An Interview with Sally Cookson, Director of The Boy Who Cried Wolf!

Sally is probably the country’s most prolific director of family theatre, and, despite having her roots firmly here in Bristol, her shows travel as far as Australia. The Boy Who Cried Wolf! sees her reunite with dramaturg Adam Peck and musical director Benji Bower, and return to King Street with this new outdoor show. Somehow, between rehearsals, production meetings and more, we managed to ask her a few questions about the show.

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Photography by Mark Douet.

Tell us about the show.
The show is very simply a collection of Aesop’s fables told theatrically by five performers outside. One of the hardest aspects has been choosing which stories to tell and in what order! Aesop wrote over six hundred, luckily Michael Morpurgo whittled his collection down to twenty, and we’ve chosen eight of them.

We’ve divided ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ into three parts using it as our umbrella story – but because the stories are so short it didn’t feel right doing this more than once. There is satisfaction in seeing a complete story told in one go, and how we link from one story to the next is as important as the story itself. The links give the audience a little breather but invite them to observe the actors preparing for their next role. I always enjoy seeing the personality of the actor on stage, and this show allows for that.

Describe the show in three words.
Outdoor Family Entertainment

Did you read Aesop’s Fables as a child?
I had a large hard backed copy with really vibrant illustrations – the pictures appealed to me more than the actual stories. I remember the artist’s depiction of the boy’s open mouth as he cried ‘Wolf, wolf’ just before he’s devoured – you could see all his teeth and epiglottis. That image haunted me.

Which was your favourite fable then? And what’s your favourite fable now?
I always enjoyed the moral ‘Speed isn’t everything, there are other ways of winning’ from Hare and Tortoise, it made me feel ok about being a slow reader at school. My favourite fable now is ‘The Travellers and the Bear’ because I love how Chris, Lucy and Tom perform it.

What was it about Michael Morpurgo’s versions of the fables which inspired you to make it into a show?
By selecting a diverse mixture of some of the more familiar as well as lesser known stories, Michael had done the ground work for us. In many of the more traditional versions the fables come across as didactic and preachy. Michael has added a great deal of humour and served them up with a big dollop of humanity. His morals come across like a helpful bite sized instruction manual on how to live a good life, rather than in an authoritative dogma. Michael is also a theatre lover – and allowed us to take his version of the stories and adapt them as we pleased into our theatrical version. They provided a delicious starting point for us in rehearsals to which we’ve added many other ingredients!

Do you have a different approach to directing a production that is being presented outdoors?
There is a completely different atmosphere when you go to see an outdoor show – it is much less formal than being inside a theatre and because the audience are clearly visible the relationship between audience and performer is emphasised. Audiences want to have a good time at an outdoor show, be entertained and share a bit of a romp with the cast. It is not easy to create subtlety outside, it’s much better to engage your audience through humour.

We’re also at the mercy of the weather and this unknown adds a frisson to the experience which is visceral and real. You’re all in it together when you’re outside – so the shared experience in the sun/rain/wind binds you together.

Can you tell us a bit about the set and costumes?
Phil Eddolls (Treasure Island) has designed the set, and even though it’s on a much smaller scale than Treasure Island it’s a really exciting and imaginative space. He’s created a sort of ‘Go Ape’ foresty environment with levels and ladders that lead down to a raised stage.

Over the last few weeks Phil has been driving around Bristol accosting Lumberjacks as they pollard trees in the city centre and asking for lopped off branches and trunks – he ended up with a huge collection of tree off cuts which are now part of the set! The brilliant stage management department have been blagging free foliage and flowers from garden centres – it all looks very pretty, although in the present heat wave it takes them hours every day to do the watering.

Katie Sykes has added her magic touch to the costumes and props. There is a wit in her designs that I just love. Her storyteller costumes have a flavour of second world war Cephallonia, a subtle nod to the distant greek theme, but feel entirely right for our purposes. Her playful choice of props is brilliant, especially the bean bag sheep, which enabled Tom to discover some hilarious ways of interacting with them.

Describe an average day in the rehearsal room.
Physical warm up, followed by a couple of ensemble exercises – usually a ball is involved with counting and running followed by voice warm up and singing. We’re then ready to Play. With TBWCW, we spent hours reading the stories and improvising – discussing, grappling, cogitating.

The script emerges during the process. Adam our dramaturg transcribes all the improvisations which he then distils into a polished scene. To be a good deviser you have to be able to improvise well – and I’m working with the best on this show, Tom, Lucy and Chris are highly skilled devisers. The music emerges in the same way – Benji responds to what’s happening in the rehearsal room, so that the music becomes intrinsic to the piece. It’s hardest for Benji, because he’s with us in the rehearsal room all day, and then has to go home and formulate, arrange and orchestrate all the ideas at night. He’s always very tired by the time we get to opening night!

What’s next for you?
I go straight into an research and development for a new show that is happening in London next year, then start my prep work for Jane Eyre for Bristol Old Vic which goes into rehearsals at the end of the year. I’ll be camping with my family in August, and I’ve promised them I won’t bring anything work related!

The Boy Who Cried Wolf! runs until 1 Sep on Kind Street. Find out more here.

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