Interview with Tom Morris, Bristol Old Vic: “Part of what we do is making stories about people that audiences can be entertained and inspired by and there is a market place for that.” 

Tom Morris

Tom Morris © Mark Douet

After a triumphant run and high praise from audiences and critics, the director has had the last laugh with The Grinning Man’s success.
The Grinning Man was a huge risk for Bristol Old Vic, currently celebrating its 250th anniversary year. The show was warmly received and is surely destined for another life. Who’d have thought that a musical based on the Victor Hugo novel and cult silent movie The Man Who Laughs could be so moving, thrilling and powerful?
If regional theatre wants to safeguard its future it can’t play safe. It’s risk-taking that keeps theatre alive. Despite funding cuts and global uncertainty we are living through a rich time for theatrical experiment – as witnessed at Bristol Old Vic.
Tom Morris is Artistic Director of Bristol Old Vic and has been Associate Director of the National Theatre since 2004. Previous productions at Bristol Old Vic include: King Lear, The Crucible, Swallows and Amazons, Juliet and Her Romeo, and Messiah (Bristol Proms, 2012). FYI: Tom was also co-director of War Horse, widely considered to be the most successful theatre production of all time.
The Grinning Man has just finished a successful run, I had a chat with Tom last week about that, his desire to stay relevant in a shifting theatre landscape, and his love for Bristol as a cultural powerhouse.

Hi Tom! The Grinning Man is *very* good. How did you celebrate?
We ended up in Renatos singing songs from Jesus Christ Superstar eating food and drinking together. It was brilliant.

What are your top tips for an aspiring director?
Well, move to Bristol. Not because you are going to get a great job precisely, but because there is a creative community and audience in this city that can sustain the framework. There is also a developing Fringe in Bristol. You learn by doing and you have to want it passionately. I suppose I would also say: get on with it. Trying to find the right environment to flourish is half the battle won.

Tom Morris - The Grinning Man Rehearsals 

Tom Morris – The Grinning Man Rehearsals

The Grinning Man
This year is our 250th Birthday and to celebrate this unique milestone we have staged a year-round programme of productions from each of the four centuries the theatre has been in operation. Bristol Old Vic has always looked forward. I suppose the reason for staging The Grinning Man in the autumn, of this special season, is that the product is unusual and pushes boundaries. The Grinning Man is a play with songs about the spirit of Bristol. Part of what we do is making stories about people that audiences can be entertained and inspired by and there is a market place for that.

People are scared of new musicals, sometimes aren’t they?
With The Grinning Man, I suppose the story and model is complicated. Finding a version of the tale that was possible for the audience to engage with, whilst remaining faithful to the novel and exploring form and content was a huge challenge. There was always a danger of us going down a narrative blind alley.
I have to say that there is a lot going on in order to bring a new musical of this size and scale to the stage. It is very expensive to develop and if you don’t get it right or even half right can be a disaster. Having said that, there is a real appetite for new musicals; why that is I don’t know. I guess it is such a powerful kit that you get to play with; tears and laughter. Conventionally, audiences are reluctant to come and see new musicals. What has been particularly strong with this show, in particular, is the word of mouth effect; people have been prepared to overcome the unknown and taken a leap of faith. I hope that they have enjoyed it.

What three things should every new musical have?

  1. Story
  2. Tunes
  3. Passion

Shrinking attention spans aside, did you have to get rid of any bits you love?
God yes! There were whole scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor, for better or worse. What’s been so rewarding is that the entire company felt confident enough to suggest changes, say when something wasn’t working and embellish details with their own identities. But when you have a company as talented as ours and an extraordinary creative team as this it’s a very organic process. The show has developed in leaps and bounds.

Bristol has a growing reputation as a creative city. What makes it so exciting?
Well, huge numbers of creative people move to or stay here because it has a justified reputation. It’s still possible to get cheap accommodation and is very active economically. In order to find work there are massive opportunities for this city and region and that requires investment. Manchester and Liverpool have grasped opportunity for investment massively. Looking forward, the hugely exciting prospects are the Heritage Lottery Funding and next phase of our refurbishment– of which we are hugely grateful to Arts Council England, but also huge number of donations and time from individuals and philanthropy. In order for Bristol Old Vic to be a forward thinking producing theatre of scale we need to be more than a business; we need to be a heritage destination and take a massive leap in order to keep telling the story to flourish to the public. We have deliberately realigned to create and produce new work.

Looking ahead what are you most excited about in 2017?
Last week there was a workshop in London of a new play Junkyard by Jack Thorne about the junk playground built in Lockleaze in the 1970’s, it features music by Stephen Warbeck – We’re co-producing this next year with Headlong, Rose Theatre Kingston and Theatr Clwyd. I am very excited we are a part of that.

We need risk-takers more than ever, how do you balance risk adventure with number crunching?
You might assume that I am the one with the wildly imaginative and ambitious artistic ideas and Emma is the sensible one. That is not always the case. We have fairly nuanced conversations, with support from our excellent team and board of trustees. You plot a course. Playing safe doesn’t really work, the theatre has only survived so far because of the city’s relationship and love for it. The city has infamously rescued it and essentially it is a quarter of a millennium love affair, which like all love affairs has had its fair shares of ups and downs.