The Snow Queen

Theatre Anon does Hans Christian Andersen's winter classic.

Theatre Anon takes over the rooftop space at Shanghai’s Anken Green for two weeks in December with a stage production of the winter classic, The Snow Queen. We catch up with theatre co-founders Arran Hawkins and Natasha Portwood to discuss the inner workings of performing Hans Christian Andersen’s seven-part fairy tale.

For those people who aren’t familiar with Theatre Anon, where did it get started?

AH (Arran Hawkins): We started out [as Theatre Anon] in 2013 with a production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. The plan was for it to be a one-time thing, but as it was a success we started getting approached by other people to possibly collaborate on future work. So, when Tash and I were approached late in 2014 to do Oz in collaboration with Earlybirds, we decided to continue on under the Anon banner.

This isn’t your first time staging The Snow Queen—in fact, there’s a bit of history there. How did it all come about?

NP (Natasha Portwood): Back in 2010, Arran and I were acting with Owen Ryan [the musical director and Narrator on both the 2010 and current versions of The Snow Queen] on a production of Private Lives for Shanghai Repertory Theater when the director, Rosie Hughes, made the suggestion that we create an adaptation of The Snow Queen together. Shortly afterwards, SRT announced that it would feature in their new season and so we had a show to create!

AH: We also had a lot of positive feedback from the [2010] original and a lot of people who had heard good things about it, but either missed it the first time around or weren’t in Shanghai at the time. We had talked about re-doing it for a while. The time felt right now for a revival.

It’s a story about friendship, loss, heartbreak and the extraordinary lengths that we go to for love.

The original fairy tale is over a century-and-a-half old and has been retold again and again. What do you think it is that has continued to appeal to people about the story?

NP: I believe that The Snow Queen is very much a story for now. I love the fact that this tale—written by a man in the 19th century—predominately features strong, intelligent, colorful women who drive the story. The characters are at times comical, often brilliant and occasionally tragic, but are also fundamentally all very human. It’s a story about friendship, loss, heartbreak and the extraordinary lengths that we go to for love.

AH: I also think it’s people handing down the stories [like this] from their childhood to their own children who become entranced by them all over again. There’s a beauty and a joy in taking a very old story and sharing it in a new way with an audience who may not have heard it before.

Hans Christian Andersen is a master fairy tale-er. In addition to The Snow Queen, he also wrote The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling, and others. Where does The Snow Queen stack up in comparison to the rest of his body of work?

AH: For me I feel it’s one of his fuller stories. A lot of his short works are like snippets of something larger, whereas The Snow Queen takes you on the full journey. You’re with [the story’s protagonist] Gerda on her search to find her friend, and the search is long and full of characters, and in the end the journey changes her.

NP: Two of my other favorite HCA tales are The Little Mermaid and The Red Shoes, but whilst both of these stories are a little bleak in their conclusions—the former is frequently reinvented to have a happy ending—The Snow Queen is more hopeful in its message. Although it is still rich in symbolism and has a few dark moments, it’s a story that we are able to keep faithful to in our retelling whilst appealing to both children and adults.

The fairy tale is actually structured as seven short stories as we follow Gerda on her journey northward to rescue her friend Kay from the Snow Queen. Are you able to pick a favorite story out of the bunch?

AH: Well, from a theatre point of view, they all have their moments. My favorites within the show always change. But the seventh story is probably the one for me. I don’t want to give too much away, but as it’s the final story, I think you can guess the outcome.

The story is also loaded with many colorful supporting characters that Gerda meets along the way. Is there one that stands out in your mind as being the most memorable?

NP: My favorite character in the book—and one of my favorite characters in all of children’s literature—is the Little Robber Girl of the fifth story. She is a wild, aggressive and passionate child who has been brought up in darkness and is surrounded by immorality, but like so many of the characters in the story, she simply longs to be loved and to find companionship. Despite all of this, her story ends with her making a huge sacrifice to help a stranger.

The audience won’t be able to help but fall for and be inspired by this brave, spirited little girl with a huge heart.

Is there anything about Gerda herself that appeals to you and makes her such a great heroine in this story?

NP: She embodies courage, loyalty, determination and compassion. Throughout the journey her intelligence and curious nature continually help her to succeed. Everyone she meets falls in love with her and is moved by her plight. The audience won’t be able to help but fall for and be inspired by this brave, spirited little girl with a huge heart.

AH: For me, it’s her innocence. Her loyalty to her friend. Her bravery and fearlessness. Her complete commitment to her quest. She doesn’t give up. She’s a classic role model for coming of age.

What should we expect to see that’s different or unique about this production?

NP: So much of my inspiration in both writing and as the artistic director has been derived from my personal experiences whilst living in Shanghai. Visually, in particular in my choice of colors, I was influenced by Chinese folk art and there are subtle nods to China throughout the costumes.

Will anything change in terms of the way the production is staged this time around?

AH: It’s going to be really different than the 2010 version. We have reduced the cast and the set, taken it back to the basics of a small ensemble piece—six actors playing multiple characters, new songs and music, everything, all the transformations and everything, happening before the audiences eyes.

How are preparations going now for the show?

AH: They’re going very well. I think it has helped that we know this show. It’s tricky when first starting out on a new production to know where exactly you are taking it. With this one, the plan has been developing for several years—knowing what was good from the first production, what we want to keep, and what didn’t work. We also have a great cast and a great production team. They’re all on board and they are giving it all they have. It shows.

How much work is involved behind-the-scenes to get a show like this off the ground?

AH: It’s always a lot of work. It’s like piecing together a jigsaw. You have your script and your actors. That’s the first step. Then there’s the costumes and props, the lights and sound, the marketing, the venue, the set, promotion work. All these things have to work together before an audience even gets through the door. It’s tough, but it’s rewarding when you see an audience enjoying the finished product.

I find myself smiling a lot in rehearsals just watching the actors doing their thing. It’s always different!

What is the most exciting part of bringing a production like this together for you?

AH: As a director, seeing it come to life as I envisioned. But, also seeing the actors make choices that I hadn’t thought of and coming up with ideas that just work so well. I find myself smiling a lot in rehearsals just watching the actors doing their thing. It’s always different!

Conversely, what do you find to be the most challenging part of the whole thing?

NP: For me, I work a full-time teaching job, but my evenings and weekends are consumed with sourcing and creating costumes and props—and that’s when I am not rehearsing! Sometimes it’s a challenge to balance the necessities of life with the demands of such an intense project, but it’s all worth it for the sense of utter joy when finally seeing the show come together!

So, last question! The show kicks off on December 3rd at the Anken Green Rooftop Theatre. What are you looking forward to the most about opening night?

AH: My job being done—for the most part—and watching the actors take over. Once the audience enters, the show is in their hands. Other than giving a few technical notes, I just sit back and watch.

NP: Seeing the story and magic come alive for an audience and, afterwards, a glass of mulled wine!

Tickets for Theatre Anon’s production of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen: A Fairy Tale in Seven Stories are now on sale (180RMB in advance or 200RMB on the door) online here or at the following locations:

Cottons (Xinhua Lu and Anting Lu locations)
Hunan House (Fuxing Lu near Wulumuqi Lu)
Cambio Coffee (Jiangning Lu)

Where to see it:

Anken Green Rooftop Theatre (indoors)
668 Huai’an Lu (between Changhua Lu & West Suzhou Lu).

Dates and showtimes:

December 3-6 & 10-13
Evening shows Thurs/Fri/Sat 8pm.
Sat & Sun Matinees 3pm
(no evening show on Sunday 6th/13th)

For more information, you can contact Theatre Anon at[at]


Michael Thede

Michael Thede

Founder & Contributor

Michael Thede is a Canadian writer and editor. He studied Film & Philosophy at the University of Western Ontario and is a graduate of the Writing for Film & TV program at Vancouver Film School. He is currently based in Shanghai, where he is also the founder and organizer of the Shanghai Screenwriters Workshop. WeChat: michaelthede78

One Comment

  1. Rosemary Hawkins
    Rosemary Hawkins
    24 November 2015 at 00:16 Reply

    Here I am in little old Cornwall the "tale end" of the UK and my son is in a big bustling vibrant city across the other side of the world and I wish I could be with him to watch this play come to life. To see the response of the audience and to catch up with some of the very talented actors who I have had the great pleasure to meet over the years.
    Every time I read about my son, every time he calls me to tell me what he is doing I feel an immense pride and a great joy that he is blessed with doing something he loves to do. What more could any mum ask.

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