The Magic Paintbrush: Up Close & Personal with Brian Seward

I Theatre's spectacular production The Magic Paintbrush starts its run this week. Parenting on Purpose goes up close and personal with the company's Creative Director Brian Seward, to learn more about why I Theatre is bringing back this popular play.
Spectacular artwork from the original production of The Magic Paintbrush.
Parenting on Purpose: 

What made you choose this particular Chinese folk tale as the original inspiration for the play?

Brian Seward:  

It was an interesting story, with not too many characters, and with a very clear moral, that was suitable for younger children as well as older ones. A lot of Chinese folk tales can be quite long and involved. Others involve a lot of fighting and chopping off of heads. This story lent itself a bit more to a theatre adaptation - although we have the challenge of making things that are painted come to life!

There were a number of different versions of the story - some more bloodthirsty than others. We decided to take elements from the best and oldest versions, and blend them with contemporary references.

Parenting on Purpose: 

Hmm... It might have been difficult to show scenes with the chopping off of heads! 

What were some of the challenges in producing the original play and was it any easier to do the 2016 remake?

Brian Seward: 

For the original play, we had little experience of producing a musical, so it was a very steep learning curve. The amount of time needed to learn songs and then to choreograph was a lot longer than we had anticipated. Using puppets, we had to design the stage scenery to hide the puppeteers, and that meant that there was a LOT of scenery onstage, with very little space for the actors to move.

We had to find ways of creating effects that look easy on-screen, but are a very different matter onstage!
Rich characters and stunning scenescapes were a strong point for the 2000 production.

Parenting on Purpose: 

Can you share the story of how "The Magic Paintbrush" was picked up by Marshall Cavendish and eventually transformed into a book? What were some of the challenges of changing one form of literary genre to another?

Brian Seward: 

Quite simply, we got a phone call one morning from the publisher, who had the idea that if they produced a book of our play, we could help each other by cross-marketing, so that each of us would benefit. They had seen the show in 2000, and were keen to work with us so that when we brought back the show in 2004, the book would be published simultaneously.

In a play, you really only write the dialogue, and maybe occasional stage directions. The actors will add the intentions, the emotions and the actions, then the designers will add in the costumes, scenery, lighting and ‘atmosphere’. For a book, the writer has to take the dialogue and fill in the rest of the picture using descriptive language. Actually I had to REALLY trim down the dialogue, and very carefully try, in the minimum number of words, to create the atmosphere, describe the scenery and build up the full picture. 

It was very good to have the original 2000 production to refer back to, and for the illustrations we used some of the original production photos as reference. It was easy and fun to overcome some of the limitations of the script in the book, because in the book we could make anything happen!
Cover for the book that was published by Marshall Cavendish.

Parenting on Purpose: 

That's a really interesting story! 

Tell us about the 2016. What has changed? How have changes in the wider international landscape affected the script and characters?

Brian Seward: 

The story remains the same. The majority of the characters also remain the same. Obviously we have to retain the original storyline from the folk tale. However, the original play was very episodic in nature; we met a series of characters, but then never saw them again. I wanted to develop these characters, and give them a through-line, so we were able to follow them throughout the play. In the original story we had a lot of static puppetry. For this time we have streamlined the number of puppets, and gave them the ability to travel around the stage. We also gave them clearer and more developed storylines, so they became much more part of the action and less as just ‘decoration’. One of the ‘live’ actors has been transformed into a puppet, and three of the original puppet characters are now ‘live’ actors.

Because we are using a bigger and more technically advanced theatre space, the scenery is MUCH bigger and more spectacular, and we are able to make much bigger scene changes.

The songs had begun to sound a bit dated, so we have edited them, in some cases re-written the melodies and the words, and we have added in two new songs, and removed one which was really nice, but did not suit the mood or the action. Occasionally the music references may seem a bit dated now, but we think they are still a lot of fun, so we kept them in. (You’ll just have to watch to find out what I mean!). we have managed to mix a very eclectic range of musical styles in this production.

We were surprised - and maybe a little sad - that the original messages we wanted to convey; of the value of creativity, and the way that the arts can enrich our lives; that constant academic study is not necessarily the best way to go; and that the pursuit of money and riches to the exclusion of everything else is not the best aim in life - are still very relevant today. It DID mean that very little change had to take place in the way that the characters were written, and we really did not need to change the emphasis of the play very much
There's always breadth and depth for an I Theatre production. Each show imbues a moral for the audiences
both young and old,

Parenting on Purpose: 

Was the original piece intended as a social commentary and as a means to infuse educational values for the audience? How did this influence later plays that you have written?

Brian Seward: 

When I wrote the play originally, it was written as much for the parents (maybe MORE for the parents and teachers) than for the younger audience members. As such, it was written without talking down to the audience - and although there was a lot of comedy in the play, we tried not to make it ‘childish’. That is something which we ALWAYS try to do now, whether the play is for a younger or an older audience. We wanted to raise questions more than present answers. We wanted the audience to answer the questions for themselves - as this is where true learning lies. This is also a principle we have tried to stick to, even through pressure to give clear moral ‘answers’. Quite often the answers are there, ready for your to work out for yourself, but we still don’t hand them out on a plate!

Parenting on Purpose: 

Thanks Brian! We can't wait to watch the show!

Parenting on Purpose is pleased to partner I Theatre to present 4 tickets for the 11am show on Saturday 29 October 2016.

How to qualify for the giveaway:

1) Like the Parenting on Purpose Facebook page.

2) Share this blog post on your Facebook Wall and tag three friends (not including the friend who had tagged you. Remember to ensure that privacy settings are set to "Public".)

For an extra chance to win:

Comment on this post and share with us one interesting thing you have learnt about The Magic Paintbrush and why that interests you! Please leave your email so that we will be able to contact you should you win the contest!

The giveaway will end on Thursday 27 October and entries must be submitted by 10pm.

And.... we congratulate our winner E Ling, who has won 4 lovely tickets to the performance!

We will be contacting your shortly!


  1. i thought it was quite interesting how the play became a book! It'll be nice to compare the two versions with the different folk versions and see what's the same and what's different. Thanks for hosting the giveaway!

    1. oops forgot my email it's edelweiss(at)gmail(dot)com!

  2. I have watched the play. It deserves to be published.I thinks the book will also be as good as play.


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