Monday, 14 July 2014

Elephantom at the National Theatre

Author Ross Collins tells us about taking his picture book The Elephantom from page to stage

I remember exactly where I was when the idea for 'The Elephantom' came to me. I was walking my dog, Willow, on a hill called Queens View at the southern end of Loch Lomond. It's a beautiful place and a great thinking spot. I was rummaging around for words that I love. There was 'sausage' and 'linoleum' of course and then I came to the word 'elephant'. Elephant is one of those lovely onomatopoeic words. 'Ele' is flexible and wriggly like a trunk and 'phant' is big and heavy and solid. When I thought of 'phant', 'phantom' came to mind. An Elephantom. Ghost elephants. I wondered what it would be like to be haunted by an elephant. At first my childish brain thought "Amazing!" but then my weary adult brain thought "Actually, if you lived in a small semi-detached property, full of breakable objects, being haunted by an elephant would be no fun at all." So my story became more about the difficulties of having an Elephantom and how you would go about getting rid of one…
The book that emerged was first published by Templar in 2006. Sales were healthy, children loved it and it was recognised by that year's Kate Greenaway Award. But after that, like most books, we went our separate ways and I forgot all about phantom elephants for five years.

At the end of 2011 an email appeared in my inbox from the National Theatre, politely asking if the rights to the book were available. I can at times be pretty thick so I remember thinking "That's nice - I haven't thought about theatrical adaptations before". It took me a moment or two before I wondered "Hang on - The National Theatre? Are they the people who made 'War Horse'?" A quick Google search confirmed the obvious and after firing back a completely dignified "YES! YES!" email I spent the rest of the week on the ceiling.
It wasn't until someone posed the question "How many of those emails do you think they send each day?" that I descended and tried to curb my enthusiasm.
A couple of months later I was invited down to London to meet with the 'War Horse' creatives Marianne Elliot, Finn Caldwell and Toby Olie to discuss the prospect.
I had decided from the off that if this thing might actually happen then I wanted to be a part of it - I didn't want to be the author that nobody wants in the room. So I remember saying early in the meeting "Now I realise that what we have here is a very slim children's book and that you will probably have to change and expand a great deal of it to turn it into a play. So I want you to know that I'm OK with that and I'm not precious about my work - I'd just like the tone to stay the same." Anyone who knew me would have spat out their tea when hearing such a big lie. I'm more precious about my work than anyone I know. However in response they said "Oh no - we want to keep this as close to the book as possible. It's the tight structure and the characters we love - we don't want to change any of that." This was music to my ears and the best thing is that unlike me - they weren't lying.

So for the next couple of years I developed a secret life. For most of the time I was still Ross Collins, children's author/illustrator. The guy who sits on his tod, at his desk in Glasgow, drawing bears and pirates and robots for money, who has very little contact with other human beings. Then occasionally for a week or two, I became Ross Collins, 'creator and theatrical collaborator' who got to muck around with a large selection of incredibly talented and enthusiastic theatre types and giant inflatable elephants in London.
Meeting these people, actors, makers, designers, musicians, puppeteers and directors was a huge pleasure. Watching them bring my characters and story to life was a thrill and a treat. The speed at which scenes could be developed, streamlined and then trashed when a better idea came along was amazing.
For the best part I enjoyed just sitting and watching the scenes I knew so well being brought to life as I giggled away like a school girl. But I was always delighted that whenever there was a stumbling block, the team would return to the book for inspiration and take my ideas on board.

The mechanics of bringing a weightless elephantom to life were never going to be simple. The idea of using untested inflatable technology seemed instinctively right but riddled with potential problems. But, right from day one, there he was, larger than life, flexible, floatable and magical. I was never in any doubt that anyone wouldn't love watching these self-obsessed parents having their lives turned upside down by this ridiculous floating creature.
One of my greatest pleasures was to see moments that I didn't have time for in the book being realised on stage. Picture books are a very concise story form. You have only 14 pictures to introduce your characters and a plot, an obstacle to overcome and then to resolve it all happily. It's not easy and you have to lose some of the depth that you would love to have and just try your best to insinuate the greater world you've created into the images and limited text. For this reason I never got to show my girl's wonder and excitement at the arrival of her elephantom - I had to jump right in there at the point when he was already a problem. Therefore to see those magical happy moments finally brought to life (and with tinkly music) brought a tear to a sarcastic Glaswegian's eye.

When I finally saw everything in place on stage at the National Theatre it was one of the happiest moments of my career.
To see every element click together, the set, the lighting, the music, the costumes, the characters and a giant inflatable house guest from hell I doubt can be topped.
I am so happy for all the creative talents that made this real that it has been the success that it is and will be floating into London's West End this summer - they deserve it. 
But it's the look on the audience's faces that is perhaps the best thing. I've always prided myself on trying to make my books as much fun for the parents that will read them night after night after night as they are for their sleepy children. To see that the joyous look on a child's face is echoed by that on their parent's when that elephantine bum has just ricochet off their heads is perhaps the best thing of all.   

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