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Director Sally Cookson: ‘Sitting among the audience is painful and absolutely terrifying’

Sally Cookson. Photo: Manuel Harlan

After making her name as a director adapting much-loved, classic stories, Sally Cookson is now bringing a contemporary novel to the stage. She walks Mark Shenton through the step-by-step process by which she turns novels into plays and tells the tale of theatrical serendipity that brought her to this work

Almost imperceptibly, Sally Cookson has moved to the front ranks of theatre directors working in the UK today. She has done so, in recent years, through a pioneering style of devising work from novels – respecting the spirit of the original, but creates its own distinct vision on stage.

Since 2011, three of her rigorously devised shows have travelled from the Bristol Old Vic [1], where she is an associate artist, to the National Theatre. First, Treasure Island [2], which arrived on the South Bank in 2014, then Peter Pan [3] two years later. Her highly acclaimed Jane Eyre [4] first came to the NT in 2015 and returned last year.  

Her next project is the world premiere stage adaptation of Patrick Ness’ novel A Monster Calls at London’s Old Vic. The show originated in a Bristol workshop more than 18 months ago and was recently previewed at Bristol Old Vic.

At the same time, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt [5] – based on the children’s book by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury – which she created 10 years ago returns to the West End’s Lyric.

Theatrical versions of existing stories have become an artistic signature for the director. “It certainly has been for the last few years and I’m not sure how it happened,” she says, in a lunch break from rehearsals in a school in Bermondsey, south London.

“I just keep getting asked to do them and I can’t resist. This particular story I was carrying around in my rucksack for about three years before I got asked to do it by the Old Vic.”

She was introduced to A Monster Calls by her actor friend Sarah Goddard, with whom she was working on a show called Hetty Feather [6]. “She said it had just been published and was right up my street.”

After reading the book, Cookson was hooked. “I thought: ‘I’ve really got to do this and make it into a piece of theatre’.” It was while she was mulling it over that Old Vic artistic director Matthew Warchus got in contact about potential projects.

“Top of his list was A Monster Calls,” she exclaims. “They’d got the rights and he asked me if I’d be interested. So I got it out of my bag, and said: ‘Yes, let me… please’.”

It was theatrical serendipity. “It felt as though it was meant to be,” she says. But the process by which Cookson turns the books into distinct, and distinguished, pieces for the stage is a lengthy and fraught one. “Part of me longs to work on a show with an existing script,” she says. “The agony of not having a script is so monumental, so terrifying and exhausting that I always say after every project: ‘I’m never doing this again.’ But my family says: ‘You will, you are addicted to it.’”

A Monster Calls: from page to stage

The process of devising the work from a source material brings the director huge creative involvement. “A Monster Calls has been an extraordinary book to work on,” says Cookson, adding: “[Its author] Patrick Ness has been very supportive. But he was probably very nervous about the idea of devising. There was no script, so it took an enormous leap of faith for him.”

Ness was won over early in the process. “We did a workshop to brainstorm ideas and to dive into the book before rehearsals, so we could excavate it and find out how we wanted to tell it,” she says. “Patrick was a part of that and it reassured him that it was the right way to bring this from the page to the stage. We bombarded him with questions; he enjoyed how we didn’t start with ideas on a page, but with discussions and playing with ideas in the book, so he saw how it emerged. He was excited by that process.”

First published in 2011, it tells the story of a 13-year-old boy Conor, who is faced with his mother’s terminal illness. Then one night, he is woken by something at his window: a monster has come walking. It has come to tell Conor tales from when it walked before. And when it has finished, Conor must tell his own story and face his deepest fears.

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Cookson says there were “all sorts of reasons” why the book resonated with her. “First, it’s just a beautiful story, a real page turner and it combines my favourite mixture of gritty realism with magic realism. It’s a fairy story but it’s also about the here and now, a very recognisable world, with a 13-year-old boy, who is essentially suffering a nervous breakdown, at its heart. He is experiencing anticipatory grief and he has no means of expressing it. He is not allowed to give voice to the turmoil inside him, so he internalises it. It taps into mental health issues and how we bring up our young boys, and how we deal with difficult feelings. We all need to have an outlet for what is going on in our minds, and especially trauma.”

The subjects the novel cover have universal resonance, which Cookson found when discussing it with the company. “We all have experience of this, of not being able to talk about things we need to. The subject matter is close to a lot of people in my company, we are all affected by terminal illness,” she says.

Matthew Tennyson and cast of A Monster Calls in previews at Bristol Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Matthew Tennyson and cast of A Monster Calls in previews at Bristol Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan

“Patrick never once mentions the word ‘cancer’, though it is clear that is what his mother is enduring. We all know someone who has suffered it or lived through it. It’s also about dealing with difficult emotions and how in our culture it is not something we encourage people, particularly young boys, to do. That is damaging and it doesn’t help us as humans. This is a book that starts that discussion.”

This production hopes not to “ram a message down the audience’s throat”, but be part of that discussion.

While stories such as Treasure Island and Peter Pan are well known enough for audiences to bring their own knowledge to them, A Monster Calls is different. “We’ll be introducing a lot of people to this story and that’s exciting, but we are turning a book into something different, and that’s important too,” says Cookson.

When she directed Jane Eyre, “which is often spoken of as people’s favourite novel”, there was a huge weight of responsibility. “But we are telling our version of it, turning it into a piece of theatre, so it becomes unique”, she says. “People are very quick to compare, but they’ve got to leave that at the door and experience it for what it is.”

Sally Cookson: building a play

The stage plays evolve from a long process of improvisation and discussion. During the preliminary workshops for A Monster Calls, Cookson says, “We didn’t rehearse it, but tackled some of the big challenges, such as how we are going to interpret a tree on stage.

“There are massive moments that are theatrically difficult: how to find a language for the tales? How do we find the dialogue? Do we just lift it from the book or do we need to create more? I also wanted to discover who was telling the story. I love ensemble work with actors coming on stage and telling a story and the audience being invited to engage with them in the storytelling, and I wanted to find a role for the ensemble.”

After the workshop, Cookson joined forces with Adam Peck, who is billed as writer in the room. “We put a very basic structure together: how the story was going to start, how the narrative would change, where we were going to have an interval or whether we were going to have one. We put a document together that we were able to bring into rehearsals. It was a bit of information really, but it was a great security blanket.”

The workshop also provided a starting point for the design and music. “Benji Bower, our composer, could start working on themes, and the designer Michael Vale could start thinking about how he was going to present it aesthetically,” she says.

Madeleine Worrall (centre) in Jane Eyre at the National Theatre in 2015. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Madeleine Worrall (centre) in Jane Eyre at the National Theatre in 2015. Photo: Manuel Harlan

When we meet during the rehearsal period, the bulk of the writing is happening. At this point, Cookson is starting the sixth and last week of London rehearsals, before going to Bristol for techs and previews. “The process is not as long as I’d like it to be, I’m never given enough time,” she says.

“Over six weeks we’re writing a play and then rehearsing it. By the end of this week, we’ll have got to the end of writing it and during tech and previews it will go through another draft and then another. It never really gets to the stage of a definitive version until the press night in London.”

Ness has been away in Australia for much of the rehearsal process, and has been answering queries by email. “What he allows wonderfully in the book is to let the reader answer a lot of the questions. It is not all presented to you on the page, you have to make your own decisions about what is presented,” Cookson says. “We all have loads of different ideas about some of those things. I’ve just decided to email a couple we’ve been grappling with and find out what he thinks.”

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The work is now in a constant state of evolution. “It’s hard for the actors, bombarding them with changes until the last minute. They don’t get a chance to bed the same thing in. Previews are very intense: performing it at night, then changing it the next afternoon. I’m at my most sensitive when sitting with the audience, knowing when they’re on board and when they’re not. It’s the most painful thing and absolutely terrifying. I force myself to go into the ladies’ loos at the interval to eavesdrop.”

She continues: “When you’re in the rehearsal room watching the same thing, you get used to stuff and sometimes you can’t see where it is working. It’s only when you get that collective audience sitting with you, and you can tell how they are breathing, moving, shifting – whether they’re engaged or not. That’s the time I receive a lot of information.”

Once the first night arrives, however, the final product will be locked down. “I get finicky about the end product. People often think devised shows have a free structure and all the way through the run actors can improvise. That is absolutely not the case. For me it becomes a prescribed, choreographed piece they are not allowed to change. We are free and playful during the rehearsal process but once we get to lock-down, they can’t change it.”



What was your first job?

At the age of 15, I worked in Boots on a Saturday.

What was your first theatrical job?

Working as an understudy and assistant stage manager for David Wood and his Whirligig company on a 24-week tour of The Owl and the Pussycat.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?

Don’t feel you have to follow a particular method or anyone’s process. Find your own way.

Who or what was your biggest influence?

My mum – she was an actor before she had a family, but she made me believe in myself, encouraged my passion and allowed me the freedom to do what I wanted.

What’s your best advice for auditions?

Don’t try to be anyone else but yourself. Everyone is an individual, and that excites me. I get depressed when young actors come in feeling they have to look a certain way. I love it when actors come in happy in their
own skin.

If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have done?

I would probably still be a struggling, not very good, actor.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?

Absolutely none. I’m not superstitious. As for rituals, I often feel I’d like not to be there on press night, and I’m tempted to walk out when the show starts, but I’ve never done it.

Forming a creative process

Cookson’s practice evolved early. “It began way back. I was grabbed by the idea of it at drama school. I went to LAMDA, and I only knew about plays and Shakespeare and Chekhov. I didn’t realise you could make a play or improvise text. But working with Jane Gibson, a tutor who was trained at Jacques Lecoq and brought it to LAMDA, was a revelation to me. It fed into how I wanted to make work.”

After LAMDA, she began acting. A decade after graduating, she moved to Bristol to take up a job in the ensemble at Bristol Old Vic, recruited by then artistic director Andy Hay in his first season.


Cookson’s top tips

• Know what is happening in the world.

• Watch films – don’t feel you just have to watch theatre.

• Find out what is going on in popular culture.

“While I was there the youth theatre was disbanded for lack of funding, and I was affected,” she says. “Youth theatre was a massive part of my teenage life, so an actor friend, Heather Williams, and I went to Andy and asked if we could use the studio theatre when it was dark during the summer to try to revive it.

“It was really successful and exciting. I knew I wanted to pursue working with young people. It became a big turning point in my career and I stopped acting.” Cookson became a director and started doing outreach work and taking projects into schools. “I used all my training and my inspirations: when I went to the theatre as a young actor, it was Simon McBurney, Pina Bausch and physical work that I was very inspired by.”

‘The agony of not having a script is so monumental, so terrifying and exhausting’

After Bristol, she spent almost the next 10 years with Travelling Light Theatre Company, “a really superb company that makes work for young people”, she says. “I learned an enormous amount of precision was needed in theatremaking for very young audiences. You quickly realise you can’t be general for that age group – as soon as they are bored and disengaged, they’ll say: ‘I don’t like this, I want to go home’. Hearing that truth cuts you to the quick, and you’ll do whatever you do to make sure they’re not disengaged.”

Today, she still values that lesson and speaks of the importance of this kind of work. “There’s a terrible snobbery about work for young people. It’s getting better but people dismiss it as not important. But some of the most imaginative work happens for early years at children’s theatre.”

The same is true of her origins in regional theatre, where she still makes her home. “I’m from London, but I live in Bristol and I love it. It’s so exciting seeing the theatre culture evolve from when I first moved there in 1992 to where it is now. Theatre has real importance in the city, and gives it a sense of meaning.”

CV: Sally Cookson

Born: 1960, Chiswick, West London
Training: LAMDA
Landmark productions:
• Treasure Island, Bristol Old Vic (2011); National Theatre (2014)
• Peter Pan, Bristol Old Vic (2011); National Theatre (2016)
• Jane Eyre, Bristol Old Vic (2014); Lyttelton, National Theatre (2017); and national tour
Awards: Olivier nominations for:
• Cinderella – A Fairytale (2013)
• Hetty Feather (2015)
Agent: “I don’t have an agent and I don’t want one. I like knowing everything about who is employing me and negotiating it for myself”

A Monster Calls is at the Old Vic, London [9] from July 13 to August 25

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt  [10]is at the West End’s Lyric Theatre from July 4 to September 2

Oily Cart’s Tim Webb: ‘Young audiences with complex disabilities are hidden – there is a real need for this work’ [11]