Interview: Joe Bromley and Willow Nash, Really Big Pants Theatre

“There’s just the two of us, and we came together after years of knowing each other as friends, then working together in a sketch show and various acting jobs. And then we thought, shall we bring all our vast experience together – of writing, performing, working with children (and having them) – and see what happens? And we decided our shows would all have themes that we both cared deeply about: literacy, the environment and a healthy body image.” 

Joe Bromley and Willow Nash are co-founders of the Really Big Pants Theatre Company, creating shows that celebrate and encourage literacy for primary age children. “We encourage children to learn to read through our love of stories. A character in SUDDENLY…! doesn’t want to do his story homework at the beginning because he thinks he’s no good at them, but by the end he’s got a great idea for a story and can’t wait to write it down. We believe storytelling is an excellent gateway into encouraging reluctant children to learn to read.” But the shows aren’t just fun for kids: “We’ve had wonderful feedback from parents and teachers alike, telling us how much they enjoyed the show alongside the children, and appreciated the morals.”

Photo credit: ID Photography
Photo credit: ID Photography

They’re performing their latest show, SUDDENLY…! at schools, arts centres and community venues, and describe it as “a story within a bedtime story, twisting traditional tales and featuring fairy tale characters as you’ve never seen them before. It’s an interactive adventure full of excitement, danger, friendship, forestry and the perils of bad manners and too much stuff!”

SUDDENLY…! has also been adapted as an audiobook, recorded by Joe and Willow, and described by the Kentish Towner as “non-stop adventure featuring delicious wordplay”. The ladies explain, “We were approached by a publisher and jumped at the opportunity to expand the world of the show, where it’s just the two of us playing all the characters with minimal props, and to bring in more descriptive language as well as the original dialogue. Audiobooks are becoming increasingly popular as a great way to enjoy a story as a whole family, and are inclusive for children who are struggling to read. We’re writing two new adventures for Grandma and Red, and hoping there will be print versions soon too.”

suddenly-cover
Illustration by Rosie Alabaster

With World Book Day coming up next week, Joe and Willow are looking forward to taking SUDDENLY…! into three primary schools to celebrate. “We love introducing children to the power of theatre and for some of them in schools, this will be the only chance they get to see a play. So our priority is making sure we provide great entertainment. And then we would like them to think about the messages in the play, such as being kind, trying your best, and friendship being more important than having lots of stuff. But we definitely want them to say afterwards, ‘I’m now going to read/write/make up my own story!’ and many of them do tell us that on their way out! We were beyond proud when, after seeing our show at his school, an eight-year-old boy went home and wrote his own book – complete with illustrations of us! – where our characters met the characters from the book he’d been reading. How brilliant!

“Another great moment was when we performed in a library for the Summer Reading Challenge, and a mother had brought her reluctant son to see the show, telling us he was not a keen reader at all. We kept an eye on him throughout – he started off with defensive body language, sitting slightly apart from the other children, but we watched him grow and grow in enthusiasm and join in and really get involved, and at the end he came up to us and said he wanted to take a book out of the library and try and read it. Hugely rewarding. We also love it when children in schools line up to fist bump us before heading off to their classrooms and ask us when we’ll be back! So many highlights, and always a joy to be on stage and see a sea of happy faces.”

Photo credit: ID Photography
Photo credit: ID Photography

And where do pants fit into all this?! “During rehearsals for PLUNDERED!, our show about the environment, we were working on a scene where our characters have to disguise themselves as pirates, and we decided they would rummage through a trunk of old clothes and find some really big pants. Hysteria kicked in and we rolled about laughing, like the true professionals we are. After months of formal deliberation over what we should call the company, the name finally came from that daft moment. But we use the pants in all our shows in one way or another – look out for them!”

To find out about future performances of SUDDENLY…! or to book Really Big Pants for a show, visit their website: www.reallybigpants.co.uk

The SUDDENLY…! audiobook is available from Waterstones and The Owl Bookshop.

Interview: Danyah Miller, Why The Whales Came

“I love how this story makes us think about others, about how we view difference and how sometimes we misjudge when we’re unsure or afraid,” says Danyah Miller, award-winning performer and storyteller, of Michael Morpurgo’s Why the Whales Came. “I would hope that the audience take away a sense of hope and joy and perhaps the feeling that one person can make a huge difference.”

Why the Whales Came sees Danyah again teaming up with director Dani Parr and designer Kate Bunce, following the success of their collaboration on I Believe in Unicorns – also by Michael Morpurgo. “I love working on Michael’s stories because they’re multi-layered and really gripping tales, based in truth,” she explains. “It is often said that he doesn’t patronise children in anyway and takes them, and us, to dark places and back again. I like that. I find his stories full of surprises, sadness, hope, joy. Above all, they’re about ordinary folk often doing extraordinary things during extraordinary times.”

Photo credit: Helen Murray
Photo credit: Helen Murray

Their admiration is mutual; Michael Morpurgo describes Danyah as a “storytelling phenomenon”. What inspired her to take up performing as a career? “As long as I can remember I wanted to be a performer and I certainly ‘entertained’ my way through childhood! I have always been very chatty and there’s nothing I like more than spinning a good tale. How I became a storyteller is a long story…

“I suspect that the difference between being an actor and being a storyteller is a very fine line. As a storyteller we ‘hold’ a central point, as ourselves, and from there paint the world of the story, become characters, weave in and out of landscapes and people, but we always come back to the centre, as ourselves. As an actor we become another character and remain in that role (although of course sometimes actors are asked to multi-role too). Perhaps it’s possible to be both, I suspect that the best in our profession are both actor and storyteller. Stories are everywhere, aren’t they? We are storytelling beings and it’s what makes us human…”

Why the Whales Came is the story of Gracie and Daniel, who’ve been forbidden to go near the mysterious and seemingly dangerous Birdman – but then they find a message in the sand that suggests all is not as it seems. When they get stranded on the Birdman’s tiny island, the two friends begin to unravel his secrets…

Although it’s based on a children’s book, Danyah believes the show has something for everyone: “This is definitely not a show just for children – it is a ‘family’ show in the widest possible sense. We have people of all ages from 7 to 107 enjoying the show whether or not they have children with them. Good stories, good theatre can appeal across the ages and we hope that our show does this.

“I enjoy sharing the show with children who’ve never been to a theatre before or experienced any kind of live show – as an audience they are really responsive and truthful and often give me insightful feedback. I also really enjoy it when families of children, parents and grandparents come to see the show and all of them have been moved by the show in different ways.”

Photo credit: Helen Murray
Photo credit: Helen Murray

As a solo performer, Danyah may be the only person on stage, but she’s far from lonely. “I really like performing solo, although I feel as if I have a collaborator when I perform on the set, in the ‘world’ that the creative team have produced… the set, projection, lighting and sound,” she says. “I also like to be able to see the audience, we have the lights set so I can do this – so I’m not alone. I think of what I do as a delicious triangle between the story, myself and the audience – every show is different because of this, and I’m never lonely. I do have to make sure that I’m always fit and ready though, as it’s down to me being on top form for every show!”

Why the Whales Came is at Ovalhouse until 31st December, with other one-off performances scheduled for early 2017.

Interview: Teresa Burns, How It Ended

“The little gardener worked very hard but he was just too little to make a difference. One night, he makes a wish ‘for a little bit of help’ and as he sleeps the local children, inspired by his beautiful flower, help bring his garden to life.”

Photo credit: Eva Sampson
Photo credit: Eva Sampson

So begins the story of Emily Hughes’ The Little Gardener, adapted by How It Ended, in association with Scamp Theatre. Dramaturg and co-artistic director Teresa Burns explains what drew the company to the story:

“We’re big fans of Emily Hughes so we were very excited about the book’s release last year. The Little Gardener felt like perfect subject material for adaptation, particularly outdoor theatre – not only because of its setting but because of its message about community. The story beautifully illustrates the impact an act of kindness can make on a person’s life and how it can inspire them to carry on.

We’d love our audiences to take away a sense of community; a feeling that by working together you can make something really special.”

The play, which is currently touring and free to attend, is set in a greenhouse, containing a real garden. “The greenhouse is interactive in the sense that it can be opened up to allow children inside. Inside the greenhouse sits a large tree (wherein the Little Gardener sleeps) and flower beds – ready for planting! The set is designed and built by James Lewis, who’s done a remarkable job. The set breaks down into 28 pieces and we tour with over 100 flowers.”

Photo credit: Rachel Ferriman
Photo credit: Rachel Ferriman

It’s not the company’s first collaboration with author Emily Hughes. “Last year, we worked with Emily on the stage adaptation of her debut book Wild and we conducted a really successful period of research and development.  We’re hoping to bring Wild to theatres in 2017.

“Emily is such a joy to work with. From day one she has been so warm and encouraging. She isn’t precious about her work and pushes us to delve deeper or go darker, which is really freeing.” 

The fact that The Little Gardener is an interactive show does bring with it an element of unpredictability: “Every audience is different, so we’ve tried our best to prepare for every perceivable eventuality. But of course audiences will always surprise you! Some children are very comfortable with handling plants and getting their hands dirty, whilst others are understandably more hesitant, so it’s about making those children feel at ease. For each performance we have a lovely team of Production Assistants/Gardeners who are there to make sure the audience are happy.”

How It Ended’s goal is to excite young audiences and inspire the next generation of theatre makers. The honesty and responsiveness of children is fantastic. They certainly let you know how they feel about the show whether it be positive or negative – you know where you stand! But making work for young children is boundlessly rewarding, they give back in ways older audiences don’t.

“When we opened the show last week at The Lyric we had lots of children linger around the greenhouse with their parents after the show. They wanted to make comments on the show and ask questions about the flowers and the greenhouse – which was wonderful. It’s great to see them discussing the show, as it hopefully challenges their expectations of what theatre can be.”

Photo credit: Eva Sampson
Photo credit: Eva Sampson

Catch The Little Gardener at Greenwich and Docklands International Festival (25th – 26th June), Watford Palace Theatre (2nd – 3rd July), Latitude Festival (17th July) and Stockwood Discovery Centre (29th – 30th July). All performances are free to attend and are non-ticketed. Ages 3+.