In 1997, when Olivia Jacobs and Toby Mitchell took the bold step of starting their own theatre company, family entertainment had a very different look and feel to today. For starters, it was usually targeted at children not families – as if the grown-up sitting next to them (and buying the tickets) was a necessary irrelevance. Dumbing down was a regular occurrence and ‘quality’ was rarely an adjective any viewer could reach for.
Twenty years later, the world is a very different place. Gone are the days when the only screen in the house was usually in the corner of the living room. Yet, despite such an enormous rise in the use of electronic devices, children’s theatre is in better shape than ever – and Tall Stories has played an undeniable role in that upward trajectory.
The company’s first production aimed specifically at family audiences, The Gruffalo, first toured the UK in 2001 and can still be found in theatres around the world. From there, Jacobs and Mitchell put their unique stamp on other Donaldson picture books (Room on the Broom, The Gruffalo’s Child) as well as developing new stories from scratch (The Snow Dragon, Alfie White: Space Explorer).
A remarkable 29 productions later, Tall Stories’ imaginative theatrical style, strong performances and great original music continues to encourage both adults and children back for more.
“Our primary activity is to look after our audience,” says Jacobs, “because the whole point of creating a show is for people to enjoy it. I want to go to the theatre with my own children and enjoy what I’m seeing, and that’s easily possible - shows can work on lots of different levels.”
To that end, each new Tall Stories production is tried and tested before it even reaches a theatre. “We road-test all our shows with an invited audience of schools and families,” explains Jacobs. “And just by watching the audience react during the performance, you can see if something doesn’t quite work or if there are moments when they become bored.
“We also hold feedback sessions afterwards, to make sure the show is enjoyable and suitable for that age group. Then we go back into rehearsals and work on the show again.”
Ensuring shows are age appropriate has proved crucial over the years, given that for many young children, a trip to a Tall Stories production is their first time inside a theatre. The addition of songs, catchy enough to stay with you long after the show has finished, also helps keep everyone engaged.
“The music is really joyful,” says Jacobs, “which adds an extra dimension to the shows. It also often brings opportunities for interaction, such as the Fox’s song in The Gruffalo’s Child, which is a lovely moment for everyone to join in – not in an awkward or embarrassing way, but in a very natural way.”
It’s one of the reasons that competition from on-screen, at-home entertainment hasn’t dented Tall Stories’ audience figures. In fact, in the company’s 20th anniversary year, it’s doing better than ever. To what do they attribute that?
“I actually think that young people put very little value in recorded entertainment,” says Mitchell. “Partly because it’s available at all times, mostly for free, so going out and seeing something live is seen as a treat. Young children love their iPads and electronic games - but going out and experiencing a live show is something different, especially if you’re with your family, so it feels like a special occasion.”