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Debbie Isitt Interview

Nativity the Musical has just begun rehearsing for its third successive year where it'll again tour and have a run in London at the Eventim Apollo. Creator Debbie Isitt, who wrote and directed the 4 movies as well as the stage version, answered a few questions ahead of this years run.
Debbie Isitt
Q: With the original movie and the sequels being so popular what was it like to get to re-visit the original a good few years later?
A: It was always a dream of mine to adapt Nativity! Into a stage musical. It was actually almost five years ago that I first pitched it as an idea to a theatre producer and began to work it up in a workshop environment. Right from the start, I felt it would work on stage and although it took a while to get here it has been an absolute thrill to revisit the material and rework it as a live show. The characters and the story were so solid that it was fun to try out new ideas after all that time and work with a brilliant musical cast like Simon Lipkin to bring a freshness to the roles.

Q: How soon after working on the original Nativity movie did you decide that it would work on stage and how easy was it to adapt?
A: Almost as soon as the film had its cinema release people kept saying to me that Nativity would make a good musical - and I instinctively knew they were right. The film had classic ingredients- unhappy leading man needing to get the love of his life back - an incorrigible comic sidekick that drove him mad but eventually changed his life for the better and a host of underdog kids that needed to be given a chance to shine. The fact that the film already had a musical within it lent itself to a stage adaptation- the classic ‘show within the show’ - and also the feel-good uplifting tone of the story and the songs made me believe that audiences would find joy in it - especially at Christmas time. Getting other people to share your vision isn’t always easy and sometimes it takes a long time to convince non-believers. But luckily the original workshop was such a good adaptation that we had a brilliant tool to help us cement the vision so that when Jamie Wilson showed an interest 4 years ago he could already see how the show might work. Jamie then funded two further workshops for us to really hone the structure and write more songs. Working on the musical has always been a creative challenge but a real fun one..everyone has been on the same page about the show and that helps a lot! Also, I continued to use the same improvisational technique that I use in the films to develop the show allowing actors to contribute to the script and own their roles. Much of the success of the show comes from the energy this process brings. It’s a really fun way to work and the kids love it too.

Q: With the movie containing original songs by yourself and Nicky Ager, that the audience will know already (Sparkle and Shine, Brightest Star, Nazareth - to name just 3). What was it like to get to write new songs for the stage to go alongside those more known songs?
A: Writing songs is probably the thing I most enjoy doing. I love it when a melody pops into my head or a lyric. It is a magical thing to work up a song and work with Nicky to bring it to life. Because the songs in the film were already iconic for Nativity fans we knew we had to make the new songs feel just as catchy and Poppy and feel-good and fun - but the extra special thing was being able to write moving songs for the children like ‘Dear Father Christmas’ that came very late in the process. I suppose the real joy was giving the character's songs to help them tell their stories and dig even deeper into their souls.

Q: With the story mainly centring on the children of St Bernadette's Primary school meaning the stage show requires lots of children. How easy or difficult was the challenge of finding the children across the country that were suitable for the roles?
A: I think it’s pretty obvious by now that I love working with children. They are so real and in the moment when they perform and they bring a natural wide-eyed innocence and energy to the whole experience. Finding the right children was an enormous project and we worked with brilliant casting director Barbara Roberts for many months workshopping children before deciding on our final cast. Each year we have kept some children and got new ones in as the balance between new children and children who know the show is great and helps the new children learn quickly from their peers. In the last couple of years, we have also been lucky enough to work with children’s casting directors Keston and Keston who have also found us a brilliant team of Oakmoor children in every town we perform. It is such a major operation to not only cast the children but also teach them the scenes ahead of each venue on tour. Luckily we have Rebecca Louis who is in charge of this whole process - an amazing team!

Q: You're again working with Simon Lipkin as Mr Poppy for the London run but also welcoming Scott Paige as Mr Poppy (which I must say is genius casting!) for the UK tour dates. What's it like working with both? (granted you're only a couple of days into rehearsals!)
A: Simon Lipkin has been with the show since its very first workshop - so he had a big hand in creating the stage version of the character. Because Simon is also a brilliant improviser he comes up with hilarious jokes that he litters throughout the show. Working with the equally hilarious Scott Paige is different because he has to find his own way of owning the character - he is effortlessly childlike and although it’s early days in rehearsal its already heaps of fun - I am blessed to have two comedy giants taking on this wonderful role.

Q: Alongside a tremendous cast, this year you're also working with Sharon Osbourne, Rylan, Danny Dyer (London dates only) and Dani Dyer (certain touring venues and London dates).  How exciting is it to have 4 big names joining the company?
A: The big names coming into Nativity this year are all extraordinary- they are all supremely talented and have earned their celebrity status by being brilliant at what they do and who they are..I am beyond excited to work with them all - I’m a huge fan of each one of them - it’s going to be epic!
The 2018 Nativity Company. Photo by Richard Davenport.
Q: With the show being for all ages, how important do you think it is for younger audience members to experience live theatre? Attending the show both in 2017 and 2018 it was a joy to be surrounded by younger audience members who were relishing every moment.
A: I am so passionate about the theatrical experience being a meaningful and uplifting one for an audience especially young people. I want the audience to relate to the characters on the stage and I know that the majority of children who come to see Nativity also want to be in it - because they ‘get it’ and they love it. For many children, Nativity will be their first live theatre experience so we are duty-bound to make it a positive one for them. It is utterly magical watching their little faces light up during the show - sing-along with sparkle and shine and scoop up the gold streamers at the end to take home as a souvenir- magical!

Q: In November it'll be 10 years since the original Nativity movie was released (where does time go!), with a fourth movie (Nativity Rocks) joining the franchise last year and the musicals ongoing success. What's the future going forward for Nativity?
A: I so love making Nativity films and have adored making the show. I have more Nativity film ideas for the future but we shall have to wait and see if the Powers that be want to help us make the meantime I am working on other new and exciting projects so fingers crossed I will keep being able to make my work and spread the message of human kindness - overcoming adversity and finding joy in life.

I'd like to thank Debbie for taking the time to answer these questions and giving a fascinating insight into the world of Nativity. I'm a huge fan of her work and am very grateful for her time and responses.

Nativity The Musical begins it's run this year at Wolverhampton's Grand Theatre (29th October - 2nd November 2019). The tour then visits Aylesbury's Waterside Theatre (6th - 10th November 2019), Canterbury's Marlowe Theatre (13th - 17th November 2019), Cardiff's Wales Millennium Centre (19th - 23rd November 2019), Southampton's Mayflower Theatre (3rd - 7th December 2019) and London's Eventim Apollo (11th - 29th December 2019). For booking details visit

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