Interview with Golden Toad Theatre: We discuss their collaboration with West End stars in an exciting green-fingered project for children
Sukhmani Sethi speaks with co-directors Jen and Caroline from Golden Theatre on the effects of lockdown on children, the survival of theatre and their upcoming adaption of the heartwarming, and wholly relevant, children’s book, Errol’s Garden.
Caroline: Hi, I’m Caroline Wigmore, and Jen Green and I have been writing together for… almost 10 years now, I believe! We have always had an interest in writing for children, but found that often there isn’t enough development time given to children’s shows, and we set out to apply the same attention to detail as we would give to a show for grownup audiences. The first show we are writing with Golden Toad Theatre Company is an adaptation of the children’s book Errol’s Garden, which was written by Gillian Hibbs Caroline. It’s a story about a boy who dreams of having his own garden but lives in a block of flats. He gets the idea to bring his neighbours together to help him build a community garden on the rooftop. This show was meant to be touring during May and June of this year but was obviously postponed due to COVID 19. So with the help of emergency arts funding from Arts Council England, we have put together a bunch of exciting online activities for kids. Many of the activities revolve around the characters from the show Errol’s Garden. We had the idea to bring in West End actors to voice the characters for a series of animations we created with animator Lee Cooper so that Errol and his sister Tia come alive and offer some fun activities for the kids who are stuck at home.
Jen: Absolutely! We want our audiences to be able to engage with their creativity and imaginations even though the theatres are currently closed.
Jen: We’re inviting children from across the UK to join West End stars Joe & Courtney to sing in Errol’s new music video. Our MD Katy Richardson has made a video to guide you through the song, all you need to do is pop in a pair of headphones, press record, and then send your file to us at goldentoadtheatre.com. We also want to see what children across the UK have been growing – if you put photos or drawings of your favourite plants online and tag us @goldentoadtheatre we’ll include them in Errol’s music video!
Sukhmani: How do each of you feel children have experienced lockdown and the pandemic differently to adults? And in what ways do you think the arts and the creative industries are helpful in alleviating any stress and anxiety they may be experiencing?
Jen: That’s a really good question! I have a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old, and lockdown for all of us was, quite frankly, challenging, Theatre, stories, performance and music are how we learn about ourselves and the world we live in, and I don’t think they’ve ever been more important – even as our opportunities to access them have been taken away. We want these activities to be available and useful for anyone who is involved with or looks after kids, not just parents but childminders, activity providers, nannies etc. Any opportunities for children to be able to express their hopes, fears and frustrations are really important at the moment
Caroline: When I was a student, I also nannied for a number of different families and was always in need of free activities for the children I looked after, so we hope that these resources will be useful to a broad demographic
Sukhmani: This also reminds me of the great work that Joe Wicks has done, in terms of keeping kids engaged and interacting. Do you think that even post-corona, the trend for these newly adapted theatre productions for young children will continue to grow?
Caroline: My kids (age 7 and 5) love Joe Wicks and online offerings like that go a long way towards making kids feel special and not forgotten during these strange times. My kids are always excited to see if Joe will be wearing a costume and they have favourite exercises, which is very cute.
Jen: Yes absolutely! A really important principle for Golden Toad Theatre that we set out way before the corona crisis was that we want our audiences to engage with our stories and activities both pre and post-theatre performances. In our experience kids don’t isolate a single activity, for example, going to see a theatre show, film etc. They want to really live it as a full experience. So all of our activities are designed to complement the productions that we are creating. With Errol’s Garden, we’re releasing some of the activities earlier than we would have, but it’s actually given us the opportunity to work with amazing West End actors on our videos!
Caroline: When we brought in West End actors into the studio to do the voice-over work for Errol and his sister Tia, we realised that it’s important for out-of-work actors to still be able to use their talents as well. We worked with Joe Griffiths-Brown (Hamilton) and Courtney Stapleton (Six). In another interview, Courtney said that working on this project “was like a little ray of sunshine” and that she loved being able to promote important ideas like sustainability on a child’s level.
Sukhmani: What has been wonderful, is seeing a sense of solidarity within the theatre community during these terribly difficult times. But, do you feel that enough is being done to support actors, and well, anyone employed in theatre or for theatre production companies?
Caroline: Theatre has always worked in non-traditional spaces and in surprising ways. During this time, the challenge is to find ways to use our creativity in new and different ways while we wait for the theatres to reopen.
Sukhmani: Jen, I love that you have this very coherent understanding of the way children experience the world we live in. As this pandemic has revealed, children who don’t have access to gardens, particularly those living in inner-city areas of London, have been put in a much more disadvantaged position, and I guess it revealed to us how important green spaces are, particularly to families with young children. What changes would you like to see, in terms of access and education on green spaces?
Jen: Absolutely! And I don’t think this is something that is only related to our recent lockdown. One of the reasons that we love Gillian Hibbs’ gorgeous book Errol’s Garden and wanted to adapt it for the stage is that it explores the joy of growing without a traditional garden space! The lyrics to the song that we’re inviting children to sing with West End stars Joe and Courtney explore Errol’s disappointment when one of his favourite plants is eaten by a snail. But he finds the strength to replant and regrow.
Caroline: One of the verses of this song reads: “Sometimes a dream falls apart, you want to curl up and cry. It’s not fair, I worked so hard! Don’t understand why it all went wrong, but if we keep each other strong, we can start again! Give it another try! This is how we grow, this is how we grow!”
Sukhmani: What do you think it is about musical theatre that children respond really well to?
Caroline: Children buy into the world of a musical perhaps better than adults and easily connect with the emotion that the music evokes. They make lovely audiences because they aren’t as cynical as us grownups are sometimes, and go to the theatre expecting to have a blast
If you’d like to check out the creative activities they have for any kids that you know, please visit their website, www.goldentoadtheatre.com