After treading the boards this month in e-baby, Rachael Bellis swaps her acting hat for adapting and directing a brand-new version of Frances Hodgson Burnett classic A Little Princess, She talked to us about her memories of reading the book as a child, job-hopping, being a rebel, getting the best out of actors and why we need hope at Christmas.
Sara Crewe has everything – wealth, intelligence, kindness and beauty. Sent from her home in India to a boarding school in England, at first, she is doted on by her headmistress Miss Minchin.
But when Sara’s beloved father dies, leaving her penniless, Miss Minchin shows her true colours, forcing Sara to work for her, and live in a rat-infested attic, with little food or comfort. How will Sara survive? Will she be broken or will her kindness and courage triumph?
Catherine Hiscock stars as Sara Crewe in A Little Princess, alongside Jill Stanford (as Miss Minchin), Srabani Sen, Ellen Kruger, Mimi Tizzano, Miriam Babooram, Latanya Peterkin and Jaymes Aaron.
A Little Princess runs from 10 December 2019 to 5 January 2020 at London’s Drayton Arms Theatre
Talking to… Rachael Bellis
Co-founder of newly formed Rebel Theatre Company, writer, director and actor Rachael Bellis is also the artistic director of Aequitas Theatre, for which she appears this month in the UK premiere of surrogacy two-hander e-baby at Brockley Jack Theatre. Her other directorial credits include Antigone and Fear and Misery of the Third Reich.
Why did you found Aequitas Theatre?
Aequitas started in 2015 as a way to push back against an industry embroiled in typecasting when most parts were for/about white cis hetero men. I’m glad to say that that is changing on a large scale but we have so much work to do.
This month you’re performing in Aequitas’ UK premiere of e-baby. What’s it about?
e-baby is about friendship and betrayal brought about by an online ad. On the tin, it is about surrogacy but it’s about so much more – two women who find a friendship they didn’t expect and what happens when that friendship ends. I play Nellie, who is a surrogate from Massachusetts, and it’s honestly a dream role and a beautiful little production with an incredible team.
Did you read A Little Princess as a child?
I did! It was one of my favourite books in fact. I remember the cover vividly. I think in a time when we as a society are held back by politics masquerading as tradition we need to remember what our traditions actually say. The original story is all about being kind over being wealthy, and I think our world needs that right now, don’t you? Plus, it’s nice to do a show that all ages can see for a change!
How did you go about adapting it? Any key differences with the book?
I started by pulling the dialogue straight from the book and then linking scenes and giving characters some stronger throughlines. We’ve changed the Indian manservant to a wealthy Bengali woman, which is the major difference.
We wanted to remove some of the colonial undertones as they didn’t serve the story, and I wanted to cast Srabani Sen, a brilliant actress, in the role before I started adapting. There are a few other surprises I won’t spoil for the kids, but a few characters get a bit more redemption than in the book and Sara is a little less perfect and more relatable.
For this production, you’re swapping performing for directing. What’s your secret for getting the best out of other actors? Does having acted yourself help?
To be honest, I think most of the secret is in having great actors. But yes, having acted myself does help. The way I work, it’s easier for me to relate to what the actors are going through when I’ve been there. I try and keep a collaborative rehearsal room and encourage them to take risks in the process so that we get the strongest performances.
Tell us about your cast for A Little Princess.
They are brilliant. They are collectively so strong. And they’ve come from all kinds of backgrounds – making their own work, like me, and owning theatre companies, performing in rep companies, with Aequitas before, regionally, at the National and the West End or tours; some great training behind them collectively which is all different techniques from method to physical work—I could go on. Between us, we are pooling a ton of skills.
Why should audiences see A Little Princess?
It is a wonderful alternative to panto this Christmas, especially for those who need a bit more hope in their lives.
Why isn’t A Little Princess an Aequitas production?
I met this incredible actress and theatremaker called Ellen Kruger and we decided to start our own company. Aequitas has its own thing going and Rebel is a little bit more grassroots – more of a collective.
It’s also a double-edged name: Rebel because we are rebelling against the standard (we are still figuring this out as we structure but for instance we don’t have an artistic director as such: we all chip in and everyone’s thoughts and ideas are important) but also Rebel because the idea came originally from Rachael (my initials are REB) and Ellen (whose initials are EK but we took some artistic licence and used her first syllable). Plus it’s catchy.
What’s next for you?
I am performing again once A Little Princess is up, and then I’m hoping to have a short break. Aequitas is ploughing sheaf with a beautiful piece of writing called the Collab, which is having some R&D this month and, if it is ready, a run in the spring. Then we have plans for two more shows this year, but I can’t announce them yet.
As for Rebel, we are going to come up with our next step organically so I have no idea what’s next! It could be anything! We will start with some skills swaps between us and work our way into something. I’ve also been in talks for other work and am developing a few things as myself. And, of course, there’s acting. We will see if I get that break!
Anything else you’d like to add?
Just that A Little Princess will be an incredible show with a large cast, a huge set, and a lot of elements. Including puppets! Our lighting designer, Charlotte Hurford, works with the tech at the Globe and is an incredibly talented human. And our operator Charlotte Brown works with the Nordic festival. Set and sound have come from within the company – Ellen is a sound designer and composer when she’s not performing and the set has just sort of come together. It’s a huge show and will be perfect in the Drayton Arms. It’s a must-see!
A Little Princess runs from 10 to 22 December 2019 then to 2 to 5 January 2020 at Drayton Arms Theatre, 153 Old Brompton Road, London SW5 0LJ with performances Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7.30pm, matinees Saturday 15 December, Sundays 22 December and 5 January at 3pm. Tickets are priced £14-£16, with family tickets at £48. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!
Did you know Shirley Temple played Sara in one of the 1st film versions of ‘A Little Princess’? Our Sara sure has some cute shoes to fill!
See how adorable she can be this Christmas!
Tickets: https://t.co/P6YxTnjlye #ALittlePrincess #theatre #Christmas #RebelTheatre#familyshow pic.twitter.com/rGgAhTbcsY
— A Little Princess (@ALPrincess2019) November 5, 2019