Exclusive: Purni Morell on organising chaos at the Unicorn

Published September 17, 2013

The Unicorn theatre’s rehearsal room looks a mess. More than a mess, in fact, it looks chaotic. In the middle a thigh-high pile of empty Roses tins, retro suitcases, old puppets, scissors, old fashioned radios, soft toys, sewing baskets, lamps, birdcages and any number of other weird and wonderful objects lie in what I will later discover is actually a meticulously planned and recorded state of chaos, each prop in its right, messy place.

Camouflaged in the centre in an eccentric pair of ditsy print Marks And Spencer pyjamas – or jimjams as the company refer to them – is Hannah Boyde, the actress playing the title character in the theatre’s latest show Dora. Director Purni Morell sits curled up and barefoot on an office chair giggling at one point of the compass, with the others manned by a sketching designer, the Deputy Stage Manager, who is quickly scanning Spotify for music in which Dora should boogie in the shower to, and a member of staff on hand to check sightlines. Then there’s me, a self-confessed eager beaver desperately trying to stay inconspicuous with my notebook and literally clamping my mouth shut when Morell asks the room’s opinion on whether the music in a scene should fade out or whether you can buy pork pies in paper bags anywhere.

I’ve been granted this privileged viewpoint in the midst of Dora rehearsals before meeting Artistic Director Morell to discuss her first two years at the helm of the leading young people’s venue and why she was drawn to adapt Helen East’s picture book for the stage. In the 30 minutes I spend watching the company discuss the watery logistics of Boyde pretending to shower on stage complete with bubbles and rubber ducks, and crack up laughing as she wiggles her bottom to T.Rex’s We Love To Boogie on a Stairmaster, the answer to the second is fairly obvious; it’s a warm, quirky story that, combined with Boyde’s talent for physical comedy – “The more ridiculous the thing, the greater it is” Morell assures at one point – and her endearing portrayal of a slightly lost Dora, should keep any four-year-old rapt and in fits of giggles.

After the actors have been sent home to prepare for a full day of rehearsals tomorrow, where minutes will once again be spent debating minute details that will later pass in front of the audience’s small eyes in a second and the promise of a Monday off before the arduous tech stage begins short of “being attacked by dragons”, I sit in Morell’s office to talk to the infectiously passionate director about the building she inherited alongside Chief Executive Anneliese Davidsen two years ago, impressed both by her formidable, thoughtful intelligence and her refreshingly honest approach, peppered with the same dry wit witnessed in the rehearsal room.

Read on to discover what first drew her to Dora, what she is looking forward to in the season ahead and why she believes theatre for children should be an end in itself, not a gateway to creating future theatregoers.

What drew you to adapt Dora for the stage?
It was a book a friend of mine suggested to me, which she had read when she was little. In the picture book it tells you the story of what Dora does, but it doesn’t particularly suggest reasons why she lives this way and I thought it was quite interesting to try and explore in a play why someone would have got into the situation where they’ve got a house overflowing with stuff that they can’t cope with. I think everybody knows an older person who lives a bit like that.

She sounds like quite a lonely character.
I think she lives alone and I think the idea is that she’s a little bit isolated; I think you would be if you had a house that you couldn’t use. The chances are your relations have stopped visiting or you don’t see people that much, or you might find it difficult to go out and you might be embarrassed to have people over.

What’s it like directing a one-woman show?
Hannah’s really inventive and most of what we’re doing she’s come up with herself through improvising. We started off talking about who we thought Dora might be and what her life might be like and then going ‘Okay well if we were going to do that, what would she do in the morning, what would it be like when she got up?” and Hannah’s come up with most of the ideas.

Is this show a designer’s dream or a designer’s nightmare?!
Oh God, I don’t have any idea! I think she’s having a good time choosing the stuff. I think it’s probably more of a Stage Manager’s nightmare because this stuff has to go on and come off. It has to be in the same place every time, so it looks like chaos but actually it’s meticulously noted.

You’re directing another picture book, The Velveteen Rabbit, later in the season. What was the appeal of that story?
That’s one of those stories that everyone’s read and loves, and I was really interested in the relationship between the toy rabbit and his boy owner. In the story there is a point in which the boy leaves the rabbit behind… and I think that is a thing children are really aware of, their responsibility to their toys. The feeling that you favour one toy over another is really strong and I think children have a really strong sense of the justice of the playroom.

It’s very often done as a performer and a puppet, but for me the relationship is exactly between the boy and the rabbit, so I’m really interested in how you would do that with two performers; one being the rabbit and one being the boy, so there’s no inanimate object.

It’s now two years since you took over as Artistic Director of the Unicorn. How has it been so far?
It’s really great to have some ideas that you can’t necessarily do at the beginning and then slowly watching until you get to the moment when you can make them possible. We probably wouldn’t have done a show like The Velveteen Rabbit a year ago because it might be quite a big show, so we might have wanted to wait and see who was coming. When you take over a theatre you want to become familiar with the space and you want to find out who your audience is a little bit, you want to find out who your colleagues are and who else works here, so I think the first year was finding out a lot about who’s here and what we might want to do together, and it’s now really great to get to the bit when you can start shaping it and building it, if you like.

One of your aims when you started was to try and bridge the gap between being taken to theatre by your parents and coming on your own. How is that going?
It’s good. It’s more challenging to sell tickets to independent 13-year-old theatregoers than it is to parents of two-year-olds, it’s not an audience that’s particularly easy to get hold of, they don’t have credit cards, they communicate very differently; one 13 year old will be very happy to go the theatre with their parents all the time, another one might not speak to his parents anymore! It’s a very broad range of people, so we’re still very much discovering who that audience is and hoping to, over the next year or so, do a bit more for them.

You’ve also introduced work for adults at the venue. Do you still think of yourself as a theatre for young people or is the Unicorn a theatre for everyone?
I don’t think I’m interested in it being a theatre for everyone all the time. The reason I was interested in doing work for adults is because I think that by far the most important influencers over a children’s life [are] adults, and if you’re making shows purely for the children’s audience and inviting them to think about serious subjects in life, it felt like there was a piece missing if you didn’t also invite adults to think about their part in shaping those lives.

The reason we did Monkey Bars, for example, is just to invite adults to think about their relationship to children and childhood. I’m not remotely interested in doing plays just for adults, they’re always about childhood or children in some way, it’s just some are for grown-ups to look at it from that perspective. I’m not going to start doing Chekhov, because there’s lots of theatres that do that and this place is special because it is for young audiences; it’s been designed for that in mind.

As we head into the autumn season, what are your new season resolutions?
Oh my God! No that’s for Christmas, I can’t do resolutions now! Well, we’ve bought all the new stationery, we’ve got some new headed paper, we’ve got new folders, we’ve got new satchels… There’s an energy that goes with September because it is back to school and starting rehearsing… it does feel a bit like it’s back to school. But I don’t know particularly if I’ve got resolutions. I think I’m always interested to see how audiences respond to the work that we’ve chosen to put on and to see what they like about what we’re doing, and when you look back over a few months what you felt was missing and then using that to think about what’s coming next. It’s an on-going thing, it’s incremental because it’s a relationship, I think, that you have with an audience.

What are you most looking forward to in this season?
I’m particularly looking forward to a French company called Bob Theatre coming here with a two-man show called Nosferatu over Halloween. I’m looking forward to seeing that again, I saw it a couple of years ago and I thought it was just great. It’s terrifying but it’s immensely funny, so that’s the one I want to see again in addition to seeing how everything else is made because they’re all new.

"This place is special because it is for young audiences; it’s been designed for that in mind."

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