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.

Research, Research, Research

So here’s a little secret: I love research. It’s definitely not the most glamorous part of puppetry and doesn’t provide as many fun photo or video opportunities. But lately I’ve been spending lots of time in this room, and you have to admit, it’s beautiful:


That’s the Main Reading Room at the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress and it’s a pretty fun place to do research. You have to request books ahead of time and show a special card to get them (yes, it feels like belonging to a secret club). There are desks with little lights and numbers on them and there’s a huge echo every time someone drops a pencil. The books often have special labels in the front and if I need a break from reading, I can stare up at lots of statues and paintings all around the ceiling. What’s not to love?

We are deep in Phase 1 of our next devised piece, which is inspired by British folklore and in particular, Katherine Briggs’ seminal work A Dictionary of Fairies. Genna and Amy and I, as well as several other collaborators, have been reading all the folktales, fairy traditions, and stories of fairy encounters we can get our hands on. We’re not entirely sure what kind of puppet piece we will end up with, but it’s going to be lots of fun getting there!