Polka Theatre in Wimbledon is known for creating good quality drama specifically aimed at children. Here Roman Stefanski, one of Polka’s Associate Directors, tells The Resident about its festive offering this Christmas: Beauty and the Beast
Words: Will Gore
When I chat to Roman Stefanski, director of this year’s festive offering at Wimbledon’s Polka Theatre, Beauty and the Beast, he is keen to make one very vital point. ‘The important thing,’ he tells me, ‘is that this is not the Disney show. All of those wretched characters from the film are not in our production!’
Rather than copying the famous animation, Stefanski, an associate director at Polka who has been putting on shows at the children’s theatre since the early 80s, says he specialises in staging ‘good epic plays’, adding that this new version of Beauty and the Beast is more in the vein of ‘classic drama’ than Americanised cartoon. The production will feature large sets, shadow puppetry and original music (it’s definitely not a musical, though!) to help tell the story, while it also seeks to give this beloved old yarn, about the nature of true love and the importance of not judging people by appearances, a modern dimension.
‘It is very exciting to be taking Beauty and the Beast back to its fairytale roots, while still working with interesting, rounded characters and adding a few extra twists,’ explains Stefanski. ‘With a timeless moral, it is a great journey full of excitement and tension, but we will also draw the audience in emotionally.’
As well being an alternative to Disney, Stefanski and the rest of the team at Polka are also conscious that they must make sure their ‘epic’ festive plays provide an alternative to the unbridled silliness of the traditional pantomime just up the road at New Wimbledon Theatre. ‘Wimbledon Theatre is the king of pantos but we are the king of good quality drama aimed specifically at children – I’m fiercely proud that we have something else to offer,’ adds Stefanski. ‘This isn’t a romp, it’s a Christmas story and we make it work by coming up with good stuff.’
Beauty and the Beast marks Stefanski’s third festive collaboration with playwright Charles Way – the pair previously worked on the Polka productions of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. In Way’s fresh take on the story, our heroine Belle is a sensible young girl, worlds apart from her wannabe socialite of a sister, Cassandra. The siblings both have to contend with their troublesome father, a mad merchant who emotionally neglects his girls because all he is interested in is making pots of money. As the tale unfolds, Cassandra is wooed by a desperate suitor, while Belle heads off into the woods where her beast awaits.
So, what can we expect from this (initially) terrifying creature? Stefanski is happy to reveal a little of what he has in store for SW19 audiences. ‘Usually the Beast is a horned creature but ours is a little more wolfy,’ he says, with a laugh. ‘We are setting the play around Dorset in marshlands and woodlands to set up a spooky situation. Belle stumbles upon a castle and the well-known storyline goes on from there.’
Polka recommends the show as being suitable for children aged six to 12, but, with the run coinciding with the holiday period, audiences representing a whole range of different generations will surely be in attendance. Stefanski is well prepared for eclectic crowds and expects his production to be watched by an actual age range of ‘six to 106’. With such a variety of people to entertain, the director will be using all of his experience and expertise to pitch the story’s darker elements, including that wolfy Beast, just right so as not to terrify the very youngest audiences members out of their wits.
‘For us in children’s theatre we know that those early years are amazingly different from one year to the next in terms of how much the kids can take in, what entertains them and how much they might understand,’ says Stefanski. ‘A simple thing like a plunging a theatre into blackout is exciting and the older child can cope with it, but it can be frightening for young ones, not because of the story but because it can make them frightened for themselves, and that’s wrong, that’s not theatre.’
Stefanski says that despite more than three decades directing plays for children he is still learning his craft. He believes that over that period an increase in the standard of writing for young audiences has helped the quality of Polka’s output get better and better. In that time His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman has written for the theatre and last year’s Christmas show, Peter Pan, won the Eleanor Farjeon Award for outstanding service to literature and an Off West End award for Best Production for Young People. This year’s festive treat is shaping up to be another beauty – just remember to leave all thoughts of Disney at the auditorium door.
Beauty and the Beast, Polka Theatre, November 20 – February 7, for more information and to book tickets, visit polkatheatre.com