LONDON — When author Michael Morpurgo was told the National Theatre wanted to adapt his book "War Horse" for the stage, to be co-directed by Marianne Elliott, he immediately went off to see Elliott's production of George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan."
"I had enough disappointing experiences to know that you have to check out the people who want to turn your book into a play or movie," Morpurgo recalls. "Her 'Saint Joan' was by far the most powerful I'd seen — dark and threatening, yet she allowed Shaw's wit to shine through. I felt safe in her hands."
"War Horse," which makes a return visit to Los Angeles this week, also represents what Elliott thinks the National Theatre is in business to do.
"In subsidized theater, you are encouraged to take risks," says the 46-year-old director. "It's about being imaginative and artistic. That's the priority. It might not be a success, but let's try."
Few directors have tried more successfully than Elliott, a pixie-like, soft-spoken blond whose manner belies her determination. She followed "War Horse" with an acclaimed National Theatre production of Mark Haddon's award-winning novel "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time."
This week, the National launches another risky and ambitious Elliott undertaking: Tori Amos' musical, "The Light Princess," based on a 19th century Scottish fairy tale and featuring a love story replete with floating heroine, puppets, acrobats and more.
"Her priority is to do something she's very passionate about," actress Kim Cattrall says. Cattrall recently co-starred with Seth Numrich in Elliott's production of Tennessee Williams' "Sweet Bird of Youth" at the Old Vic Theatre here. "I look at her choices, and she has something to say that comes out in all of her projects."
While Elliott previously was seen as a director to watch, the enormous popularity of "War Horse" accelerated things. The play about a boy, his horse and a world at war opened at the National Theatre in October 2007, then moved in 2009 to London's West End, where it is still playing.
A Broadway production followed in 2011, and won six Tony Awards, including a best director award shared by Elliott and co-director Tom Morris. Los Angeles audiences who missed it last year at the Ahmanson Theatre get another chance during its one-week run at the Pantages Theatre.
Morpurgo talks of early rehearsals where Elliott encouraged design collaborators and actors to contribute ideas, "managing somehow to be both conductor and player at the same time." Cattrall, too, praises the director's spirit of collaboration, talking of how Elliott made her actors comfortable from the very first day of rehearsal. "She said, 'I'm in this with you,'" says Cattrall. "I've done my homework as you have, and I'm nervous, too.'"
Playwright Simon Stephens, who adapted "Curious Incident," suggests Elliott's "astonishing" level of preparation allows her the freedom to express what he calls "her democratic nature. She knows the play better than anybody else, including the playwright."
He knows that from experience, he adds. When she directed his play "Port," Stephens says, "I thought I had written a play about a teenage girl growing up in a small town desperate to leave. Then, the first day of rehearsal, she came up to me and whispered in my ear, 'You do realize that death is mentioned 54 times in this play?' I didn't realize that, and it's a play written in the immediate aftermath of my father's death."
Stephens and "Curious Incident" novelist Haddon had become friends when both had National Theatre residencies in 2006, and the author asked Stephens about adapting his book for the stage. Confronting a book narrated by a behaviorally challenged 15-year-old math wizard determined to find out who killed his neighbor's dog, Stephens says he wanted Elliott to direct from the start.
"Simon shut himself in his office, turned the phone off, locked the door and without telling anyone, tried to adapt it to see if he could," Elliott says. "After a few months, he quietly said to me, 'Look, I don't know if this works but would you read it and let me know what you think?'"
Then it was Elliott's turn. "Curious Incident" is played on a nearly bare stage, where actors and lighting largely supplant scenery. "I wanted to show ways Christopher feels about his emotions because he can't articulate them," Elliott says. "And when he talks about the galaxy, we're in the galaxy. We are feeling what he feels."
Later filmed for National Theatre Live, "Curious Incident" moved to London's West End earlier this year and is selling tickets at the Apollo Theatre until October 2014. This spring, "Curious Incident" won a record seven Olivier Awards.
Elliott has been surrounded by theater since childhood. Her husband is the actor Nick Sidi, who is appearing in "Curious Incident," and she was raised in a theatrical family. Her director father, Michael Elliott, co-founded the highly regarded Manchester Royal Exchange, and her mother is the stage, television and film actress Rosalind Knight.
Although she studied drama at Hull University, she didn't immediately turn to the family business. "I was 28 before I started putting on productions," she says. "I got in the back door by doing fringe shows and a lot of assisting, and I learned on the job. There weren't many female directors when I was starting out. I slowly gained confidence and understanding of the theater, but on my own terms."
After a stint as artistic director of the Manchester Royal Exchange, she was in London directing at such prominent theaters as the Donmar Warehouse, Royal Court, Royal Shakespeare Company and, since 2005, the National Theatre.
Actress Cattrall has seen many of those London productions, noting that Elliott's "name came up in everything I was so wowed by."
When the Old Vic's artistic director Kevin Spacey approached Cattrall about "Sweet Bird of Youth," she says, neither she nor Elliott could resist the chance to interpret Williams' fading movie star Alexandra del Lago. Says Elliott: "We were both interested in what it meant being a woman getting older in a culture which worships youth. I said to her, 'Come on. Let's do it.'"
Now comes Elliott's first musical, "The Light Princess." Amos and the National Theatre team have been working on it for years, and it sounds like a typical Elliott project: In the first act, a princess has no gravity and is floating in the air, while in the second half, she finds gravity in water and is swimming.
Elliott herself seems impressed by the scale of the project. "I find theater emotionally expensive and all involving," she says."You have to pour so much blood and passion and heart into it. And so much time. Why do that for something that's only vaguely interesting and anyone can do it?"
Although she has been mentioned as a possible successor to the National's departing director Nicholas Hytner, Elliott says she's not interested in the job.
"You have to be married to this place to run it," she says candidly. Referring to her 9-year-old daughter, she says. "I have my own production at home."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times