Top director talks about La Strada coming to Milton Keynes

A stage adaptation of Fellini's La Strada can be seen at Milton Keynes Theatre next week.

Rehearsals of La Strada
Rehearsals of La Strada

We had a chat with director Sally Cookson about the show, the challenges of putting it on the stage and why should audiences should come along.

When did you first encounter Fellini’s La Strada?

I saw the film when I was quite young, my father was a keen film enthusiast and he used to show me many films as a child. So I watched it, I didn’t understand what it was about, but I was intrigued by it and I loved the cinematography and the music and the strangeness of it and I was beguiled by the character of Gelsomina. And then I watched it again when I was a drama student and became a bit of a Fellini fan.

La Strada

Why bring La Strada to the stage?

It was Producer Kenny Wax who asked me if I would be interested in adapting it for the stage and of course as soon as he mentioned the film title I was immediately hooked, because of my interest in the film. I knew it was always going to be a challenge and part of me felt you can’t taken on a Fellini film, it’s so iconic, why would you want to do that? Then as I started to think about it more, and as I watched it again and again I realised that the story is a universal one; rather like a folk tale, it’s a timeless story, and relevant today as well. I realised that if I was going to turn it into a piece of theatre I wouldn’t be trying to put a Fellini masterpiece on the stage, I would be responding to the film, using it as inspiration, trying to get to the heart of the story.

What do you want your audiences to experience from this production?

Stories are at the heart of theatre and I always want my audience to be provoked in some way and reminded of what it means to be human.

La Strada

I think that’s what I’m always looking for when I make a piece of theatre - what is this story saying about our lives today and how can it connect with us now? I think at its heart La Strada is about a struggle to understand what it is to be human. For Gelsomina, who is the protagonist in our version, we’re seeing the story through her eyes, she is struggling to survive, yet regardless of what’s happening around her, the poverty and the brutality she experiences, she has this incredible spirit and a wonderful sense of the possibilities of life.

Fellini was a film-maker who really enjoyed the idea of magic realism; so not just presenting a linear or realistic story. He felt there was a lot of beauty in the human condition and tried to show that in his films through the symbols and the wonderful imaginative elements he included. We want to do that too. That’s how I respond to any story. I want to find the theatricality within it and to discover how can we lift a story out of its realistic chains. The music helps us with that, plus a lot of physical story-telling, so that it becomes very engaging, very physical, very alive and very magical. I think that will be very thrilling for the audience to see.

What’s involved in ‘devising’ a new work?

Devising is how I’ve always made theatre. It essentially means I don’t start rehearsals with a concrete script, the script emerges during the process and that script involves everybody in the production responding to the source material. It’s both liberating and terrifying! It is a high-wire act without a safety net. Collaboration is at the heart of how we make the work so the creative team and the performers have to be a very strong team. The music emerges with the action so that it’s a very organic process, and it’s very specific to the individuals in the room. So each process is completely different; each company’s particular response informs how we make the work. For La Strada, we have an incredible cast of performers from all over the world, from Israel, Vietnam, France, Finland, Italy, Britain. It’s been hugely exciting to experience such a multi national response to Fellini.

Is the music performed live on stage?

This is an actor musician piece where the ensemble play instruments throughout - they’re all on stage all of the time, and the music is an integral part of how we tell this story. I always like working with performers who are multi talented - they can sing, dance, act brilliantly and play instruments and be circus performers too. Bart who plays the role of ’Il Matto, the Fool’ is a wonderful circus performer and he has a chance to show off his circus skills here. That’ll be a real delight for the audience.

Tell us about the physical nature of the production?

Theatre, like the cinema, is a visual, sensory medium. I like to explore the themes, ideas and narrative not just by relying on the spoken word. Text is important, but I’m always interested in how can we tell a part of the story without using words. That’s the challenging part, and sometimes takes a lot of tearing your hair out in frustration, but for me, those are the ways of really getting under the skin of a piece and finding the sub texts. We’re discovering these as we rehearse, lifting it off the page and finding an imaginative way of telling an aspect of the story. For me, that’s one of the most thrilling aspects of devising.

Why should audiences come and see La Strada?

I think it will be a theatrical delight. We have an incredible cast of performers from all over the world and it feels like an important story to tell. Telling stories and remembering that theatre has the power to help us, to unite us, to remind us what it is to be human and to understand the difficulties of being human, now more than ever, we need to be reminded of that.

La Strada runs from Monday February 20 to Saturday