Children’s theatre brings real-life stories to the stage

Photo: archive of Leah Gaffen

In June 2019, the Prague-based Story Theatre produced an original play called “Journeys” based on the true stories of the ancestors of the children from the theatre group. Written by Leah Gaffen, and accompanied with original songs by Bára Dočkalová, the play won the national round of the Czech children’s theatre festival Dětská scéna. Earlier this month, they released an album with the songs from the performance so as to keep the stories from the project alive.

Photo: archive of Leah Gaffen

"Journeys” are the ninth performance produced by Story Theatre, which was established back in 2013 by Leah Gaffen and US actor Jay DeYonker for English-speaking children living in Prague.

Over the past six years, they have produced altogether nine shows, including original versions of classic stories such as "Oliver Twist," "The Wizard of Oz," "Alice in Wonderland" and "The Tempest" as well as lesser-known children's books like "The Phantom Tollbooth."

Their latest project, the “Journeys” has been by far their most successful production, winning the national round of the Czech children’s theatre festival Dětská scéna. Leah Gaffen, the author of the original play, says it was something she wanted to do for a long time.

“I had a story in my family about my great-great-great-great-great grandmother who was on the first fleet to Australia. And I did that story with a group of kids from Roztoky in the 1990s. My daughter knew that I had done it and she always felt like we should do it in Story Theatre.

“I told her we would have to wait until she was old enough, because this ancestor of ours was 15 when she was sent away. And I knew I couldn’t do that with an eight-year old. And as time passed and she was 14, I thought: this is the time to start to develop a new show with this story.

“And then I thought it would be interesting if we asked the kids in the group to maybe also find stories in their families and that was how it began.”

At the beginning, the children were rather sceptical that they would find interesting stories within their family histories, says Leah Gaffen. But as they discovered sometimes quite incredible family histories, they gradually got more and more involved.

“We had 11 stories in the show and with each of them I talked to the kids about how they would want to present their story. Some of them wanted to use puppets, some of them wanted to make a film, some of them wanted songs in their story, so we developed the script together and it was definitely a collective project.”

The oldest story in the show is that of Phebe Flarty, Leah Gafen’s Irish ancestor, who was forced to embark on a journey to Australia:

Photo: archive of Leah Gaffen

“She was Irish, she was living in London with several friends and in 1787 she stole three Muslin shawls. She was then sent to trial at the Old Bailey, she was found guilty with her best friend and they were sentenced to seven years’ transport to New South Wales.

“The reason why this happened was because they were about to settle the colony of Australia, or News South Wales, as they called it then. They had men, but they needed more women to be sent over.

“So her timing was unfortunate or maybe fortunate, but it certainly changed the trajectory of her life. So they left Portsmouth in May and they landed in Australia in January of the next year. So that’s how she left and that’s why my mother is Australian and so, there we are.”

Photo: archive of Leah Gaffen

Another gripping story is that of Robert Dubsky, the great-grandfather of three children in the show. Mr Dubsky was Jewish and he lived in Vienna and in 1939, the day after Kristallnacht, his father decided he needed to leave and sent him to a boarding school in Ireland, somehow arranging for him to escape.

“He left Vienna with a bicycle. He was given the bicycle by his father. And the family still has the bicycle in their garage. When I found that out I really wanted them to bring the bicycle to Prague, so it could be part of the show, as a central prop.

“But understandably, they didn’t want to send that bicycle to Prague, which led us to the idea to make it as a film.”

“The kids went to Ireland over the summer and shot some footage of them riding the bicycle in Ireland as Robert Dubsky. And then we found a similar bike in Prague and we shot more scenes in Prague which we pretended was Vienna.”

Photo: archive of Leah Gaffen

One of the most fascinating stories depicted in the show is that of Joachim Estreicher, the great-great-grandfather of one of the cast members. He had studied in Switzerland and in 1914 he decided to open a chocolate store in his hometown of Katowice, in today’s Poland.

“Unfortunately, the war broke out, so the chocolate never made it to Katowice and he didn’t know where it was. So he decided to take his family and find it. They got on a train and they went to various places to look for the chocolate and they found it in Prague. And then he was going to take it back to Katowice but there wasn’t way to get it back. And that led to their decision to stay in Prague. And so the family has lived in Prague ever since.”

The author of the poignant songs, which accompany three of the stories, is Bára Dočkalová, a composer, writer teacher and playwright from Prague. She also wrote music for the opening and closing of the show and for the transmission between the individual stories.

Photo: archive of Leah Gaffen

She came to the rehearsals to see which stories she would like to accompany with music and together with Leah Gaffen, they decided where they would incorporate the music into the show.

The process of writing the lyrics and the melodies took her about four months and as she says, most of the time, she worked entirely on her own:

“Most of the time I just need to work on my own and get the emotion of the character and of the guide the process and identify with the character.

“For example when Laura told us the story of two boys starting a business together, I immediately had this idea of two little boys growing up in Hamburg together and I had this image of them sitting on the pier, watching the ships and dreaming about a future together. And then they get older and start the business. So that was the main emotion and I wrapped the song around it.”

Photo: archive of Leah Gaffen

The final arrangements of the songs from the performance that have been released on a CD were done by professional musician and composer Vítek Beneš.

The closing song of the performance is called Suitcases which have become a symbol of the show:

“Each story had a suitcase and Bára wrote a song about what happens when you open your suitcase and you discover the story inside. And she has one line in it which I really love: that’s how we got cast.

“I find it interesting what kind of effect the decisions that were made generations ago have on us today.  Our community exists because of certain decisions that somebody made, to move to Prague to find chocolate or to steal a shawl and then end up in Australia. I find that idea very interesting.”

Photo: archive of Leah Gaffen

Leah Gaffen says most of the children were not convinced their stories would make a good play until the day of the premiere.

“And then we did it and the audience was crying and the audience was touched in a way that hasn’t happened before. And the children were really surprised by the kind of response they got.

“And then we went to the festival and the jury said how great it was! I think they were surprised by the reaction to the show and only then they realised that their stories were valuable.

“So it was I think a really important experience for them and it was also the first time they performed in a Czech environment.”

Photo: archive of Leah Gaffen

It was also thanks to their participation in the Czech children’s theatre festival Dětská scéna that they started to think about releasing a CD:

“That was where we met Dan Zezula, a sound engineer, who worked for the theatre where we performed. He asked us after the show if he could get recordings of the songs and we said them we didn’t have them.

“And he said he might be able to help us record them. So the participation was in itself a great experience and it also led to where we are now, which was also kind of serendipitous.”

The last suitcase opened during the play reveals perhaps the most touching story story of a boy who was adopted, epslains Leah Gaffen:

Photo: archive of Leah Gaffen

"The whole show was set in a train show and I wanted to have one person play the conductor who would sort of lead the show and conduct the stories and we had one kid in the group who didn’t bring a story to the rehearsals. And I decided to make him a conductor, because he is also a great actor.

“And as I was writing the script over the summer it occurred to me that maybe the conductor doesn’t have a story the same way this boy didn’t offer a story and maybe that because he is adopted.

“And I though the last story could be the conductor saying he doesn’t have a story and then discovering a suitcase and opening it and discovering that he does.

“So I talked to him and his mom and asked them if they wouldn’t mind if we made part of the shore. And they said, sure, why not? So that was the last story. The story was about his mom and how she adopted him and gave him a new family. And I think that also was one that was very moving”.

Bára Dočkalová:

“Yes, it was one of the most moving moments in the story, when the children tell him: well, there is one suitcase left, it’s probably yours, there is your name on it”.

“And he says: Oh, it’s empty, there is nothing in it, no story. And they say: In every suitcase there is a story and he opens it and it is so touching!"