Interview with the Grandpa In My Pocket creative team
As well as the actors you see onstage, there are many other people in the bigger team who have helped bring Grandpa in my Pocket: Teamwork! to the stage for you. We went behind the scenes and talked to some of them - this is what they said.
Mellie Buse and Jan Page
Creators, writers and stage adaptors
Where did the idea of Grandpa in my Pocket: Teamwork! come from?
Mellie: The whole grandparent/grandchild relationship was something that we really wanted to explore. It's a magical relationship in many ways. The idea of having a naughty grandpa probably came from my father. He was a whole lot older than my mother, more of a grandfather figure to me, and he was very mischievous. And we've made him magical too!
Jan: Way back in the mists of time, Grandpa in my Pocket: Teamwork! was the seed of an idea for a film. Then we thought: 'Why don’t we do it for television instead?' But there wasn’t really the technology then. A few years later, the BBC put out a cry for live-action comedy for CBeebies, something they’d never done before. We immediately thought of Grandpa, talked to some technical folks, and it looked as if the time had come when it would be affordable - it just about was, by a whisker! And we’re still hoping that we will see Grandpa - the Movie.
The TV programme is about 10 minutes per episode. How did you go about putting it on the stage as a full-length show?
Jan: When we finished the first TV series, we did wonder whether or not we could bring Grandpa to the stage. At first we felt we couldn’t do it, so we sort of put it out of our heads. But because we are both from theatre backgrounds and are very fond of the theatre, it kept nagging at us. Eventually we realised that what we needed to do was to take a completely different approach. You’re not going to see the television show just plonked on the stage for you.
We looked at what TV does best and then what theatre does best. In the theatre, because of the power of the imagination, we can take the show anywhere. On TV we were restricted to a few locations and some sets. A theatre show is more expansive in terms of story; we go on an adventure on a boat – you couldn’t do that on TV! We’ve gone for a storytelling, playacting kind of technique, so the way we’re telling the Grandpa story on the stage mirrors the play patterns of young children. We have a cast of young performers saying: 'You know what, let’s all tell a Grandpa story - who are you going to be?'
It’s an interesting way of telling the story – Jason is completely involved in the story, but he also stands outside and comments.
Mellie: Jason is the window into the show for the audience. They identify absolutely with Jason Mason; they are Jason. That’s a strong way in for this age group - having a narrator really helps.
Why did you choose Nottingham Playhouse to put on the show?
Jan: The people here at Nottingham Playhouse were recommended to us as having a good approach to new work and working well as collaborators, particularly in the area of young people’s theatre. Luckily, they were instantly interested and very keen, and they have been fantastic partners to have.
What do you think are the elements in the story and situation that have made it so successful?
Mellie: Aside from all its bonkersness and the fantasy of Grandpa shrinking, the main reason is the relationship between Grandpa and Jason, which is very real indeed. Children love seeing Grandpa shrink, but the essence is the grandpa-grandchild relationship, alongside the other generations of the family too; there’s kids, mums and dads, and grandparents.
The other thing which really appeals of course is that we’ve swapped the relationship, so, instead of a naughty boy and a responsible grandfather, we have a naughty grandpa and a responsible boy - and this is really empowering for the children.
Grandpa in my Pocket: Teamwork! is an adaptation from a popular TV show - how do you deal with the expectations your audience will have?
We’ve made it very clear that this is not just the TV show onstage. We expect our audience to love the characters they already know; this loving, warm, creative, funny family; this witty madcap world; all the catchphrases and the adventures.
What the writers Mellie and Jan have done is create a set up of 'let’s pretend'. Here’s a group of actors, but also a group of people who love the Grandpa in my Pocket stories, love the characters and who say: 'Let’s pretend to be those characters.' Then they invent a story for the audience which they can be part of, and we kick into the story being made up right there in front of them. The dressing-up basket appears and out come the characters' costumes, which are very recognisable. The audience are led gently into this world, which is like the way they play themselves. They are in on the secret. Our job is to introduce them to the magic of theatre, where things can change from minute to minute: beach balls can become the planets in the sky or a silk scarf can become the fire from a dragon’s roar. To this we add the fun and elegance of dance by Lawrence Evans and songs by Kate Edgar, with actions the audience can join in with and with lyrics they can sing.
The most important thing of all is to tell the story. Children in particular are brilliant at accepting roles and entering into the story with you.
How do you as a director prepare the actors for how the audience might react?
It was very important to cast a company of actors with experience on all sorts of levels of working with children. So they shouldn’t be fazed by anything that happens! It’s a bit like being the director of a film, where you want to do close-ups then the long shots. We do want an audience calling out and joining in. But I also need to find ways for the actors to focus the action right back down into the story, back onto the stage. I’m always amazed how theatre has the power to grab young people and involve them. They can move easily from laughing, shouting and clapping to sitting forward and listening; they have a very strong instinct for the power of a story. Arnin Friess's lighting will help the audience to focus again. With a show where you’re expecting a lot of children who have never been to the theatre before, it’s good to allow a breath for them so they can wriggle in their seats and laugh and clap and shout out – to let off steam; then they can relax and focus again.
What we’re aiming for is a truly shared experience.
How did you begin working on Grandpa in my Pocket: Teamwork!?
At first it was a scenario rather than a script. I watched the TV episodes, and I worked very closely with Rosamunde, the director, looking at the themes and images. I looked up where the story was actually set, and got lots of pictures of Southwold. The lighthouse and the huts were the starting point. We looked at seaside towns, the end-of-the-pier feel, the 1950s. It was a combination of the TV programme, real places and my own ideas as an artist.
What are the particular challenges of designing the show?
With the location, I could use actual pictures of Southwold as inspiration, but we also had to consider all sorts of magic tricks. We ran some workshops to find out how actors would respond to the artefacts and the tricks, exploring and beginning to try to solve the technical problems together.
Everything in the show is very fluid. We have a cast of six actors telling a story which moves from one place to another very quickly, so I have had to create some incredibly simple moves.
For instance, one of the beach huts turns round, three sets of shelves come out of it and there’s Mr Whoops's shop!
Colour has also been very important, the key to recognising the places, and the characters and what they wear. The lighthouse for instance, is white and copper, just like it is in the TV show.
What are the implications of having both human and puppet characters?
Roman [Stefanski, puppetry consultant] always describes the puppet as another character. That is very useful for me. It’s a real collaboration. From the workshop sessions, I saw how the actors interacted with the puppets. The props department are making all these puppets, and Roman is advising on the best way to manipulate them.
I had to be aware that there had to be things for the puppets to land on, with enough places for Grandpa to hide!
Especially when we are creating the shrinking moment, as a designer I have to make sure that, when the puppet is held by the human puppeteers, it doesn’t disappear into their clothes - you can’t see a dark puppet against dark clothes. There are certain basic rules like that you have to keep in mind.
What exactly is your role as puppetry consultant?
I always say everyone can do puppetry; it’s what we all did in our bedrooms as children with our toys. Today it’s just a case of having the confidence and knowing some of the rules. My job is to help people do it better. What can happen is that you forget the puppet is a real character and you start waving it about as if it’s just something hanging off the end of your hand. You need to be reminded just to bring reality back into the puppet and let it have its life. I treat a puppet rather like a toddler. When you have a toddler in a harness or you’re letting him or her walk in front of you, you are like a guardian angel. You don’t want to swamp the child, which is inquisitive, stepping forward, while you’re behind holding your breath, making sure he or she doesn’t bump into things or fall or get hurt. I have that sort of guardian angel feeling for the puppet, whereby the puppet is the child, the creation you are caring for. It’s your responsibility to make sure that the puppet is having fun, it is doing what it wants to do, and also what you want to make it do.
At what stage in the creative process do you get involved?
If we were starting from scratch, in the case of a fairytale perhaps, then the designer of the puppets would be very much involved. That’s the joy in the puppetry world, being able to create. The story guides you. I might feel this should be wooden, or metallic, this flows or I feel this is very sinuous or very dark. That influences design and can take you into a completely different world. A puppet can float; it can defy gravity! Think of a puppet ballerina doing a grand jeté. What every dancer wants is to ‘stay’ right up in the air - with a puppet you can make that grand jeté last for ever!
In the case of Grandpa in my Pocket: Teamwork!, we already have the visuals from the TV show, so what we need to do is to work out how we make these crazy things work live onstage! A child knows that in film and TV you can do anything with special effects, but in the theatre, up onstage, he or she feels that “they’re talking to me; it’s live in front of me”. The stage is full of tricks too, of course, but you can get away with it if you tell the story well, make it good and rich; then the audience can easily join up the pieces for you.
Grandpa does have to do a lot of things - what are the implications of that for the construction of the puppet?
We have rather a double-edged sword here because, if he is truly small, how can hundreds of people in the auditorium see him? So we do have different sizes of Grandpa. We’ll have a medium-sized puppet to talk and gesture so he can be seen, and then a small one for the long shots - sailing away or flying in the air.
Have the actors worked with puppets before?
One or two are puppeteers and, with the others, I’ll be giving advice and just making them aware of certain things.
It’s important that the puppet doesn’t take on the mannerisms of any one puppeteer. We all have to tune into the character of the puppet itself.
You need to be able to feel the rhythm and be able to move. I say that the puppeteer is selfless, while the actor is selfish. The puppeteer has to melt away, and this is quite a challenge. The focus needs to be on the puppet, so the actor has to work through the puppet character. You need to be able to let the energy flow through your arms right to your fingertips and into the puppet.
Of course, in the old days, the puppeteers would be dressed in black or hiding behind a playboard, and we wouldn’t see them. Today, the power of the puppet is magnetic and the puppeteers can just be there, in full view, as the audiences will ignore them. We still have to be careful with costume designs though, so we don’t have shiny fabrics; we need to be in muted colours so we blend out and the focus stays on the puppet itself.
© John Good