they loved, and which were their favourite characters. Are we totally out of touch with what young readers love these days? Interestingly, we discovered that we weren't really, and that Harry Potter is still the overwhelming behemoth that it was 20 years ago when I was devouring them hours after they were published, or even 10 years ago when the films were coming out.  Other favourites included classics Peter Rabbit and Winnie the Witch but with a few 'The Terrible Underpants' and 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid's thrown in. My favourite suggestion was one girl's book simply titled 'Fishing'.
  • We took these ideas home, combined with the energy that we'd absorbed from 30 excitable 6 and 7 year olds. We went into a Skype meeting with Lorna Rees, a Dorset-based theatremaker who specialises in making outdoor, site-specific, small-scale performances. Her enthusiasm for the project was infectious, although her reaction to trying to fit our idea into a 13 minute piece was a little grounding, as she thinks it'll be a bit of an ask to do a different story every time in that short amount of time. We thought around how to combat this and thought that perhaps having the second performer outside doing the pre-amble, and perhaps facilitating the audience choosing their character could enable the inner-caravan 'act' to run longer and smoother. The exterior character could also facilitate people leaving, answering their questions and helping them to carry on their experience at home. Lorna seemed like the perfect fit for the project as our 'outside eye' and I'm excited to have a new, excellent person to work with after orbiting eachother and admiring eachother's work for 8 years.
  • Our final day took us back to the archive to start compiling a list of characters, locations, scenarios and aesthetics that we want to feature in the show. It felt like, if we want to call the show 'The Anarchist's Mobile Library', we have a responsibility to make it anarchic and radical. We want to fuel the energy that we've felt from looking at the 70s, with the strikes and the boom in diversity and social change being reflected in children's literature, to the entire show. How can we bring that inspiring, slightly-educational element to the production? We decided that every character we choose needs to be interesting, have depth and something radical about them. It was all well and good choosing 'Mog' from Judith Kerr's series because she's a lovable, recognisable 'big name' - that Seven Stories already have in their archive - but is she really that interesting a character? We have to interrogate each of our choices to see if they're worthy - and try desperately to stay away from the 'twee', which a short-duration, intimate caravan show can easily slip into. Our research took us to new characters such as the gender-curious Julian from Julian is a Mermaid, brave refugee Azzi from Azzi In Between and incredible inventor Izzy Gizmo from her self-titled book, as well as classics Tracy Beaker, Mowgli from Jungle Book and The Little Wooden Horse.
  • We're excited about this journey of research and discovery but it feels like, now we're truly 'on-to-something!' - we need another week of researching with this provocation in mind! However, perhaps the best thing to do is to open our research out to the public and get their ideas. After all, we are two white, straight, able-bodied, middle-class women from the UK and Norway - perhaps our ideas of radical characters aren't everyone's...

Moving forward, we have an exciting day with Luned Gwawr Evans and Georgie Shire - the designer and fabricator respectively - to start thinking about the design potential of the caravan.  Then, the caravan itself (she's called Sydney) is going to Baldock to have essential repairs to make her tour-ready, before the show goes on to be developed next Spring. In the meantime, we can open our research out to the public with an online survey to circulate to all of mine and Seven Stories' networks, to reach out and guide us towards the most interesting and radical children's books of all time. We can't wait!

So huge thanks go to Eline Hallem, my co-deviser and partner in crime for the week, Seven Stories for...everything...and Arts Council England for funding us to make it all possible".

For further information visit Tessa Bide's website or see the survey here.