There is nothing like the Iris Theatre’s outdoor season in London. It is usually the summer, you have been working all day and you venture to Covent Garden; no, not to see the buskers, although there is some similarity to the Iris and what goes on only metres away. You gather around the performers, starting in the entrance to the garden of St. Paul’s Church. After part of the performance, you are taken to the next stage in another area of the garden. You see what are some of the most original sets and costumes in London’s theatre scene. The crucial element is that you see a theatrical work. The Iris’ productions do things that only theatre can: proximity and spontaneity.
The man responsible for starting this theatre is Dr Daniel Winder and I had the great pleasure of interviewing him:
What is your name and your role at the Iris Theatre?
My name is Dan, but my full name is Daniel Winder. I founded the company, back in 2007; my official title now is Artistic Director, but I also act in a way as a chief exec as well. This season I’ve run Twelfth Night, directed by Vik Sivalingam. Vik’s a director who’s worked with people like Rupert Goold and worked at the RSC and stuff and I’m directing Pinocchio, and I’ve written Pinocchio as well. I’ve done the adaptation: the previous two years I’ve done the adaptation but I didn’t direct for Alice and with this I felt I’d take on the crazy role of doing both the adaptation and the directing as well.
So where’s your source from?
So the source material for Pinocchio which, it’s funny—I say a bit about this in my programme notes, it’s a weird one. There’s a novel, I mean, people don’t really know it; it started as a novel by an Italian author in the 19th century called Carlo Collodi or that’s his pen name. He was a political writer—he wrote for a lot for newspapers and stuff but he also was a but of kind of—I think this probably started out as way to make a bit of extra cash: he wrote these little short stories—they were for a magazine,—about this little funny puppet and they were very successful, he did the first fifteen and he got commissioned to write these and eventually the whole thirty-six chapters and they were put into a book, but the book is strange because it is episodic: it started off as more like episodes, like a continuing drama. It has this kind of repeating kind of quite sprawling, slightly indistinct structure to it. So, the first thing you have to do as an adaptor: an adaptor’s role is to find the story you want to tell and which bits of it.
Most people know Pinocchio from the Disney film and if you know the Disney film, it’s effectively about five out of the thirty six chapters. There’s all sorts of other little adventures that Pinocchio goes on, so I do pull out the main things that Disney pulls, we do do the ‘swallowed by a fish’ and we do do the ‘turning into donkeys’ bit and we do do the ‘nose grows when you lie’ bit and we have a green cricket but I would say the major difference between the book and the Disney is the book is, it’s quite Dickensian, like Oliver Twist or Nicholas Nicholby, in that it’s really interested in—it’s full of these kind of Dickensian grotesque characters who are funny but also quite dark and dangerous and the world is full of death and violence in the way that Oliver Twist is as well, so I’ve tried to retain more of that than you get in the kind of glitzy, ‘When You Wish Upon Star’, kind of Disney feel. It is a family show, just to make that clear, but it is a bit like those Dickensian stories like Oliver Twist; my adaptation has got a bit more meat and depth and darkness to it and is a bit more broadly set within a kind of society.
The way I understand it, in the original novel, the Pinocchio character was quite an unpleasant character: he’s not the one that you see in the Disney the adaptation. Did you bring any of those elements in from the novel?
That’s right. I mean the novelist has got that kind of 19th century idea of discipline so you start off with a very naughty boy and in chapter fifteen he’s hung from a tree until he’s dead to punish him: that’s how he’s punished. We don’t do that; he’s not hung by his neck from a tree (he’s brought back to life by the Blue Fairy and the story continues and eventually he becomes a real boy) but he is a really, particularly in the first half a book, anti-hero kind of character, you don’t really like him and we have kept some of that to the extent that young children can be very self-centered, very selfish, very obsessed with what they want and very unreflective of the needs of others. The structure of the story, for me, the way I’ve written it, is about Pinocchio becoming grown up, becoming less selfish, becomes selfless, more self-aware, more aware of the needs of others, and when he becomes more aware of the needs of others, perhaps he might have the chance of becoming a real boy; so it’s about his development form a kind of needy, slightly tantrumy kind of child into a more grown up child.
What new characters can we expect to see in this?
I really expanded the school—you know, you never see him at school but I really, I mean, I love the kind of comedy you can get within a school environment, or any kind of structured environment; it’s a great frame for comedy. So we’ve got a very funny schoolmaster who’s a bit of a sadist and draws on all those great tropes that you get in Matilda and Just William and all those kind of stories, so we have a slightly vicious and aggressive schoolmaster. We have lots of naughty little school children who run around. There’s some nice synchronised schoolchildren dance routines. So that’s not in the book but we’ve added that in. Anyone else? The characters that I do pull out of the book are the fox and the cat that people will remember from the Disney. There’s a tunny fish who you won’t know from the Disney: he’s a rather fun, jolly little—a very happy, jolly, suicidal little fish, which is kind of fun. He’s kind of looking forward to being digested, which is a nice, little funny bit. There’s a ringmaster who’s the guy who gathers up the children and turns them into the donkeys eventually.
So you mentioned dance and songs; this isn’t a musical but there are some elements of that in it?
No, but it’s like our previous two pieces; it’s a show with songs rather than a musical, but there are lots of songs: there’s probably fourteen songs and some little dance routines when appropriate. But yeah, it’s a family show with music, not a musical. But there are some—I mean, I have directed and worked quite recently on musicals as well. There is a difference in that in a musical normally the songs are about the development of the emotional life of the character. We do have a couple of songs which are more kind of straight musical songs in that way, but also, there’s lot of songs which are just kind of jolly, kind of everyone-have-fun-doing-moves-together, doing the dance to the Land of Fun, those kind of songs: schoolchildren all synchronised in moves.
I saw on the website you had a couple of images that were giving an impression of the sort of direction of the whole show; for instance, you had stuff like Le Voyage Dans La Lune. So how has those influenced the production?
I think the biggest difference for people who come who know the book or the Disney is that I haven’t gone (without giving the game away too much) for a strictly wooden marionette aesthetic for Pinocchio: so Pinocchio is much more a mechanical boy, a mechanical wind-up toy. So we’ve gone for more of a clockwork, metalwork, brass and steel aesthetic than a kind of carved wood kind of aesthetic and that was just a decision I made in production with my designer but something that I always wanted to do: find a way to make it feel particularly nineteenth century, so part of that kind of steam-driven, slightly steampunky kind of feel to the whole thing and that, hopefully, is something that will come through in both the design and the storytelling.
Who’s portraying Pinocchio?
You know the filmmaker Wes Anderson? So Wes Anderson does this thing (this is a slight tangent but it is relevant) in his films where he switches now and again to puppetry, you know what I mean, when he goes to these big scale things, so we are using puppets in the show quite a bit but in that Wes Anderson way, so when we get to the story bit where we’re doing the big boat on the sea being chased by a big fish then we switch to puppets and we do that with puppets and when we’re eaten by the fish and we go inside the belly of the fish we go back to live-action as well.
Mostly Pinocchio is portrayed by an actor, called Nick Pack, who is costumed to look like this little mechanical, automaton boy and then for bits of the story, like some of the other characters he is then portrayed by a puppet. So we switch backwards and forwards between puppetry and live action.
The Iris Theatre is known quite well for its promenade style of theatre: how is that being incorporated into the story—is it being incorporated into the story?
In a large way, and what I like to/think is important is to incorporate the moves, the moves as part of the story, the narrative, so hopefully, every time we move as an audience in the show, we are moving with the characters within the story setting: so we move to run away to go to see the puppet show in the beginning; we move, we run away with Pinocchio from school to go to the Land of Fun; we follow, we swim through the ocean with Pinocchio to go to the big Atlantic rock in the Atlantic Sea where he meets a green fisherman. We all get swallowed by the fish in the end. So all of the moves are hopefully a part of us moving with the character through the journey of the character.
Do you have any last thoughts? A hook for the audience? Any particular scene or image from the production?
Well we’ll see…it’s up the audience! What I do love and I’m really interested and excited because it’s the first time I’ve done it is to see how this switch backwards and forwards between puppetry and live action is going to work. There’s a really lovely moment towards the end of the piece where Pinocchio ends up, with his friend Lampwick, on a boat to sea and he’s journeying for two years (is the story) and he meets all these little characters on the way and we do this all in a minute and a half’s puppetry, and in the end of it he’s swallowed by the fish and there’s this moment where the puppet boat is swallowed by the puppet fish and then the doors of the church open wide and that’s the mouth of the fish, so seeing how those transitions work will be really interesting—exciting for an audience, and I think it will be something that families can come do and bring their children but also there will be so much in it that you can come as a couple in your thirties or forties or fifties and sixties and just enjoy it. You don’t need to have children to have an excuse to come see this show. I think all great stories like Oliver or like Matilda were aiming at that thing where it’s both a family audience but also that mainstream broad audience as well.
Pinocchio runs from July 29th to August 29th at the Iris Theatre at St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden.