Theatres are closing out 2021 with fun shows for the family. Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond (UK) will put on a production of Pinocchio December 14-31. The creative team includes Director Liam Shea, Puppetry Director Lori Hopkins, Composer/Musical Director James Cleeve, and Lighting Designer Chris McConnell.
Since Hugo (Nathan Queeley-Dennis) is bored and in need of a friend, his mother (Fiona Drummond) makes for him a Pinocchio to join him on adventures.
Queeley-Dennis and I spoke on Zoom to talk about working on this interactive show, handling puppets, and sampling Richmond’s oranges. Queeley-Dennis plays Hugo, Pinocchio, and other beasts. His theatre credits include Black Love (Paines Plough/tiata fahodzi), Really Big and Really Loud (Paines Plough), Hear Me Now: Monologue – Vol. 2 (Tamasha Theatre) and A Taste of Honey (National Theatre).
Is it a more relaxed atmosphere for you when you’re doing a family show, or are the stakes higher?
You still have to give the same level of detail and professionalism regardless. I find with younger and family audiences, they’ll be a lot tougher on you. An adult audience will clap along and be polite, even if they’re not necessarily enjoying it. If you lose the attention in a family show or if you slip at a point and they don’t believe you, they won’t believe you for the duration [of the show].
What do you appreciate about the way theatre challenges people?
Something I’ve enjoyed recently is how different audiences give different reactions, depending on the show. In the last couple of years, there’s a lot more theatre challenging people’s opinions on the world. I did a show recently [like that] in Brixton and then in a more predominantly white area. Something I learned [is] that getting a great reaction in one space, and not getting the same reaction in another, doesn’t actually accumulate to the effectiveness of the piece. Because they are more quiet doesn’t mean that they’re not taking it in the same way. Everyone absorbs theatre in such different ways.
As an actor, I feel I have to be nimble and use that to change my performance so it suits the audience… reading how the audience reacts and getting the feel of the room.
What is Hugo’s best quality?
His best quality is probably his love of exploring and adventure. He wants to go out and do amazing things. As a young person, going up a high mountain isn’t something that would have appealed to me. [Laughs] His imagination is really beautiful as well.
What’s the plus side of working in a smaller cast?
When it’s a two-hander, you have no choice but to interact with each other. It also helps us to have a better connection onstage when there’s already something there off-stage. That’s one of the benefits as opposed to working with a massive company.
Have you worked with puppets before?
I did a module at drama school. Professionally, this is my first time working with puppets. It’s been really fun. Obviously, you see things like War Horse and The Lion King that have so many puppets in it. Working with Lori here, she shows you how to make a puppet breathe when you are standing still – a puppet is a living, breathing thing – and how to give it your focus while you use it. You learn many tricks and little things [so] that it makes sense. It’s enjoyable because you have a thing in your hand that is alive and is a character separate from you as you assist it.
Why is Pinocchio is such a special story?
Everybody knows the story. It’s one of the first you see as you’re growing up, usually the Disney version. Young people are intelligent and sometimes there are films or shows that downplay their emotional intelligence. Pinocchio is a piece that really challenges them on morality, like lying, but also about wanting to feel they belong. It’s one of the first pieces that really makes you question yourself, which is healthy at a young age.
Could you tell us more about rehearsals?
Rehearsals are very fun at the Orange Tree. It’s not [part of] the rehearsal process, but I’ve been bringing in oranges for vitamin C. I quite like oranges. I’ve been reviewing oranges to figure out where in Richmond they sell the best ones. I’ve gone to M&S, Waitrose, Amazon Fresh, Tesco, and Whole Foods. I’ve been trying to convince our team that M&S oranges are the best ones. No one believed me until the other day. Even though they wanted to dislike them, they actually enjoyed them.
What about Sainsbury’s?
There’s not a Sainsbury’s nearby! I think it would be right up there in quality.
Back to the play, you’re also playing a beast.
I play Hugo, who becomes Pinocchio. Then the beast I become at another point is my best friend or companion, who follows me in the journey. He’s handled as a puppet by another actor, but I also handle him as a finger puppet in a couple of scenes. His name is Angus, a dinosaur that Hugo had as a child.
I play Angus like he is an anxious dog, but also quite happy. He tries to keep Pinocchio on the straight and narrow, but Pinocchio keeps veering off. Angus is the adult and smart figure in the piece when Pinocchio goes a bit crazy.
What’s an example of how the show will be interactive this year?
There will be parts where the audience can join in with songs. We also ask questions and for help at different points. The piece is heavily reliant on paper and building things, so we ask them to build things for us that we use within the play. It’s good for a young audience to make something. Those are the fun bits that you don’t often get, [versus] just pointing and asking where something is.
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Orange Tree Theatre website.