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Debbie Isitt: 'There weren't any good roles for women, so I had to write some'

As her musical adaptation of her hit film Nativity opens, performer, director and writer Debbie Isitt explains how she began in showbusiness

Debbie Isitt

Writer, director and actor Debbie Isitt is probably most well known for her Nativity! film franchise. Starring Martin Freeman, the original film was first released in 2009 and quickly became one of the most-loved British festive films, and the most successful British independent movie of that year. The film spawned two more incarnations, and its success has led Isitt to create a musical adaptation, which she also directs, and has just opened at Birmingham Rep. It's something of a homecoming for Isitt, who started out treading the boards, before turning to film for ten years, creating screen work such as ITV series Love and Marriage and Confetti.

You're both adapting and directing Nativity! The Musical. Has it been a lot of work?
It's my own fault, isn't it? It's just because I'm a control freak. Sometimes I wish I wasn't. Having said that, it has been such a collaborative process, because of the way I work. I use a lot of improvisation and try to put the actors front and centre of the work, as well as the children. It feels like a team effort. I am so lucky to have brilliant people to work with in the room.

There are a lot of children involved…
We have 27 children in three teams all learning two roles each. One night they play St Bernadette's school and one night they play Oakmoor school. To begin with we thought we would be able to cast locally in every town. But we realised that was a huge job and just wouldn't be possible. So we cast all the children from the West Midlands. The casting was quite a long and intensive process and the challenging thing was that we wanted children who were just off the street.

So you weren't looking for trained child actors?
No, and as a result they had such a lot to learn… most of these children didn't know what upstage or downstage or stage right or left was. They are being really fantastic and they all love the film, which is a big plus.

So do you think the saying 'never work with children and animals' is a little unfair?
They are the heart and soul of the story, so when they come on, everything makes sense. The adult actors are phenomenal and I absolutely love them but there is magic in children. The average age of the kids in this show is eight, and they have a lot of innocence.

What made you want to adapt Nativity! for the stage?
People had always said to me: 'That would really work onstage'. There's a play within the film and it's a classic musical story of underdogs trying to pull something out of the bag. The bones of the story were already very musical and there were some key songs in the film.

How have you found the process of getting a musical up and running?
A film is shot over six weeks, and then it's edited to within an inch of its life. On stage they have to live up to the performances in the film but without any cutting or second takes. They have to get it right every night. And that's really more challenging than the actual adaptation of it. We had a few workshops leading up to the rehearsal to try and get to grips with what bits will be sung as opposed to spoken and which bits we leave out. We didn't want to just put the film onstage because that rarely works. You have to reinvent it for the theatre.

The cast of Nativity! The Musical
©The Other Richard

Had you written songs for the stage before?
No, there are the same songs from the film and we've written five or six again for the show. So it's new and old. I write the lyrics and melody lines and Nicky Ager writes everything else. I trained as an actor originally and I always thought I would end up in musicals. I instead went off into a kind of physical theatre, then I moved into film. I'm now doing the very thing I always wanted to do, it's like a dream come true.

Was Nativity! inspired by your own experience?
It was my daughter really. At that time she was at primary school and I went to watch her in the school nativity for a couple of Christmases. I just observed the madness of it, the chaos and the spontaneity and the things that went wrong and the stress of the teachers and the competitiveness of the parents. It was such rich territory.

Do you see Nativity! as your big break?
I suppose so, yes. I want an audience for my work, that's why I make it, which is not true for every artist. Some people are happy to make work for themselves, but I really do want to reach people. When I made Nativity! I really wanted to try and make a piece of work kids could watch but so could their parents and grandparents. I was really pleased that we achieved that.

You started as an actor, and you've written plays too - why did you start writing?
I started going to auditions and even if I was lucky enough to get a part, nine times out of ten the part wasn't very good. There just weren't great parts at the time for women. My [male] peers were going for the lead roles, for the Hamlets and Macbeths. So I decided to write something and put myself in it. That sounds audacious now, but it felt like the only way at the time. I went to the Edinburgh Festival and then toured internationally and before I knew it I had been touring for 15 years. I suddenly thought I needed to get a proper job so I retrained in filmmaking. So I'm now coming back to my roots.

Nativity The Musical runs at Birmingham Rep to 12 November and then tours the UK. Read our review here.

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