BYMT and Ellie Jones take on Animal Farm

Ellie Jones is currently working on a production of Animal Farm for the British Youth Music Theatre which shows at the Birmingham Hippodrome this weekend. She is a freelance director based in Margate and the Creative Director of the theatre charity Looping the Loop CIC and Artistic Director of street theatre company We Are Nearly Normal. Both companies are based in Thanet and are committed to creating live performance in the local area. Previously she was Associate Director at Sheffield Theatres and Community and Education Director at the Orange Tree theatre.

Ellie, I read on the BYMT website that you like ‘to make impossible things possible’. How’s it going?

Ha! It’s impossible! Most of the time. I have, sometimes however, managed it: running amok on Brighton Pier for a production of The Erpingham Camp in which the audience were cast as redcoats serving fish and chips and campers hijacking the rides and ultimately following the balloon animal-adorned coffin of dead Erpingham accompanied by the funeral march on a trumpet, all while the pier remained open to the public; turning the arches under London Bridge station into an invitation to dance with the family at Fezziwig’s Christmas Ball and sit down for Christmas dinner with the Cratchits, or even making a 20ft beanstalk appear out of a wheelie bin in the front gardens of folk in Ramsgate as part of a doorstep panto during Covid.

That’s quite a list of achievements and certainly backs up your claim. It also emphasises your passion for site-specific productions and engagement with creating community-focussed theatre. What attracts you to those genres?

I’m intrigued by the opportunities spaces that aren’t theatres can offer both in terms of the stories that exist in them and how location can evoke emotional responses. It’s possible in a non-theatre space to create close-up interactions with an audience placing them within a world that feels like reality in a way a stage set can never do. The suspension of disbelief can be easier and feel more powerful as the audience is literally inside the fabric of the story.

Working with communities and creating stories that resonate with the things that matter to them feels to me like the essential job of any artist whether that work ends up being seen in a local park or on a West End stage. There’s a great fear and joy in making work that engages with people who aren’t regular theatre-goers because the responses are immediate and often fiercely honest. It forces you to examine the accepted rules about how theatre works and look for different ways to tell stories along with different voices to listen to.

Are you able to look back to a starting point for your engagement in this aspect of theatre?

I have two visceral recollections of theatre from when I was at primary school - one of some aliens in need of help visiting us as if we were the elite brains of the country and the second of a trip to the theatre to see a musical play about maths and physics. I didn’t come from a theatrical background and these experiences were pivotal for me in the first case for the building of my confidence and the second for my understanding of the first law of reflection! They also made me passionate about the power that live performance can have in shaping people’s hearts, minds and lives.

Which is what you are now engaged in.

Yes. Working with and for a community to provoke laughter, learning and love is an essential part of what I do – it fuels my creativity and I hope, allows me to bring unheard voices to the fore and change lives in a similar way that those theatrical productions changed mine all those years ago.

You’re currently working with the British Youth Music Theatre, but before we talk about the production can you tell us something about the BYMT?

BYMT is a national performing arts charity championing both the talents of young performers in the UK and new musical writers. They are committed to championing accessibility, new approaches to musical theatre and unheard voices. BYMT offers participants from all backgrounds the opportunity to be completely immersed in the creative process that makes a new musical. All the courses are led by industry professionals and give the participants an opportunity to learn or hone skills in improvising, devising, acting through song, embodying a character and ensemble playing. BYMT is a hugely collaborative organisation and the young people are integral in the development of the musicals created many of which have gone on to further life with professional casts in regional theatres and the West End.

BYMT is celebrating its 20th season this year with seven new British musicals and by developing another seven new musical theatre ideas in week-long camps. Are you involved in the latter and how will they work? Who gets to go to the camps?

I’m not involved in the camps this year but Animal Farm was originally developed in one of the week-long summer camps last year. They are an amazing way to test out ideas and work in a similar way to the longer projects – professional director, MD, choreographer and new musical writing. The creative team might start with less written material than on the longer projects and there is shorter sharing of the show rather than a full-blown production in a theatre at the end of the week. For example, on Animal Farm, we arrived with four pre-written songs, some scenes and a structure and while on the camp developed the characters further, wrote a couple more songs and some scenes and started creating a physical style for the animals. The input from the young cast is essential and inspiring. The camps are open to everyone, there is no audition process so if you have a passion for musical theatre and like to get creative in a room full of like-minded people, get in touch!

What was the attraction of Animal Farm and what makes it suited to BYMT?

Orwell’s novella of Animal Farm reads like a fairytale but is so much more than that. It is about human nature, social systems and more. Originally conceived as an allegory for communism in the Soviet Union, the pigs’ manipulation of the other animals, the distortion of truth, and the erosion of equality resonate with contemporary issues such as authoritarianism, misinformation, and social inequality. The manipulation of media and information, the rise of populist leaders, and the erosion of democratic principles are all rife in society today, and in Animal Farm we have Boxer and Clover, the everyday workers who spend their lives toiling and getting nowhere, supporting a government that is far from having their best interests at heart.

We were really interested in adapting the story to take a look at capitalism and life in the UK today while maintaining the fable quality of Orwell’s original to create a folk-inspired musical. It seemed like a perfect fit for a BYMT show, with its commitment to tell stories that matter to young people. The community and number of characters in Animal Farm provided for collaboration with a large group of extraordinarily talented young people who have the opportunity to shape the future of our world.

Talking of whom, we have managed to gather Will, Rhianna, Mackenzie and Charlie from amongst those those talented young people to give us an idea of who becomes involved in BYMT. Let’s go round the three of you in turn to find out something about each of you.

Will, let’s start with you.

Will: I’m Will O’Brien from Leeds. I’m 14 and I’m just doing my GCSEs, studying music and drama and all the rest of the usual things.

Rhianna: I’m Rhianna Mountain, from Suffolk. I’m currently a teacher, teaching performing arts.

Mackenzie: I’m Mackenzie Winnel, from Cannock in the West Midlands. I’m 16. Currently studying geography, maths, and drama at sixth form at school.

Charlie: I’m Charlie, from Bracknell . I’m 18 years old and currently studying a Musical Theatre BTech and also on BYMT’s Young Company Panel.

How did you become involved in BYMT?

Will: Somebody mentioned BYMT once in a show that I was involved in and it sounded like great fun, so I decided to audition. I’ve done one BYMT show before called Why the Whales Came in 2021 which was a great experience. The sense of community was just wonderful. I made so many friends, that I couldn't say goodbye to at the end. It was just awesome.

Rhianna: I saw the audition advertised, and so I just decided I’d give it a go and see what happened. So this is my first experience with BYMT.

Mackenzie: BYMT came into my school to provide a workshop on acting, singing and dancing. It was also a mini audition, to join this cast. It was a great day, with no pressure. We were free to just do our best.

Charlie: I decided quite last minute to go to summer summer camp as I was at a loose end. The camp was developing a new show retelling the fable of The Steadfast Soldier and focused on looking at disability through musical theatre. It was honestly the best week of my life. So when I knew they were doing auditions for full productions this year, I thought, “Let’s give it a go”.

What are your future plans, career aspirations or ambitions?

Will: I’ve done quite a few shows now and I’ve decided that this is what I want to do. The rush of being on stage just makes me want to just do it forever.

Rhianna: I write my own music, so my big dream has always been to go to Nashville and be a singer/ songwriter. Be as big as Taylor Swift!

Mackenzie: I try and involve myself in a lot of things – I play U23s football and in a band with my cousins and a couple of drama groups. I haven’t got an idea yet what I want to be doing in five years but I am looking towards drama school. And just want to be happy in life really!

Charlie: This year I auditioned for drama school and got accepted into the Hammond. I’m going to study combined Acting and Musical Theatre for the next two years, which is very exciting.

How do you think you’ve benefited from being part of BYMT?

Will: During our singing rehearsals, I’ve found that after taking on some notes that the singing coaches have given me, I’m singing notes I haven’t previously been able to sing. So it’s been giving me a greater range and I just feel like my acting is improving and my dance too. And the play is giving me an understanding of how people can behave. I’m playing Mr Jones. Animal Farm is about the shift of power. How someone can have positive aspirations, but then soon turn into a bad person. We explore how Mr. Jones started off as a good farmer, but then he becomes an evil farmer and abuses the power with the animals. But then that happens with Napoleon as well. He’s got good aspirations and he wants to make everyone equal, but then towards the end of it, he’s abusing the power.

Rhianna: I think I’ve learned some interesting techniques to take back and use myself when I’m teaching and use in my own practice and improve all of my performing.

Mackenzie: It’s just been amazing. On the first day, you don't know many people, but then you feel like you’ve known them for ages. We already created this family in three or four days. It’s so welcoming as well. Everyone else is in the same boat so you can block out the fear factor. Everyone is accepting of each other.

Charlie: I’ve benefited so much! I play Old Major - the father figure of the farm. He doesn’t make it through the whole story but inspires his children to become revolutionaries and lead the animals to overthrow the farm. It’s a twisted version that turns the original on its head – we look at the modern capitalism that we’re living under currently. But one thing that really sticks out to me is being part of the Young Company Panel. After the camp last year, I was invited back to be part of the panel and we meet over Zoom to discuss things about the company. We get to suggest ambassadors and chose the shows for this season. It’s really exciting to be part of that. And to be in one of the shows that I helped choose! It’s really nice to be able to give my input on what goes on.

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