Nancy Sullivan On ‘Our Teacher’s A Troll’ And Accessibility In Theatre: Interview

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Having performed in shows such as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s The Likes of Us, as well as taking on the role of Eponine in Les Misérables, renowned West End actress Nancy Sullivan has now turned her hand to directing, as the artistic director of Ruined Theatre Productions. I spoke to Sullivan about her production of Dennis Kelly’s Our Teacher’s a Troll, which will take place in the ruins of a twelfth-century southeast London abbey, as well as about accessibility, and the impact of COVID-19 on the theatre industry.

Talk me through how this production has come about.

Nancy:  Where I live, there’s not really any accessible professional theatre; there’s nowhere to just go and see a show!  Any shows are a long train journey away, and are expensive, being mostly put on by commercial touring companies.  Where I live, however, there’s this beautiful, ruined abbey, which was founded in 1178.  Since I’ve previously done open-air theatre before as an actor, about five or six years ago, I kept thinking to myself that I’d love to put on an open-air show in the abbey, but I’ve always been too busy with acting.  You’re always too busy trying to find jobs (or trying to survive without a job) as an actor, that you never have the time to work on an idea like this.  Once lockdown happened, however, I thought that if I didn’t take the chance to work on this project, then it would never happen!  So, I got a team of producers together, and we started raising money.

What has been one of your main goals in this production?

Nancy: We were very keen on making sure that the local community felt like part of the show, and that it didn’t just feel like a national touring company who would visit before leaving again; we wanted it to belong to the community.  We got local creatives, those who were at the start of their careers, or even those who were just interested in a creative career, to be part of the process and being mentees.  We also engaged with local schools, having school children from fourteen schools help to design parts of the set.  We were also keen to give any families in hardship in the area free tickets (of which we had three hundred to give out)!  

Why did you choose Our Teacher’s a Troll, and what’s it about?

Nancy:  We chose Dennis Kelly’s (writer of Matilda the Musical) play Our Teacher’s a Troll because it’s a hilarious family show.  It’s about two children who drive their teacher to a nervous breakdown, with the replacement teacher being a troll.  Every time one of the kids is naughty, they get eaten by the troll, and the idea is that the kids have to try and defeat the troll.  We wanted to put on a show that was accessible to everybody, and things like Shakespeare, whilst they should be accessible to everybody, just aren’t!  We wanted a show title that would draw people in.  Although it’s a children’s storyline that is easy to follow, it’s also an adult-humoured show, and we wanted people without children to be able to come and enjoy it too.  Ultimately, we wanted something that was accessible for the area that we are in, and that is accessible for non-theatregoers.  I want to engage non-theatregoers if not more than theatregoers.  

Are you going to try and make this a yearly thing?

Nancy:  I would love to continue this and make it a regular thing, but it’s a lot of work!  I thought naively that doing a play outside wouldn’t be hard at all!  You start off with such big ideas, but you just don’t realise how difficult it is.  For a start, we would have to be fully funded to do this again; as a community-interest company, we don’t make any profit.  Even if the show sells out, we wouldn’t make back what we’ve spent on it, so to continue putting on productions, and to continue our outreach work, we will need funding and more sponsors.  So far, we’ve had donations from sponsors (such as Big Finish Productions) who really believed in our idea and what we were trying to do.  We also received money from the Arts Council and Sir Tim Rice, as well as others, and from there it all came together!

How have you adapted the rehearsal process to deal with COVID-19?

Nancy:  We’ve been testing twice a week, but we also don’t have any contact in the room.  We’re doing a similar thing to last year’s Regent’s Park open-air production of Jesus Christ Superstar in that the entire production is socially distanced. Funnily enough, this decision isn’t affecting the production that much at all!  The only thing that socially distancing has affected is prop handling; you can’t handle the same prop as someone else.  We’ve had to make doubles of everything, or we’ve had to sanitise the prop in-between each person touching it, which has definitely been the most challenging thing.  Especially with the puppets that we’re using, we’re thinking of having the cast wear gloves whilst performing with the puppets.  

What about isolation, has that affected you much at all?

Nancy:  Because we’ve been socially distanced, if one person has to isolate, we’re able to let them isolate and then replace them with someone else in rehearsals.  It’s meant that my husband and I have had to jump in during rehearsals and try and make it work!

Our Teacher’s a Troll will be performed at Lesnes Abbey Ruins from 12-22 August 2021.  Tickets and more information can be found here.

Interview conducted by Maebh Howell.


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