Tall Stories’ Toby Mitchell and Olivia Jacobs: ‘We’re not a children’s company. We’re a theatre company’
Known for its adaptations of Julia Donaldson’s children’s books, Tall Stories wants everyone to enjoy its shows, whatever their ages. Its co-founders tell Lyn Gardner about their lastest offering, a potpourri of Wildean fairytales
Tall Stories is not the sort of company that puts on shows for children while the adults sit at the back and play with their phones, says co-founder and joint artistic director Toby Mitchell.
“We make shows that adults and children can enjoy together. We often hear parents saying: ‘I really enjoyed that,’ when they leave as if that’s a surprise. But we want everyone to have a good time at a Tall Stories show, whatever their age.”
It was a chance meeting in 1996 at Soho Theatre’s box office – when it was in exile at the Cockpit before moving to its current Dean Street premises – that brought Mitchell together with Olivia Jacobs.
He was Soho’s resident assistant director, she was organising an arts festival. Together they created Tall Stories, a successful but undersung theatre company, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary of high-quality work for family audiences.
During that time, the company has rarely had any Arts Council funding, yet it has have not just survived but thrived. The company is a charity and it works on different scales that allow it to take shows into schools in deprived areas for free, while also appearing in the West End and touring internationally.
“Sometimes I think we are victim of our own success and the snobbery that surrounds commercial theatre,” says Jacobs. “Lots of people think commercial work for family audiences is bound to be bad. But we’ve always been about quality and taking a lot of time, effort and thought about ensuring that the audience experience is the best possible one.”
In Edinburgh this year, The Gruffalo’s Child could have likely sold all 750 seats in the Pleasance Grand each morning, but they took the side seats out, reducing the number of seats to 400 to improve the audience’s experience. It’s why those audiences come back again and again.
The company’s first show, one of two they took to the Edinburgh Fringe in 1997, was a version of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince. So, it’s felicitous that in this anniversary year the company’s latest show should be Wilde Creatures. It is a theatrical potpourri of Wilde’s fairytales including The Happy Prince, The Nightingale and the Rose, and The Birthday of the Infanta, which opens at the Vaudeville this week as part of Dominic Dromgoole’s West End Wilde season.
“Toby and I were both interested in telling stories and, 20 years on, it’s what we still do, and we never ever tire of it,” says Jacobs, who is directing Wilde Creatures. “We use all the grammar of physical storytelling.”
The pair take it in turns to direct, with the other always providing an outside eye and dramaturgical support. “It works for us, but in the end, whoever is the lead director always has the final say,” Mitchell says.
They have never fallen out creatively, Mitchell says, before adding with a smile: “But there was a tricky moment once when Olivia tidied my desk without asking. I think an untidy desk is a sign of genius. She doesn’t agree.”
The scale of Tall Stories’ success should not be underestimated. Besides Wilde Creatures, the company has several shows out on the road including The Gruffalo’s Child at the Lyric in Shaftesbury Avenue, The Snow Dragon, which will play Birmingham Hippodrome for Christmas, and The Gruffalo, which is at the Lowry in Salford throughout the festive period.
The latter, the company’s game-changing show, which was first produced in 2001 at Chester Gateway, is also touring to Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, the US and Canada.
Tall Stories didn’t set out to be a company specialising in work for family audiences, but it has certainly paid creative and financial dividends.
“We never saw ourselves as a children’s company. We just saw ourselves as a theatre company, and we still do,” says Mitchell. He points to the response bosses of Pixar, the animation company, gave when they were asked why they didn’t make movies for grown-ups, which was: “Why would we want to limit our audience?”
Of course, plenty of adults go to see Pixar movies on their own, but with the exception of big musicals such as Matilda or Mary Poppins, fewer adults are going to buy a solo ticket for The Gruffalo.
Wilde Creatures may help shift that perception, however, with the Irish writer’s stories better known today by adults than children. When the company put an early workshop version in front of an audience, only five out of 160 people said they knew the tales. But Jacobs points out that not only are the stories beautiful, they are also surprisingly relevant.
“One of the things the Happy Prince asks is: who do you put on a pedestal? At a time when people are tearing down statues put up in other eras, perhaps depicting those with connections to colonialism and the slave trade, that’s pertinent. Who do you replace them with?”
5 things you need to know about Tall Stories
1. The company held the first relaxed performance for a three-and-older age group in the West End with The Gruffalo and hold access performances for every run or tour.
2. Shows have been (or are being) translated into German, Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic and isiXhosa.
3. Wilde Creatures is based on Wilde’s fairytales and is Tall Stories’ 20th-anniversary production.
4. Joint artistic director Toby Mitchell came across The Gruffalo when it was first being published, as he was working for Macmillan Children’s Books at the time.
5. Future Perfect tours to Year 6 classes in primary schools, free of charge to the schools.
Whatever directions it heads in the future, Tall Stories is always going to be the company known for putting Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo’s Child on stage. It was astute thinking and luck that got them the rights to the children’s book before it became a success; it would go on to sell 13 million copies worldwide.
Mitchell was supplementing his income by working as an editor at Macmillan Children’s Books when he came across the story, loved it and secured the stage rights. It was in rehearsal when the picture book won the Smarties Gold Award, securing both the book and the show’s success.
“It was rather lucky that the rest of the world agreed with me that it was a really nice little story,” says Mitchell with a grin, although he points out that when The Gruffalo first started touring it went out mostly to schools with three actors travelling from place to place in a car with the set.
Tall Stories went on to produce three more Donaldson titles – all successful – but decided to leave it there.
“It was enough, or we would have become known as ‘the Julia Donaldson company’,” says Mitchell, “when we like having a spread of things we do.”
Around a third of the company’s shows have been based on picture books, a third on fairytales and the rest are original works.
“We are primarily a devising company,” explains Jacobs, “and over the years we’ve developed a process that works for us. About a year before we are thinking of opening a show we spend a week devising and asking questions and, as a result of that, we decide whether to proceed.
“In the case of Wilde Creatures the questions were: why tell these stories now? Which stories? Who is the storyteller and what is the structure?”
After years of operating out of an office at Jacksons Lane in north London, the company recently moved to the much grander surroundings of Somerset House, the better to accommodate a growing staff now numbering seven.
Jacobs is not sad that the days when she had to do the company accounts as well as make the shows have gone. But both she and Mitchell remain very hands on, not just in terms of creating the shows but also in ensuring the quality of those that tour abroad.
“We are the kind of directors who are still giving notes on the penultimate performance,” Mitchell says.
It’s not something they feel the need to apologise for and it’s why, 20 years on, Tall Stories’ work continues to be in high demand, and why it’s likely to still be around two decades from now.
Profile: Tall Stories
Chief executives and artistic directors: Olivia Jacobs, Toby Mitchell
Audiences: Approximately 500,000 a year worldwide
Number of employees: Five full-time, two part-time
Turnover: £2 million, but varies considerably from year to year
Key contact: Lucy Wood, company producer
Wilde Creatures is at the Vaudeville Theatre, London until December 31