Octonauts Live has been adapted and directed by Richard Lewis, a man with a multitude of exciting projects under his belt including Peppa Pig Live and Lazy Town. I was given the opportunity to ask Richard Lewis some questions about Octonauts Live and all about directing theatrical versions of popular children’s TV shows and I think you’ll agree it makes very interesting reading. I can’t wait to see Octonauts Live! Mumsnet Berkshire is running a competition. You can WIN free tickets to go and see Octonauts Live! Details at the end!
Q & A WITH RICHARD LEWIS
Adaptor and Director OF OCTONAUTS LIVE UK TOUR 2014 – 15
OCTONAUTS AND THE DEEP SEA VOLCANO ADVENTURE
A brand new children’s stage show from the producers of Peppa Pig Live!
Back in January when you were interviewed by the Telegraph about the production of Peppa Pig, you mentioned that most popular children’s TV programmes want a stage show. What made you choose Octonauts as suitable for a stage production?
There are a variety of things we look for in projects. Perhaps first and foremost we’ve got to be excited by it and interested in it. If we haven’t got that, everything else will probably fail. Octonauts is a great adventure and really suits a stage adaptation –visually it’s impressive and it’s got some great characters in it. Perhaps most of all it’s got an important message to deliver –the protection of the seas and the natural environment.
Octonauts is full of adventure and perhaps more complex a television programme than Peppa Pig which is more simplistic. How did you go about turning Octonauts into a theatre production?
When turning TV animations into stage shows you have to be true to the core material. Octonauts is an action-packed, visually exciting and fast-moving adventure. It is important to ensure these elements are included in the stage show. To do this we use a mixture of formats that include large-scale projections which represent the sea and show the scale of adventure. We also use a mixture of black light and UV puppetry to show movement within the sea. We will have costume characters which accurately reflect the shape and size of the screen characters. But crucially, we make sure the costume characters have mouths that can speak directly to the audience so that we can include natural interactivity with the audience. Once you’ve decide these core principles, you then have to assemble around you a production and stage management crew that can deliver all of these assets.
How does it compare to the creation of the Peppa Pig’s Big Splash show which you also adapted for stage and directed?
All the adaptations have challenges in their own right which come from the content material. In the case of Peppa, retaining the intimacy and the childish fun was crucial to the show. It very much focuses on family values, Peppa’s relationships with her friends and other events in her immediate environment. With Octonauts the focus is on broader themes; environmental damage, saving sea life and working with others as a team to achieve a goal. Additionally, the Octonaut scenarios are set in a more complicated environment, they are either under the sea or in an area that is more technically difficult to reproduce or they involve fast-paced stage action sequences. So the core material of each of these brands is fundamentally different in style, making each show unique in itself.
Do you prefer directing children’s theatre productions to more grown up theatre productions? Why?
Perhaps the thing I like the best about directing the children’s shows is that I also get the opportunity to adapt them in the first place and then direct them in the rehearsal room afterwards. With the “grown up”shows you tend to be given a script that has been written by someone else and you apply a directorial interpretation to someone else’s work. In the case of the children’s shows, you are applying your own interpretation to your own adaptation. In this way, you are able to develop your ideas that you had at the script stage even further when you come to present them visually on stage. Perhaps the other exciting thing I find about children’s shows is that there is invariably a level of interactivity with the audience that you don’t have with the “grown up”shows. By having this connection with the audience you are able to offer a type of involvement that sometimes doesn’t happen with the grown up productions. Also, as everyone tells you, children can be your harshest critics. If they are bored or unhappy they will stand up and run around or just make a noise so one of the greatest challenges is often to find the focus for their concentration levels and ensure that they are continually engaged by the show. This is a real challenge.
What made you decide to work on productions aimed at the younger audience?
It wasn’t so much a choice as an accident. I had previously directed children’s shows as part of my directing career but was not planning to work in this area as extensively as I have been. Then seven years ago a producing colleague of mine asked if I would direct the CBeebies show The Fimbles and I agreed to do it. Shortly after that I became involved in the LazyTown Live shows which went on to be very successful. From that I found that other brands began to associate me with someone who worked in this field. So in the first instance it was an accident rather than a choice. However I originally trained as a drama teacher and worked for two years in the state sector and have always been interested in the social and individual development of children and this work seemed to be a natural extension of some of the ideas that I developed long ago. In fact part of the work that Limelight is now doing is developing a concept which we call “Happy Hearts” which is about the areas of development in children. We hope to be able to offer content for parents and children to assist this process.
Do you have to use your inner child to develop the production from screen to theatre?
It’s actually a very good question. Every adult still retains an inner child; it just depends on what access that adult has been able to retain to that child over the years. Sometimes they’ve been worn down by responsibility, by work, by events that happen in their life and have lost the capacity for that innocence which so reflects young children. When I was young I’m sure I was always an inquisitive child and always wanted to know why things happened, what made things worked, why was the sea blue and how do the starts sparkle….and although in my adult life those questions have changed I still retain an enquiring mind about everything around me. Hopefully also I’ve retained a sense of humour and imagination. These things together and have allowed me to look at the adaptations, the script and stage work through the eyes of a child. One of the things I find most fascinating is watching the first audiences that we have for a show because they will tell you instantly when things are not working or when things are going wrong. At those moments it’s quite possible for me to instantly understand what is wrong because they have shown me how to see the project again through their eyes.
How closely do you work with the original producers of the Octonauts television show to adapt it for theatre?
It is essential that we have a very close collaboration with the originators of any brand. They are the original source of enthusiasm, ideas and energy for the world that they have created and they are the best people to guide us on the adaptation process. Sometimes I refer to them as “The Gods” of their world. The choices they make, the characters they develop and the narratives they choose are all a reflection of what they hope to achieve. One of our key roles is to “get inside” the world of the brand and understand it in a truthful and fundamental way. If we fail to do this we will never accurately represent what they hope for on stage. When we begin work on a new project we will always start with a brainstorming session with the creators of the particular animation or TV show. Prior to this they will have sent us detailed information on the characters, the environments, the imagery and the core values of the brand. At the brainstorm we will explore some of the opportunities that the live show might be able to represent. Once I am armed with the ideas that come from this session I will attempt to distil them down to a single page synopsis which reflects the key points of the brainstorming day, but also is viable in theatre terms. Invariably the creators of the show will offer comments and suggestions to the synopsis and I will work on a second synopsis which will begin to flesh the ideas out a little further. Usually after the second synopsis I am able to write a first draft script which goes through the same sort of scrutiny. Once we have received suggestions on this script there is a very good chance we will have our rehearsal script. We then begin to work with set designers, lyricists, composers and a whole range of other people to start exploring the ideas of the script. But in terms of gaining the input and trust of the original creators it’s essential for there to be an easy and open dialogue between us all of the time.
You have an extensive and varied list of productions under your belt. Which has been your favourite and why?
I guess here you’re referring to the children’s shows and it would be improper for me to choose between one or the other. However what I can genuinely say that each of them bring such a sufficiently different approach to the others that they are unique and exciting in themselves. Not a single one of the productions emulates the style of the other, consequently LazyTown differs from The Fimbles, The Fimbles differs from Peppa and Octonauts too is different again. But it is the challenges they bring that makes everything so rewarding. Also, it’s exciting to be able to work with such a variety of talents that have generated these incredible series. During the development and approval processes of the shows I am always aware of the creative abilities that surround me … and back to your early question about the importance of working with the brand, it is only once you are working with the creators that you realise how completely they understand the world of their creation. Also it’s true to say that every single project you work on, including the non-children’s shows, brings with it a learning and life experience that you invariably take forward with you. So for example the show that has made me laugh the most was different from the show that made me cry the most; the show that made me excited the most was different from the one that was the most visual; the one that had the best music was different from the one that had the best characters and puppeteering. Also the range and type of performers that you get to work with during this period of time ranges from “I never want to see that person again”to “this person will go on to be a close friend”, so it’s just too difficult to say that one was a particular favourite. In their own way they’ve all had their benefits, they’ve all had their challenges, all had their disappointments and all had their successes, I’ve just been lucky enough to work in an exciting and stimulating environment as part of what I do.
What’s your next project? Go on.. you can tell me 😉
Well, we continue to represent Peppa Pig worldwide and we have productions in Australia, Spain, Italy and shortly in Latin America and the US. Currently I’ve just completed the first synopsis for what we call, Peppa Pig 4….but will go to be called (I think) Peppa Pig’s Surprise. Peppa Pig’s Surprise will have its world premiere in the UK in October 2015 and then will go out for a 50 week tour. Beyond this we’re also working with some other major brands on developing projects for them but the only one I can particular confirm at this moment is an international touring show of Hello Kitty.
I’m really excited to see the show in February. My son will have just turned 3. Is this a good age to introduce children to the theatre?
I think 3 is a perfect age for a child to begin having theatrical experiences. Quite often I visit the shows and we see babes-in-arms of no more than 9 months, completely unaware of the experience they’ve been taken to. This is not, their fault, nor is it that of their parents; it’s just that their parent has been so determined and pleased to give their child an experience of something they perhaps love on TV at home they have chosen to take their child to it early on. The average starting age of children seeing pantomimes is 4 years old and bear in mind this will be going to see what is effectively a new experience and narrative. At 3 for the child to be able to experience characters they have seen on TV in their own front rooms and then experience them on stage is a very good bedrock for beginning their theatre journey through life. Also if you choose the right show for your 3 year old the production will invariably involve interactivity and it is a great place for this connection to begin. It will also be the first time that the child experiences the community of a theatre audience rather than watching in isolation, this has so many benefits from teaching concentration, working in groups, joining in, problem solving with others … the list goes on. I couldn’t recommend it as a better time.
What do you think dictates the success of a children’s theatre production for popular TV programmes?
Undoubtedly the success of a children’s theatre production is based on its profile and traction within the current market. Of course it needs to have great stories, good ideas and inherent values but the key to the success is that it is ready to be turned into a stage show. We have numerous brands approach us looking to develop a live show before the environment for that show is viable. Usually this would mean that the programme had been on the TV for approximately 5 years or longer, that is has 102 or more episodes which means it is well embedded in everyone’s mind and you’re not having a lot of repeat episodes, and that the consumer product programme is relatively extensive –this would mean for us that there are key licensees in place for toys and apparel, magazines, giftware and other core licenses as well as a variety of more specialist ideas. We generally look for a licensee programme to be in excess of around 30 licensees. On the basis of these being in place we are able to determine that the brand has sufficient popularity to support a live show. At the end of the day you are asking parents to buy tickets for their children to see their favourite characters on the stage. Once the “commercial environment” is stable it is then vital that the stories and content that will feed the drama of the live show are exploited to the full. This will be through song, characters, interactivity, set, costume and a mix of format which might include projection, puppetry and other costume character work. So there is a mix of criteria that need to form the back cloth to any successful theatre production.
Have any of yours flopped and if so, why do you think that was?
I presume this question is relating to the children’s shows but of course flops and failures also occur in the “grown up”theatrical environment. It also runs into that tricky question: what constitutes a “flop”? Is a flop commercial failure or artistic failure? The reality is that over the years I have experienced failures of various kinds. Sometimes the box office hasn’t been as potent as we would have liked, sometimes the reviews haven’t been as kind as we will have liked. But none of these reasons would mean I wouldn’t have chosen to do exactly what I did do. Creative criticism is by its nature interpretive and what one person hails as a major success another might see as a damning failure. I don’t really quantify success in commercial terms. As a company we have had a number of productions that have lost money but, in all instances, I have never once regretted putting the shows on. I think the truth is if you just put shows on the make money, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. In each of our cases we put shows on because we want to and believe in them. Yes, from a business point of view it’s helpful if they make money (or certainly don’t lose money) but that is not what is driving the whole concept of doing it in the first place.
Can you do Fireman Sam please because my son would LOVE that!
I’d love to do Fireman Sam but there’s already been a version of the production and you can see the live show on DVD if you want (in fact, I have one on my desk at the moment)!
It’s competition time folks!
You could WIN a family ticket to see Octonauts Live at a theatre near you! To enter, just use the following link: