Gruffalo director: How to make a monster hit

Olivia Jacobs on how she came to lead the children’s theatre pack— and helped family entertainment grow up. By John Nathan


By John Nathan, August 4, 2010
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Room on the Broom, Olivia Jacobs’s latest hit stage adaptation of a popular children’s book

Room on the Broom, Olivia Jacobs’s latest hit stage adaptation of a popular children’s book

Dog, Frog, Bird, Dragon and Witch are having lunch. So are Cat and Monster. This gives Olivia Jacobs, co-founder and artistic director of Tall Stories, the chance to talk about the nation’s most successful theatre company for children.

“I wouldn’t describe us as a children’s theatre company,” corrects Jacobs. And you can see why. The term used to have a whiff of something less than proper about it. Theatre-makers who were not able to produce good theatre for adults, could always churn out something mediocre for children. But companies such as Cornwall-based Kneehigh and Jacobs’s own Tall Stories, which used to be based in a synagogue in Finchley, have changed all that.

“When we first started, it was all dungarees,” remembers Jacobs about the stuff that used to pass for family entertainment. Jacobs does a perfect imitation of the condescension those shows used to dole out. “Hello Children, Uncle Mark here!”

“It would put absolute fear in your heart,” she continues. “But that was never what we were about.”

So parents who are taking their toddlers to see Dog, Frog et al, the characters in Tall Stories’ latest adaptation, Room on the Broom, should expect no dungarees. Or patronising uncles.

Under the leadership of Jacobs and her co-founder Toby Mitchell, Tall Stories has changed the landscape of children’s… sorry — theatre for all ages. Room on the Broom, which is based on the hugely popular book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler and is described as a “magical, musical delight for children aged 3–8”, opens not in a community hall somewhere in the suburbs — the fate of many a show aimed at the whole family — but at one of the grandest venues in the West End, the Garrick.

Broom is the latest in a canon consisting of no fewer than 17 Tall Stories productions. If the company’s breakthrough came with an adaptation of Snow White — which amazingly transferred to Broadway — the monster hit was/is/and probably always will be The Gruffalo which since it first opened in 2001 has ridden a tide of critical acclaim and positive word of mouth.

“The Gruffallo was such a gift,” says Jacobs of the book which has the same writer/illustrator team as Room on the Broom. “It was a beautiful story we could expand and play with.”

Tall Stories started from small beginnings, from a chat in the Soho Theatre box office to be exact. Jacobs was working as festival co-ordinator at the venue and Mitchell was assistant director on the Diane Samuels’s play Kindertransport. In fact, the story of Tall Stories began with a show that was never even intended for an audience of children.

“Toby and I went up to the Edinburgh Festival with two works that we really liked. One was an Oscar Wilde fairy story, The Happy Prince, and the other was a version of Alice and Wonderland, although neither was aimed at children. They were just stories we loved and wanted to tell. We sold out!”

A common theme emerged from the audience and critical response — how nice it was to find a show that is aimed at children but is not just for them.

“And we thought there is definitely room for a company which wanted to tell great stories well for children but that are also good for adults. Because adults are about 70 per cent of our audience. You quite often see grandma, grandpa, mum, dad and one little boy. It’s really important that everyone enjoys it.”

But of those audience members, it is the little boy that is likely to be the harshest critic. In fact the most acidic critical bile from the nation’s most cynical reviewer is as nothing compared to the instant verdict of a toddler who declares out loud, and while the show is still on, the cutting phrase: “Mummy. I’m bored.”

“When we do a show we rehearse it to the point when we think we’re ready and then we show it to a small audience of family groups,” says Jacobs. “You know within the first few minutes when you hear the seat backs going if they are not interested.”

Jacobs’s career in the theatre began in 1995 when she worked as an administrator for the Jewish story-telling theatre group, The Besht Tellers. She herself began in Bournemouth where she was raised in the city’s Jewish community.

One of three sisters, she is the daughter of a lawyer father, who now runs a holiday home, and a yoga-teacher mother. There was no showbiz in her family other than the theatre productions Jacobs’s mother used to take the family to.

“I saw my first Hamlet when I was four,” recalls Jacobs. “And I used to be in all the school plays. I thought it was great. And then I went to university in London and then the Central Drama School [in north London] and found out that I wasn’t so great — at least not as an actor. I found it very frustrating, knowing what I wanted to be like on-stage and not being able to be it.”

But there is no sense of lost vocation. Identifying the gap between the performance that is delivered and the performance that is needed is exactly the skill of a good director. And that Jacobs is very good is obvious not just by the success of Tall Stories — which apart from the occasional Arts Council grant depends almost entirely on its box office success to survive — but by the number of hopefuls who write to Jacobs asking to sit in on their rehearsals to watch and learn. Last time they advertised for nine actors, they had 983 applications. No longer is children’s theatre (sorry, again) the poor relation of grown-up theatre. In fact, Jacobs does not rule out producing shows for adults. A company called Short Stories, perhaps?

“I think I probably owe my parents a lot,” says Jacobs. “They gave me the security of knowing that working in the theatre all went belly up, I could come home and have some TLC before trying something else.”

Now Jacobs and her husband, composer John Fiber, who also co-runs a production company whose clients include Limmud, dole out their own TLC. They have two Tall Stories audience members of their own. And it will not be long before five-year-old Freddie and three-year-old Lilly give their own verdict on Room on the Broom.

At the Garrick Theatre, London WC2 until August 29. Tickets at www.garrick-theatre.co.uk

    Last updated: 3:36pm, August 5 2010