We spoke to Toby Park, co-Artistic Director of Spymonkey, about their first ever kids show Hairy – coming to Polka Theatre and Worthing Theatres this summer.
Tell us a bit about Hairy?
Hairy is the most stupidly wonderful show. It is full of silly ideas which make us laugh. It’s as if there was a genetic mix-up with the Tellytubbies, some hairdressers and the cast of Star Trek, and they all decided to form a band and make a concept album. About hair.
What made you want to make the show?
We wanted to make a funny show for children. We love making grown ups laugh, and we thought children should get what we do, being a fun-loving people who like laughing more than anything else. Aitor (my co-director and fellow Spymonkey) had the idea to make a funny show all about hair, or more accurately, about a hair called Hair-nry who has a big dream of being a Head Hair. We’ve all been there.
How does a Spymonkey show happen, from idea to landing on the stage?
It is quite a long process. Usually we think about things for quite a long time, and we need to raise money and funding and partners. With Hairy we started working on it before lockdown, in 2019, so we’ve been thinking about it for even longer than normal!
Our shows usually start from a central idea which chimes with us for some reason – an idea which feels like it is simple but big enough to contain within it opportunities for big theatre – opportunities for amazing costumes, magic tricks, puppets, songs, dance routines, crazy characters and images. Then we think about who we might need to help us to make it – Lucy our designer is usually with us, but also who we could need as performers and other creative people. I will usually go away and write some songs based on some of these early discussions.
Lots of our work comes about through looking at how the performers are together as a group on stage. So the casting – who exactly we are going to work with as actors on any show – is probably the most significant moment in determining what the show is going to be. In the past we used to perform in our shows, so this is a new part of the process for us to cast other people in a Spymonkey show. Once we’ve gathered the performers we start to play together. We write songs, we improvise, we talk about silly ideas for clown numbers, about possible characters and storylines. And so slowly we start to gather the different elements together, to weave them into what the show is.
Have you found making a show for young people very different from your previous adult shows?
For sure. We have had to rely on other people to help us much more than we would normally do, in particular to invite young people to come in and watch what we are doing. We can remember being 9 years old, but it is a looooong time ago, so it has been important to have young people in the room to ask questions, to try out bits that we are working on and see how they land with them.
Have you learned anything really interesting about hair in the process?
I think the biggest thing is how different hair can be to different people – in terms of how it looks, how to take care of it, what it means to people in terms of expressing who they are to the rest of the world. When we started work on the show I think lots of our ideas came from a place of our own experience of hair – of being children and what hair meant to us, of going to the hairdressers for example, or of what sort of hairstyles we wanted to have. So it has been important to talk with the other people we are making the show with and find out what their experiences are. And of course it is such a political thing too, we knew that in theory but the reality is far bigger – I think that was a huge discovery, how much identity is bound up in hair, and how significant it is for people. And that’s a serious thing to deal with, hopefully in a playful and funny way – I hope we’ve reflected that in the show.
What’s next for you and the company?
Aitor and I are going back to Vienna in September to get our opera Orpheus in the Underworld back on stage at the Volksoper, and then we go into rehearsals for The Frogs, our version of Aristophanes’s ancient Greek comedy, which Aitor and I will be performing in, with the great Ayesha Antoine. We are working on it with our friends, writer Carl Grose and director Joyce Henderson, and which we open in Northampton in January. We are looking forward to performing again, it’s been 4 years!!!