An Interview with Amelia Gossman

This week Wit’s End Artistic Director Cecilia Cackley interviewed artist Amelia Gossman about her experience working as an illustrator on Malevolent Creatures, our upcoming project based on British and Celtic folklore.  

Cecilia Cackley: When did you first learn about the character of Black Annis (aka Black Agnes)? What drew you to her?

Black Annis, artwork by Amelia Gossman

Black Annis, artwork by Amelia Gossman

Amelia Gossman:  As a kid, I was really into folklore and faeries. My best friend and I would look at Brain Froud books when we were eight and run around the woods looking for and trying to lure the creatures we read about. I believe in his book, “Good Faeries/ Bad Faeries” he gives a brief description of her. For my senior thesis in college, I wrote an analysis of Welsh/English folklore and I learned more about her in depth. I chose to write about her because bot only is her back story is really interesting, the added creepiness of cannibalism makes her, for me, one of the scariest creatures. And being scary is intriguing.

CC:  I know you did a project on her in art school. Can you describe it and talk a little about what it entailed?

AG:  I mentioned that I wrote about her for my senior thesis. My minor at MICA was Creative Writing, and for our final project we were given the freedom of writing about whatever topic we wanted. The analysis covered the origin of certain folktales and how those stories related to the current culture (i.e. faeries had kings, queens, and knights much like the British monarchy). I spent the entire school year gathering information from various sources and condensing that information in an organized way. A big challenge was targeting ONE area, so I stuck to the British Isles. It was just too much to include all the creatures I wanted to (that meant no Minotaurs, fauns, or kappas, just to name a few!)

Amy getting set with the rehearsal puppet of Black Annis. Photo by Patricia Germann.

Amy getting set with the rehearsal puppet of Black Annis. Photo by Patricia Germann.

CC:  What was the most interesting thing you learned about Black Annis in your research?

AG:  Here’s an excerpt of the paper [that I wrote] that focused on her!

The Scots also believe in Wicked Wichts of the Unseelie Court. These bogies were fearsome and inflicted many ills upon both man and beast. They were much more malevolent than the mischievous house spirits. Devilish monsters like Black Agnes would prey upon children. A hag of the Dane Hills near Leicester, England is a blue-faced crone with long claws and yellow fangs, sometimes taking the shape of a cat-demon. She is said to live inside of a cave she personally clawed out from the rocks. She eats the children who stray into the Dane Hills after dark, skinning them and devouring them, later scattering their bones around the hills and hanging their skins from the trees to dry. If children are in short supply, she snatches lambs from the pasture or even babies from the open windows of houses. 

I think her connection to cats was incredibly interesting. It’s not mentioned in the paper, but I remember reading about how a nearby town, lead by its mayor, would drag a dead cat through out the woods near her cave – I think as a warning to her. That’s a great example of folklore being incredibly ensconced in a town’s culture! I should’ve added that!

CC:  Did you approach the illustration for us differently than for your school project?

AG:  Definitely – while I had done research on her, I was able to add some of my own personal ideas to the illustration. I chose to add scarring to her mouth, her large hands and long body, and her ominous clothing – including a crown of bones. I liked having that freedom.

CC:  What was it like seeing the rehearsal puppet based on your illustration?

AG:  Amazing!! She had such a spooky presence because she was so large. I think I had an idea that the show would be almost Punch and Judy scale, and that she might be a little marionette, but I was thrilled to see that she was enormous!

CC:  Was there anything unexpected or surprising about what you saw in the rehearsals for Malevolent Creatures?

AG:  The integration of the audience and the performance was really cool, something I haven’t seen before. I don’t want to give too much away, but I liked thinking I would see a traditional show and being surprised by unexpected visitors. The performers are so talented and the puppets came to life, even though they weren’t finished. It was great!

Carol and Amy demonstrating with the Black Annis rehearsal puppet. Photo by Patricia Germann.

Carol and Amy demonstrating with the Black Annis rehearsal puppet. Photo by Patricia Germann.

CC:  Are there any other folklore characters you think you’d like to illustrate or write about?

AG:  Oh gosh, where do I begin?? I’ve used a lot of creatures in my work in the past (especially fauns, but those are Greek rather than English!). However I would love to illustrate more selkies, will-o-the-wisps, and kelpies.

The Wit’s End project Malevolent Creatures is currently in development for Fall 2015.  Get the latest updates by joining our mailing list or connecting with us on Facebook and Twitter.

Workshop Photos

Puppets are not for the faint of heart. Photo by Patricia Germann.

Puppets are not for the faint of heart. Photo by Patricia Germann.

We had a fantastic two showings of Malevolent Creatures a few weeks ago. If you were unable to join us, here are some photos of the puppets and the process. Check back soon for more information about the next development stage of this show!

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Malevolent Creatures Research

mythThere have been two main categories of research for Malevolent Creatures. First is the folklore itself: stories, traditions, rituals and beliefs from the British Isles that center around fairies and other supernatural creatures. The second is how those beliefs fit together, how they have changed over the years and the various theories about where they came from and the meanings behind them.

One of my favorite pieces of reading has been Karen Armstrong’s book A Short History of Myth, which traces the evolution of mythology from the Paleolithic period to the present day. In considering the place of mythology in our world Armstrong writes that “The imagination is the faculty that produces religion and mythology…the imagination is also the faculty that has enabled scientists to bring new knowledge to light.” She also points out that “…like science and technology, mythology…is not about opting out of this world but about enabling us to live more intensely within it.”

MCResearchThat intensity is evident in nearly all of the individual stories and beliefs we discovered and is one of the reasons they have been retold and appropriated over and over; by poets, by scholars and by writers of literature for all ages. I am personally very interested in how fairy stories have been rewritten by authors of young adult and children’s literature and one of the pleasures of this research process for me is that it has given me an excuse to re-read some old favorite children’s books that incorporate British and Celtic myth. If you are interested in British folklore but maybe don’t feel like getting into the heavy academic side of things, I recommend these titles as both fun and worthwhile.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner

The Dark is Rising (series) by Susan Cooper

The Moorchild by Eloise Jarvis McGraw

The Hounds of the Morrigan by Pat O’Shea

Sneak Peek: Malevolent Creature Designs

In a few weeks we’ll gather a team of performers to start creating material for our show Malevolent Creatures. But the process of designing the puppets has already started, beginning with research on British folklore and the selection of a cast of supernatural creatures. We gave descriptions of those creatures to artists from across the US and asked them to create images to inspire our puppet-building. Here is a sneak peek at two of them. Both were created by former students at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). The Selkie (a seal that can transform into a human) was created with scratchboard technique by Jordis Brier, an artist originally from Hamburg, Germany and now living in London. Black Annis, a cannibal witch with connections to nature spirits and goddesses, was created in watercolor by Amelia Gossman, from Maryland. We are incredibly excited to turn these images into puppets and we hope you enjoy this beautiful, imaginative art!

Selkie, artwork by Jordis Brier

Selkie, artwork by Jordis Brier

Black Annis, artwork by Amelia Gossman

Black Annis, artwork by Amelia Gossman

Our Folklore Project has a NAME!

Names, as anyone familiar with myth and supernatural creatures will tell you, have great power. So we are beyond excited to be able to announce the name of our next devised theater piece:


Selkie, artwork by Jordis Brier

Selkie, artwork by Jordis Brier

Inspired by traditional fairy beliefs of the British Isles, we are creating puppets of various malevolent creatures based on designs by artists from across the US and beyond. We will be inviting audiences to interact with supernatural creatures of legend and mythology in the spirit of a choose-your-own-adventure book.

Follow this blog (or Facebook and Twitter) for more updates and mark your calendars for our work-in-progress showing on June 26 & 27 at GALA Hispanic Theatre!

Sneak Peek

A description of the bean-nighe, one of the folklore characters we're researching.

A description of the bean-nighe, one of the folklore characters we’re researching.

Our next devised piece is inspired by the vast treasure trove of British and Celtic folklore and especially the supernatural creatures usually known as fairies. Thanks to a number of cultural factors (most prominently, Disney), we have a tendency to think of fairies as tiny and pretty, with sparkles, wings and magic wands. According to tradition however, they are far stranger and more dangerous. For centuries, people feared the fairies, calling them a number of euphemistic names (the Good Folk, the gentry, the Little Poeple) to avoid drawing their attention. To be suspected of dealing with fairies or being related to them led to persecution and on occasion, injury and death. Where did these beliefs come from? What are the rules for dealing with fairies and what happens when we break them? What does that say about our fears, hopes and wishes as humans? These are all questions we will be exploring as we begin to build puppets and create performance material in preparation for a workshop in June. We hope you will join us for the journey!

Rumplestiltskin, Habetrot and Tom Tit Tot

One of the most popular of the Grimm’s fairy tales will come to life in our neighborhood soon, when Imagination Stage in Bethesda opens Rumplestiltskin later this week. Genna is working as an understudy on the show and pointed out a connection to the folklore research we’ve been doing for our next devised project; while the Grimm tale is German in origin, there are numerous British versions of roughly the same story. Comparing these different tales is fascinating, so here are a few points we found especially interesting.

Habetrot, the Border fairy of spinning and an avatar of Rumplestiltskin.

Habetrot, the Border fairy of spinning and an avatar of Rumplestiltskin.

While Rumplestiltskin from the Grimms’ tale is always male, several UK stories, especially from Scotland have a female main character who assists the hapless girl with her spinning. Habetrot, from the Border region between England and Scotland, is the patron fairy of spinning and folklorist Katherine Briggs tells us that  in addition to helping girls with their spinning work, a shirt woven by her was supposed to be a remedy for many different diseases. Whuppity Stoorie (also called Fittletot) comes from further north in Scotland and is described by Robert Chambers as ‘aristocratical’ and all dressed in green, like most fairies. Almost every version of this story in the UK has a character whose name ends in ‘tot’ or ‘trot’, including Tom Tit Tot and Terrytop. Another interesting difference between the German and British versions of the story is the character of the girl who must spin: in the Grimm tale, the miller’s daughter is good and obedient, ending up in her sticky situation because of her foolish father. In the British versions of the tale, the girl is lazy and greedy, lying about her own skills; but through her determination and cleverness she is able to defeat the fairy or devil and end up alright in the end. All versions of the story include the demand for the girl’s firstborn child (or sometimes for the girl herself to go away with the devil), the challenge to find out the true name and then its last minute discovery. Only kindly Habetrot helps out the lazy girl for no reward at all and even convinces the bridegroom that her beauty would be ruined by spinning and so she should never touch a spindle again.

Check out Rumplestiltskin at Imagination Stage if you have kids, and for something a little more experimental, keep an eye out for more information here about our new devised folklore piece. And the next time you tell someone a story, remember that the phrase ‘spinning a yarn’ originally came, rather appropriately, from tales like Rumplestiltskin and Habetrot.