“It’s so important that younger audiences and families have access to high quality productions as today’s children are the audience of tomorrow”: An interview with Seussical director James Tobias
The colourful creatures of Dr Seuss’s books have come to life at Southwark Playhouse this December in a 75-minute joyful extravaganza. The musical, which follows in the footsteps of the original show debuting on Broadway at the beginning of the century, is built on the music and book by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens.
Taking the helm at directing these bouncy characters from the creative mind of the American children’s author is James Tobias. Together with Rochelle Parry, he founded Immersion Theatre in 2010, a touring company specialising in family theatre, and which is behind the production of Seussical. Wind in the Willows, The Wizard of Oz and The Jungle Book are just a few of the other shows they’ve staged so far. Needless to say, the Christmas period is one of the most exciting of the year for theatre, with the boom of pantomimes across the capital. But putting together a show for younger audiences is also a big responsibility, as we found out when we caught up with Tobias to talk about reviving Dr Seuss’s worlds, the beginning of Immersion Theatre and children’s reactions to the theatre experience.
Thank you for your time. First of all, what attracted you the most about Seussical?
It’s always been an ambition of mine to do Seussical. I fell in love with it from the moment the show came to my attention so to have the opportunity to direct my favourite musical is a major tick off my bucket list.
Why do you think it is important to revive this colourful extravaganza now?
This is a funny, uplifting, overall inspiring story about loyalty, self-acceptance and inclusion. These are all topics that are dealt with in a charming, sensitive and intelligent way so it never feels as though the show is preaching or patronising. As a society, we are starting to become more aware of these issues and are encouraging open discussions. How wonderful that theatre can be part of these conversations.
Did you read Dr Seuss’s books when you were a child? How did you first hear of him?
Dr Seuss has always been on my radar despite not having read the books as a child. My first proper introduction to him was watching a college production of Seussical many years ago. It was then that my obsession with the show began and I found a true appreciation for Dr Seuss and his works.
Do you have a favourite character?
The Cat in the Hat. He’s fun, high energy and mischievous. For me, the Cat is one of the best roles in musical theatre as he plays a host of characters, causes mayhem anytime he’s on, and interacts with the audience, holding them in the palm of his hand. The adults will find him hilarious and the kids will be in awe.
Can you tell us about the process of bringing to life the inhabitants of Dr Seuss’s world: what approach/techniques did you use?
We are incredibly lucky to have such a talented cast who have wonderful instincts so, in that respect, it was a collaborative process. I worked extremely closely with our fantastic MD (James Doughty) and choreographer (Chris Whittaker), explaining what I wanted each number to achieve before rehearsals even started and they just ran with it and brought their incredible talent to the piece. This was then built on in rehearsals. I couldn’t ask for a better cast or creative team as I am so proud of the show we have created and that is down to every single person who has worked on it.
What has been the main challenge?
For me, the main challenge has been ensuring the piece is seen as a true family production that can be enjoyed by audiences of all ages. Although it’s based on children’s books, Seussical is a fantastic musical in its own right with an intelligent score and messages that, whilst told in a fun way, resonate with adults as much as children.
Is there a particular highlight from directing Seussical that you would like to share?
I have two. My first was our first preview in which I was sat in view of younger audience members and the first time the full company appeared, they didn’t know what to do with themselves. Our younger audiences are seeming to have the most incredible time and seeing them in awe is an incredible feeling. My second highlight was sharing our opening night with some of our nearest and dearest friends and colleagues. I was bursting with pride at the show and gratitude that so many people I cared about were able to experience the electric atmosphere our company created.
What do you hope the audiences will take away from the show, in particular?
There is so much to take away from this show but I just hope audiences leave having had fun and feeling uplifted.
How did you fall in love with pantomime and family theatre?
I used to perform in a lot of pantomime and family theatre productions when I was an actor. I loved the call and response/audience interaction element most of all, but, most importantly, I loved the knowledge that I could be a child’s first experience of theatre. I considered it (and still do when directing) such a responsibility and privilege. It’s so important to Immersion Theatre that younger audiences and families have access to high quality productions as today’s children are the audience of tomorrow.
How did Immersion Theatre start? And what do you and Rochelle Parry aim to with the company?
When Rochelle and I met, we used to watch Fringe productions regularly as we’ve always appreciated the creativity one needs to have when working on tighter budgets. The more we saw, the more we wanted to make it happen for ourselves and so I put a deposit down for a week’s run in a tiny pub theatre and told Rochelle we needed to think of a show to put on and learn how to do so. The rest is history and Immersion was born! It’s very fortunate that Rochelle happened to be an exceptional producer/general manager as she is very much the rock of the company. Our passion is family theatre and pantomime and so our aim is to be respected for the work we do and to have Immersion’s name be synonymous with excellent family theatre.
How would you try to persuade the sceptical adults out there that similar shows are for everyone, not only for children?
It very much depends on the show. With Seussical, for example, I’d say that if you like to have fun, enjoy good music and want to laugh, then this will be as much up your street as it will a child’s as there are many different forms of humour, many of which are incorporated in this.
What is next in the pipeline for you and for Immersion Theatre?
This Christmas, as well as Seussical, we have two pantomimes running. Next year we are producing a Spring tour of the The Amazing Adventures of Pinocchio as well as two yet-to-be-announced Open-Air Summer tours. We also have some exciting announcements around the corner so we are always keeping busy.
Photos: Adam Trigg