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Behind their scenes... With Ross Collins

Posted 4th June 2014

Behind their scenes… with The Elephantom author and illustrator Ross Collins

We met with Ross Collins, author and illustrator of the much-loved The Elephantom picture book. The Elephantom theatre production opens at the New London Theatre at the end of June, fresh from a sold-out season at the National Theatre. He told us about getting involved in theatre, his working relationship with the production team, entertaining both adults and children, and what it takes to pursue a career as a writer and illustrator.

Did you have any reservations about getting involved in a stage production of The Elephantom?

My brother-in-law is a screenwriter and I’ve seen how the writer can sometimes get very lost in the process. I hoped that wouldn’t be the case but I was prepared for it. So to be honest it has been a complete joy – the whole production team has been really considerate, always interested in what I have to say.

How regularly did you join the team in London to work on developing the production?

I’m based in Glasgow, so I came down during workshops and rehearsals as much as I could, for periods of maybe 5 days at a time now and then. Not too often, just enough so I could get a feel for collaborating; they would show me something new they’d tried out and I could give my tuppence worth.

You said at the launch that you enjoyed working in a collaborative creative environment, can you tell us more about that?

I think I work quite differently from folk down here; I’m dealing with theatre people, and theatre people are loud and big and expressive and everyone’s having a great time (laughs)! I always sit at the back and think about things, I don’t put my voice forward too much, and only then when I think there’s something worth saying. So it’s been a bit of an education, but a pleasure because the people I’ve been working with are very honest, very creative, and I think they’ve genuinely enjoyed me being there and I’ve really enjoyed being with them.

Everybody has been great, but Finn and Toby in particular –they have the ability to corral people, make people feel like all their ideas are being included and at the same time be able to get what they want to happen. That’s an art: to be able to work with people and for people to want to work for you. Those are skills I couldn’t possibly have, so when you see someone doing that well, it’s a pleasure and a novelty.

The Elephantom playwright Ben Power said it was down to your writing that the production is so universally appealing! Was it a conscious decision to create a book so that both adults and children enjoyed?

It was completely deliberate. When I was growing I really loved stuff like Jim Henson’s ‘The Muppets’ because it has a crossover; parents love it as much as kids. As I started writing I began to recognise the importance of that because, at the end of the day, it’s the parents who buy the books and the parents who have to sit and read the book night after night after night. I meet parents who’ve read my books far more often than I’ve read them. Whilst it’s very important for the child to be your main concern, I always say I write 90 per cent of my book for the kid and 10 per cent for the adult. It doesn’t mean the kid gets any less of a good time out of your book; it just means that everyone can enjoy it.

How do you feel about moving the production to the New London?

There’s a part of me that is slightly sad, because having something as big as an elephant in an intimate little space like the NT Shed was lovely. But I think the possibilities of what can be done with it at the New London theatre are rather wonderful. They have more scope and more technical abilities, so the opportunities are huge. In terms of adapting the production to fit the New London, I’ll be down as much as before – I’m just here to enjoy it.

Do you have any advice for someone hoping to pursue a career as a writer and illustrator?

Be persistent and have faith in what you do. I’ve always thought there’s no point writing or illustrating stuff that you think is tailoring it to a particular audience. You’ve got to see if you like it, and if you like it there’s a very good chance someone else will. There’s an honesty in producing work that you love.