Meet Zoë Waterman, Director of The Borrowers
- Tell us about how you were first approached to do The Borrowers at TBTL?
I’ve been lucky enough to work at Theatre by the Lake a lot and my first proper professional credit was here directing The Bogus Woman so it’s a theatre that I’ve got a really strong relationship with and love for. When Liz took over, I was directing The Rise and Fall of Little Voice and we sat down and talked about different ideas – then she rang a few months later and asked would I be interested in doing a Christmas show. I’ve done a lot of pantomimes, but I’ve never done a Christmas show so it was a really exciting prospect. I’ve been doing more and more work with actor-musicians so it was a brilliant coming together – to be back here at Christmas, which is a different time of year for me to be in Keswick, and making this particular show. It’s been beautiful, cold, and wet but also more of a local audience and less of a tourist one and that’s been great because it’s a town I feel I know quite well so it’s a real privilege making work directly for it. It’s even more special because of the local youth cast, that’s been amazing.
I love panto and I’m sure I’ll do pantos again, it’s an artform I love, but it’s been joyful to do a Christmas show instead. It’s a different way of approaching it.
I was associate director at the New Vic theatre for 18 months – where Theresa our playwright is artistic director – so I know her work really well. I’ve seen lots of her Christmas shows and her production of The Snow Queen is probably my favourite Christmas show I’ve ever seen. So it’s also been a real joy to have the opportunity to work on her script and James’s original music. It’s such a beautiful adaptation and knowing that it’s a show designed for ‘the round’ (theatre set with a central stage and audience all around) has really inspired my approach. I’ve made a lot of work in ‘the round’ and at the heart of it is a very close relationship with the audience; finding that in other ways for our production has been really exciting. It’s there in the writing, so it’s been a case of working with Bronia – our designer – on how to distil that into this space, keeping that energy and ethos – which I hope we have done.
- Have you had a moment where you’ve gone ‘that’s it, that’s what I wanted it to be!’
Yes, when we met our first audience!
In the dress rehearsals the audience is made up of the creative and technical teams. We are the most rubbish audience ever because we’ve seen it so many times already, and at that stage we’re only watching it to write down what’s not working. So, you don’t laugh at anything and you’re not appreciating how magical it is. You’re basically Scrooge. Then in the first preview, the first time a big oversized prop came on, there was an audible reaction to that…
Then you go ‘of course, it’s amazing!’ because you saw it weeks ago and that was your first reaction too but because you’ve seen it so much it stopped having that effect on you. That is joyful.
Then in the 2nd preview I sat in the Circle, and I hadn’t seen it from up there before, so you get a very different sense of it. There was a family with two young children sitting in one of the boxes and they started standing up and dancing. They were on their feet, properly dancing and whooping and enjoying themselves.
That was Christmas… a mince pie in front of a fire kind of Christmas, it was glorious.
So, it’s that really. Having a proper audience makes you see the magic and it makes you see some moments clearly and properly and go ‘that isn’t quite working’ but it also makes you go ‘oh yeah this is why we do it!’ You have that with any show but especially one for Christmas and those magic theatre moments. It’s a joy and such a privilege.
- Were there any challenges that you managed to overcome or surprises?
There’s always surprises because of the way theatre works and especially the time scales of how we make it. I work with the designer to design the show before we’re in the rehearsal room, so we have to make slightly hollow decisions. We try and keep it as open as possible, we plan for surprises! Most of my preparation work and notes I’m writing are questions – ‘is it this or is it that?’ In a way the biggest and most important part of my job is choosing the creative team and then casting it. Then it’s what they bring and that chemistry of that group of people. For example, James’s original music is absolutely beautiful but then Greg has done his arrangements for these actors and the particular instruments that they play; if any of the people in the team had been different it would be a very different show. I try and keep as open a mind as I can and then kind of curate and collaborate and pull together and try to create a rehearsal room and collaboration between the creative team and cast so that everyone feels able to take risks and try things out. To offer ideas and do their best work. Of course, I push in a direction I can see to take them out of their comfort zone to bring it all together. But a lot of it’s surprising. It’s the joy of working with brilliant people who just offer such amazing things.
It has been a dream from that point-of-view, it’s such a great team, everyone has worked together in an open and collaborative way.
How to achieve the borrower puppets was definitely a challenge – they are naturally very small, as borrowers are, so would they read in our space? The day they arrived was amazing. Marc – our puppet maker – has done an absolutely beautiful job, they look like those actors so perfectly and the way they move is really fluid. It’s been wonderful to see how audiences respond to them and understand them straight away. We knew quite early on that was how it was going to work but actually having them in our hands suddenly made it all come together. We had prototype puppets that moved in a similar way but were not as realistic, not as beautiful, not as fun – so that day was a real moment of surprise. We got all the puppets quite late on in rehearsals, up until then the insects had just been a cardboard cut-out on a stick, so when we got the real things and saw how great they were we realised we needed much more of them in the scene. We love the bee in particular, it’s like a puppy so we worked out how we could get more stage time for it.
It’s been really hard at points just because it’s a big show to get on – including three teams of our amazing youth cast. Rehearsing them in technically, making sure they are all happy and safe has been a huge job. There are aerial bits in the show and that eats time but its absolutely worth it when it comes together. It was a massive push in the last week to get all the technical elements working and that’s always the case on Christmas shows.
Audiences expect a bit more at Christmas – you want that bit of magic.
- Is there anything else that’s been particularly unique about The Borrowers?
In this adaptation Theresa very specifically makes a connection with the fact that Mary Norton wrote ‘The Borrowers’ in part as a response to and inspired by stories of Jews having to hide in the Holocaust. If you read Anne Frank’s diary and the first borrower book – which is basically the first half of our play – side by side, it reflects episode by episode, it’s very connected. The music in the play is all Klezmer in its style, which is a genre of music which can carry both great sorrow and great joy. I think that’s absolutely fundamental to understanding this story and this approach – you need both of the extremes. I don’t think that background is very present on stage. Most audience members wont think about it or make the connection at all, but for us in rehearsals and for me in preparation – especially as I have Jewish heritage – it was very important. It is delicately there but it’s not heavy handed, there is an integrity in the writing of both the music and the script and the original book which includes a respectful homage to a real family.
That then reflects on our world now, this is a persecuted people who are having to live hidden, where borrowing is fraught with danger and who must flee their home and search for a better life. So many people in the world are currently having to do that, Syria, Ukraine, all over the world. Some of those people are coming here and looking for a better, safer life. When we watch the Borrowers, they must decide which items to take with them, in some ways that’s beautiful props and in other ways that’s genuinely you’ve got minutes to take your items because you’re in a war zone and your life is at risk. They are Borrowers and they are a different race to us, but they are proper people, and we love them, and we care for them, and we want them to be safe. That is such an important and exciting story to be telling – we watch it at Christmas with our family and friends and hopefully in our safe homes and we have all that Christmas warmth and joy but perhaps we also think about and understand how human and like us everybody else is in that moment.
That’s all very serious for a Christmas show which needs to be magic and fun and joyful… but I make theatre because I want to change the world and I think experiencing theatre can genuinely change you, change how you see the world around you and how you live your life and that’s no less of the case for theatre for children, for families or at Christmas. We are sharing Arrietty’s spirit through it, which is Anne’s spirit and the spirit of people who are getting on a boat to flee – the need for equality, understanding, acceptance and hope.