One magical midsummer’s night two sisters huddle together, fearful of what the darkness holds, when a mysterious winged creature appears and leads them on a moonlit adventure. Together they rescue juggling slugs, contortionist caterpillars, and a trio of acrobatic baby bats. But while the girls are busy being brave they overlook their winged friend, the King of Tiny Things, who needs their help most of all.
Can they save him in time?
It recently completed a successful run at The Lowry, and now Manchester’s Finest talks with adaptor and director Poppy Burton-Morgan who takes us behind the scenes as she discusses inspiration, the production process and her biggest critics – her children.
With a long list of impressive credits what was it that turned you to the role of director as well as adaptor – do you find that these two roles go hand in hand?
I started off very much as a director and have been doing this solidly for the past 10 years. The adaptation and the writing have only really come in the last few years. I could be inspired by a piece of material – in this instance a children’s book and because I have such a strong vision for it as a director, I can see the vision of what the production needs to be and believe that I could really bring it to life.
The story evolved in the developmental stage. It wasn’t really like a play adaptation where you say – ‘Great here’s the script’ – even now I feel the production could still evolve but that’s the joy of visual storytelling you can keep making it and building it.
Is the circus element and puppetry something you’ve worked with before? Have you always liked to involve this within your work?
One of the things that define Metta Theatre is that we explore many different art forms in order to best tell a story, so quite often there’s an element of circus or puppetry or live music or video projection or all of those things, all at the same time.
We’ve been working with circus for the last five years and when it feels appropriate we just love a bit of circus. I think it’s so rich in terms of visual symbols and a lot of what we try to make is quite layered and symbolic so that as a three year old or a five year old or even a seven year old you can follow a beautiful visual story, but also as an older child or adult there are other complex and sophisticated themes that resonate.
I think circus is a really exciting art form and similarly so is puppetry. We have a long history of using all art forms we can find, to best relay the story.
When you initially read the story did you see the production play out?
Yes that’s exactly what happened! We’ve got a three year old and a one year old. The three year old was given the book The King of Tiny Things when he was six months old and from the age of about 18 months we read it to him. He wanted us to read it to him every single night, so literally there was six months of almost going on auto-pilot as I read it so my mind started to wander and I began to think wouldn’t it be great if we turned this into a show.
I could imagine how this insect could become this circus discipline and this insect this discipline and so it completely grew out of that. Initially it was fairly simple. It’s a fairly simple story and a fairly simple idea – each insect will be a different circus discipline but as we developed it the story became much more complex. It began to explore not just fear of the insect or fear of the dog but fears of change and growing up and hopefully, it has a quality that appeals to adults, older children, even grandparents as well as the really little ones.
What was involved in the developmental phase from book to stage production?
I spent quite a lot of time imagining it, dreaming up a show and then obviously I had to get in touch with Jeanne Willis, the author so I just wrote to her and said here are some ideas that I have. I explained Metta Theatre’s track record and asked if she liked the idea of it. Jeanne was really excited by the idea so we worked really closely together collaborating even working on songs for the show. I wrote five and she wrote four. There’s been a real back and forth sort of creative dialogue between us. She is such a celebrated author and there are several more of her books that we’re going to work on and adapt together so hopefully it’s the beginning of a very long, rich, fruitful collaboration.
Did you test your own children’s reaction to the production?
Yes! All of the songs – Jeanne and I wrote the lyrics and Jon Nicholls the composer wrote the music. He would email it over to me and I’d sing it to my three year old and see what his response was. Quite often even now he’ll sing either the tune with his own lyrics – so it was a good test whether the melodies were effective or not. The following night he would ask if he could have the bat song again so we definitely knew that it was a success.
Early on in rehearsals we did a little showing to his preschool and then I had long in-depth conversations about the bits that they remembered, the bits that they found funny so that was a really useful way to test it.
You think you’re making a really spectacular piece of circus and then a three year old will be like – ‘Yeah! Someone’s in a wheelbarrow’ and there are certain elements of circus that really only impress adults because only they understand if it’s dangerous or difficult. So we knew to keep in the circus but to also keep in the people in wheelbarrows and the ones who fall over.
When the idea arose was it aimed directly towards children or did you have a larger audience in mind?
I think we tried really hard to make a piece that’s for everyone and so absolutely thinking about the young audience members and even babies and their visual experience and changing it up frequently to keep their focus and attention but building in these complex and sophisticated themes for the older children and adults. I’d like to think that the skill level of the performers means that you could come without children and see it as a piece of contemporary circus.
You’ve discussed the hope to produce more of Jeanne Willis’ work; do you think that you’ll continue to adapt children’s literature more generally?
Metta Theatre does everything really. This year is our 10 year anniversary and we’re staging 10 plays to celebrate it. We’re about to go into rehearsals for a production which is six short plays in one evening. The focus is on the global food crisis so that’s politically and socially engaged – the complete opposite end of the spectrum from The King of Tiny Things. We’re really passionate about family work and we want to keep making that one of our priorities because there’s relatively very little family work that is challenging and provocative thematically whilst still remaining genuinely accessible for all ages.
Do you find it’s a hard transition to go from children’s productions to adult themed productions?
I’m the kind of person who has five or six books on the go – well before I had children, but one would be a fiction and the other history. I just think I’ve got one of those brains that really thrive on spinning a million plates all at once and all of them being really different. This year has been amazing because we did a grand opera and then we a circus show and now we’re doing political new writing. It’s a brilliant opportunity to say that we’ve made all of these things over the last 10 years.