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Interview with Emma Earle Co-Artistic Director…

Zoe Squire and Emma Earle
Emma Earle on the right and Zoe Squire

Mr Popper’s Penguins, ‘An enchanting musical production suitable for all the family‘, is at The Rose Theatre Kingston from 14th to 17th January 2016, directed by Emma Earle.

Emma, who is Co-Artistic Director of Pins and Needles Productions recently chatted about Mr Popper’s Penguins and Pinds and Needles Productions.

What can you tell us about Pins and Needles Productions which you formed with Zoe Squire in 2009?
Pins and Needles is a Director/Designer partnership. We’ve been going for six years now, making shows for a range of ages. We like to make work that’s full of heart and magic, is visually striking, and moves at a pace. Zoe and I met while training at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. We worked on a production of A Clockwork Orange together and found that we had a really productive, creative relationship. Shortly after, we started work on a gothic horror called Ernest and the Pale Moon, based on a short story by Oliver Lansley, and decided to try and take the production to the Edinburgh Festival. We had an extraordinarily successful fringe, teaming up with Oliver’s company Les Enfants Terribles. The experience kick started our company and since 2009 we’ve made 14 new shows, written five adaptations, delivered a host of workshops and participatory projects, and become an Associate Company of the egg, Theatre Royal Bath. Last Christmas, Kenny Wax came to see one of our shows – our adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas at Lyric Hammersmith – and subsequently asked us to pitch new Christmas show ideas. Zoe and I thought Mr Popper’s Penguins would translate well on stage and the rest is history.

You are directing one of Pins and needles Productions – Mr Popper’s Penguins. What can you tell us about the show?
Mr Popper’s Penguins is about a house painter who dreams of being a polar explorer. One day a packing crate arrives on his doorstep and inside is an Antarctic penguin. The story is about how Mr Popper and the penguin buddy-up, and learn to live together in a small suburban community. It’s also about how important it is to have dreams, no matter who you are, and how a small, unexpected change to the everyday, can change the course of your life forever.

In writing the adaptation, we were really conscious of wanting to stick closely to the source material. The book has a real charm and wit to it, and we tried to encompass this on stage. There are some key differences of course – the Poppers have children in the book, for example – but in essence the story line is the same.
We were fortunate enough to meet the grand children of the original authors, Florence and Richard Atwater, when they came to see the show at The Lowry this week. They seemed pleased with the production which is a huge relief!

With Mr Popper’s Penguins we’ve crammed a lot of story into 55 minutes, and the production moves quickly and economically from scene to scene. The show is a fusion of puppetry, physical storytelling, music and song, and, while it’s aimed at young children, we feel it’s one for the whole family to enjoy.

Do you have any key points of focus when directing this type of production?
The key focus with this production was how to bring to life the many penguins from the story with a small cast. We knew if we didn’t get the penguins right, we wouldn’t have a show, so we brought in Puppet Designer Nick Barnes (also involved in The Lorax at the Old Vic). The story begins with one penguin called Captain Cook but he’s soon joined by a female penguin called Greta. Pretty quickly the Popper household is over run with baby penguins and the Poppers find themselves having to adapt their home and lifestyle to make their unusual pets comfortable. The climax of the story involves the penguins performing a circus act act to a local theatre producer. We spent a fun few days in Bristol workshopping different puppetry approaches, trying to figure out how to make penguins dance, slide, jump and be fired out of cannons (!) without the help of West End budgets, projection or a large cast. The results have a home-made charm that we hope is inventive, humorous, and befitting the tone of the book.

Our other key focus was the musical world of the piece. We teamed up with Composer Luke Bateman and Lyricist Richy Hughes for the first time and this relationship has been one of the highlights of the year for us. The adaptation tries to retain the period feel of the original book, and this is reflected in the musical style, with songs reminiscent of Golden Era MGM, complete with some very clever, witty and poignant lyrics.

Mr Popper’s Penguins runs through to January 2016 – what next for you then?
2015 has been an incredible year for us. We currently have three Christmas shows playing at the same time, which is something we’ve never achieved before. In addition to Mr Popper’s Penguins, we have our adaptations of Raymond Briggs’ The Bear and Father Christmas playing at The Albany in Deptford, and Lyric Hammersmith respectively. In 2016, we plan to build on this momentum by developing three new shows: a new Christmas show for family audiences, an immersive experience for young adults, and a new Early Years show. We’re excited about taking our work far and wide, and of course we’re hoping that Mr Popper’s Penguins will have a long and fruitful future life!

Mr Popper’s Penguins
Thursday 14th January – Sunday 17th January 2016
An enchanting musical production suitable for all the family
Rose Theatre Kingston
Creative Team
Directed by Emma Earle
Designed by Zoe Squire
Puppet Designs by Nick Barnes
Music by Luke Bateman, Lyrics by Richy Hughes
Adapted for the stage by Pins and Needles Productions


  • Neil Cheesman

    First becoming involved in an online theatre business in 2005 and launching londontheatre1.com in September 2013. Neil writes reviews and news articles, and has interviewed over 150 actors and actresses from the West End, Broadway, film, television, and theatre. Follow Neil on Twitter @LondonTheatre1

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