BWW Interview: Annette McLaughlin Talks PINOCCHIO
The National Theatre is staging a first. With its blessing from Disney, Dennis Kelly's Pinocchio is the first musical production to feature the songs from the classic 1940 film.
Playing the Blue Fairy, Annette McLaughlin takes us through the creative and collaborative process behind this reimagining. Talking magic, music and 12ft puppets, she shares how dreams really do come true (and not just when you wish upon a star).
What was your first experience with theatre?
My mum used to take me to the ballet a lot. I always found that very magical, and that was probably my first experience of the magic of theatre.
I also really remember going to see 42nd Street, when I was about 11. And that had a big impression on me. I went with some other friends who were also learning to dance, and we danced all the way down the street at the end!
I just remember thinking, "Oh my gosh. That's what I want to do". All the dancing and the costumes and the showbiz of it all was so overwhelming, and very exciting to watch.
So was that the moment you went, "This is what I want to do"?
One of them, certainly. It was a mixture of lots of different things.
When I was very little I wanted to be a ballerina - that's where I was heading. I was at the Royal Ballet School as a Junior. But I just kept on growing and growing and growing in height. And so then, I started to think, "Okay, I need to look elsewhere at what else I can do".
And then I went to a brilliant college that was a bit like the kids from Fame. I went there for a day when I was about 13, and I was allowed to join in any of the classes I wanted to do. That had a big effect on me then, and I just thought, "I want to go here".
So my path changed, but it does that constantly. That's been the exciting thing about my career; my path has gone in lots of different ways.
What was the first production you ever did professionally?
You know, I was told a lot that I was too tall to do things: I'm a tall bird! When I was at dancing school, I was always playing the boy because there weren't enough boys.
And then when I first came out of college, I auditioned for this show called Crazy for You, choreographed by Susan Stroman and directed by Mike Ockrent. And you were measured on the way in, and you had to be 5ft 6in and over. So already this was a revelation - "Oh, you want people like me?".
It was incredible that that was my first job, as a swing on it. I learned a huge amount. But I really remember dancing that amazing choreography and looking out every night and thinking, "Oh my goodness, I'm doing what I always dreamed of. I'm here in the West End, doing this brilliant show".
Is this your first time at the National Theatre?
I did a show called Anything Goes and that was in rep with Love's Labour's Lost here, as part of Trevor Nunn's final season. And that was an extraordinary experience.
That was actually my first experience with Shakespeare for me, and being in a room with Trevor it was a masterclass. You know, the night before we would have done Anything Goes so I was tired, but I couldn't wait to get into the rehearsal room the next morning.
And performing in the Olivier was wonderful, it's an amazing theatre. It's quite a different feeling on the stage to watching a show there. But it's so inclusive. I was very young back then, I was in my twenties. And you're sort of fearless when you're younger, aren't you?
You're back again, this time in the Lyttelton for Pinocchio. Were you familiar with the story?
I saw the Disney film as a child and I loved it (although I was scared of it in places!). I mean, "When You Wish Upon A Star" is sort of in our DNA somehow, isn't it? All those songs are, really.
And we were very lucky, because Disney gave us all the songs and all the original arrangements, which is just wonderful. And our very genius Martin Lowe took those arrangements and reimagined them, weaving in these Italian folk songs throughout.
How else is the production reimagined?
Well, all the adults are played by 12ft puppet versions of the actors. And I don't just mean we're dressed the same.
We all had our photos taken, which went into a very clever computer which made a 3D version of us. And then somehow, that was made into these giant heads. So they are actually versions of us which was very weird coming into the rehearsal room and going, "Oh my god, there I am!".
And that plays with the audience's perspective. So the first image you see is a very big Geppetto with a tiny Pinocchio. And kids who've come to see it really identify with Pinocchio, because he's their size. They really get that.
That's the whole premise behind it: very big puppets and Pinocchio is the only human looking person on stage...apart from me.
That must have required a lot of practice to work with those puppets. How was the rehearsal process?
It was brilliant, actually. It was an absolute dream team, this creative team. I've been desperate to work with all of them. It was so joyful, that rehearsal period. John Tiffany, our director, and Steven Hoggett, our movement director, have a way of really building an ensemble. It was very inclusive, the creative process.
There's parts of my choreography in the show and even down to the illusions, we were encouraged to input ideas. It was so inclusive and a very creative experience, which you get here at the National. They're amazing at facilitating that creativity.
You know, our rehearsal room was a bit like a theatrical Center Parcs at times! Because you had somebody in one corner learning magic, somebody in another corner working with a 12ft puppet, people on strings dancing, and some musical rehearsals going on too.
So it was glorious - we had so many aspects to the show, there was so much to learn. And I have learned a lot by doing this job: I've learned about puppetry, illusions, and how to use my voice in a certain way.
Did you have much experience with puppetry before?
Not really. I'd done some workshops before with puppets, but not this kind of thing. And this was a new thing for everyone and for Toby Olié, because it had never been done before. These 12ft versions of ourselves that we had to make human.
We spent a lot of the rehearsals figuring that out: us as humans working out what it was like to be a puppet, and then working with the puppets and asking how we make them human.
I have three other people with me on my puppet. Quite often, we'd go back to the scene with just me and Mark Hadfield (who plays Geppetto), and our puppeteers would be watching with us.
And we would do what we do naturally as the characters, and then transpose it onto the puppets. It was really interesting to work as a team together, so that we've all got the thoughts that my character is making in my head before we move.
But then you also had to try and work out what reads as a puppet: if a puppet is very still and not moving, it really doesn't read. So it was a lot about breath. And for James Charlton who's on the body, it's tough because it is heavy.
But I look at the Geppetto lot, and they're on that stage for quite a long time in the opening scene with Pinocchio. We're actually very lucky. We get to come off and put her down in her little special place. So I get to be a puppet, a blue flame and me.
The blue flame is so effective.
Yes, it is beautiful. I had my little nieces and nephews come and see the show, and they absolutely loved it.
And every time the flame came out, the little ones were going, "It's Auntie Annette, it's Auntie Annette!".
Did you watch Disney's Pinocchio with them before you started this job?
You know, I always thought I would. But I never got round to rewatching it. And because our Blue Fairy in our production is very different, I decided in the end not to. I just wanted to go with my instincts and what our idea was of her.
The Blue Fairy is such a famous character, with that really iconic number "When You Wish Upon A Star". What is your take on her?
That song is just beautiful to sing. I did feel the pressure of singing this iconic song, a bit. But in our reimagining, "When You Wish Upon A Star" is quite a different arrangement and is quite folky.
Our team has been so supportive, and we've had the time to work out what we wanted to do with it. And I love the way it's used in the show: it's very simple and it comes at the end of a very beautiful speech that Dennis Kelly has written about pain and love and what it is to be human.
And actually, the whole way he's written the Blue Fairy is very different to the Disney fairy with wings and a wand. She's very much a mother figure to Pinocchio. And also she has the spirit inside of her of Geppetto's wife, who died in childbirth. So she has a real journey herself, in our story.
Finally, why should people come and see Pinocchio?
Well, I think it's a show for everyone. I was just amazed by my little nieces and nephews, they remember everything from it (things even I don't!)
And that wasn't just them, but the whole family: from my Mum, who's in her seventies, down to my littlest nephew, who's four. It touches everyone in different ways with the ideas behind the story.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan