5 years of pirates and princesses, astronauts and aliens, magicians and monsters

The Monster Zoo cast and crew: Clockwise from top left Joe Johnston, Rachel Gay, Zoe Lambert, Andy Stephenson, Stacey Sampson, Ruth Johnson and Calum Howard


The last five years of working with New Writing North on the ACE Strategic Tour of stage adaptations of picture books have been the most rewarding, fun and defining journey of my career. It has also felt like a journey for us as a team and for the families and communities that have been with us every step of the way.

I have found it hard to put into words the richness of this experience that has collaboration and sharing at it’s heart; the sharing of skills between artists and disciplines; the sharing of spaces, where the community welcomes us into their home on tour; and the sharing of a love of books and bringing the page to life. It is hard to know where to start so I will begin at the very beginning…

It is Summer 2012, and I am sitting across from a very pregnant Annie Rigby whilst we have lunch during rehearsals for a show she is directing me in. She gets a call from Anna Disley and I hear the words, “Well, funnily enough, she is sat right in front of me now”. Looking up from my less than impressive lunch, I wonder what is going on. I will always remember that moment as the start of something that would change my life.

Annie was to be directing an adaptation of Val McDermid’s My Granny is a Pirate to tour to community and library venues across the north. The only thing was that she was due to give birth to her bump, now known as Nina, the week before the show was going to open. So that is when I came on board as Associate Director and worked alongside Annie to create the show. And what a thrilling pirate adventure it was and I learnt so much! We set sail and learned a lot along the way; how to negotiate a 3m pirate mast into a 2.3m ceilinged space; how to work out how to get into and out of costumes in very full PE cupboards; and most importantly, how valued this work was by the audiences we met.

I think of myself as being so lucky to have directed the following four shows that have seen us explore the brilliantly feminist world of Anna Kemp and Sara Ogilvie’s The Worst Princess, Simon Bartram’s most down-to-earth astronaut, Bob in Man on the Moon, Nadia Shireen’s story of magical mammal friendship in Hey, Presto! and Amy Sparkes and Sara Ogilvie’s mayhem-fuelled Do Not Enter The Monster Zoo. Each picture book has given us a world to explore, a map with clues, details to discover and, for our audiences as well as us, a gift to take home so the adventure can continue.

The treasure chest of artists we have worked with over the years is gleaming and golden and all have generously given so much to the collaborative nature of the project, whilst bringing with them their unique talent and craft to the process. I have learnt so much from the fabulous writers who have penned the shows; Carina “Razor-sharp-wit” Rodney; Zoe “best sausage joke ever” Cooper; Laura “superdupermegastar” Lindow and Stacey “move those feet” Sampson. Each writer has skilfully represented the worlds of the books whilst bringing their own distinct and wonderful style.

Bringing a picture book to life not only brings the responsibility of honouring the words on the page but the audience needs to feel that they are walking into the world of the book as they enter the space. The designers have worked wonders in creating a set that opens up the world and opportunities to transport our audience into the story (and also that can be put up and taken down in a very short amount of time). Neil Murray, Andrew Stephenson, Simon Henderson and Imogen Cloët have all sprinkled their magic designer dust over this project and influenced many a World Book Day costume!

The troupe of performers who have played all these wonderful characters have shown no limits to their talent, generosity and stamina. They work hard! Two shows a day, often in different venues, often with the venue heating on full-blast! It is a joy to see the connections with the audience made in the moment that make memories that might last forever. It has been a joy to work with all of these wonderful beings and I am founding member of their fanclub; Jeremy Bradfield, Sharon Durant, Rachel Gay, Matthew Gundel, Jane Holman, Calum Howard, Ziad Jabero, Joe Johnston, Zoe Lambert, Samantha Morris, Brendan Murphy, and Claire Tustin.

But none of this could happen without the team behind the scenes who are quite possibly the hardest-working people in show business! Our brilliant associate producer Sarah Churlish makes a potentially tricky tour work so well and has nurtured the relationships with the venues so expertly that they invite us back again and again. Nicola “Prop Princess” Morris, who has stage managed every one of the shows and lives and breathes songs in her sleep, Simon Henderson, Chloe Ribbons and Paul Aziz who have steered the ship (sorry for a pirate reference again!) so commandingly as our Production Managers and Craig Davison, Andrew Shutt and Rachel Glover, who have joined our crew along the way. And our Assistant Directors, Stan Hodgson, Anna Ryder and Sian Armstrong, who have looked after our show on the road. And to the magical talent that is Kate Collins who has brought each character from the page to the stage with her wonderful costumes and a special mention to Alison Stringer for the beautiful coat that Granny strutted her stuff in!

I realise that this has basically become a list of people and, quite frankly, that is what it should be. These shows have been made on the care and skill and love for the project by all of the above and I think that is what you see and feel when you are in the audience, who are the next on the list!

I wish I could name every audience member who has been to one of our shows as they are so integral to the journey we have been on. They have, quite literally, grown with us, with those we met as pirate babies greeting us as mobile monsters. These shows belong to them and we have treasured their sense of ownership of the art. I get quite cross when I detect any perception of places being artistically-barren just because they are far away from the metropolis. The truth is exactly the opposite. We have had some lovely reviews from critics and I always appreciate them, but the feedback from our audiences is what I tune into. And they tell us, with open honesty, what they think, and we have grown from that. We have received feedback from families who have weaved these shows into their home life, asking What would Bob do? Dressing up as Princess Sue, creating magic shows and singing This Goes Here and That Goes There as they tidy up their toys.

I recently saw Nina, nee Annie’s baby bump, who told me about the Furbles in Monster Zoo and did a rendition of The Tummy Rumble Rhumba with her sister, Cora, and it reminded me of the beginning of this journey and how far we have travelled. I really think we have found the treasure in our relationships with our audience and I think that is the X that marks the spot.