Tall trees stretch above us all around and lurking in the forest depths are shadows of a world that’s both mysterious and just a little bit sinister.
I’m at Northern Stage having a sneak peak at the atmospheric set of its new festive show for under-sixes which from tomorrow will be inviting families to explore Tallest Tales from the Furthest Forest.
Regulars to the theatre’s annual children’s treat know they are in for something special from the creative team which includes writer Susan Mulholland, director Mark Calvert, musician Katie Doherty and Andy Stephenson who comes up with those wonderful sets and costume designs.
As usual, it’s the result of many months of work which sees Susan’s initial idea shaped then re-modelled during a truly collaborative process as they all pitch in during rehearsals to decide how best to tell the story.
“That’s why Mark is such a brilliant director,” Susan tells me. “He doesn’t necessarily want me to answer all the questions but to pose them.”
The team may have learned a lot about the likes and dislikes of young audiences over the years but they are keen to keep challenging themselves and their target age group certainly keeps them on their toes.
“I think this audience is a very hard audience to write for,” says Susan who is herself a mother to a son Atticus, 20 months, with husband Stephen who also works in the world of theatre but on the technical side.
“They’re easily distracted and if they’re bored they will stand up or play with the person next to them!
“It’s like making an action movie - George Lucas said of Star Wars ‘make something happen every 10 minutes’ and that was a two-hour film. With a one-hour show like this you’ve got to make something happen every couple of minutes!
“It’s a challenge for the team, to keep the action going. It’s about telling a good story and telling it well.
“We try to set ourselves new challenges - and audiences do constantly surprise us!”
She adds: “This is show eight for me and it’s obviously something I still enjoy doing but it never feels easy to do.”
Past successes include The Goblin Who Saved Christmas, The Little Boy Who Lost the Morning, The Little Detective Agency and Case of the Festive Thief - all gratefully received by parents as a welcome alternative to panto.
Susan, who has been at Northern Stage for 15 years, working in its participation department and with young people, was encouraged by designer Andy to become involved with the shows and she’s grateful for the encouragement she’s been given to explore writing.
“I’m really supported by the company, allowing me to take time out of my job and support me as a writer.
“I’d never written before I was 27 but I’d always wanted to write.
“I was always told at school I was good at English. When I was in year seven the teacher thought I had a really poetic mind and I’ve always remembered that.”
But the now-36-year-old recalls too that there were subjects “shut down” to her as she was not encouraged to be better at them.
She’s conscious of the importance of encouraging naturally creative young minds and theatre can be a useful tool.
And books too, of course, particularly in view of recent news stories about fewer parents reading to their children.
Young Atticus is lucky to have a writer for a mum but at the moment he has three favourite books on repeat, The Gruffalo, The Gruffalo’s Child and Canadian author Jon Klassen’s This Is Not My Hat.
“He notices different things at different times,” notes Susan, who has become adept at working out how young minds work.
Susan and her team have created some wonderfully imaginative worlds, with the intention of thoroughly engaging the youngsters.
Audiences will be led to their seats past those tall trees and can sit close to the action so they are fully immersed in a story about a little girl who becomes lost in a forest which this time around sees Susan draw from traditional Russian and European folk tales.
And everyone will be tasked with the role of “storytellers” during plenty interaction with the characters, known as Leshies, as well as live music and join-in songs.
In researching tales passed down through generations and across cultures, Susan encountered the word Leshies: “It’s a Slavic word for a wood spirit and I thought it also sounds a bit Geordie!”
Here they’ll tell a series of stories as they guide the lost girl who by the sounds of things is a bit selfish and full of herself so will be learning a valuable lesson or tw
While in recent years Disney, for instance, faced a backlash for its modern take on fairytales which equated prettiness with good and being plain with being evil, Susan is more interested in the truth behind the originals.
“The traditional tales are part of an oral tradition for communities to tell each other about the world and they were based on real dangers and were warnings.”
Tallest Tales is all about such storytelling and she says: “In the past an original story has come out of my head so this is a bit more of a challenge to get four stories over the space of an hour - and I thought ‘which stories do you pick’? There are thousands.”
For instance she’s come up with fresh take on The Gingerbread Man and drawn from the scary Baba Yaga story, with the iron teeth, chicken feet and taste for children in a stew.
“Many may not have heard of Baba Yaga but they know about witches and she rides a mortar and pestle instead of a broomstick so it’s a bit different and I think they’ll like the difference.”
Another story tells of a boy who has never experienced fear “so he goes out to try to find it”.
Here the children will be asked to yell out what they think is scary and the answer, whatever it is, will be incorporated into the story by actors Ruth Johnson, who plays the girl, and Tom Walton,
The team like an honest approach with no attempt to pull the wool over the children’s eyes. When a “quite scary” spider enters the story, it’s shown by the actor’s clever use of hands, says Susan.
“There’s no cheating; they tell the stories with whatever is to hand and are creative with lots of different objects.”
She points out: “When children play with objects it’s in a really intuitive way,” and they’re keen to keep that kind of creativity alive.
Young Atticus, who at just nine months old saw last year’s show, will be among the audience at this year’s too while his mum will be already thinking of the next.
Such is its reputation and popularity, tickets will go on sale for the 2014 Christmas show in January - before they’ve even decided what it will be.
So Susan will be soon back at work: “It’s always Christmas in my head!” she laughs.
Tallest Tales from the Furthest Forest runs at Northern Stage from tomorrow until January 4. There’s also a storybook and CD available. Visit www.northernstage.co.uk or call 0191 230 5151.