Opening three shows in one month, sure why not…

So 2019 was my quiet year (honestly it was) so to prove that point I thought I’d go for all-out ‘disgustingly over-achieving’ levels of busyness in 2020 and open three shows in the space of 2 weeks. It was pretty full on and I did then spend the next 10 days ill in bed with a chest infection. But they were three beautiful shows and I’m really proud of all of them.

Firstly ‘Madam Butterfly’ – such a joy to come back to the wonderful world of opera after a bit of a break – and this was my own new English language adaptation (with a new orchestration from the wonder that is Ruth Chan) as well as my production as director. Then a showcase performance of my new musical ‘Cold Front’ with composer Jason Carr, starring the exquisite Anna Francolini at Paul Taylor Mill’s MT Fest 2020 at The Turbine Theatre. And last, but by no means least, another little storytelling concert for Aurora Orchestra – ‘Chopin and The Dragonfly that Brings Spring.’

And if that wasn’t enough – I even found time to finish a first draft of my climate crisis musical ‘HouseFire’ with composer Ben Toth, and record a table-read that will be aired on Radio Four’s Front Row. They’re following the progress of the musical from ‘first song’ to UK premiere which is going to be much sooner than we all thought (Ooh mystery, when’s it gonna be Poppy, tell us, tell us!!!) so watch this space for more on all of that…

Butterfly was so beautiful – it needs all the photos. But Cold Front and Dragonfly had their moments too…

What have I been doing all this time…

Clearly being too busy to update my blog.

So what did 2019 bring? A large-scale new musical which toured the UK for 16 weeks to ecstatic standing ovations and 5 star reviews (In The Willows). Nice. And some other little bits and bobs (when I say little bits and bobs I mean a workshop at the National Theatre Studio for my musical of Great Expectations with composer Tim Gilvin, a workshop at Birmingham Rep and The Other Palace for my musical The Rhythmics with composer Ben Glasstone (about Manchester’s Premier All Male Rhythmic Gymnastics Performance Ensemble), and three small shows for Scottish Ensemble (Babel) and Aurora Orchestra (Mozart In The Garden and Beethoven And The Dinosaurs).

This was my quiet year…

The last 9 shows

My work is so visual I thought it would be nice to show the range of what I’ve been up to so here are 9 of my most recent productions from the last three years:



The balance of writing

As the year draws to a close I find my time increasingly spent on writing rather than directing. In the same week I was asked by three separate organisations to write funding applications for them (one for £1.3 million). Meanwhile I’m redrafting two musicals, mulling over a short play for 2018 and researching my next full play (not to mention all the funding applications I write for my own company Metta Theatre). So lest the balance of creative writing be outweighed by funding application writing – suddenly a dangerously real possibility – I have taken up writing poetry again, just to tip the balance back towards artistry. Of course there is artistry involved in my fund-raising – it’s all storytelling isn’t it, all finding a compelling narrative, all sparking something in the reader’s heart, mind (and for funding applications – wallet). Still, it’s a different kind of craft.

So here is my offering for December – having spent a week (and many sleepless nights) with a poorly three year old. I shall endeavour to produce something once a month (Poppy loves a deadline).


Sitting in the scream
The wet cheeks
The endless moment
After, immediately forgotten
Like the memory of pain
But in the moment
You will not be held
Will not be consoled
I am here only to bear witness
Stand testament
Witness the raw mouth
And streaming
Mucous rivers
And the pain
The compact of motherhood
Ebbs and flows
The current
It takes you again
Unbearable we bear it
Unbearable the reminder
Of our own pain
uncried cries
Sitting in the scream
It takes you

Poppy Burton-Morgan, December 2017



Tonight is the premiere of my debut play Wondr. Now I understand why writers are such emotional people and so protective of their work. It’s a whole different kettle of fish from directing. You’re putting part of yourself out there – baring your soul.


Wish me luck…

Supporting others

The joy of 2017 (besides directing 4 shows, developing 2 more and seeing the world premiere of my play Wondr in Edinburgh) is that this year I have so many opportunities to support others. I’ve taken to offering emerging artists (free) guidance on their Arts Council applications and I’ve just spent 2 days facilitating workshops at the Exeter Northcott Theatre for a group of emerging SW based directors and theatre-makers. I love it! There is so much that I can share, and some many provocations I can give them.

There is a such a joy in realising you’ve reached a place in your career (life) where you have the capacity to start giving back to the rest of the sector and other artists. Though as I interrogate that thought – or my use of the word ‘opportunity’ – actually it’s just a choice. It’s a choice to feel we have enough capacity or headspace to help others. That’s in no way intended to make others feel guilty for not doing more – of course in every area of our lives there is always more we could/can do – and indeed that thought sometimes paralyses people into doing nothing at all. But I’m glad I have begun to give something back to the sector and the community of artists that have so nurtured and supported me over the last 12 years.

Now that the children both (mostly) sleep through the night is also a massive help.

new writings

I have started writing. This is new. Or at least, writing original plays, which is new for me. After a decade of dabbling in stage adaptations and opera libretti (easy when someone else has done the hard work of creating story and characters for you) I have finally taken the plunge and started writing my own plays. Not just one play but three, and counting.

All of them explore, in varying ways, my ambivalence about motherhood, and indeed the impetus to write them was born out of my increasing frustration with the dearth of mothers portrayed on our stages. Or to be more specific – the dearth of plays that explore motherhood (or parenthood) as a theme. Plenty of plays feature mothers as characters, hundreds in fact – family dramas are after all the mainstay of our theatrical canon. But very very few actually explore the experience of motherhood. Even ‘The Mother’ – which just closed at the Tricycle, which I had hoped might perhaps explore motherhood – that messy, complex, mind-numbingly-boring,  wonderful, lonely, necessary, primal job that occupies around 50% of the human race at one point in their lives. But in fact it is a play about archetypes, not about motherhood at all, although Gina McFee does give a wonderful performance finding a precious vein of humanity in a very brittle and unlike-able character.

The newest of my theatrical writings – a solo piece written in rhyme/spoken word – I posted on Facebook a few weeks ago as a bit of an experiment. A non-theatre-mum friend had asked to read it and found it such an accurate reflection of her own experiences of motherhood that I wondered if other fellow mums might take something from it. The response was overwhelming, and overwhelmingly positive, so I thought I’d post it here – in an even more public capacity – in the hope that it can reach more mums, and dads too, and non parents – just more human beings with whom it might strike a chord.

I hope it may be staged at one point too, but even if that never happens it’s heartening to know that simply the reading of it is touching some lives.

Here it is – feel free to share:


subtle feminism

I’ve recently directed a production of Mozart’s opera Così fan tutte which is considered by many to be quite misogynist (mistakenly so in my opinion). As with every piece of art that I make I set out to tell a more feminist story, as one reviewer put it ‘subtly feminist‘, though I suppose really I just set out to tell a human story where every character was a real person with whom we could empathise and feel some compassion.

Last week I was lucky enough to get tickets to the press night of Maria Friedmans’ production of High Society at the Old Vic (my husband Will is the Associate Lighting Designer) and it felt very much like she had achieved a similar thing. It’s a gorgeous production in so many ways – full of the kind of clever, playful and imaginative theatricality that I love – but more importantly it completely humanises the characters, especially the women, in a way that makes the piece unexpectedly emotionally powerful. It would be very easy to simply enjoy the glossy silliness in such a piece but, and this is also testament to Kate Fleetwood’s astonishing performance, Maria has created something much richer, more emotionally complex and human with all the female characters (even the chorus, especially the chorus) presenting them all as strong, powerful women. Sure, they still have sexy, swooshy skirts but hey this is 2015 feminism – we’re allowed to wear what we like, right?

Female artists by no means have a monopoly on compassion and there are plenty of male theatre directors who are adept at that same humanising – David Mercatali is a great example. But it strikes me – perhaps because there are fewer female directors working at the top, in opera and musical theatre particularly – that we have an amazing opportunity with such productions to tell these subtly feminist stories and reach the kind of audiences (especially young audiences for whom musicals are often their entry point into live performance) who are perhaps less likely to make a trip to a fringe theatre for some bra-burning rant. Of course I also love those bra-burning rant-y shows – do they even exist? – and there is definitely a place for overt Feminist theatre (note the capital) but as with Political theatre with a capital ‘P’, there can be a danger of preaching to the converted. What’s so exciting about these subtly feminist productions is that you’re not being hit over the head with it – so here’s to seeing more women artists at the top, getting the opportunity to re-tell the old tales with subtlety and humanity… and a glitter drop.

brilliant theatre-making mothers

I’ve been delighted and overwhelmed by the response to some of my recent blogs about being an artist and a mother and that particular juggle (sometimes struggle). I’ve also been surprised by many recent conversations with fellow artists who are new parents or contemplating becoming parents and don’t realise how many of us there are already out there doing it. So I thought I’d name and (what’s the opposite of shame… celebrate?) err… name and celebrate some brilliant theatre-making mothers, some of whom had their babies over 30 years ago, some of whom had them within the last 30 days.

In no way exhaustive and I’ll continue to add to it as people admonish me for all the ones I’ve forgotten (thank you for all the Facebook shouts), but I thought it would just be a reminder that although it’s hard sometimes to keep all the balls in the air it is possible as all of the women below have demonstrated:

April De Angelis, Playwright
Carolyn Downing, Sound Designer
Carrie Cracknell, Director
Clare Whistler, Choreographer & Movement Director
Daisy Drury, Circus Producer
Daisy Heath, Lead Producer Young Vic
Dani Parr, Director
Deborah Paige, Director
Erica Whyman, Deputy Artistic Director RSC
Es Devlin, Designer
Flavia Fraser-Cannon, Producer
Imogen Kinchin, Executive Producer Lyric Hammersmith
Jade Dunbar, Artistic Director Pirates of the Karibena
Jane Claire, Executive Producer English Touring Theatre
Janet Bird, Designer
Jemima Levick, Artistic Director Dundee Rep
Kate Cross, Artistic Director Egg Theatre
Kate Flatt, Choroegrapher
Kate Lane, Designer
Kate Yedigaroff, Producer of May Fest
Katie Mitchell, Director
Laura Wade, Playwright
Leyla Nazli, Producer Arcola Theatre
Leyla Rosa, Circus Director & Choreographer
Libby Purves, Theatre Critic (of course criticism is part of theatre-making)
Lina Johannson, Artistic Director Mimbre
Lyn Gardner, Theatre Critic
Lyndie Wright, Founder Little Angel Theatre
Mandy Travis, Puppeteer
Marianne Eliot, Director
Matilda Leyser, Writer & Director
Maxie Szlawinska, Theatre Critic
Melly Still, Director & Designer
Molly Davies, Playwright
Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, Playwright
Paule Constable, Lighting Designer
Rachel Tackley, Artistic Director English Touring Theatre
Sharon Clark, Literary Producer Bristol Old Vic
Sue Buckmaster, Artistic Director Theatre Rites
Sue Emmas, Associate Artistic Director Young Vic
Stephanie Sirr, Chief Executive Nottingham Playhouse
Vicky Featherstone, Artistic Director Royal Court
Yvonne Stone, Puppet Designer

Who else have I forgotten…?

A childcare revolution

Thanks to Lyn Gardner for another great provocation around the thorny issues of families and the arts, and calling for a childcare revolution. I am a Theatre Director and my husband is a Theatre Designer and I’ve written before about our (perhaps unique) solution of crowd-sourcing our childcare on Facebook but things have changed significantly since having our second child so here are some tips and anecdotes on how we manage our juggle! Hopefully this will be useful for other free-lancers beyond the arts sector too…

When we had our first son we started posting on facebook to see if fellow artsy freelance folk could babysit him here and there for an hour at a time, for free, while we had meetings, short rehearsals etc. This ended up saving us literally thousands of pounds in paid childcare. So when you’ve just got one child embrace the joy of crowd-sourcing your child-care on Facebook – so many childless friends are happy and eager to help for free. Yes it requires a certain level of trust but start small with your closest friends and/or family and expand from there. The other joy of this if you struggle with asking for things/asking for help is that people will only respond if they want to so you needn’t feel any guilt about being a burden to anyone. This approach saw us through the first two years of our son’s life at a point where as two still young-ish, emerging-ish freelancers – a director and designer – we point blank couldn’t afford paid childcare, and more to the point most of the models didn’t work for us because they require regularity. This model is particularly useful for one off meetings, or a short burst of rehearsal. And start asking while your baby is still tiny tiny – that’s when it’s easiest (provided it’s just an hour or so) as they just sleep, and it’s also when people are most interested in your children. And then you build up your loyal network of childcare from there and then they stay committed even when your children start walking and talking and generally being more of a handful.

When you’ve got more than one child there are rafts of other freelance artists who part-time nanny on an ad hoc basis and understand our funny working hours. We now have a small network of actors/directors we use at quite short notice either for a few hours to get some admin work/meetings done or then for longer blocks when I’m in rehearsals. We pay £10 an hour. Again you can use Facebook to find such people, but also websites like offers the same service, I just prefer to be giving my hard-earned cash away to fellow artists especially as the ad-hoc short-term nature of it suits them as well as it suits us, as they have their other projects to fit in too. I think if you aim to have between 5 and 10 people you can call on for this then if someone suddenly gets a last minute job/audition or you get a last minute meeting you should always be able to get someone to cover. For us this method was the only way we could manage – nurseries aren’t great value anyway once you have more than one child but crucially they’re only day-time and they demand regularity. And most child-minders want regularity too, plus you have to take your children to them which can eat into your work time.

On a small level as either a maker in control of your own work, or as a responsible employer of others who have children you can try to find rehearsal space close to your (or the relevant artist’s) home. We’ve found a rehearsal space 5 minutes walk from our flat – this saves me 2 hours a day in commuting (that’s £20 a day saved in childcare costs) and also allowed me to go home for lunch to breastfeed my second baby when I did a week of re-rehearsal for one of our tours when he was only 7 weeks old. Yes, I’ve definitely got that life-work balance cracked, that’s for sure.

In terms of getting out in the evenings to see work try and find other theatre parents close enough to you to do babysitting swaps. Or have a partner who isn’t in the arts at all and they can do all the bedtimes… though in that instance they might also have a proper/well-paid job so being creative with childcare might be less of a necessity.

Also while they’re little take them with you. I have taken both the boys to countless meetings, conferences, even rehearsals when they were small enough not to require any attention other than the occasional feed. Not only do you save yourself childcare but more importantly you demonstrate to the rest of the arts sector that it’s an ok thing, and that some artist-parents don’t just disappear when they have children. I think anyone who knows will say we are strongly flying the flag for visible parent-artists everywhere.

And finally if you run your own company/are responsible for fundraising for your work then build childcare costs into your ACE applications as an access need – we haven’t yet done this but I know several companies who have and I’m going to try and get the official line on this from the Arts Council ASAP so I’ll keep you posted.

Lyn is right that we self-exploit in the arts, and especially theatre sector so that is something we can all change in small or large ways – as a Director running my own theatre company (not an NPO so I’m still effectively a free-lancer) I had been paying myself around the ITC minimum mark of £2500 to direct a show – I now budget £5000 to pay myself to direct a show.

That’s quite a leap but the great thing about now having to pay for our childcare is it forces you to work out the cost of everything. This year so far I have spent over £2000 on childcare and I have as yet earned nothing because I don’t go into rehearsals for a show until April. Essentially this is just a demonstration of the hours – in this case 200 hours that we put into preparation for shows (not to mention the work I do while the children are asleep, or over the dinner table – now there’s an advantage of being married to your co-artistic director and designer). The newly formed Stage Directors UK have been doing brilliant work in this area with their pay survey – making the shocking discovery that the average salary for a Theatre Director is £10,759. Yep, that’s pretty much what I have earned for the last four or five years, and I’m regarded by many of peers as pretty successful! They’re also lobbying for Director’s fees to be increased and to try and account for the hours of prep that we spend before we get in the rehearsal room. Next year will be better with my new self-imposed fee-hike, though both this year and next I’ll also be spending about £10,000 in childcare. Minimum.

Of course not everyone is responsible for setting their own fees but you can make it clear when offered a job – at whatever pay scale – the true cost of the time that job will take you. As an anecdote I was recently asked to direct a show at a studio venue for £1500. With 4 weeks rehearsal, a week of tech and even conservatively two weeks of prep, meetings and auditions – those 7 weeks of work would have cost me £3500 in childcare.

Personally I also need to get better at paying myself for all the work I do in running the company and that’s always a struggle because as we’re not an NPO, or core-funded, everything we fund-raise is tied to specific projects and as I’ve said before if you truly reflect the administrative and producing costs of putting on shows into a project budget that proportion makes it unfundable (most funders will accept a proportion of around 15%). But we’re getting better at it – it becomes a lot easier to prioritise paying yourself properly when you have two small mouths to feed. And it’s that same imperative that has seen my fundraising abilities grow exponentially since having children (over £300,000 raised in grant funding since 2012).

One final thought on childcare and tax – from autumn 2015 the system of childcare vouchers is changing so that (I think, I hope, I’ve got this right) – we’ll be able (as self-employed freelancers) to buy childcare vouchers which will mean we’re at least not paying tax on what we then pay out in childcare costs. The downside is you have to use Ofsted-ed people but I’m hopeful I can convince at least some of our platoon of artist-nannies that this will be worthwhile for them.

I set out to write a little blog about this but looking at the essay I’ve written I could easily write a whole book on the subject, in the evenings when my children are asleep presumably. There is of course a whole chapter in that on the joy that is a life-work balance. I think about theatre 24 hours a day, when I’m reading my children stories (especially the ones I know by heart when my mind is often simultaneously grappling with a dramaturgical problem), when I’m pushing them on the swings, when I’m changing a nappy, always when I’m breastfeeding. Equally I only direct two or three shows a year since having children so I’m with them a lot of the time (even with all the prep and meetings). I think I’m a pretty good mother and if I’m honest (and not falsely modest) I think I’m an even better artist. I put my heart and soul into both (and little else… sorry friends) and both feed into each-other – a lot of my work now explores motherhood or is made for family audiences. And they get a wildly creative and artistic upbringing. It’s unbelievably hard work and probably only sustainable in the short term (hey it’s only a few years til they’re in school and til I’m running a building with a proper salary for a regular nanny?) But the arts, and our theatre company Metta Theatre (which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year) was our baby way before our actual children came along so we’ve always made the choice to keep both those balls in the air. And we manage it, almost all of the time.

(And for those of you wondering how it is that I will actually survive with an income of about 10k and now childcare costs of about 10k thankfully theatre designers are paid much better than directors, or at least more appropriately for their time, so we’ll survive off Will’s thankfully ever increasing earnings and, as has so often been the case in both of our careers, the lavish fees of the opera sector.)