Adam Penford: I've Just Opened my Second Production as Artistic Director

Wednesday 4th April 2018

I’ve just opened my second production as Artistic Director, an adaptation of Louis Sachar’s award-winning novel, Holes. The story is set in Texas and follows a teenager, Stanley Yelnats, who is falsely accused of stealing an old pair of sneakers and is sent to Camp Green Lake to reform his character. It’s funny, quirky and absorbing.

I’ve long been a fan of the book and latterly enjoyed watching the Disney movie adaptation. Over the years I’ve learned that children still adore the book and read it at home and in school; it’s timeless. There’s a whole generation now in their twenties who know about sploosh, yellow-spotted lizards and Kissin’ Kate Barlow. That’s not to say that you’ll only enjoy the play if you already know the book. I envy those who will get sucked into all the twists and turns of Stanley’s journey for the first time and gasp as they realise how Sachar is going to tie all the strands together.

It’s been over ten years since I discovered that Louis Sachar had written a stage adaptation of his novel and I tracked down his agent in Manhattan to express an interest in directing it. I included it in my first season’s programme as I’d been following with interest the remerging popularity of youth gang dramas on television such as Stranger Things, which in turn plays tribute to the films of the 1980s like E.T. or The Goonies. Holes too is about an anti-hero, Stanley, and a gang of other misfits. These boys are on their own – as with all these stories, the author has removed the sensible adults who are meant to be protecting the children – in their quest to discover something before the baddies get there.

It was very important to me to include a family-friendly show in the 2018 season. If we can get young people through our doors at an early age, the likelihood is that they will become life-long theatregoers. As modern life gets increasingly busy and as we all, not just children, spend an increasing amount of time looking at our screens, theatre is a social activity that the family can enjoy together where phones have to be switched off.

We’ve also programmed a lot of schools matinees that are proving popular; actually we’ve had to add an additional show because they were selling so well. If you ask any actor they will say schools audiences are a real pleasure to play to. You have to work hard as a cast to capture the attention of the whole auditorium, but once you have them engaged they are fully committed to the story and the world you’re creating. They will also shout out injustices on behalf of their favourite characters, which can be very amusing. The good thing about Holes is the teachers will have a great time too.

Rehearsals were a joy; it’s been a long time since I laughed so much in a rehearsal room. This is partly because the world of Camp Green Lake was so much fun to create, but also because we have such a great cast. It features some actors who are well known to Nottingham Playhouse audiences such as John Elkington who has been playing the dame in our pantomime for many years. Our Stanley is Chris Ashby who recently played the role of Malcom in Wonderland so beautifully; he went straight from that show into rehearsals for Holes. And we also have the great stage and screen actor Kacey Ainsworth who’s perhaps best known for her role as Little Mo in EastEnders. The whole cast is brilliant and many of them are relatively recently out of drama school.

We also have a fantastic creative team, including Matthew Forbes who is currently the Puppetry Director on War Horse. Working with our Props Department, he has done a wonderful job of creating the deadly yellow-spotted lizards, which as fans of the story will know play a crucial role in the plot. The story takes in many locations and the cast play multiple characters so we’ve created a rough, playful aesthetic, by which I mean we’re not spelling everything out for the audience in a literal way. Instead, we’re suggesting all of the design in a suggestive minimal way and the audience have to use their imaginations to fill in the holes. That’s my favourite kind of play because it draws upon what theatre does best.

Although Holes is a lot of fun it also investigates some important social themes, although the beauty of Sachar’s story is that these are explored through the characters and not heavy-handedly. It’s a story of family, friendship and destiny, and also an exploration of poverty and race. The camp’s inmates come from lower class backgrounds and are certainly in part a product of society’s failings. Part of the story takes place in the 1890s in Texas and features a relationship between Sam, a black onion seller, and Kate, a white schoolteacher. Sachar doesn’t shy away from portraying the bigotry they encounter and this is a moving part of the narrative. This is mirrored in the present day world of the camp as the boys come from a variety of different ethnic backgrounds and it’s interesting to see how Louis Sachar reincorporates this theme.

I hope the Nottingham Playhouse audience will enjoy Holes as much as we enjoyed making it. It’s really a fable, a slice of magical realism, which transports you to an evocative location and sends you on a spellbinding journey.

Holes runs from Fri 31 March – Sun 22 April 2018. BOOK HERE

Image credit – Adam Penford in rehearsals with the cast of Holes. Photography by Manuel Harlan