Interview: Eleanor Hibbert & Mischa Jones Talk Rocket Box Theatre’s A Christmas Carol

Make no mistake about it, offering up a new rendition of the eminent Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol is no tame feat… But it’s exactly what Rocket Box Theatre are offering online audiences this December: a fresh, richly layered audio adaptation of the tale beloved by many. With their radio play launching online come December 12th, I caught up with Director Eleanor Hibbert and writer Mischa Jones to get the inside track on this ambitious company and their adaptation of Dickens’ most famous tale…

So tell me a little bit about your company Rocket Box Theatre – how did it all begin and what’s the vision?

MJ: We met at the University of York, and won the 2019 York Performance Award with our production of Alice Birch’s Many Moons. We were touring that show nationally all through this year, until the UK went into lockdown, so we started making work remotely and for remote audiences. We’re excited to get back to live audiences with Many Moons at the Pleasance in Islington in the New Year. At our heart, we’re a storytelling company who works collaboratively. Empathy for and connection with our audiences in the live moment is our vision.

EH: Although we all met while studying in York, we’re actually based all over the UK (from Buxton to London to Cornwall and even sometimes Tenerife). I think this adds to the way that we have to actively communicate with each other as a group of theatremakers. Due to the significant distance we all have between each other, we must communicate clearly and truthfully with one another. I think we’ve all learnt through covid times how communication is key to our culture as human beings, and this is something we strive to replicate in how we work together in a non-hierarchical setting and continue to tell stories.

Many companies are now rejecting ideas of authority in theatre-making, instead loudly declaring their affinity with a collaborative force and Rocket Box seems to sit happily in that category – what do you think it is that makes heavily collaborative theatre-making so rewarding?

MJ: Right from the start, we’ve been intentional about attempting to dismantle the hierarchies that we find in some theatre practice. So we love and respect the text, but the text is not the production; what happens in the live moment is the production. Same goes for the director, the director is not the production, nor the performers or dramaturgs or whoever. We try and have the whole development process as transparent as possible. Everyone is invited to participate in the creativity if they want to: designers, stage managers, producers, performers…

The whole point of collaboration is disagreement and conflict and compromise and balance. That’s how you arrive at work that is truly unique and human and fully-rounded.If it’s just one person’s vision, then I think you might as well just write a book or something. What we love about theatre is the collaboration; the seeing other people’s perspective and not getting your own way and using everyone’s experience to make the work.

EH: As a company we have been working collaboratively since our first project at York. The most rewarding element is getting a slice of everyone’s ideas and creativity. If you’re workingfrom one mind constantly you only have one person’s vision, by working collaboratively you sometimes find things from your collaborators that you might not have even thought of. You can also build on your collaborators ideas and it just progresses from there. Although we still believe that a director-esque figure can still be useful to finalise ideas and almost have an outside eye on the work.

So let’s get to the excitement at hand! Come December 12th, your ‘audio retelling of Dickens’ classic winter ghost story’ will launch online. What drew the company towards this classic Dickensian tale?

EH: As we all know, this year has been devastating for theatre in general, but one of the biggest earners for theatre in the uk is the festive shows. There’s something quite magical about theatre at Christmas, you get dads going to pantos that you would never imagine and grandmas screaming ‘it’s behind you’ at the top of their lungs and as cheesy and cliche as it sounds, it brings people together.

We wanted to make a piece of audio theatre that could be there in replacement for these experiences this year, something that would cheer people up and make them feel festive and what better way of doing that than with A Christmas Carol.

Some say it’s time for Dickens and his spooky tale of sin and redemption to call it a day and make way for new stories (I am not one of those people, I hasten to add!) – what would you say to those people?

EH: Classics are classics for a reason – the foundations of their stories are so great that they can be remade and remade and frankly I don’t get bored of them! A Christmas Carol is such a classic and lends itself to a retelling, you can mould it and shape it in so many different ways. By doing so you can sometimes find something exciting in the original story that can be told in a different way to how it has been before.

MJ: I still love Christmas Carol! I grew up on the Muppets version; the story is so warm and the characters are so pure and good and strange and funny and familiar. The original short story is pretty weird as well, quite trippy and surreal in places, and that kind of dreamy-ness is fun. Our adaptation is very playful and cartoonish, that’s the beauty of Dickens’ storytelling, it’s kind of fantastical.

But Dickens was a politically motivated writer; I don’t think you can get away from the poverty and inequality and corruption that he wrote about in Christmas Carol. There’s been great poverty and inequality and corruption in our society this year; the story still feels relevant.

Rather uniquely, the company have thrown themselves whole-heartedly into the magic of auditory possibilities, offering audiences ‘a richly detailed winter world built entirely with sound’ – how have you gone about crafting the soundscapes we’ll hear?

EH: The soundscapes are made up of free sound bytes that you can find online and just us being weird at home frankly. For example there’s a moment where our main character is rifling through a chest, the foley sound for this was me completely messing up the insides of a draw in my bedroom. You’ve just got to be playful with the sounds that you hear everyday and see if you can use them to your advantage in the story telling!

MJ: Audio storytelling is quite a natural way of expressing a narrative; if we are hearing-able,then we can’t ever really shut off that sense like we can shut our eyes. We’ve made binaural soundscapes to create a feeling of direction and distance, and music and song to tell the story. The sound is so detailed, from the rattle of a train carriage to the ‘click’ of a ring box closing; the world is so deep and dimensional.

The piece will be offering up suitably ‘spine-tingling musical compositions’ while also selling itself as ‘a fun, upbeat audio retelling’ – how much of a challenge and/or joy has it been to combine those elements?

EH: Do you know what, it’s been the highlight of the project for me. At the beginning I was very nervous about there being a choir written into the script, I wanted it to work but I didn’t know if we’d be able to pull it off and make it sound at all nice. There’s something about Christmas that combines the fun, cheesy and slightly wacky with the serious and tender moments in life and that’s been something that’s been really hard but satisfying to work on when it comes to the sound design.

MJ: It’s been a joy to make the music! Who doesn’t love singing Christmas songs! We’ve been pinging carols backwards and forwards over email. It’s sounding so beautiful.

And what would you say makes Rocket Box’s ‘fun and upbeat’ approach stand apart from the various takes on A Christmas Carol we’re seeing take shape this year – are we talking stark Muppets V Alastair Sim contrasts or something else entirely here?

EH: Hmm, I would like to say that we have found a balance between the fun and the tender in our version of a Christmas Carol. I’d say we have some characters that belong in the muppets version and some that belong in the Jim Carey version, I would say there’s some moments that are very Alistair Sim esque. It’s a mix of silly and serious really. I’d say that theuse of our choir and the music balances out the slightly outlandish sides of the play.

The company is also poised to make its Off-West End debut with a run at The Pleasance Theatre, Islington, in 2021 – what are you most looking forward to when it comes to the grand return to live performance for in-the-flesh audiences?

EH: Oh goodness, just to be around people. To get that atmosphere back that somehow youjust don’t seem to have when you’re laying in bed on a zoom call with a huge bag of Doritos and a pint. I’m hoping that people will come together in 2021, look after each other, learn from 2020 and from the arts. The atmosphere and the storytelling of the arts is such an integral part of this country and to be able to share that experience with someone again would be sublime.

MJ: Chats in the pub and on the way home are so important to the live experience. The show doesn’t end until you stop thinking about it, and chewing over what it meant to you withyour friends helps the show to keep going. Also things failing or going wrong live on stage is funny and scary and sad and creative and I love it.

And finally, in just one sentence, tell us why we’d be fools to miss Rocket Box’s A Christmas Carol: A Binaural Audio Experience…

EH: You’d be a fool to miss Rocket Box’s A Christmas Carol because who doesn’t love a cheeky bit of festive audio theatre with a wholesome soundtrack that’ll hopefully make you want to crack open the bottle of Baileys and wear your most hideous Christmas jumper?!

MJ: Joyful is the word to best describe our show I think!

So there you have it! Remember, you can listen to Rocket Box’s A Christmas Carol: A Binaural Audio Experience from December 12th 2020 – more info and links can be found here. While the play will be available for free, Rocket Box Theatre are asking those who are able to to consider donating to support creatives:

‘We want this production to be heard and enjoyed by as many people as possible which is why we have made access to it completely FREE.

If you enjoy the piece, we kindly ask that you consider making a small donation to the #WeMakeEventscampaign: an international movement that is working hard to support freelancers in the live events and entertainment industries. Any donation you are able to make will massively support individual workers, families and industry charities affected by the current restrictions on arts and entertainment, and will help springboard the industry we love into a rapid post-COVID recovery.’

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