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Interview with Olivia Jacobs – Director of The Gruffalo

Gruffalo 2015 Ellie Bell, Timothy Richey & Owen Guerin (as The Gruffalo)
Gruffalo 2015 Ellie Bell, Timothy Richey & Owen Guerin (as The Gruffalo)

The Gruffalo is returning to the West End this summer to celebrate its 15th Anniversary and has just extended its run until 8th January 2017!

The production opened at Chester Gateway Theatre on 12th May 2001 only 18 months after the book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler was first published.

The production started out from humble beginnings with just three actors travelling around in a car (there wasn’t even a stage manager) and has now been running for 15 years and has performed in 14 countries and 5 continents, played twice at the Sydney Opera House, twice on Broadway, once at the Royal National Theatre and has had eight West End seasons.

Director Olivia Jacobs trained at Central/University of London. She has directed shows in the West End, on Broadway and in Sydney Opera House. Credits include: The Gruffalo (including live DVD), The Gruffalo’s Child, Room on the Broom, Snow White, Mr Benn, William’s Monsters, Something Else, Emily Brown and the Thing and Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming. She is former Director of Camden People’s Theatre and co-founder of Tall Stories with Toby Mitchell.

Can you tell us how your role has changed since the first production of The Gruffalo Live back in 2001?
When we first started working on The Gruffalo, we had no idea that the book would become the huge phenomenon that it is today. We worked on it in a rehearsal room with some fabulous performers trying to find the best way to create the Fox, the Owl and the Snake and of course the Gruffalo himself. After rehearsals we built bits of the set, helped sew bits of costume together and tried to write Edinburgh Festival press releases – all at the same time. We didn’t have a stage manager (one of the cast was always offstage whenever a song started to press play on what was then a mini disk player…) and the set was small enough to fit in the back of a small car. Over the years the show has been really well received and as grown and developed organically. Now we have a fabulous designer (we have just recreated the set and costumes for the show) as well as a lighting designer, stage manager, and understudy (a huge luxury) working alongside our Tall Stories office staff, our wonderful general management team and a press office, etc.

With more people to work alongside Toby (my co-director and co-founder of the company) and me, my role has grown and changed – these days I’m more involved with the strategy and planning and the overview of the company – determining our next productions, new directions and national and international plans than I am with the actual detail of touring.

Within the rehearsal room however, my role remains as it was then – to try to bring together a room full of talented performers and creatives and to facilitate finding the best way to tell whichever story we have set our hearts on.

The Gruffalo Live has achieved great success since its early beginnings when the original tour involved just three actors in a car touring to schools and small venues. In your own words ‘To go from there to the West End, Broadway and the Sydney Opera House has been quite a journey’ – Why do you think the show has been so successful?

We started with a great story. Julia’s words with Axel’s glorious illustrations have become a timeless classic. The basis of the tale, that brains and not brawn can win through – and that the little guy can come out on top – is a message that is appealing to any child and to parents too and adds a great deal to the appeal of both the book and the show.
We worked hard to ensure that while we remained true to the spirit of the book we could develop it further – developing the characters of the Fox, the Snake and the Owl and providing them with songs linked to their characteristics. So seeing the show becomes quite a different experience to reading the book.
We also bear in mind that the majority of our ticket buyers are grown-ups so we try to make sure that the show is just as enjoyable for them as it is for children. Sometimes I watch three generations of a family all watching the show and laughing together and I know exactly why I love my job. In a world of screens where we move ever further into virtual reality and away from community, it’s fabulous to see the whole family being able to laugh together. Sometimes we grown-ups forget how brilliant it really is to be told a good story as well.

In autumn 2016, the actors from The Gruffalo will be delivering a brand new interactive performance free of charge to inner London schools. Can you tell us more about this…
In the current political climate it is becoming harder and harder for schools to take children to the theatre. Where Scotland has recently introduced a theatre in schools policy to ensure that all primary school children see one live piece of theatre every year, schools in England are struggling to afford to commit to theatre visits.
We’ve begun several initiatives to encourage schools into the theatre (providing a limited number of free tickets to The Gruffalo for disadvantaged schools as well as free tickets for teachers in a ‘try before you buy’ experiment). We have also determined to take a free show ‘Future Perfect’ into schools for those schools who do not have the funds to travel out.
From September we will be touring ‘Future Perfect’ into schools in the London area. It’s an interactive performance for Year Six students, with time-travel as its central theme. The story of 11 year old Dominic, who desperately wants to go back into the past and fix a few of the mistakes he’s made – the story looks at the process of decision making and how every decision you make affects who you are and who you become in one way or another. We hope that the performance will give students approaching secondary school age the opportunity to think about how the choices they make might affect their future. It’s a new sort of project for us and we’re really excited to be taking it to schools across London, reaching children who don’t usually get the chance to see live theatre.

Why should everyone get along to see The Gruffalo?
Seeing live theatre as a family is a very special experience – we live in a generation of televisions and Xboxes and iPads, but when you go to the theatre and experience something with a whole group of other people of all ages, and it’s live, attention spans change and there is a unique connection between audience members and the actors – a connection that you can’t make in film or television. This show is also great fun – there are lots of songs, silly characters, jokes, slightly scary bits and opportunities to join in – something for everyone! See you there!

Tall Stories’ magical, musical stage adaptation of The Gruffalo roars back into the Lyric Theatre for a monster summer season!
Mouse sets off on a daring adventure through the deep dark wood in the search for hazelnuts, meeting the cunning Fox, the eccentric old Owl and the party mad Snake on the way. Will the story of the fabled Gruffalo save Mouse from ending up as dinner for these wily woodland creatures? with only a nut map and a little courage, Mouse must outwit them all, and after all, there’s no such thing as a Gruffalo – is there?

Music, laughter, physical theatre and just the right touch of scary fun, makes Tall Stories’ The Gruffalo the must-see family show for lovers of the timeless story and everyone looking for a smashing day out! Based on the award-winning picture book by JULIA DONALDSON and AXEL SCHEFFLER this production continues to entertain audiences worldwide, bringing everyone’s favourite furry monster to life on stage.

The Gruffalo
Lyric Theatre
29 Shaftesbury Avenue, London, W1D 7ES
Running Time: 55 minutes
Age Restrictions: Age Recomendation 3+ (Guide only)
Booking From: 6th Jul 2016
Booking Until: 8th Jan 2017

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  • 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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