New Victory Blog

The New Victory Blog is a place to learn more about New York's theater for families and the shows we produce. Find out what we do and what we're passionate about—exploring the arts as a family.
October 21, 2016

A Story of Hope: The Pair Behind Mr. Popper's Penguins

There are few books that resonate with young audiences like Mr. Popper's Penguins. From the adorable penguins to the story of dreams coming true, it's a classic that's been enchanting readers since 1938. Why has it endured and how was it adapted into a musical? We sat down with the director, Emma Earle, and designer, Zoe Squire, to ask them about everything from their first encounter with the story to which of the penguins are the most ornery backstage!


The Creative Team
The creative team from Mr. Popper's Penguins, Zoe and Emma in front, Luke Bateman and Richy Hughes in back. Photo: Helen Murray
When did you first come across the Mr. Popper's Penguins story?

We first became aware of the story through the Jim Carrey film in 2011, but we then realized that the film was an adaptation of a book written by the Atwaters in 1938. We fell in love with the original story and thought it would make a magical, charming stage show for children and their families.
Why do you think it has endured as a classic for so many years?

Mr. Popper's Penguins is not just an exciting story about a man who gets sent a penguin, but a story of hope and working together to achieve the impossible. Many people have a dream—Mr. Popper's is to become an explorer like his hero, Admiral Drake, and to see the Antarctic. Ours was to take a show to New York and to London's West End, and here we are!
How did you chose what moments would become songs?

We worked closely with Composer Luke Bateman and Lyricist Richy Hughes to identify the best moments for the story to be told through song. They're a brilliant team, and although we'd never worked together, we found our instincts for storytelling really lined up. We spent time sharing references and talking about a mutual love of those Golden Age MGM musicals.
What do you want kids to walk away with after seeing the show?

As well as humming the songs and tapping their toes, we hope children and their families walk away happy knowing that Mr. Popper has fulfilled his dream and that he gets to enjoy it with his whole family. We really just want people to laugh a lot and be moved by both the magic and the heart of the story.

Mr. Popper's Penguins, the Book Where did your #LoveOfTheater start?

We have both loved being involved in theater from a young age. I grew up watching my aunts and uncle acting on the stage in plays and musicals; and Zoe was heavily involved with her local theater, both onstage in youth theaters and backstage working in the scenic workshop.
What do you love most about creating theater for young audiences?

We love seeing whole families come out to see our shows, talking to each other and sharing something. Young audiences can be very vocal, and it's so exciting hearing laughter and chatter as people take it all in. It's also magical when the audience is quiet and you know they're really listening and engaged with the story.
Why did you choose to work with puppets instead of people in costumes?

There were lots of reasons for going down this route. First, we wanted to create a family of penguins that our audience would fall in love with. There's something incredibly cute about life-sized puppet penguins rather than human-sized ones. Second, using puppets instead of real actors dressed up allowed us to have more fun with what the penguins could do—we wouldn't have been able to fire a human out of a cannon, for example! And third, we needed to find a way of creating ten penguins and a host of other characters from Stillwater with only four actors. Our incredibly talented cast members play multiple roles, sing and operate various types of puppets, barely leaving the stage. It's a very busy show for them!


Ornery Penguins!
Penguins Greta and Captain Cook having fun in New York City!
What's your favorite thing about penguins?

Since we started learning about penguins, we noticed that they tend to act a lot like toddlers! We love their curious and investigative nature. They don't hesitate to eat what they want, climb on what they want or hide under whatever they want! 
If you could explore anywhere in the world, where would it be? 

After adapting the story and spending so much time thinking about Antarctica, we would love to go there. Also, getting the chance to explore New York City with this show is a dream come true!

What is it like working with 10 penguins? We hear they're the most difficult cast members! 

The most difficult part is keeping track of them! It's become a running joke within the company that they seem to pop up in unexpected places all the time. They're like a litter of yappy puppies, tearing up backstage and getting under everyone's feet. We have the snooty one with the slightly upturned beak, the clumsy one who ends up with paint on his head and the entrepreneurial one who thinks she can save Popper's painting and decorating business—they've all got their own identities and quirks.
Emma trained at the National Theatre Studio and Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. She is Co-Artistic Director of Pins and Needles Productions and has directed all their shows to date including the UK premieres of Raymond Briggs’ The Bear  and Father Christmas. Also for Pins and Needles: Scoop; Flies, Holly and Ivan’s Christmas Adventure, The Elves and the Shoemakers, Select A Quest, Gizmo Love, Ernest and the Pale Moon. Emma is an Associate Director of Les Enfants Terribles Theatre Company. She recently directed five-star-reviewed Adventures in Wonderland at The Vaults, Waterloo. Also for Les Enfants Terribles: The Marvellous Imaginary Menagerie, Captain Flinn and the Pirate Dinosaurs, Anyone For Tea, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Emma is also an Associate Artist of The Egg and Theatre Royal Bath. Productions include Glengarry Glen Ross, The Shape of Things, The Grapes of Wrath, Riot and Beasts and Beauties.
Zoe trained in Set and Costume Design at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and runs Pins and Needles Productions with Director Emma Earle. In 2014, she won Young Angels Theatre-makers award through Company of Angels and York Theatre Royal. For Pins and Needles, she has designed all their productions to date, including the first stage adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas and most recently The Bear; Scoop; Glengarry Glen Ross; Flies; Holly and Ivan’s Christmas Adventure; The Elves and the Shoemakers and Ernest and the Pale Moon. Other freelance design credits include; Helver’s Night; Much Ado About Nothing The Infant; Captain Flinn and the Pirate Dinosaurs; Romeo and Juliet; The Queen’s Knickers; Riot, Beast and Beauties, One Act Plays; Treasure Island and Suntrap.
New Victory Thumb Grab tickets and see the inspiring story from Zoe and Emma in person! This toe-tapping musical is playing October 14 – 30, so do you best penguin waddle over to the New Vic today. 
Posted by Beth Henderson
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