By Richard Schultz, May 2016 Web Exclusive.

Created by writer David Greig and director Wils Wilson, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is a folk theater fable that has travelled extensively across the United Kingdom, and internationally, since 2011, spanning four continents, nine countries and 50 different venues.

The story follows Prudencia Hart, an uptight academic, who sets off one wintry morning to attend a conference in Kelso in the Scottish Borders. As the snow begins to fall, little does she know who or what awaits her there. Inspired by the Border Ballads and delivered in a riotous romp of rhyming couplets, devilish encounters and wild karaoke, Prudencia’s dream-like journey of self-discovery unfolds before audiences.

Photo by Johan Persson.

The production, which is currently touring the United States, takes theater into pubs and other unlikely venues, where stories are told, re-told, sung and passed on. This evening of supernatural storytelling, music and theater is inspired by the Scottish Border Ballads, Robert Burns and the poems of Robert Service and is presented by the National Theatre of Scotland's company of actors and musicians.

“These stories were collected in the 18th century and written down for the first time, but they had existed for perhaps hundreds of years, passed on from one teller to the next. Each teller subtly altering the tale dependent on the audience,” Wilson said. “These ballads deal with birth, death, love, sex, betrayal and the supernatural. We got interested in the idea of borders of all kinds – borders between people, between different realities or worlds and between states of mind. During our research, we met a ballad collector and the idea of putting an academic who studies folk songs at the center of our story developed.”

Wilson remains impressed with the universality of the production.

“Some of the very specific references do not land in exactly the same way or resonate slightly differently. Audiences even laugh at the jokes differently. At first, we gave audiences a list of Scottish words and phrases, but we found pretty soon that that was completely unnecessary and a bit of a distraction. We took the show to Brazil and even with the language difference, the story communicated. People understand all they need to through the action. It helps too that here in the U.S. there is such a huge affection for Scotland and knowledge of the culture.”

While touring internationally, the production found the need to change just a few things. Wilson shared that at a very important moment two characters end up in a supermarket car park, which in the UK version is Asda.

“Everyone in the U.K. knows that Asda is a lower-end supermarket. It’s generic and completely unromantic,” Wilson explained. “Going there is usually part of the daily domestic grind that you would rather avoid and their car parks are about as dreary as they come. All those associations are really necessary to us. We needed to find an equivalent. We asked around when we first got to the US and obviously there are no Asdas here. We decided to change the line to Costco. It has the same connotations. Importantly, it has two syllables, so it didn’t affect the rhythm of the verse. Also it is such a great sounding phrase – Costco car park. People suggested Walmart to us, but Walmart car park doesn’t alliterate, so Costco won out!”

Director Wils Wilson

Known for her varied work that often explores the relationship between audience and performer, space, story and experience (called immersive, site-specific, site-generic or experiential), Wilson has created shows on a Shetland ferry, a Berlin nightclub, in a department store and in a deserted house in the town where she grew up.

Additionally, Wilson, who resides in West Yorkshire, acknowledges that this production is a very Scottish play in its music, language, humor and its main character.

“Prudencia is a young woman who has become trapped in her own idea of who she is and who she isn’t,” she said. “The play takes her on a huge journey. She surprises herself by being more resourceful, braver and more complex than she knew she was when she is put in an extraordinary situation she rises up to meet it. She is a very sympathetic character because she is not idealized or bland. She is characterful, imperfect and contradictory, just like we all are.”

The interactive component is a unique aspect of the production. Wilson explained that they wanted to do away with many of the usual conventions of theater and utilize the magic of a story to conjure atmosphere, drama and emotion out of words, music and the skills of the performers.

Photo courtesy of nationaltheatrescotland.com.

“We ask the audience to do some simple tasks for us that are necessary for the show,” she said. “Because of the lack of ‘fourth wall,’ there is a much more personable relationship between the audience and the performers. We find audiences want to be involved and help the story along. They are invited to really get behind characters at certain points. The audience is visible, which is very different from being a dark mass beyond ‘the footlights.’ Audience members often say to me they enjoy seeing the other audience members react too – it’s part of the joy of the piece.”

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart won a Herald Angel award at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Critics’ awards for Theatre in Scotland for best music and sound.

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