Friday , May 27 2022
Victoria Jane with Alby the Penguin (Credit: Harry Elletson)

Theatre Interview: Helen Eastman, Director, ‘Alby the Penguin Saves the World’ at Reading Rep

After venues had to close in 2020, they found interesting ways to provide entertainment on their social media channels while people stayed home. Even animals participated in the fun. For example, the Shedd Aquarium penguins took a day trip to Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois, ahead of the fall football season.

Penguins—albeit puppet versions—are also entertaining audiences in Reading, UK. The local celebrity there is Alby, a snow-white or albino penguin who gained popularity in 2018/19 with Alby the Penguin Saves Christmas. He returns April 6–18 for another family-friendly adventure called Alby the Penguin Saves the World at Reading Rep, in partnership with Reading Libraries. This time, Alby embarks on a magical and fun-filled tale that will inspire kids and their families to be more environmentally friendly.

Dr. Helen Eastman is at the helm of this production, enjoying the positive response her beloved Alby has received. She is a prolific writer and director of many international projects across theatre, film, and opera. She has directed works for renowned institutions including English Touring Opera, Cork Opera House, Opera Theatre Company, City of London Festival, The National Theatre Studio, Circus Space, Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and Delphi International Festival.

Why are Penguins Awesome Creatures?

Eastman and I bonded quickly on Zoom when I called her to discuss all things Alby, because we both love penguins. “They’re so aesthetically exciting and beautiful,” she said. The contrast between that flap and waddle as they walk and the grace as they swim is such an extraordinary feat of nature. I get excited watching them. I love the commonality of penguins in the way they huddle together to keep warm and communicate.”

Writing about an albino or all-white penguin has been an interesting avenue to delve into because it’s an unusual type of penguin. “The kids’ jokes about penguins are based on the idea that they are black-and-white animals. I started to think what it would be like to be a penguin who is a different color.”

Photo of director Helen Eastman sitting at a table and speaking during rehearsal
Helen Eastman (Credit: Harry Elletson)

Writing about the Climate Crisis

Alby the Penguin Saves the World can help families start conversations about the environment. “It’s really important to remember that kids are often way ahead of their grown-ups: the parents, grandparents, or carers. Environmentalism is quite a big feature now of the primary curriculum at school. Most four-year-olds can explain recycling. That’s a brilliant thing. Often the most passionate or knowledgeable family member might be the littlest!”

Eastman also wanted to avoid a doom-and-gloom approach in her writing. “A lot of people are invested in telling us that we can’t do anything, which is a very overwhelming and terrifying narrative. It’s really important to me to use the arts to say that maybe we can change things and what a better future might look like. We can do it with joy and camaraderie, rather than thinking of it as going without.”

Alby the Penguin Saves the World expands the Alby universe as the penguin takes a look at climate change. Alby also visits a football stadium. For the latter, Eastman was inspired by the recent uptick in sports activism, specifically athletes taking a knee for Black Lives Matter and Marcus Rashford’s campaign to continue free school meals for children. “For young people, there’s something exciting happening in sport where sports personalities use their profile to make a positive change.”

Alby’s Friends and Allies

Other characters in the Alby universe include his mother, his classmates, a helpful new pigeon named Paul, and his grandfather. “When Alby is scared, he phones his granddad. That’s true for quite a lot of young children. Their grandparents are a source of security when anything is tricky. Alby’s granddad has got a lot to say about humans.”

Alby’s friends also include the audience, creatives, and cast. Full casting is due out soon, but so far Eastman is working with puppeteer Victoria Jane and puppet designer Amelia Bird. There are three Alby puppets of different sizes and waddling capabilities to expertly maneuver. “We’ve got a fab team of women who are very good with puppets. That’s such a privilege to watch. Puppetry is a wonderful aid to our imagination in terms of being able to tell stories in a different way that defocuses it from being about people or the body.”

Photo of Helen Eastman pointing to something off-camera as Victoria Jane listens
Helen Eastman and Victoria Jane (Credit: Harry Elletson)

When productions incorporate puppets, scripts may be shorter in length, but puppets take longer to complete tasks than people. Dissecting a simple walk across the stage involves a lot of precise thought about the physicality. “With a puppet, you have to think of every step of that journey, how it’s going to work with the placement and movement. With smaller puppets, you’ve got to think of where they will land and the surfaces they work on. You choreograph every movement.”

Music and Set Elements of the Show

Patrick Stockbridge’s score is another important component of the show, as Eastman noted when we talked about rehearsals. “Often puppetry comes to life when it’s supported by music and sound as you piece it all together. There are moments in rehearsal where I find myself talking to the puppet because I’ve sort of forgotten that I need to talk to the actors behind the puppet. They’re very accepting about that.”

Eastman also appreciates the wonderful work being done in the local community for related initiatives. “Reading Rep has done an amazing job of reaching out. They are building relationships with the library and the schools with craft-making and upcycling. Kids in Reading made loads of stuff that are all going to be part of the set.”

An avid reader herself, she understands the opportunities that books provide. “Books are important for the ability of children to travel, imagine, empathize, and to understand different stories.”

For more information and to purchase tickets for Alby the Penguin Saves the World, visit the Reading Rep website.

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About Pat Cuadros

Pat Cuadros frequently covers theater and television for Blogcritics Magazine. Every quarter, she enjoys putting the spotlight on new voices and emerging talent. Her portfolio includes interviews with Juliette Binoche, Daniel Davis, Fran Drescher, Derek Jacobi, and Ndaba Mandela.

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