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Changing of the Guard: Purni Morell at the Unicorn Theatre

Purni Morell became artistic director of the children's theatre the Unicorn in September 2011 and launched her opening season across the Unicorn's two performance spaces this month. The season continues this week with The Greeks, two modern re-workings of Greek classics by Sophocles, specially adapted for young audiences:The Man with the Disturbingly Smelly Foot is adapted from Philoctetes  for children aged seven to ten and for 11 to 14 year-olds there is Ryan Craig's adaptation of Antigone, How to think the Unthinkable.

The Unicorn dates back to 1947 when it was founded by Caryl Jenner as a mobile theatre. In 1961 it began presenting children's productions during at the Arts Theatre in the West End which became its permanent home until 1999.

Since 2005, the Unicorn has been housed in a custom-built, RIBA Award–winning building on Tooley Street between London Bridge and Tower Bridge. It is now the fourth largest recipient of theatre funding in London, after only the National, Royal Court and Young Vic.

Previously head of studio at the National Theatre, Morell replaced Tony Graham who stepped down after 14 years in the post.

As part of our occasional “Changing of the Guard” series with new artistic directors, Whatsonstage.com talked to her about her ambitions for the Unicorn and her first season, which extends the Unicorn’s work to older children, teenagers and even adults, including a piece in which children play adults, ageing up to their 40th birthdays.

What was the first production you ever saw at the Unicorn?
I think the first show I saw in this building was Pero by a visiting company called Speeltheatre Holland about four years ago.

What was it about the space that had an impact on you?
The Unicorn is a large, purpose-built, building with a theatre and a studio. It has the flexibility for different kinds of shows and programming. I also has the potential to be a place to which families and young people can come and the idea that it can be a theatre that belongs to those people is really fascinating.

When did you begin to think you might want to run the Unicorn?
I’ve always been really interested in children’s theatre. In the 1990s I worked in the National Theatre's literary department, and because I'm Belgian, they would send me to go and see children's plays in Europe. I got very interested in what people were doing in Holland and Belgium , Germany and Scandinavia. When I heard that that the Unicorn job might be coming up I thought, “That sounds like a very interesting thing to do”.

What's your vision for the theatre?
I said when I applied I wanted to have a more year-round programme and to have a larger volume of work for a wider variety of ages. I wanted to cover ages from 2 to 21 (it tended to go up to 13 or 14). I think one of the challenges for a building like this is how you can be attractive to eight-year-olds and 15-year-olds. It’s difficult to appeal to both groups of people but it seemed to me that we should. I was also very keen to bring in international work, not just because I like it but because I think the relationships between different theatre-makers are interesting and important and I wanted to see if we could be some kind of facilitator for that. The third thing I wanted to do was to see how we might be able to keep ticket prices low - particularly for families and those in our audience who haven't been before. At present, we give away about 15% of our tickets to first-time visitors. And that’s something that I’m very keen to continue.

How do you rate your predecessor Tony Graham's tenure here?
I think he has done a great thing in getting this building up and running because it was no mean feat raising the money, finding the location and pulling it all off. The importance of having a purpose-built children’s theatre can’t be overestimated. And I think he’s one of the nicest men in the industry.

Why is a children's purpose-built theatre so important?
Theatres are institutions and that’s problematic because theatre by its nature ought not to be an institution: it ought to be transgressive and anarchic and ask questions and stand on the outside. But most theatre does take place in theatres that are institutions so I think the really interesting questions become: who feels at home in those buildings? who owns them? who runs them? who's really comfortable in them.

If you have a purpose-built theatre for children, you can create an environment which focuses on the kind of place they might like to be. That’s quite a fun interior design challenge but one that I’m very keen to start getting to grips with. How can we make children feel that in this particular environment they are more welcome than the parents or teachers they have come with?

What were the main challenges when you started?
I started in September and inherited a programme that only went up until Christmas so we had to get a season out quite quickly. We had about two months to put it together and advertise it to avoid a real hiatus.

I’m very interested in talking to teachers about the changing environment in education - what that means for them, what that means for us and what that means for our relationship because I think at the moment they rarely have the chance to bring a child to the theatre more than once a year. And inviting a child to go the theatre once a year and expecting them to be interested in the art form is like giving a child one book a year and expecting them to love literature.

So there are some really interesting conversations to be had about how we can make what we do more accessible whether by publicising far, far earlier or by offering some kind of incentive for coming twice with the same child. There's also the conversation to be had about why we’re bringing children to the theatre in the first place - because there isn’t any reason why children should like the theatre any more than they should like football or pizza. I think that experiencing something as often as possible is the key thing to appreciating it.

What does theatre offer to children?
Theatre is the one art form where the private and the public come together. When you’re reading a book or watching a film, you very much have the feeling that it’s made for you. When you’re participating in social activity, you realise that you’re part of society. The thing that theatre can do, above all other art forms, is to put those two things together so you feel very much that the people on stage have shown you something that you appreciate or that they understand something that goes on inside your head too. And yet you are doing it with lots of other people around you and there is something about that that I think is extremely valuable. I have a friend who is a theatre director who says that there are only two problems in life: one is how to live with oneself and the other is how to live with other people. And the theatre is ideally placed to discuss both those two problems at the same time.

Do you consider it part of your purpose to create the theatregoing generation of tomorrow?
No. I don’t think my primary function is to develop an audience for the adult theatre of the future, I think my primary function is to make theatre pieces for the current audience which is sitting in my auditorium today.

How will you measure success at the end of your tenure?
I’d like us to be full and everyone to be happy. You know which theatres are exciting and you know which aren’t and I want us to be in group A.

- Purni Morell was talking to Terri Paddock