Interview: Olivia Jacobs and Jon Fiber

We made theatre a family business


Who are the most successful collaborations in theatre? Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber? Rodgers and Hammerstein? Well, you can, with only a little exaggeration add husband-and-wife team Olivia Jacobs and Jon Fiber who are responsible for - count 'em - five shows running simultaneously over the festive holidays. Every one - from The Gruffalo to The Snow Dragon, has been written and adapted by Jacobs' company Tall Stories and almost all have been set to music by Fiber's Jolly Good Tunes.

"Jon and I met properly" at Limmud in 1997," says Jacobs, who is in the midst of putting the finishing touches to the latest West End run of Room On The Broom. Yes, we're talking about theatre for children or "family shows", as Jacobs and Fiber would say.

"Actually we met while I was doing music and drama at Maccabi in Compayne Gardens [West Hampstead] in about 1995 and Olivia came in to do a show," says Fiber, "But then, at Limmud, some friends set us up."

"They did it really badly," adds Jacobs. "Though it worked in the end."

That's something of an understatement. There are two children, Freddie (9) and Lily (7) which by any measure is plenty to be proud of. But for a couple to also produce 16 shows as well?

The titles will be familiar to anyone who has read, or had read to them, some of the most popular titles in the children's canon. But this is the material that has made Tall Stories - the company that Jacobs founded in 1997 with Toby Mitchell - a powerhouse of children's theatre in the West End, internationally and even on Broadway.

"We're still four or five people in an office trying to produce shows we love that will appeal and entertain and hopefully educate a little bit, too," says Jacobs. "We never feel like a massive powerhouse, but I do feel proud of the company."

"I remember in the early days when we were doing shows in Edinburgh and Olivia would text me and say 'there are 45 people in the audience,'" says Fiber. "We were really excited. And now we're in the West End, Broadway and even Sydney Opera House, it's still brilliant but we just want to keep the quality up. That becomes the challenge when you get to bigger venues. We don't want to sell the kids short. If you're only thinking about royalties and profits you're on a slippery slope."

Much of that quality depends on the music composed by Jon and his creative partner Andy Shaw for each show.

"Going into rehearsal, Andy and I get the feel of what's needed and then go away and bring back some ideas. Some Olivia likes, some she doesn't. She can be quite honest with me."

"For example, in The Gruffalo, Fox is a bit of an East End wheeler-dealer, so it seemed to make sense that Fox would end up doing a ska song like Madness. It's an organic process," says Jacobs.

"What I can't stand is seeing shows where the music is there to pad everything out," says Fiber. This is never something that happens in a Fiber/Jacobs show. Every musical second has to do a job: either move the plot on or establish character. "One of the issues I have with Olivia is when we write a song we quite often put in a middle eight and often it makes the song just slightly too long. Musically it works very well. But I can almost do a whole song made up from all the middle eights that Olivia has taken out. With children, every second counts."

The rest of the family can be every bit as critical during the creative process.

"If Lily and Freddie watch a dress rehearsal, I can tell when one of them starts to fidget or get bored and I know that's a point we need to work on because its a fidget point in the show," says Jacobs. Yet the test of the show is not just how children respond - with silence if it's going well, with the sound of flapping seats and chatter, if it isn't - but how the adults respond, too.

"Seventy per cent of our audience are grown-ups," says Jacobs. "I love it when you hear them leaving a show and saying in a surprised voice, 'I really enjoyed that,'" says Jacobs.

"Everyone loves a good story," says Fiber.

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