If you’re unfamiliar with the name Sally Cookson, it’s likely that you will at least be familiar with her work. She is an associate artist at the Bristol Old Vic and the Olivier-nominated director behind such shows as Stick Man, We’re Going On a Bear Hunt, Peter Pan, Cinderella and Jane Eyre amongst many others. She is renowned for her inventive storytelling and her latest show, Hetty Feather, is currently enjoying a West End run. AYT meets her.
Victoria Dyson: Hetty Feather has just started its run at the Vaudeville Theatre in the West End. Can you tell us a bit more about the show?
Sally Cookson: It’s based on Jacqueline Wilson’s novel Hetty Feather. It follows the journey of an orphan child whose mother hands her over to the Foundling Hospital which took in abandoned children. The hospital would accept certain babies then send them to foster homes in the countryside for five years. Then, on their sixth birthday, these children were returned back into the care of the hospital. That in itself is a fascinating, hugely emotional experience for a child and was one of the things that hooked me into this book. Of course Hetty survives in this institution. She’s a wonderful heroine because she’s so spirited, feisty and passionate. Regardless of her lack of power she insists her voice will be heard and never stops striving for a better life. The book really celebrates female independence and aspirations. She refuses to be submissive and manages to stand up for herself in a society that wants to repress her. That sounds quite heavy! It’s actually full of fun and imagination. She has a wonderful imagination. She goes to the circus when she’s very young and becomes incredibly inspired. She ‘make believes’ that one of the circus performers is her real mother and the story follows her trying to find her to convince her that she’s her long lost child. It’s a wonderfully adventurous tale and hurtles along like an express train.
VD: Hetty Feather is such a well-loved Jacqueline Wilson book. How did that affect the way you approached the story?
SC: It’s always a bit daunting when you’re working on such a famous title, especially when you know so many children hold it as their favourite book. But you want to surprise and challenge audiences’ expectations because it turns into something slightly different. Theatre is not the same as a book. If we were so faithful to the book it would actually be a very linear piece. I know Jacqueline has loved the fact that we turned this into a theatrical event and she really has supported that. We’re retaining the heart of the story but also offering the audience a theatrical experience. The ‘liveness’ of it is very important. There’s no fourth wall, the actors engage the audience very strongly.
VD: The show was based at the Rose in Kingston earlier in the year. How have you found taking the show to the West End? Have you had to make many changes along the way?
SC: Whenever you create a new piece of work, inevitably there will be things that you want to develop and change. Hetty’s going to have a further life and I’ll carry on fine-tuning it. As a director, there’s no such thing as making a perfect piece of work. You always want to carry on making it better. The space is very different. The Vaudeville has a proscenium so we’ve had to adapt, but essentially it’s the same show.
VD: You’re an Associate Artist at the Bristol Old Vic. Can you tell us a little more about that relationship?
SC: I live in Bristol and have a long association with the Bristol Old Vic. My first job there was as an actor. I was in the ensemble company in the early ’90s. I then helped set up the youth theatre. It was through my work with the youth theatre and education department that I discovered directing, and that’s what I really love doing. Then I got asked to direct for a company called Travelling Light and I’ve made many shows with them over the last ten years. I’ve been working with Tom Morris since he arrived as Artistic Director [at the BOV]. He has a similar attitude towards theatre that I do, exciting the imagination of an audience and working with an ensemble. He invited me to develop my work, not just specifically for children and families but adults as well, which is why he asked me to do Jane Eyre earlier on the year.
VD: Ever tempted to head back into acting?
SC: People ask me that. It’s interesting, they think I should really miss it but I do not miss acting. At all! I get much more of a kick out of directing and enjoy having a little bit more control. As an actor I was never fulfilled – probably because I wasn’t that good! I don’t have a desire to get back on board. I don’t know if I’d have the confidence.
VD: Can you tell us a bit more about your directorial process? Would you say you have a trademark style?
SC: It’s always very difficult to describe your own process but I suppose the big thing is that I never start with a concrete script. Most of the work is devised. We start with the book or an idea and as an ensemble we excavate it together. I have a writer in the room, Emma Reeves who adapted Hetty. She’ll put a very loose structure together before we start but we’ll improvise and then Emma will transcribe the improvisation into a scene. It’s not just one person’s vision it’s a shared process, which is a very empowering thing for actors. They contribute a lot to how the story is told. It’s ‘how on earth are we going to create this together’? I find that enormously liberating. It makes it a unique piece of work. But it takes a certain actor who’s prepared to do that because it can feel very exposing. It can be terrifying when you start day one not having a script in front of you, knowing at the end of four weeks you’ve got to have a show in place. It takes a great deal of courage and nerve but I think most actors are up for that and find a new sense of empowerment and freedom.
VD: Out of all the pieces you’ve worked on is there one you’re particularly proud of?
SC: I’m always proud of the work I’m making. It’s like having children, making shows. You forget the pain you go through when you’re labouring through the creative process. I’m very proud of Hetty because it’s the show I’m putting on at the moment. Jane Eyre had a particular place in my heart because it was a departure and it wasn’t focusing on family work. That was exciting and challenging for me. As it was in two parts it was an intense process and that brings you very close to people. I’ve loved a lot of the early years work with Travelling Light where I really learnt how to tell a story that didn’t focus necessarily on the spoken word. That’s been a hugely important part of how I make theatre. Making very precise visual storytelling and that’s something I’ve brought into all the work I make, not just for children.
VD: Why do you think children’s theatre is so important? Do you think it’s enjoying a bit of resurgence of late?
SC: There’s a really healthy children’s theatre scene at the moment which is wonderful to see. It’s hugely important because we have to celebrate storytelling and imagination. Taking a child to the theatre is where you can set your child’s imagination free. They understand it immediately. They don’t need any explanation because a child lives in their imagination. That’s how they learn, that’s how they play. So the theatre is just an extension of what they do all the time and to encourage that, especially when poor teachers are having all of that creative stuff taken out of their curriculum. It’s vital that we encourage children to continue to develop their imaginations and taking them to the theatre can really help with that.
VD: What advice do you have for young people who might be interested in looking at directing as a potential career?
SC: Go and see as much as you can. I know theatre is expensive but there are some fantastic deals for young people. Go and see as many different styles of theatre as you can. Make your own work even if you haven’t got any money, just get out there and do it. Don’t feel you’ve got to adhere to any kind of process. Follow your heart and your gut instinct and don’t be put off.
VD: Beyond Hetty Feather what can we expect to see from you next?
SC: I’m going to really challenge myself. I’m going to do Romeo and Juliet with Shakespeare’s text in January for the Rose Theatre. I’m looking forward to slightly reimagining it. I’m not quite sure yet but I’ll be playing around with it certainly.
Hetty Feather is at the Vaudeville Theatre. For more information and tickets, visit the Hetty Feather website.
Photo: Donald Cooper.