INTERVIEW: “It’s never too early to get a child interested in questioning the apparent norms of our society” – Playwright Sabrina Mahfouz on Zeraffa Giraffa

Omnibus Theatre and Little Angel Theatre have combined forces for a co-production of Zeraffa Giraffa, based on the picturebook by Diane Hofmeyr & illustrated by Jane Ray. The play is inspired by the remarkable true story of a real giraffe called Zeraffa, and her epic journey from the plains of Ethiopia to the Jardin de Plantes in France. We spoke to the playwright, Sabrina Mahfouz, about becoming a playwright, adapting picturebooks, powerful themes, and more…

Thank you so much for talking to Children’s Theatre Reviews. You are an award-winning poet, writer and playwright, working across page, stage, screen and radio – can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a writer?

I became a writer after a short career in the Civil Service, as I was keen to explore how art could reach people in a way that policy sometimes wasn’t able to do. Having worked in a number of different jobs during my studies, I started writing about these worlds first and went on to write about anything I saw as important, particularly around women and children.

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Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Your new production Zeraffa Giraffa opens in September. What can audiences expect from the show?

It’s a visually stunning show which explores ancient issues that seem particularly poignant right now – migration, travelling, children being given huge responsibilities, cultural misunderstandings and exchanges. The puppetry and performances are absolutely spectacular.

The play is based on a picturebook written by Dianne Hofmeyr and illustrated by Jane Ray. What was your process when adapting the book for the stage?

We had to find out the entire back story to the true story Dianne’s book is based on and then discussed where we needed extra moments of development for Atir, the main character. And also what would be really fun on stage – like storms and talking Sphinxs!

Zeraffa Giraffa deals with some powerful themes, like migration, identity and belonging. Was it a challenge to explore these ideas for such a young audience? 

Yes! Getting the balance between not shying away from these very important aspects of the story and yet making it clear and engaging for a very young audience is certainly challenging, but Elgiva Field, the director, is an expert in children’s theatre and knew exactly the right tone and moments to include.

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Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Are there any topics that you would like to see explored more in children’s theatre, and why?

I think if children are old enough to hear and repeat what is said around them, they’re old enough to see issues such as sexism, racism, homophobia and all other types of prejudices be explored theatrically, even if in a child-appropriate way. It is never too early to get a child interested in questioning the apparent norms of our society and to become strong in their own opinion.

What was your experience of theatre growing up?

I was in a a few children’s theatre groups but never got very involved, I think I just liked the costumes! I studied Drama at school, Theatre Studies at college, and English Literature and Classics at university, so my theatre experiences primarily text-based until I was in my mid-twenties.

What are you working on next?

Mostly adult things! An opera based on Nawal El Saadawi’s novel, Woman At Point Zero with the Royal Opera House. A play about women in opera, Offside, which was in Edinburgh this summer, and lots of poetry projects along the way.

Zeraffa Giraffa is at Little Angel Theatre 21st Sept – 4th November, and at Omnibus Theatre 25th November – 17th December. For ages 4-8.

Children’s Theatre Reviews exists to help plug the gap in criticism and writing about theatre for young audiences. It is run entirely voluntarily, and needs support to continue covering and supporting the sector. For more information and to help give children’s theatre the voice it deserves, please visit our Patreon page.

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