Deborah Curtis, alongside her husband Gavin Turk, set up the House of Fairy Tales in 2005. A multi-talented organisation that produces travelling arts circuses, in-school workshops, evil Christmas Fayres and much more, the House of Fairy Tales works tirelessly to teach and inspire the young, and the young at heart.
Portrait courtesy Deborah Curtis
Ajay RS Hothi What was the impetus behind House of Fairy Tales?
Deborah Curtis Someone’s death, actually, which sounds quite morbid. We [Curtis and Gavin Turk] were working on a project with Jago Eliot, the son of Peregrine Eliot, who runs the Port Eliot Literary Festival. I’d talked to Jago about doing a tent together that was child-centred but adult-friendly, and that would go on all night. It was a political act to put children back at the centre of the festival. We were just at the point of talking about who we were going to get involved when he very sadly died, very unexpectedly. We decided to do the festival anyway, as a sort of celebration of his life. We had an open-mic stage and his twins, who were about four years old at the time, performed and it was just amazing. It was an extraordinary thing because it was so soon after their father’s death but they were just as children are, they were just living in childhood. The fairy-tale theme came out of a conversation with Gavin about Jago, thinking about him as a story- teller and a magician. The first House of Fairy Tales was in 2005.
AH Were you in the arts prior to that?
DC I was doing a lot of voluntary work; I was on a lot of boards and panels. We have three children so that was taking up a lot of my time. In the late ’90s I established Supernova, a charity for children growing up around creative arts – thinking about what kind of experiences we’d like our children to have in their formative years. We did a series of events that were very theatrical and very performative; they were not dissimilar to the way House of Fairy Tales works now.
AH Do you specifically curate the thematic elements of the show, or is it more artist-led?
DC It’s very artist-led. In a festival environment, we might have a storytelling element, or a puppetry element, or a science-oriented element, and then we curate workshops and performances with the artists related to those areas. Sometimes it’s something that the artists have been working on previously; sometimes they specifically devise something for the event that we’re doing. Slowly, we’ve formed a core management team, but we work with about 500 artists and creative people, performers.
DC It’s all about the database! We are trying to get the structure more transparent so that we can enable other organisations and small festivals, and theatre groups and schools and art centres, to curate from our artist base, because I think we’re very good at talent-spotting.
AH The festival environment is clearly fundamental to House of Fairy Tales. How important is the gallery atmosphere?
DC I think it’s really important to have a hub. We aren’t at that point yet – where we can set up an institution of our own. What we are very good at doing is bringing energy to another institution. We did an event at the New Art Gallery in Walsall in 2009, where we set up our travelling art circus in the square in front of the gallery, and it drew many more people in, people passing through the shopping centre rather than just people who would be coming to the gallery on the weekend. Breaking down the institutional walls is very important to do. We did a big event at Tate Modern that year and we had over 100,000 people passing through over the weekend.
AH Do you think House of Fairy Tales would have come about if you didn’t have a family yourself?
DC Probably not. Having said that, the project is motivated by the process of change. We are at a crisis moment in humanity, in my opinion, and could be very selfish and live our lives very selfishly and “I’m all right, Jack”, but never mind my generation or the next generation or the generation after. Having had children, I see the urgency of the situation more when I reflect on the world that they’re going to be growing up in and, if humanity can live for that long, bringing their own children up in. Humanity has a responsibility to think about our role on the planet: are we a para- site, or do we live in synergy with the world? I also think that play is one of the richest modes of learning. If you think about how you research, you’re playing with information and ideas and you’re exploring. You’re going off on tangents – you’re going on an adventure. That play experience has been removed as a value as adults, and we increasingly rely on entertainment, where we are watching other people play instead of playing ourselves. What we can learn from watching children, and their ability to just immerse themselves in the moment, is phenomenal. The idealism of thinking that you can part of a process of change as some kind of hippie ideal – it needs to be said.
AH Did you grow up with that hippie ideal?
DC My mother is very idealistic and has always had a desire to help the underdog. That’s kind of what I’m doing right now – saying it’s about all people, not some people. We do have to demonstrate how we can provide the maximum amount of experience for the maximum amount of people.
AH A political act, through play?
DC I think over the decades there has been a lot of politics around play. Play is very symbolic in many senses. The idealism of the comprehensive movement of the ’70s, I think, at its heart represented a radical shift in how we approach this kind of thing. It’s proved it’s not always been a success. The adventure-playground movement of the ’60s had a lot to do with new ideas around society and social mobility. We are slowly looking to shift internationally – we’re being asked now, actually. I see Britain, at best, as a design consultancy for the world, and I think the government needs to realise the value of the creative industry to the rest of the world. We don’t have any more industries as such; we’ve become a country of consultants. As a child-centred educational organisation that wants to be at the forefront of debate and dialogue in the UK, we can then become influential globally – but that’s obviously down the line. §