Before we begin creating the show for our strategic tour each year we’re lucky enough to start off with a brilliant children’s book to guide us along the way.
Over four weeks of rehearsals we develop characters, make music and create a set which will bring Stacey Sampson’s adaptation of Amy Sparke’s book to life in front of your eyes!
We build on Sara Ogilvie’s illustrations with costumes, physicality and props.
It’s quite the journey from rehearsals to the show and we’re taking you along with us!
The space where the development days are taking place is covered in Monster Zoo. Pages of the book line the walls, sheets of paper and post it notes cover any spare space and instruments litter the floor.
The cast and crew have two days of working with director, Ruth Johnson, and playwright, Stacey Sampson before rehearsals start and the script is finalised. This is an opportunity to creatively explore the shape the performance might take and ways to hold the attention of up to 100 under 7s and their grown-ups for the duration of the play.
Do Not Enter the Monster Zoo is 29 pages long, bursting with character and colour but fairly short for what will become a 50-minute piece of children’s theatre, touring the North during September and October 2017. The book tells the story of a child who receives a letter inviting them to run the Monster Zoo for a day and the mad mix of monsters they encounter once they take on the challenge. It’s a brilliant, entertainingly chaotic starting point but it’s far from being a finished piece of theatre. At the moment, our protagonist doesn’t even have a name.
Zoe Lambert, embodying the character of the Grimblegraw, sticks a leg out from behind Andy Stephenson’s makeshift set and lets out a roar, startling Rachel Gay who plays the as of yet unnamed protagonist in the show.
Stacey has written a brilliant first draft of the script and together with Ruth and the members of the cast, which also includes Calum Howard and Joe Johnston, they allow themselves the space to play and develop and see what opportunities (or Purple Gurp Potentials, as they are called here) arise.
The two development days seem short (and frenzied!) but they’re vital for the cast and crew, especially Joe who is also the company’s Musical Director. It’s up to him with the assistance of the other members of the cast, who are also musicians, to create around five original songs to complement the show.
Even in these very early stages of development it’s clear to see they’ve got the start of something special.
Rehearsals – Week 1
By Ruth Johnson – Director of Do Not Enter the Monster Zoo
It is Sunday night and I have that back to work feeling. The feeling in the bottom of your tummy, almost like a low rumble; a feeling that you can’t ignore and one that makes relaxing and being still quite difficult.
Tomorrow brings with it the start of the second week of rehearsals for Do Not Enter The Monster Zoo! and that back to work feeling is one of excitement. This is the fifth adaptation of a picture book I have worked on for New Writing North and the project constantly feels new, fresh and exciting. And sometimes a little bit scary!
This year we are working with the brilliant book by Amy Sparkes and Sara Ogilvie which brings a Monster Zoo to life. It is full of fun and colourful chaos as the monsters jump from the page. And it is full of challenge for us as a team to bring this from the page to the stage.
The team in question, however, are more than ready to face the challenge! Stacey Sampson, our wonderful writer from sunny Sheffield has created a script that is rich with play and heart and it has a marvellously musical quality that has already gifted us in our creation of some of the music for the show this week.
Our cracking cast are Rachel Gay, Calum Howard, Joe Johnston and Zoe Lambert and they have been creating some monstrous tunes together this week, lead by Joe, who is also our Musical Director. It really is a pleasure to be in a room with such talented folks.
Andrew Stephenson, our designer, has given us space to play and explore and left us a little friend last week. I won’t say too much about him but he is a snazzy, snappy little fella!
As ever, we are joined by the twin-forces of Stage Manager, Nicola Morris and Producer, Sarah Churlish, who are the backbone of this project and it is wonderful to be working with them again. And this year, the fabulous Paul Aziz is our Production Manager, who is possibly the most “can-do” person I know.
I feel so lucky to be working with such brilliant people and on such a brilliant project. So, that back to work feeling, on this Sunday night, is an absolute treat!
Rehearsals – Week 2
It’s the first day in Byker Community Centre where the cast and crew will spend the next three weeks of rehearsals and they’re in high spirits. The first week has been spent working on the music that forms a large part of the show. The cast work as a team in developing the music with Musical Director, Joe Johnston, as the steer. All four performers are also musicians and all music heard in the show is performed entirely by them. It’s strange to hear such a rich sound flowing from the stage into the audience and know that it comes from just four voices.
It’s obvious that the cast have had a successful first week and they’re on (if not ahead) of schedule going into their second. Byker Community Centre is one of the first spaces the cast will perform in so it’s a good indication for them of how sound might travel and the best use of space; few of the performances take place in what might be considered a “traditional” theatre space and the show is specifically made so it can be picked up and dropped into community centres, libraries and village halls.
The set is looking slightly more advanced at this stage and there are plenty of props to play with. Designer Andy has made a start on the costumes and occasionally members of the cast will disappear for a few minutes, only to return in bits of costume that elicit a delighted reaction from the rest of the room. Andy has somehow managed to take the cartoon images in the book and transform them into bright, colourful items for the stage.
Stacey is visiting this week and it’s her chance to make some final tweaks to the script before the actors start learning their lines. It’s still in its early stages but watching the cast and crew you can see there’s a monster of a show just waiting to get out.
Rehearsals – Week 3
The penultimate week of rehearsals has started and the pressure is on. It’s much slower than previous rehearsals have been as Ruth regularly stops the actors to give notes, refining the explosion of creativity that came out of the development days and previous rehearsals. The actors are staring to hone in on their characters; with only four actors playing a variety of monsters, Joey, Joey’s family and the zookeeper it’s essential to differentiate between the different characters using physicality, voice, accents and eventually costume.
The music has been written and rehearsed but it’s time to fit it into the performance to ensure it all flows seamlessly. Moving from dialogue to song and back again, incorporating props and movement to keep the audience entertained for close to an hour.
It’s usual for the energy that came so naturally before to get lost in the monotony of repeating lines and movements to get them exactly right but it’s necessary. In addition to the multitude of characters the actors play, every piece of music and sound effect heard in the show is played by them and although Nicola the stage manager is on hand throughout rehearsals and the performances for get in and get out, during the performance itself all scene changes are performed by the company of four. It needs to be tight and there is nothing getting past Ruth even with two weeks to go before the first performance.
By the end of the week the cast are rehearsing with half of their costumes, props and set. The rehearsal space is covered in wood, instruments, a variety of props and a lot of mess. There are more people in the rehearsal room than ever before but the cast persist, working through the newest version of the script that Stacey has been working on since she last visited. She’s cut a significant amount, tightening up the script and this will be the version that the audiences see at the first performance on 23rd September. The final rehearsal of the week ends with a very tired but optimistic cast and crew and a well-deserved trip to the pub!
Rehearsals – Week 4
It’s the final day of the final week of rehearsals. After four weeks of exploring, playing, creating, honing and rehearsing it’s time for the dress rehearsal.
The rehearsal process hasn’t been without its challenges but that is what rehearsals are for! A small sharing, which was due to take place in the middle of this final week, had to be moved to the following day after the set floor failed to turn up!
As with any new writing project, the script has been honed throughout rehearsal with Stacey being very much involved in this process. Both Stacey and Ruth both felt that music would be the driver for this show and it has been one of the exciting challenges to weave these two art forms together. The pressure has been on in this final week but walk into rehearsals the day before the first show and you’d never know.
The set looks amazing. What was previously a couple of washing lines and some sheets has been transformed into a pair of ominous red doors set in dark blue brick that lead to the Monster Zoo.
In this version of the story our protagonist, Joey, finds themselves in the middle of a flurry of activity; it’s moving day! But Joey isn’t happy about the prospect of moving, until an invitation to run the Monster Zoo comes floating through the door. When the monsters walk onstage, each with their own scene stealing entrance, it’s like they’ve stepped out of the pages of the book (with some clever adjustments by Andy to the objects that we see Joey’s family packing away in the first scene).
With Ruth’s direction Rachel, Zoe, Calum and Joe bring the story of Monster Zoo to life (with songs that will be stuck in your head for days after you see the show). It’s been a long, hard month for everyone involved, but after seeing the dress rehearsal, it’s definitely been worth it.
Cast and Crew Interviews
We’ve been following the cast and crew on each step of their journey from rehearsals to performance. Check out their experience of creating the show below!
Joe Johnston & Rachel Gay
Zoe Lambert & Calum Howard
The Final Week
It’s the last week of Do Not Enter the Monster Zoo and this marks the end of New Writing North’s five years of strategic children’s tours.
It seems appropriate that one of the final performances takes place in the Greenhills Centre in Wheatley Hill where there are children who have grown up watching these performances, starting with My Granny is a Pirate all the way back in 2012. Speaking to the children in the audience after the performance it’s hard for them to decide which of the shows is their favourite but it’s clear to see that Do Not Enter the Monster Zoo ranks very highly!
“I’ve still got the songs from The Worst Princess stuck in my head,” says one of the mums as she’s leaving.
Amongst the audience are young people who attended a session run by Ruth and Joe in the very early stages of development. In fact, one of the monsters which was created in that session (JeffLaura, if you were wondering!) is chosen by the zookeeper and shared as the “new arrival” at Monster Zoo.
The audience are incredibly receptive to the show which has really found its groove in the weeks since the cast started touring and it’s clear to see they’re still enjoying it. With only a few shows left you might expect it to feel like it’s winding down but if anything the energy is higher and the show zips along perfectly.
Catch it while you can!