Pinocchio comes to Birmingham

Diane Parks talks to the people behind the Old Rep’s Christmas production.

Birmingham’s Old Rep Theatre was created to foster new talent – and now, more than 100 years after it was founded, the historic stage will this Christmas be showcasing local performing arts students.

Birmingham Ormiston Academy is producing its fourth Christmas show at the historic theatre – with a new musical adaptation of the classic children’s tale Pinocchio.

The production, which opened on November 17th and runs until December 30th, features 24 students in the cast alongside five professional actors with a team of production staff.

BOA’s Christmas shows, which have also included Treasure Island, Wind in the Willows and Alice in Wonderland, have built up a strong reputation for entertaining families and schools. And, according to the academy’s executive principal and CEO Gaynor Cheshire, the festive productions are part of BOA’s strategy to give young people opportunities to be on stage and experience live theatre.

Formerly managed by Birmingham City Council, The Old Rep, which was opened in 1913 by Sir Barry Jackson as the home for Birmingham Repertory Company, came under BOA’s management four years ago and is providing students with the chance to tread the same boards as Peter Brook, Laurence Olivier and Peggy Ashcroft.

“When we took over the running of The Old Rep in 2014 the theatre was dark most of the year but it did have a Christmas show,” says Gaynor. “We really wanted to make it a vibrant space and introduce young people to the theatre both on stage and in audiences.

“Our four Christmas shows have given our students the opportunity to be involved in productions with 60-70 performances in a theatre which is a real gem in the city.”

Students double up on roles with two people playing each part in different casts. They also have opportunities to take part in the technical elements of the show as well as gaining experiences in marketing and social media. The essential element is that the young people are learning from the professionals throughout the entire process. So while audiences can enjoy a fun-filled Christmas show, the students are gaining valuable skills and training.

“What is important is that the youngsters have the chance to work with professional actors, a professional director, a professional choreographer, a professional musical director and other professional roles,” adds Gaynor. “This is an opportunity offered by BOA each Christmas.

“But it is also about giving the wider community the opportunity to see good quality theatre. More than 45,000 young people have come to see our Christmas shows over the past three years – and that’s just the Christmas shows! So these productions are about the audience and the community as well.

“The vision was always that we had this theatre in the city which wasn’t being used very much so we wanted it to be a theatre for young people being introduced to the theatre – both on the stage and whether they come here for classes or to see musical theatre.”

And for many of the schoolchildren who will travel to The Old Rep this year to see Pinocchio, there is also a learning element to the experience.

“We hold workshops for schools who have bought tickets so the children will have learnt at least one of the songs and some of the movements – our ‘armography’ as we call it,” says Gaynor. “I remember when we did Treasure Island so many of the schoolchildren came dressed up as pirates. They will be able to be involved and dance along to Pinocchio – but I’m not sure what they’ll be wearing!”

Launched in 2011, BOA is an independent state-funded academy which specializes in creative, digital and performing arts. Sponsored by the Ormiston Trust and Birmingham City University, around 1,000 students from across Birmingham and the West Midlands are enrolled on its courses.
And the academy is not standing still.

“Our work with The Old Rep is a process,”
explains Gaynor. “We’ve done a five-year development plan and we’re reaching the fifth year so we will now revisit that plan. We’re definitely on a journey and would like to look at opportunities for involving more young people in live performances at The Old Rep.”

Pinocchio director Alec Fellows-Bennett also holds a special place in his heart for The Old Rep. Brought up in Sedgley in the Black Country, he first learned stagecraft at the historic repertory theatre.

“I go back with this theatre 25 years if not more, back to the day when the main Rep Theatre ran its stage school there,” he recalls. “I attended that Birmingham stage school from about the age of 11. As soon as I learned The Old Rep was back in the hands of a producing theatre company, ie BOA, I wanted to come back.

“The link with the school chimed with the ethos of The Old Rep. When Barry Jackson built the theatre, he built it as a training ground for young talent. The idea of a large educational establishment being involved in The Old Rep and having new students and performers there to learn from professional performers and a professional cast is the perfect match. This theatre should be the place to nurture young talent again.”

Alec is determined the students are at the heart of Pinocchio.
“The young people are integral to the production, they’re not simply a chorus. Every single actor has at least one character they are following all the way through. They aren’t just there to support the professional cast, they are part of the cast.

“There is nobody else I know of who does this in such a fully integrated way where the students form part of the company. I know there are lots of shows where they have children or young people in the casts but it’s not to the same level as this show.”

And the youngsters also gain valuable experience from being involved in a run of nearly eight weeks.

“It’s a professional run,” says Alec. “You learn an awful lot when you put a show on in your school for a week but you learn something very different when you are putting a show on for weeks – that’s when you learn about stamina and commitment and you need that if you want to work in theatre.

“Most of the students are in their first year and this really sets them up for the future. This will probably be the first long run they’ll have done. On the first day of rehearsals I said to them ‘this is what it’s like to do a job’ because this is a job!”

Alec played Ratty in the BOA production of Wind in the Willows and the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland but this year he returns as director of Pinocchio. “I hop between acting and directing,” he says. “If there is a character that would be fun to play then I act but if there is a story where I think I would really like to tell that story then I step back and direct.”

And that story is Pinocchio, the tale of a wooden puppet who wants to be a real child.

“To me Pinocchio is the perfect story for this theatre,” says Alec. “If you asked a young child to draw a theatre they would pretty much draw The Old Rep auditorium. The idea of a story where toys come to life and it’s all make-believe is the perfect story for a classic theatre like The Old Rep.”

And he says if audiences are coming expecting the famous Disney movie on stage they are in for a surprise. “The show treads the line between a ‘Disneyfication’ of Pinocchio and a ‘pantofication’ of the story. It’s not silly but it’s also not had the harder bits taken out. It keeps the story and its moral. What we really wanted to do was pick out the key things that emphasize the moral journey that Pinocchio goes on in this story – ideas of free will, making your own decisions, blindly following others, being overly-cynical. There are characters to represent all of these things and they take Pinocchio off on a definite moral journey.”

While Alec is proud to be working with BOA students, he has this message for potential audiences.

“What I would say to audience members is not to think of this Pinocchio as a student performance. It’s a professional show, in the centre of the city, in a very well-respected theatre and there is nothing going on that stage that says ‘school’ or ‘college’ show. As far as we are all concerned this is a professional show where many of the cast happen to be students. And it’s a Christmas musical which audiences will enjoy.”

BOA’s Pinocchio plays the Old Rep between November 17 and December 30. For ticket information contact 0121 359 9444 or click on the website.