Writer and director Debbie Isitt tells us about bringing the much-loved festive movie to the stage. Nativity! The Musical is at the Festival Theatre, 28 Nov to 2 Dec.
Where did the idea come from?
I really wanted to do something about the school nativity because it’s been such a massive part of my life. When I was little it was the biggest deal in the world; to play Mary was everything. When it was my daughter’s turn, I hung back and watched the stress and chaos as the teachers put together the play. It was the highlight of my year to watch my daughter in the school nativity – no matter what part she played. You could always rely on the children being funny and spontaneous.
It’s such a big tradition that I couldn’t believe it hadn’t been turned into something dramatic or comedic because it’s such fertile ground for drama and comedy.
Why did you choose to turn the hit movie into a stage musical?
I trained as an actor, and when I left drama school I was convinced I was going to do musicals, but I never did. The film is about a group of kids putting on a show – there’s even a musical within the film – so it lends itself to theatrical adaptation. It’s also a fantastic opportunity to explore the characters more. I wanted to try and create a fun, funny, moving theatrical experience and – with the talent of Nicky Ager - with some brilliant songs.
Did anything surprise you when you first began working on the show last year?
Every day there were surprises and new ideas, especially from the children who play the class. We had genuine spontaneous suggestions which were put in the show, because they’re great.
You started your career in theatre before moving into films. Has this project reignited your love of the stage?
It’s been a long time since I’ve made theatre, but you don’t forget how to do it. In some ways it’s the same as film, because it’s about telling a story to an audience. That very simple line of communication is really important. But there are different challenges; I can’t get 10 live camels trampling through the inside of a theatre! But the world is your oyster on stage too. You can mime, or imagine, or suggest. It’s a really interesting place to be, and I’d love to do more of it.