A challenge from the V&A: Gabrielle Enthoven for the very young!

The task was to take the life of Gabrielle Enthoven and tell it in a fun, interactive way to engage kids aged 2 to 8.

She was a Victorian archivist who collected playbills which were the foundation of the V&A’s theatre and performance galleries.

This story challenge was interesting because:

1) The concept of collecting playbills isn’t- in itself- very dramatic. In fact most young children don’t even know what a playbill is and why it matters. Many of my audience had never been to the theatre before!

2) Mrs Enthoven was an obsessive archivist and lover of theatre who won an OBE for collating data during the war. Very important but collating data isn’t inherently dramatic.

3) She also had a fun and semi-scandalous private life which was not suitable for younger viewers!

I began by asking why she cared so much about playbills. What emotional reasons did she have for collecting them? This led me to her first ever visit aged ten when she climbed out of the window secretly and crept into to the bustling Gaiety Theatre to see a pantomime of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves.

I started to realise that, in a world without the internet, without filming, and without substantial theatrical record-keeping, playbills were crucial. They were a solid record of the intangible magic of the theatre. Those crates of lovingly catalogued playbills were not just pieces of paper but boxes of dreams.

As usual, my story was revolutionised by meeting real people. I visited the Enthoven Archive at Blythe House in Kensington and was shown around by senior curator Simon Sladen. The first thing I realised was how vast the collection is. Warehouse after warehouselined with shelves and boxes. Every time I thought we’d got to the end, we’d turn another corner. It covers the great Victorian illusionists, street entertainers, music festivals like Glastonbury, Freak Shows, Circuses, clowns, pantomimes and fringe theatre of all kinds going back 300 years… and MUCH more. Everything is recorded and catalogued meticulously so it can be accessed instantly. I took photographs but unfortunately they can’t be posted for security reasons so you will just have to imagine it!

The second thing I saw was how much love and regard “Mrs Enthoven” is held by the curators there. They rightly regard her as a sort of mother- figure and were all eager to talk about her. Her spirit is everywhere in the archives.

The third amazing thing was that the archives are free and all the objects are available to the public. Anyone can request any item and read, watch or examine it for free at Blythe House.

I discovered that Mrs Enthoven spent every penny of her own fortune on the collection, even the money which should have gone on her funeral.

So, getting back to my story, I centred it on two things: The battle to get her archive accepted by a major museum… and that pivotal moment in her life- her first visit to the theatre.

I was also allowed into the V&A’s extensive prop and costume store. Sophie who runs it is amazing and skilled. Together we dug out fabulous vintage costumes and hats…

(here she is wearing one)

I previewed the storytelling at a school in Bermondsey. Only two of the children in the audience had ever been to the theatre before.

I’ve had so much fun devising and performing the show at the V&A. We have made it as interactive as possible and tried to capture what it was about the theatre which made Gabrielle Enthoven fall in love with it in the first place!

The next performances are in January 2017, they are free so come along!

Thank you so much to Afia Yeboah at the V&A who came up with the idea in the first place and commissioned the performance.

Photos (c) Mischko Papic 2016 for the V&A