The Scottish Connection: 'The Winter's Tale' Solidifies a Bond between Pennsylvania and Glasgow-And Brings Actors of All Ages Together

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PEOPLE'S LIGHT & THEATRE Company, in the Philadelphia suburb of Malvern, has found an artistic partner in Glasgow's National Theatre of Scotland. "They share our values," says artistic director Abigail Adams, "especially about professional artists working with young people." The U.S.-U.K. collaboration--which began to take shape three seasons ago when Adams visited Scotland scouting innovative theatre practices, and also includes Glasgow's Citizen's Theatre--culminated this year in a circus-y, audience-involving production of The Winter's Tale that ran Jan. 31-March 3 at People's Light, charming critics and audiences, and solidifying the theatres' trans-Atlantic relationship.

The seeds for The Winter's Tale were originally sown when, through a 2010 Pew Center for Arts & Humanities management-initiative catalyst grant, five Scottish artists lived at People's Light's farmland campus for a two-week ensemble lab, focused on devising theatre through self-generated material. Seventeen teens, aged 12 to 15, joined a multigenerational crew of 13 People's Light resident company members--actors, directors, playwrights and teaching artists, ranging from their early twenties to their mid-sixties--for an intensive workshop that fulfilled Adams's vision not only for ensemble-created work, but for greater artistic continuity within her 38-year-old organization.

The Scottish team, like the resident artists, represented a variety of disciplines and backgrounds, from musician and composer Michael John McCarthy (who subsequently returned for The Winter's Tale) to choreographer Janice Parker to playwright-director Catrin Evans. NTS associate director and co-founder Simon Sharkey, a veteran of 20 large-scale, site-specific, ensemble-created productions that have gained wide attention in Europe, led the lab, which culminated in presentations shared with an invited audience.

The Scottish artists employed techniques ranging from Lecoq and Laban to automatic writing, found objects and soundscapes. If the international component proved difficult, Adams says, it was not for artistic reasons but for logistical ones. "Internationalism can be hard to pull off," Adams concedes. "It was hard to get the team through immigration, for one thing, due to the fear that they're taking Americans' jobs."

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Sharkey's immersive, distinctly personal approach, which he applied to expansive, community-involving projects at home, succeeds in all kinds of situations, even with non-actors, and the People's Light participants warmed to it quickly. "It's about finding one's own stories," Sharkey explains, "whether in a classroom, brass band or football stadium. If you tell the personal stories, the historical, political, bigger stories come to light." In the first week, lab participants focused on generating "loads and loads of material" from their lives. In the second, they honed their indoor-outdoor performance, with the goal not only of sharing a final product but revealing the process as well.

Longtime resident company actor Melanye Finister admits she had "reservations about putting my own life on stage" at first. "It's been an interesting negotiation." But the process, even the veteran actors admitted, was freeing. As Graham Smith jokes, "I put my personality on the top shelf and haven't seen it since!"

"The beautiful thing is," Sharkey goes on, "that you put stories into a form that is compelling, and everyone is interested. It's a universal thing." This philosophy helped make the mix of American and Scottish cultures an illuminating experience. "We're both Western cultures, but we only know each other through certain media," Sharkey notes. "Still, we all have rich experiences to share."

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To Sharkey, such work heralds a change in traditional theatre-season structure. …