Olivia Jacobs, co-founder of Tall Stories, directs the company’s Olivier Award-nominated adaptation of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s classic picture book, Room on the Broom, which will return to the West End this summer.
Tall Stories are celebrating their 25th anniversary, and in that time have created and staged 31 productions, in 5 languages, in 15 countries, over 6 continents. The company is probably best known for their production of The Gruffalo.
Tall Stories exists because of a chance meeting between co-founders Olivia Jacobs and Toby Mitchell when they were both working at Soho Theatre, “I was programming a festival and he had just assistant directed Kindertransport,” explains Olivia, “we started chatting, and realised that we were quite like-minded in our view of storytelling, and our love of physical devised work.”
Their first show together was an adaptation of a Julia Donaldson book, “Toby was working as an editor for Macmillan publishers and he came across The Gruffalo before it had been published, once it was published we thought it’s such a glorious story. The pictures are beautiful, the rhymes are lovely and stay with you, the characters feel so special.”
Olivia and Toby approached the author about adapting the book for the stage, “Julia was really thrilled that somebody wanted to turn one of her books into a play. While we were in rehearsals, the book won the Smarties Award, and I said to someone this is good news, maybe more people will recognise the title and that’ll help us sell tickets, and here we are all these years later and people have definitely heard of it, so it was a fortuitous choice.”
Tall Stories’ first show debuted at The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, “it went well, and people said how nice it was to see a show that was aimed at a family audience, but is very professional and not patronising, and Toby and I just thought isn’t that how it should be?”
Olivia explains that Tall Stories is a charity, and any money that the company makes goes back into the company, “but we also have a similar model to commercial theatre,” explains Olivia, “in that we have some really big shows that are able to fund our various streams of work, such as artist support and community work.”
Olivia and Toby’s work has been performed all over the world, but Olivia enjoys bringing work back to the West End, “this is something we set up with Nimax, we found that these theaters were empty during the day, and we were looking for a home, it seemed like the perfect combination. I think it’s really important that work for families has a high profile, and I think audiences often associate West End with high profile and quality.”
“But to be honest, I think it’s just as important that we perform in the West End as we perform in schools, as we perform in rural venues, as we perform internationally, as we perform in remote venues. It’s really important that we make sure our work is reaching a wide and varied audience.”
Tall Stories adaptation of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s Room on the Broom will be the company’s next production in the West End, “ it is such a beautiful story, and a story of teamwork and adversity, and coming together. I guess after the last two years, now feels like a really fitting time to be telling a story about coming together in adversity and creating something magical.”
“I definitely describe it as fun, comic, light-hearted and joyous, I think it’s just a really lovely family day out.”
Creating work for the whole family is important to Olivia, “about 60% of our audience are grown-ups, and it doesn’t feel right to me to create a show that doesn’t cater to a large proportion of the audience.”
“So we work very hard to make sure that the shows work on all different levels, and it’s my absolute favorite thing when at the end of the show I hear people walking out, and I hear parents saying to each other ‘that was really good, wasn’t it?’ As if they’re surprised, and expected that it would be an hour of entertainment just for the children.”
A show like Room on the Broom is not without its challenges, “for the actors playing Dog, Frog and Bird, the puppetry is extremely hard.” Says Olivia, “for the character of Dog, the actor needs to be in a kind of squat position for most of the show, with a stretch between the head of the dog and the tail of the dog, they need to lip sync with one hand, wag the tail with other, stay in a squat, and keep the dog alive through constant movement.”
As director, Olivia’s challenges are just as real, “for me, it’s trying to facilitate the actors to give the best that they can, to create as best as they can, and never to fall back on something we’ve done before, and then allow the actors to really own it, so that when they’re on stage, you feel it just belongs to them, it’s their character, that’s when it works the best. It’s a challenge but a good one.”
Bringing back shows means that the company needs to keep re-inventing, “the show is different now to how it was when it was first formed, the set changes, the costumes develop, the frame for the story has changed, and that has to keep evolving otherwise the show will never stay fresh.
“It’s never an exact replica of the company that went before, each cast finds some new things within it and I think that’s what keeps it alive.”
Olivia can’t wait to bring Room on the Broom back to the West End, “I think there are very few places where families can be together, be entertained together, three generations all together, all coming out with a community experience feeling happy, we can provide that, and I think Room on the Broom provides you with the chance to have a really fun family day out.”
Room on the Broom is directed by Olivia Jacobs, designed by Morgan Large, with puppet design by Yvonne Stone. It runs at the Lyric Theatre 21st July to 4th September 2022.