Following the matinée performance on Sunday, the Globe’s artistic director Emma Rice, author Michael Morpurgo & many of the cast of 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips (the ones who don’t shower between performances, according to Mike Shepherd!) assembled on the stage for a Q&A session.
Mike (artistic director at Kneehigh) started off proceedings by asking Emma & Michael why & how they met. Michael went to see a Kneehigh show at the Asylum, thought they were brilliant & suggested they work together – Emma came back to him & suggested The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, because her mum told her to do it! Her nieces had also read it, and the motor-cycling granny swung it. She thinks it’s a beautiful story, with a surprising twist at the end. It’s about family, being a child, war, hope, reconciliation and life’s possibilities. It also marks the first family show at the Globe!
Which led Mike to ask how Emma defines a family show. Simply put: one that all the family can come to & enjoy, working on lots of different levels. She likes looking at different pockets of the audience laughing at different things – children remind us of things we’ve forgotten are funny (e.g. a mouse saying “over here!”), and adults laughing at things that children don’t understand yet. She remembers that feeling as a child, and it’s exciting as you know they will understand that secret in the future. Family shows shouldn’t leave anyone behind, delighting people on different levels. Mike started Kneehigh in 1980, and they’ve always done family shows – they incorporate universal themes, so the most unlikely-sounding story can be suitable for the family.
Mike then asked where the story of Adolphus Tips came from. What’s important to Michael is that a story has to start with something that’s true – either in his own life or history, often a combination of the two. He went to Slapton to speak at a friend’s funeral, and to cope with the challenge he went to the pub! There were pictures on the wall of American soldiers carrying furniture, rather than with tanks & weapons – he asked the man behind the bar about it, but had to buy the village history book to find out more. Seven villages were moved (2,000 people) six weeks before the Americans started their rehearsals. Sadly one farmer killed himself as he’d never slept anywhere else in his life and couldn’t cope with it. And he insists that there was a farmer’s daughter who lost her cat on the last day before they moved, and it was called Adolphus Tips! When he saw this he hoped that no other authors had heard about it so he could write about it! And now he believes the cast & crew have taken it to a whole different level.
Mike asked Emma how she’d done this – it’s all about applying the theatre mind. Books & theatre are very different. Books can be put down, read all in one go, or read privately; a play has to be done in around two hours (“don’t tell Shakespeare!”) and it needs to have surprises. Much of her source material was a diary, so she had to rethink that for the stage (Lily speaks to her cat more than her diary). She also didn’t want to waste a good actor for a single scene at the end, which led to the creation of Blues Man. Michael was initially confused at the mention of Brecht at the very beginning, but the play brings in new ideas that enrich the story.
Mike said that Emma follows hunches & is instinctive. It’s important to be able to get things wrong, as long as someone is there to help to edit, craft & develop – and is brave enough to follow a hunch. Not just thinking about how many stars the press will give. It’s rare bravery! Emma says she’s a great believer in stories; they’re a fundamental thing that we do, they help us through life. The Globe’s space is built for stories and it’s important to celebrate other writers in the Wooden O.
After this, the mic was opened up to the audience. Firstly, someone wondered how much casting was based on the skills people already had, and how much had to be picked up as they went along. Emma likes to use all the skills in the room (singing, dancing, etc.), but there’s a great tradition at Kneehigh for blagging it! “Have a go at the accordion!” Mike introduced Chris and asked him how he experienced this, as a new member of the company. He was impressed when he joined, as the cast is incredibly talented across all departments (music, acting, dancing) – though he said he blagged it far too soon! He claimed he could play all of the instruments… It was a challenge, and a bit of a struggle at times, but it’s a supportive family – nobody said “what the hell have we done with this boy?”. There’s a great love in the room, with a willingness to try & fail & carry on. According to Mike, Chris now plays instruments he didn’t even know how to pick up! Important words on the Kneehigh barn wall are ‘generosity’, ‘flexibility’, ‘joy’, ‘anarchy’, ‘naughtiness’ & ‘irreverence’ – it’s not a manifesto, but they like to keep those words at the backs of their minds.
Ted asked Michael what made him want to be an author – he actually didn’t! His first ambition was to play rugby for England, though he ended up as a teacher and quickly learnt that if you want to keep children quiet between 3 & 3.30pm, telling them a story is the easiest way. He ran out of stories, so his wife suggested he make up his own (“you’re a good enough liar”). When you tell stories, if you believe it when you’re telling it other people will. And in the show the actors live it – for example, Katy’s not 12 years old, but she inhabits the part and we inhabit it when we see her because she means it. Storytelling is about meaning: if you tell a lie & mean it people will believe it (or at least get away with it for some time!).
Next, Katy was asked how she procured her crowd-holding facial expressions. She believes it’s not to dissimilar to how she is! It’s a slight exaggeration of how she remembers being when she was 12 (“little Jimmy Krankie”). Observation is key, and she has to believe she’s the character. She enjoys finding physical things & then dropping them, and noticed that a child is always in motion. All the time sticking the to Kneehigh way of focusing on the story. Michael said he’s still working on being an adult! He thinks it’s important to remember that we were all children once – the cast use this in themselves & then bring it out of the audience. He was stood in the wings that afternoon watching the audience’s reactions, all transfixed to what was going on. Mike thinks it’s in everyone’s interest to remember that; one thing they do in Kneehigh rehearsals is ask people to raise their eyebrows to look at the world.
Christa wondered if it was hard to imagine the character with just the jumpsuit & a couple of other little things, rather than a whole costume. Nandi hadn’t thought about it before! They’re all storytellers and each change (small or large) is there to help enhance the storytelling. It’s also nice to think of the jumpsuits as representing them all telling the story together. Emma pointed out that there’s an element of practicality involved. The designer originally designed whole costumes, they didn’t think it would work and it wasn’t successful when they originally tried it – this is where the jumpsuits came in. Kyla often has three characters ‘on’ at any one time. There are lots of layers!
Georgia mentioned that there are a lot of dark themes, but also some beautiful moments – she asked if they feel a sense of responsibility to the characters, and how they portray them. Mike thought Ncuti could answer this, as he goes from playing a chicken to reporting the deaths of 946 soldiers – he doesn’t really think about it! His mantra is that they have to do it, and can’t not do it! While Mike joked that his chicken needs more work, Emma thinks there’s a truthfulness about Ncuti’s approach that makes him “a little bit perfect”. If you think ‘who am I?’ and ‘what’s the situation?’ you can do it. Adebayo mentioned that the Blues Man isn’t like most of the other characters when he’s on the stage – Emma would remind him in rehearsals that the audience doesn’t know the twist at the end, which was hard to play when he was coming in & out of scenes. “Any actor who says he or she doesn’t like the spotlight is lying!” Kneehigh keeps the story central, and remembers that the story is the most important thing in the room. As Blues Man, he likes to remember his connection with Lily, as well as being a pointer for the audience; if the focus should be on her, he’ll be keeping his eyes on her.
Helen ended proceedings by thanking the cast & creatives for the afternoon’s performance – she felt so included in the story and identified with bits of all of the characters. Her nine-year-old always recommends The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips to others to read!
Michael is currently working on a new book (Lucky Button) which involves Mozart and the “seeds of genius” in children. Emma is confident there will be family shows at the Globe while she’s still around.
946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips runs at Shakespeare’s Globe until 11 September 2016. Tickets start from £5 in the yard, and are available online or from the box office. The play text and original book are available from the Globe Shop.