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Behind their scenes… with playwright Ben Power

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  • Behind their scenes... with The Elephantom playwright Ben Power

    27 June 2014

    We caught up with The Elephantom playwright Ben Power, associate director at the National Theatre, to chat about how the production came together, moving to the New London, and building a career in theatre.

    Talk us through the process of bringing the production to life.

    We were thinking about doing a Christmas show at the NT Shed, so I started talking to Marianne Elliott (Consultant Director) and Finn and Toby (Directors) who had worked on War Horse. They already had the book (The Elephantom) and had met Ross (Collins, the Elephantom author and illustrator), and it was immediately apparent that this was fantastic material for a piece of theatre. I think the story is something everyone can relate to - feeling a bit lonely, being a bit frustrated with your parents - and having an imaginary friend and what that does to your life. Celebrating the power of imagination is something that shone off the pages of Ross’ book, and I really wanted to put that on stage.

    How did you start writing?

    I began work on turning this 12 page book into an hour long piece of theatre. This meant finding the bits where we could tell a bit more story, where we were able to fill in some of the stuff that Ross didn’t have space to in the book.

    How closely did you work with Ross?

    He was in all the workshops - and all the visual language of the show is trying to echo and celebrate what he does. The challenge is finding ways to enlarge the show without losing what’s really direct, concise and exciting about the book; for example, we see the relationship between the key character (a young girl) and her teacher at school, which isn’t in the book, but is an extension of some of the things that happen in the book.

    While me and Ross were thinking about the story, Finn and Toby were thinking about the puppetry and inventing the idea of inflatable elephants.

    What is it that attracted you to creating a show with puppets?

    I think it’s the idea coming off the back of War Horse that you could do something with puppets being the central characters and doing theatre in a new, exciting way. They wouldn’t like me saying it but these guys are among the best puppeteers and designers of puppets in the world, and it’s exciting to give them the space to do a show that was all about puppets, and to try this new inflation technology – which is something I don't think people have done before.

    How do you make The Elephantom so appealing to adults and children alike?

    The key is Ross’ book – it has wit and humour and detail that’s interesting to adults, and the idea of a ghost elephant moving into a house is something even really young children are excited by – because it’s dangerous, it’s transgressive, he comes in and breaks things! And I think everyone wants to do that sometimes.

    How do you feel about moving the Elephantom to the New London?

    We came from the National Theatre Shed, a new, temporary, space with 3 sides, which gets the audience really close to the performers – and that’s great. Then seeing it on the New London theatre’s scale, with the elephants being able to run at a great distance, is really exciting.

    What will change about the show now you’re moving it to the New London?

    We’ll be finding out whilst we wait to open on June 30th! It will be the same show, but the exciting opportunity is making using a space as big as the New London and having the elephants fill the room. For example, we have a party scene, and during that we want every audience member to feel like a guest at the party. The elephants are so fun and loveable, and you want to spend time with them!

    It’s fantastic to come into this theatre where War Horse has been for years now, and do the production during the day, giving audiences the opportunity to see shows at different times of day and in different ways, particularly during the summer.

    Do you have any advice for someone on beginning a career as a playwright?

    It links to something Ross said about being a writer, that you often find yourself working on your own with your ideas. The amazing thing about theatre is that no one can do it on their own; you need people to work with – colleagues, collaborators, friends. What I would say to everyone who wants to work in theatre is find the people you want to work with, who bring out the best in you, and who you think you can give something back to. It’s those collaborations and those relationships that really make the best work – you can see it with Finn and Toby who’ve worked together for years.

    Can you start working on those collaborations early in your career?

    Yes - if you’re a writer go and find a director and the actors you want to do your stuff, if you’re an actor find other actors who you want to do work with, if you’re a director find a writer whose work you’re really excited by…and do it with people who are your own age, and who like the same things as you. That’s how new work happens is like-minded people being brilliant together.

    What’s been the most bizarre part of your career so far?

    Doing inflatable elephants at the moment is quite funny because my next show is a Greek tragedy – opening two weeks after Elephantom – so it’s a bizarre summer! I think that the elephants will help me cope with the tragedy and the tragedy will give weight to the elephants.

    We think The Elephantom might have an audience for young adults…

    Well that happened at the National! Much of the audience were parents and children and school groups, but occasionally you would get a whole load of people coming in just because they think dancing elephants are a good night out – and they are! 

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