Features Published 11 December 2014

Joining The Dots

Ollie Fielding, Artistic Director of Peaceful Lion Productions, on his production of Rosie's Magic Horse, currently at Southwark Playhouse, the power of the imagination, and why we should be talking more about children's theatre.
Ollie Fielding

Children really excel at being able to create imaginary worlds. As adults we can lose touch with this skill or perhaps society frowns on grown ups who continue to indulge in fantasy in this way. Children are also far more aware than they are often given credit for and, when making work for them it is important to respect this, to never patronise them.

A comment you often hear when you mention that you make work for children is that one of the hardest things must be to keep them amused for the duration of the show. Whilst there is certainly a challenge in making a play for children engaging, surely it is the job of any piece of theatre to keep the audience engaged. The major difference is that a young audience will probably be a lot more vocal if they are not enjoying the performance: they can be the fiercest of critics. One of the wonderful things about working for a young audience, is that you have an instant feedback mechanism and can tell very quickly if your work is failing.

I have been making theatre for young audiences professionally since 2007. For me creating a piece of work for young people is no different than creating work for any other age group, aside from the fact that it is probably a lot more fun. I tend to think of theatre as a join-the-dots puzzle; there is an outline of an image but audience members have to be pro-active to make the picture complete. An audience must invest in a performance to get the most out of it, by using their imagination to join those dots they can bring the production to life.

I love writing and directing work for a young audience as it allows me to transport myself back into the world of the imagination. My latest production Rosie’s Magic Horse, currently at Southwark Playhouse, is based on the book by Russell Hoban and illustrated by Quentin Blake about a little girl, Rosie, who is worried about how her parents will pay the bills. Instead of having toys and a big TV she collects ice-lolly sticks in an old box, which she prefers because she gets to turn them into whatever she wants. One night the sticks in Rosie’s collection turn themselves into a horse and together they gallop across the globe on a quest for treasure so that Rosie can help her financially struggling parents.

Although I do not think it is the role of children’s theatre to educate, I do think that theatre should help us ask questions and see different perspectives. It is very likely that some of our audience members will be dealing with situations similar to that of Rosie and her family, and I hope that the show is able to reach out and remind people that real wealth is in the relationships we have with other people.

Most of my work to date has taken the form of adaptations and selecting the right book to adapt for the stage can be a tricky process in itself. I think it simply comes down to a gut feeling when you first read through the book. I go on instinct; I get a feeling that this is the right piece to adapt. There are a number of factors which influence my decision. The book should not be so far- fetched that it would be impractical to stage. Financial constraints mean limiting cast size so the work needs to be able to be staged with three actors and there has to be a strong and clear narrative that forms the core of the story, even if there is sometimes a need to invent action around the book’s original story in order to make it work on the stage. I often look for stories with a central character with whom the audience can identify and then I can focus on telling their story. As my shows quite often feature songs, early on I will sit down with John Chambers, my composer and lyricist, and we will discuss the points in the story where we feel there should be a song.

Eleanor Field, the production’s designer, and I were quite nervous to be creating a design based on the work of illustrator extraordinaire Quentin Blake. When it comes to design I think it is important to try and capture the essence of the pictures as they are so much a part of the experience of reading the book. We wanted to reflect the illustrative nature of Quentin Blake’s work, with hand drawn lines and beautiful watercolour washes but lift them from the page. There was also the epic nature of the narrative, which spans jungles, deserts and ice-lolly mountains, not to mention the bringing to life of a flying horse that can talk.

For us  the show’s design was central to its story. The use of paper and the hand-crafted aesthetic leave you with a question over  whether the adventure you are watching is real or a game of make believe that Rosie is playing with her parents. But it was in the rehearsal room where things really came together. I try not to get precious about my writing and divorce my writer brain from my director brain and if I think there is something not working in rehearsal I will happily start to re-work it. They say about 90% of directing is good casting and I really believe that is true. When you are working with great people that you trust you can give them the freedom to explore in the knowledge they will create something wonderful.

And while at this time of year there are so many productions around for young audiences, from pantomime to ballet;  come January, however, and many theatres will revert to their regular programming and focus predominantly on work for a more adult audience. That is not to say that work for younger audiences evaporates altogether  – there are a growing number of venues programming family shows at weekends and some companies are creating really excellent work for children throughout the year. Fevered Sleep produce wonderful performances combining dance and music, Oily Cart are tremendous and their work for children with complex disabilities is outstanding. Both Blunderbus and Hiccup create really lovely touring shows. I should also pay tribute to David Wood whose life long dedication to creating fantastic work for children has really inspired me, he continues to write and direct with several productions of his plays on over Christmas around the UK.

London is privileged to have a number of theatres producing outstanding work for young audiences, like the Polka, Unicorn and Half Moon theatres and the Little Angel Theatre, who create wonderful puppet shows. There is also some brilliant new work coming out of the egg in Bath and Tobacco Factory Theatres in Bristol. The Met in Bury, the venue where I watched some of my first theatre productions, is this year producing Hansel & Gretel with Horse + Bamboo.

At the beginning of 2014 The Guardian started a blog dedicated to family theatre and I very much hope this will lead to greater attention being devoted to work for young audiences across the media, but it’s often the case that work for young audiences doesn’t receive the coverage it really deserves. Perhaps it is simply a problem of language – after all we never refer to ‘theatre for the middle aged’ – but while I do think it is important to indicate that a  work has been specifically designed to appeal to a younger age group, it can be limiting – and I do not think that we should exclude the appeal a work may have to the inner child in all of us.

Main image – Rosie’s Magic Horse. Pamela Raith Photography

Ollie is the Artistic Director of Peaceful Lion Productions, their production of Rosie’s Magic Horse is at Southwark Playhouse, London, until 20th December 2014.




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