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Molly Freeman and Hattie Thomas - Kinder Interview

Inspired by real-life events, the joyful and poignant Kinder heads on tour this autumn. Telling the story of one small girl who embarks on a mighty adventure, the multiple award-winning Kinder tells the story of the Czech Kinder transport, which evacuated Czech-Jewish children to Britain at the outbreak of World War II.

Young heroine Babi crosses Europe on this epic journey; from bon bons in Germany to the sea in Margate, Babi discovers how even tiny acts of kindness can change the course of a person’s life. Babi tries to assemble the parts of her broken identity and find peace in her future, having escaped persecution just before the start of World War II, and been sent far from home. Kinder is inspired by the real events of the Czech Kindertransport, which saw young children evacuated to seaside towns across the UK, a remarkable evacuation effort pioneered by Brit Nicholas Winton, which saved 669 children.

Kinder, made in collaboration with Little Angel Theatre, aims to provide high-quality and inspiring theatre for teenagers, bringing them incredible real-life stories through a dynamic and immersive setting. From puppetry and visual theatre company Smoking Apples, the production invites the audience into an immersive set, allowing them to go on this incredible journey with Babi. Kinder features table-top puppetry and cinematic shadow play to tell Babi’s story. Smoking Apples has created a self-sufficient, self-contained set that can go into all settings, including non-theatre venues such as schools, to bring this tale to life on the road. At a time when the world’s refugee crises, from Syria to Ukraine, are at the forefront of our minds and the news, Kinder highlights the stories of real people from the past: those who have to flee persecution and their homes, and the kindness of those who help them.

Photo by The Other Richard

I caught up with
Molly Freeman (writer and director of Kinder and co-artistic director of Smoking Apples) and Hattie Thomas (co-Artistic director, performer/ co-devisor on Kinder, puppet maker and shadow puppet designer) to discuss the show.

What attracted you to this project?
Molly: We really wanted to make a show specifically for teenagers. We have worked with this age group a lot over the years, particularly neurodivergent teenagers and we just felt like we wanted to make something for them which was fun and engaging but also covered some of the complexity that we know they’re capable of digesting. We also wanted to free ourselves from the restrictions of making a black box studio, touring show and have more creative control so that was the beginning of the idea for the self-sufficient, freestanding set, which the audience sit inside. We wanted to instantly transport people whether we were in a theatre or a community centre or school hall. 
When we started looking into research material for the story, we wanted something connected to what young people might come across in school and we knew they studied the Holocaust and that Diane Samuels’ play Kindertransport was on the Drama curriculum. It’s not really our style to work with an existing text so we continued to research and then happened upon the Czech Kindertransport story, which is much less well known than the German one. It was a pretty instant hit, as myself, Matt and Hattie (my fellow co-artistic directors) studied together in Prague and spend a lot of time there so we were hooked! Much of the show is really a love letter to Prague and the story is very much about a split identity, where our main character feels very much part of both cultures. This is something that really resonated with us. 

How have you developed the piece?
Hattie: As one of Smoking Apples three Co Artistic Directors, I’ve been working on Kinder from the beginning of the process. What started as a week of research and development as part of Little Angel Theatre’s 4x4 project in 2017, the show has now moved through 2 full developmental phases and culminated in previews and premieres at 4 venues last year. 
I’ve been part of the project both on and off stage, helping to develop the characters and narrative in the rehearsal room, under brilliant direction from Molly, as well as making the heads and hands of the puppets and designing all the shadow puppetry that features in the piece. As a performer in Kinder, I puppeteer the main character of Babi, both as a 9 year old girl and as a 70 year old woman. It is a really fun and interesting experience moving between these 2 stages of her life, and the show does not fix on 1 timeline for too long, so I am often swapping puppets and altering my voice, energy and movement accordingly. 
Without giving too much away, one of the most exciting characters to create was Babi’s foster Mum in England. Molly had a great idea for a very specific visual for the character, and building that puppet was a lot of fun, as was seeing her come to life in the rehearsal room. I don’t want to spoil the surprise so you’ll have to go and see the show to find out what I’m talking about.

Why did you settle on this piece?
Hottie: We wanted to make a show specifically for teenagers, as we felt they are an audience group that are often missed when it comes to innovative, visual theatre, and we thought the best way to do this would be to create something that could tour to schools, to make it more accessible and available for them to see. We researched into plays on the drama syllabus and came across Kindertransport by Diane Samuels, which was looking at the story of a German Jewish child being evacuated before the outbreak of World War 2, and immediately thought the connections to history, humanities and drama was a great starting point. 
On further research into the Kindertransport itself, we discovered Nicholas Winton, a British man who helped evacuate Jewish children from Prague in the Czech Republic, and we knew that this was the story we wanted to tell. As a company we have a very personal connection with Prague, having studied puppetry there together in 2009 on ERASMUS, we have developed life long friendships with some of the Czech students there. We have also previously toured shows to Prague and Hradec Kralove, and one of our previous shows Flux is available to watch there on Dramox - an online theatre streaming service. So we were really excited to have the opportunity to tell a story that connects both England and Prague, and from there started to piece together real experiences to create the journey of Babi in Kinder.

Photo by David Bartholomew

How does the production fit into the ethos of Smoking Apples?
Molly: We make work that uses striking puppetry and visual theatre to explore complex subject matter and Kinder is exactly that. We don’t shy away from the hard parts of this story but instead by telling it from the perspective of our central character, Babi, the audience can see first hand the impact it has on her. Kinder covers the evacuation of Czech-Jewish children on the Kindertransport trains but also the events leading up to this and then much of the story focuses on Babi’s assimilation into British culture. Much of this is complex but ultimately, Kinder is the story of a person and humans are beautifully multi-faceted. Whilst much of this subject is challenging, there is light, joy and humour in abundance in the show, to balance the darker parts. This is very reflective of how we like to work, not shying away from the difficult stuff but making sure that it's digestible and relevant. 

How do you approach using the puppetry and shadow play to tell the story?
Hattie: Developing the shadow puppetry in Kinder has been one of the most challenging and rewarding parts of the process. We started by using rough permanent marker sketches on acetate in early rehearsals and cutting out silhouettes to test representing important memories in projected monochrome, and then gradually selected what best serves the narrative without repeating information. After this I drew everything up on the computer, some to be printed backgrounds and some to be laser cut figures and buildings, and even then not all of them made it into the final piece. Sometimes scenes which felt essential a week earlier become quite clearly unnecessary, and as theatre makers we have to be good at letting go of ideas that aren’t serving the story anymore. As a result I think the final cut, as it were, is incredibly beautiful and moving. 
Kinder is quite a unique theatrical experience, I’ve certainly not seen anything like it. As an audience member you sit on the inside of a box like structure, beautifully designed by Matt, and the performance happens around you through hatches, windows and other surprise openings. With this production, the idea for the set came very early in the process, and our approach to the puppetry was almost a reaction to the design. It gave us so much to play with, and this enabled us to think about what parts of the stories could happen in which sections and why, and where certain characters are seen and so on and with the help of our Dramaturg Sam, we have carefully curated a visual language for the story. 
One of the main points we have come back to and used as a way to check in on our process is thinking about Babi’s perspective, as it is through her that the audience experiences the story. Thinking about the table top puppetry, there is a fun, playful and at times difficult, relationship in Kinder between older Babi and her teenage grandson, Sammy. The versions that you will see of these scenes on the tour have evolved a lot since the beginning of the process. We tried ones where they didn’t speak at all, and others where they spoke constantly, pretty much sharing their inner monologues, but through Molly’s direction and the devising process we have come to settle on the ones we have now.
How important is it for you to engage with younger audiences?
Molly: It’s really important to us to engage with younger audiences because they have such brilliant, active minds and I think a lot of people put them down as challenging to work with because they actually challenge adults in a way that maybe people don’t expect. There’s a lot of honesty there and a fresh perspective on things that perhaps we just accept and take for granted as you get older. Kinder is a show that questions a lot of things, both things that have happened in the past but also things that are happening now, in our immediate present. Younger audiences have the capacity to look at these things differently and we hope that by making something for teenagers, which is free from the rigidity and formality of standard theatre shows, they can immerse themselves in the story and see a visual representation of anything being possible, within the confines of what is expected in these situation. 
What do you want an audience to take from seeing the show?
Molly: I hope the audience come away from seeing Kinder feeling inspired and empowered. Whilst this is a story about the past, it’s really important to us that audiences understand that this really happened and that there are many contemporary parallels to it. The verbatim testimonial used throughout the show, which is from real Kindertransport kids, helps to anchor this idea. I also hope that people come away from Kinder with a renewed perspective on the importance of kindness. Babi is saved by a number of small acts of kindness and they are so simple but they mean the world to her. I hope that people will come away from the show remembering that even if they do the tiniest kind thing; smile at a passing stranger, pay someone a compliment or be more patient with themselves, these tiny things stack up to make a big difference. It’s a kind of quiet revolution. 

HattieUltimately, I hope the audience enjoy watching the show, and are moved by Babi’s story. We encourage them to get comfortable, to react and make noise when they want to, and sometimes to get up and get involved. 
I would also hope that they leave with a greater understanding of the experience of our main character Babi, of being forced out of her home and having to settle somewhere new where she doesn't always feel welcome or safe. Although Kinder focuses on a part of history where Jewish children evacuated Prague to escape Nazi persecution, I think the story is unfortunately still hugely relevant today. Refugees are a constant headline, but I believe the more people who try to understand each other’s experiences, and the trials that come with them, the more chance there is of positive change. 
Kinder does cover some difficult subject matter, but within that it shows how small, simple acts of kindness from a few individuals can completely alter the course of a person’s life. I hope our audiences will feel a bit inspired and empowered to try to help those they can, and take away with them a sense of hope.
Can you describe the show in 3 words?
Molly: Joyful, poignant, heart-warming
Hattie: brilliant, poignant and hopeful

Kinder heads out on a National tour opening at Little Angel Theatre in London on 29th August. Visit for the full tour schedule.

Photo by David Bartholomew 

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