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Holes director Adam Penford

Digging Deeper - Adam Penford on bringing Holes to the stage

Posted on 8 January 2020

For the more than 1.5 million people who have bought the book and the thousands more who have seen the film, Holes is something special.

The story of Stanley Yelnats who is sent to a labour camp in the boiling hot desert for a crime he didn’t commit has taken people into a world where young people band together in a bid to cope with the heat, dust, emotion and fear of being in such an inhospitable place.

Each day he and his fellow young inmates have to dig a hole five feet by five feet while dodging dangerous desert-dwelling creatures, as well as the fearsome Warden and her two villainous cronies.

But is there more to the task than character-building? Does the Warden have a sinister plan in mind, and will Stanley and his new friends find out what it is?

These questions have helped make Louis Sachar’s book a must-read and ensured the movie became a Hollywood blockbuster.

Holes production photo - Camp Green Lake inmates

Enter Adam Penford who was enchanted by the novel and decided he wanted to bring it to life in a new form.

“I read the book many years ago and just fell in love with it. That was about 15 years ago and I thought it would be amazing as a stage production but had not really been done in the UK before,” he recalls.

What he did discover was a stage adaptation which he managed to get permission to produce at Nottingham Playhouse in 2018 and which proved to be hugely successful.

Fast forward two years and it is going to be the next production from the rebranded Children’s Theatre Partnership which tours bold, ambitious and imaginative theatre for young people.

Holes production photo - Zero and Stanley hiding out in a hole

And those three adjectives definitely define Holes which, with its setting and plot is not the easiest story to transform into a theatrical production.

“The first question that anyone asks us is, ‘How are you going to do the holes?’ which is complicated on stage,” he says._ “Luckily that’s why it works so well. You have to do it in a creative and a theatrical way. I won’t reveal how we do it but it does require the audience to use their imagination which is one of the great things about theatre._

“[Holes] has also got some amazing characters. When you meet young people, they remember all the characters and incidents that happen in the story. They like people such as our antihero, Stanley Yelnats, which is spelled the same frontwards and backwards, his friend Zero who people think is stupid because he doesn’t say anything, and the Warden who rules the camp with an iron fist. There are some really colourful characters, so it makes it a real joy for actors to get their teeth into.”

Holes production photo - Stanley and Zero shake hands

Behind the gripping plot, there are some really powerful themes, and Adam is keen to stress that while Holes may feature a lot of young characters, everyone can identify with it.

“What is amazing about the story is that it does have a moral message about friendship and being true to yourself, but it doesn’t ram it down the audience’s throat or patronise which is why both the novel and the play are enjoyed by adults as well as young people. They love it just as much. It has got a profound message, but it wears it very lightly.

“Anybody can enjoy it. When we first produced it at Nottingham Playhouse, we had people as young as five in all the way up to 105 seeing it. It is funny, it is moving, it is theatrical, and it has something for everybody.

Holes production photo - Mr Sir confronts Stanley

_“It is definitely not just for young people. The reason the production is so successful is that it captured the element of danger that helped make the novel popular with such a wide audience. Because of this, it feels like there is genuinely something at stake. Audiences genuinely do gasp when they watch it!”
Now he is relishing the chance to take the production out on the road across the UK to share it with the rest of the country._

This passion to share stories with audiences of all ages stems right back to the very first time he entered an auditorium to see a show.

“My first theatrical experience was going to the Nottingham Playhouse pantomime aged 5, and that is when I fell in love with theatre,” he remembers. “There is something very democratic about it. You don’t need to know anything about the rules. It is not elitist. That is why I love it as an artform.”

Adam Penford with Holes banner and cake

Family theatre has since become a key part of his working life, which included a stint as associate artist at Polka Theatre, which produces work for young audiences. When it comes to pinning down why he enjoys it so much, Adam is quite clear.

“It requires you to be very imaginative as a director because you will use music and movement and puppetry and all these different devices of theatre coming together. Theatre is inherently a collaborative artform and draws all these threads together.”

Holes shows at the Belgrade Theatre Coventry from Tuesday 18 until Saturday 22 February. Tickets are available to book now.

Interview by John Bultitude