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Interview: Going From Online to Onstage Looking for a Hat

Sam Wilde on the I Want My Hat Back Trilogy

Think back to the dark depths of Covid lockdown: thousands of parents all over the UK were stuck at home with young children. They had to educate and entertain them, read to them, create – without access to shops or theatre. How on Earth to do that?? Then suddenly one day a bear arrived on our screens and everything changed. The fabulous picture book I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen was adapted as an online puppet show by Designer Sam Wilde and Director Ian Nicholson. Suddenly, everyone was enjoying watching it, and many of the families made their own theatres out of cardboard and scraps from around the house, filming their own stories. Two more fabulous shows followed, as creativity and fun became possible again! 

Fast forward to this summer, and Little Angel Theatre will now be presenting the Hat Back books not on the small screen but on a full-sized stage. We were delighted to be able to ask Sam Wilde about what we might expect when the bear re-emerges from his hibernation.

Sam, the reaction to the Hat Back shows in lockdown was simply phenomenal, wasn’t it? Just how widespread was the response?

It certainly was, I mean, it changed everything! Not only was it seen 400,000 plus times in over 50 countries, but we were best shows of lockdown in The Stage, The Guardian, The Metro, and featured in the BBC and The New York Times. Ian got recognised in the street!

It reminded me of how important stories and art can be. I’d been working in theatre for ten years at that point and I have to admit had become quite… complacent isn’t the right word, but I’d certainly lost a little faith. When this came along, we were all stuck inside and suddenly there was something NEW, not something big and flashy, not something that took hundreds of people and required motion capture technology, but something new that was made by three guys chatting over Zoom and with whatever materials I found lying around; something you could do too. That felt important. It felt like a declaration of the importance and power of art and the artist at a time when we could all do with a little… new. Then when we announced the next shows suddenly there was something to look forward to as well. Saying that now feels like it’s such a little thing, but at the time, for me at least, it was massive. It helped.

It looks like you made the original set and all the characters on a shoestring, from cardboard, glue and sticks; was it all really created from such basic items? And is that how people were able to get so involved in the sensation at home?

Absolutely! I mean, I do tend to have a lot of cardboard knocking around the house. I’ve been making things out of cardboard for years and years. I’ve got two kids and have taken the idea that “they’d rather play with the box than the toy” to the extreme, constantly making them cardboard castles, cars… I made a rabbit during lockdown so they could have a cardboard pet! But I think the first three shows cost £30 in total, and that was mainly postage (I made them in Bristol and posted them to Ian to film in his living room).

When people started making their own shows, the joy and privilege I felt – it still makes me giddy that I was a small part of that! That was more important to me than the shows were I think.

Cardboard is such a joy to work with, and it’s become such a big part of my life. I find such freedom in it because you don’t need special tools to work with it; you don’t need to worry about spoiling it as people literally give it away! If you’d have told me back when we did Hat Back that a year later I’d use some old cardboard boxes to do a window display at Fortnum & Masons, and then the year after that I’d take some moving boxes and make puppets for The Globe’s Christmas show… well I don’t know if I’d have believed you. I love me some cardboard. Just like me it’s all about play and questions!

So not only do you use recyclable materials to create, but now Bear himself is being recycled, and moving up to the big stage! Is the design of the production rather more complicated now? And larger??

Larger is without question, more complicated, and I don’t think as… simple maybe. So much of the joy of the original shows was that people found it accessible. I’m not about to take that away from the process. It’s not really a show, it’s more an offering. It’s like ‘I’ve done this, now it’s your turn, what can you do?’ We’re not hiding any tricks, everything’s on show: it’s an open book that I hope people read and borrow some of how we did it!

That being said, we worked out there’s a new puppet about every 30 seconds of the show… so it’s by no means simple!

And what about the cast? Have you recycled that as well?

Ha, we do have a wonderful wonderful cast on board. Ian’s going to be doing some of the shows again of course, but he’s going to be sharing the role with the incredible Simon Lyshon, who is a joy to work with! He’s a really brave creative, always there with an offer and an idea. We’ve also got Imogen Khan, who is far from recycled, she’s brand spanking new! She is a recent graduate from Rose Bruford and is just perfect! Easily one of the top ten actors I’ve ever worked with. Everyone should hire her for everything, only don’t, because we need her!

As wonderful as Imogen and Simon are (and they are!) I don’t think any of us would have felt right without Ian doing at least some of the shows. He’s an inspiring, driven, conscientious creative and a very dear friend. None of this could have happened without him! He’s like the Christopher Nolan of wonderfulness!

I also just want to add a shout out to Sherry Coenen, our fantastic lighting designer, Tish Mantripp, who worked with me as a puppet maker and Alana Ashley, who assisted me on the project and is a paragon of everything I want to be as a creative: she is moral, thorough, informed, talented and above all joyful – the perfect mix of craftsperson and artist! So often, backstage roles are overlooked in the press and excitement approaching a show and they (we) are such an important part of it all, so I wanted to make sure they were all mentioned!

Will there be musical accompaniment to the adventures in the wood?

In the woods, the desert and under the sea! We’ve got the AMAZING Jim Whitcher back, who did the incredible music in the original production. There were times where he’d get the recording the night before it went live and he’d just make magic happen overnight!

It’s also worth mentioning that when we made the original shows Jim and I had actually never met. We made those shows as a team of three and two of us had never even had a conversation! We have met since, and I’m pleased to say the man’s character and rhythm are just as beautiful as his tunes. I find it impossible to say enough kind things about Jim; he’s just an inspiration and a gentleman!

This is a trilogy of the books, so are they going to be staged consecutively, one after another, or will you merge the stories into one ongoing tale?

Ahhhh!! Now that would be telling! You’ll just have to come to see the show and find out!

One thing that I will say is that Jon Klassen, the author and illustrator, has created three perfect, perfect books, so we’ve tried our best to add only what was necessary to put them on stage. If it’s not, broke don’t fix it!

You published lots of online activities for the original streamed versions; will they be available for this run as well?

Not only available but essential! There’ll be activities that are freely available for sure, but what was so beautiful about the originals is that people made puppets and did their own shows. The show lived beyond the four walls of the screen and it felt like we all – Ian, Jim, myself, the audience at home as well as everyone at Little Angel (who are without a doubt the best, most exciting, kindest and most wonderful theatre in the UK! The impact and help they offered us all, not only through Hat Back, but all of the shows and activities they provided during the pandemic should have got them all knighted!) – we all made this vast web of a show together. It felt like a collaboration with the whole planet. This time we’d love to try and get a flavour of that as well. You can make the puppets, bring them along and be part of the show with us!

I’ve even had a haircut. The amount of people who messaged me after seeing those making videos telling me I needed a haircut was unreal!

We’d like to thank Sam for taking the time to chat with us about this exciting new production at the Little Angel Theatre, which runs from 21 May – 31 July. The I Want My Hat Back Trilogy is aimed at ages 3 – 6 and runs for approximately 45 minutes. You can find out more about it and how to buy tickets here.

About Mary Pollard

By her own admission Mary goes to the theatre far too much, and will watch just about anything. Her favourite musical is Matilda, which she has seen 14 times, but she’s also an Anthony Neilson and Shakespeare fan - go figure. She has a long history with Richmond Theatre; in Marketing, as a tour guide, archivist and volunteer, but is currently helping at Shakespeare's Globe as a steward and in the archive. She's also having fun being ET's specialist in children's theatre and puppetry! Mary insists on now being called The Master having used the Covid pandemic to achieve an MA in London's Theatre and Performance.
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