The Wee Review caught up with children’s author Pauline Mackay whose work, Wee MacNessie, is performed at the Fringe for the first time. We interview her alongside Polkadot Theatre‘s Kym Hunt about adapting picture books for the stage – and about the iconic St. Giles Cathedral as a venue for this children’s show featuring puppetry.
Pauline, you run Ablekids Press and are the author of the Wee MacNessie books. Wee MacNessie will make his Edinburgh Fringe debut at St Giles Cathedral this August. How did this come about?
Pauline: I was manning the NessBookFest hub in Inverness last October when Kym Hunt stopped by for a short break before heading back out as a roaming entertainer. On hearing she and fellow drama colleagues were planning to do children’s theatre after graduating, I suggested my Wee MacNessie stories would work well on stage. Shortly afterwards, Kym contacted me to say Polkadot Theatre was interested in developing a Wee MacNessie puppet show for a schools’ tour. That was a brilliant piece of news in itself, but I remember the excitement I felt when Kym mentioned they would like to take it to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe too. Over the following months it became clear that the puppet show was going to take longer to produce than first thought, so when I received the news that Polkadot Theatre had secured five shows in the magnificent St Giles’ Cathedral as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, I confess I cried a few tears of joy. The schools’ tour will now follow on from there.
Kym, you are bringing Wee MacNessie to the Fringe – why did you choose Pauline’s book, and what attracts you to children’s theatre?
Kym: The stage production of Wee MacNessie came about because of a conversation Pauline and I had in October 2017 after the success of my first Fringe adventure. Wee MacNessie captivated me because of the different take on the Loch Ness monster – he’s endearing and sweet natured and I could really imagine how he could lend himself to a stage production. Children’s theatre is just as captivating as more adult shows, but I think there’s a massive gap. There’s quite a few productions for very young children, but feedback from parents indicated that these productions were expensive and that their children would get bored, they were either too educational or not educational enough and children’s theatre isn’t readily available in rural areas. We wanted to create theatre that was interactive, that brought the children quite literally into the pages of their favourite books, and this has been a fantastic first project to work on to do just that.
Pauline, what are the books about and why would they appeal to young audiences? Who is most likely to enjoy the stories?
Pauline: Wee MacNessie is a young, child-friendly version of the Loch Ness Monster. Along with his best friends Dolly the Dragonfly, Fergus the Frog, and Suzie the Salmon, the stories build up a gentle, endearing world full of friendship and humour, captured beautifully by illustrators Shelley Mackay and Brian Robertson. They appeal to pre-school and early primary school children. Due to the fact that there are multiple bilingual versions of these books, they are used with Gaelic learners, as an educational resource in the Modern Languages classroom, and with children from other countries who do not have English as a first language. Needless to say, Loch Ness Monster stories also have a huge appeal for tourists who are especially delighted when they find a translation in their own language.
Pauline, what inspired you to create the Wee MacNessie stories?
Pauline: I’m from Inverness so the Loch Ness Monster is in my blood. Wee MacNessie was born while I was living on a family croft close to Urquhart Castle. Looking out over such a stunning loch every day, it’s impossible not to be inspired. I adore children so coming up with stories about our world-famous monster was perhaps inevitable and I love including little details that come from real experience of daily life there.
Are you planning to come to Edinburgh to watch the show? Have you worked closely with Polkadot Theatre Company, or are you leaving them to it?
Pauline: I plan to be at the opening and closing performances. It will be fascinating to see how the show evolves over that time as it’s going to be a very interactive experience for the audience.
My role has been to ensure Polkadot stays true to the original world of Wee MacNessie whilst allowing them the freedom to develop their own unique piece of theatre. The creation of the puppets has thrown up all sorts of challenges but Kym and her colleagues have listened to my feedback and spent an incredible amount of time perfecting them. I’m sure they could write a book about the experience!
Kym, you are a Fringe veteran and bring performance, storytelling, and radio experience to Wee MacNessie. Was there a new skill you had to learn?
Kym: I am pleased to say that I am constantly learning new skills, and this time round was certainly no different. I had to learn new puppet making techniques including movable mechanisms such as blinking eyes. These are skills that I’m really excited to continue developing for future productions.
How many performers and production team members will you have at Edinburgh?
Kym: Polkadot Theatre has eight members in total, but at the Fringe itself there will be four of us. Gabriel Starr, Amy Boyle, Kieran Sinclair and I will be performing. Luckily Pauline is joining us for at least two of the performances, so we’ll be putting her to work too, don’t you worry.
From a dramatist’s point of view, what have been the main challenges of bringing Wee MacNessie to the stage?
Kym: From a dramatist’s perspective, there’s always challenges to adapting someone else’s work. There are things that always work on paper and in one’s imagination but in practice they don’t work. There’s a fine line between creative licence and over-stepping that boundary, so it’s vital to remember to consult the original author first, something that I’ve found tricky at times because I am so used to working on my own and it’s very easy to get carried away with ideas. Pauline has been fantastic to work with though.
Is there a particular part of the show you are really excited about?
Kym: I’m very excited about everything that we have created. It has been almost a full year of planning, gluing, sticking, and building and it’s fantastic to see it all coming together. One part I’m most excited about is the underwater northern lights scene because it’s so magical and I’m really looking forward to seeing the kids’ expressions.
Pauline, how does it feel to let go of your characters and entrust the interpretation to Polkadot? Is it hard?
Pauline: This is such a new experience for me and has involved a lot of emotions. I have lived and breathed the characters from my books every day for years so entrusting them to Polkadot was of course a huge step. However, my impression of Kym was of someone joyful, talented, and, crucially, child-friendly who would understand what makes Wee MacNessie and his friends special and be able to transfer that endearing world onto the stage.
What have been the best and the most challenging moments of this collaboration?
Pauline: The first, tentative version of Polkadot’s Wee MacNessie costume didn’t include his trademark tartan swimming trunks. This has always been a non-negotiable part of his appearance so, unfortunately, I had to ask them to redo it. In fact, making sure all the characters resemble their book counterparts is incredibly important to me, so the puppet-making has been a longer process than first imagined.
When I saw the miniature set Polkadot had constructed detailing their innovative approach, I couldn’t stop smiling. Kym had even included the backdrop of the cathedral window with coloured paper to mimic stained glass! By the time they had finished explaining how the performance would work, I was completely hooked and I love the fact schoolchildren have been involved making fish and stars to be part of the set.
Kym: This whole experience has been fantastic and I have learned a lot from it in terms of collaborating with another writer and it’s been really humbling that Pauline has trusted Polkadot Theatre with something that is very dear to her heart. There has been a lot of fun and chaos had by us in creating the puppets and the set, and one of my favourite moments has to be when myself and Amy B went to conduct a workshop at my old primary school in Beauly. We had an incredible time playing with the children and then decorating fish and star templates to be used in the production.
Both of you are based in the Highlands. What does it mean to you that Wee MacNessie can now entertain an international audience in the very heart of the festival capital?
Pauline: Seeing my beloved characters rise off the pages of my books for the first time as a stage show is magical. For this to be happening as part of the internationally-renowned Edinburgh Festival Fringe is truly wonderful. I can’t thank Polkadot Theatre enough for all their hard work and vision and wish them a hugely successful run.
Kym: The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is an incredible opportunity and adventure. I think that it’s incredible that they are permitting us to perform there again and to have Wee MacNessie performed there first is going to be an amazing opportunity to showcase our production to a much wider audience and to hopefully encourage a wider audience to watch.
So, when can young audiences and their parents enjoy the show, and who would it be most suitable for?
Kym: Wee MacNessie makes his Fringe debut on the 21st until the 25th of August at 2pm in St Giles Cathedral. It’s suitable for children between 3 and 7 and all families are welcome. Tickets are £5 per child and adults go free when accompanied by a paying child.