Sarah Punshon on directing

April 19, 2016

Sarah Punshon, the director of Polka’s exciting new show The Box of Photographs, talks about the adventure, the challenges and the delights of working to bring to life the stories written by local children.

 I’m writing this at the end of our last week of rehearsals, we’ve just had our final run-through in the rehearsal room.  As I dashed for my train home this evening, I could hear the sound of the Polka stage management team busily ripping up gaffer tape from the floor, as they prepared to take everything over the road into the main theatre.

 Over there, the set is being built on-stage; the lights, speakers and projectors rigged.  It all looks fantastic. Designed by Lily Arnold, it’s full of surprises: doors which open where you least expect them, holes to crawl through, magic tricks and see-through walls. Lily and I have had many meetings over the last few months, reading the script and playing with little model-box versions of the set, inventing ways to solve the problems Dan has set us.  And there are many!  We’ve had to work out how characters can fall down a dark tunnel into an underground mine, bring skeletons to life, fly on a magical blue horse above a forest, or fight mysterious shadows. And all without really leaving the bedroom of Chelsea, our central character.

 Miss Lieban helps Chelsea release her imaginative powers, and so it felt right that the story-telling gets more magical as the play progresses.  We’ve worked closely with the other members of the creative team – Elliot on lights, Julian on sound, and Louise on video – to gradually build more and more texture into the story-telling, as Chelsea gets more and more confident. I’m excited that next week we’ll be putting all these elements together on stage.

For the last three weeks, my two actors, Hannah and Jessica, and I have been playing in the rehearsal room with boxes of props, trying out for real the ideas we came up with round that model-box, and coming up with lots of new ones, too. It’s a privilege to work with Hannah and Jessica; they’re so inventive and committed, even at 8pm after a long day’s work.  And they have to work very hard! Dan’s included elements from twenty-two different stories, so each of them plays at least eight characters.  Hannah at one point has to play five different characters in one scene! There have been several moments when we’ve all collapsed with laughter at the sheer crazy difficulty of what we’re trying to achieve.

 Much of the storytelling is wonderfully joyful; there’s an exuberance to the original stories which Dan has found a way to carry onto stage. But there’s plenty of darkness too, in the original stories the children often take on big issues, and Dan’s brilliant at weaving those together and giving his own unique spin to them.

One of my favourite stories is ‘Lonely Leo’ about a boy who wants some friends.  When I first read it, it touched me; I remembered how hugely important my friendships were when I was ten, how wonderful it was if someone you liked liked you back, but how awful it felt if something went wrong.  In the play, Chelsea’s just moved to a new flat in a new area, where she’ll have to go to a new school and try to make new friends.  It’s terrifying.  She’s having to deal with the fall-out of her parents splitting up, and I remember that feeling all too well.  Like Chelsea, my parents split up just as I was moving from primary school to secondary school – it was an incredibly difficult time.  I wish I’d had a Miss Lieban to help me!

As we get ready to open the show, I’m excited, but also feeling a little nervous: several of the children who wrote the original stories will be coming to see the show soon. I’m hoping they’ll enjoy what we’ve done with their work. Will they recognise their characters and adventures?  We’ve had to make choices, there were so many ways that we could have solved the challenges we were set. It’s time to see if the audience enjoys our storytelling as much as we hope. Fingers crossed!