Otis Elston on being Ratty, family theatrics and the joy of the Wind in the Willows

2 years ago
Til Knowles

Like many a young Melbournian, Otis Elston grew up with The Wind in the Willows at the Royal Botanic Gardens. Only, unlike other Melbournians, he also grew up performing The Wind in the Willows. No longer Portly, Elston now directs the annual production that for so many families is annual tradition. Til Knowles caught up with him to chat about what it’s like growing up around the theatre, performance mishaps and how we all have a little Toad in all of us.

You’ve been directing this production for five years now. What’s changed in that time?

Everything, five years is a long time!

The show has grown, different songs, fresh jokes and new takes on the characters. The Wind in the Willows is a very malleable show, no season is like the other. We like to keep it interesting for ourselves and the patrons who come every year.

Wind in the Willows in the Botanic Gardens has been going for 31 years, and your family has been involved in it for just about as long! What do you think makes the production so enduring? What does Wind in the Willows mean to you?

It’s many things that make Wind in the Willows an institution; the beautiful backdrop of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kenneth Grahame’s colourful characters, fantastic songs, a hilarious script and a cast of talented actor-musicians that bring it all together.

There are people who have been coming for over twenty years, who saw it when they were children and now have kids of their own. And we work hard to make sure they come the following year too.

What’s it like growing up in a theatrical family?

Like any other, except your summer holidays are usually spent madly painting sets or washing costumes.

There was never any shortage of work to be done at our house. Oh! And I suppose I have a bit of a leg up when it comes to any costumed parties.

Which character in Wind in the Willows are you most like? Why?

Hmmmmm. Probably a bit of a Ratty. Only because I feel like the world is full of Toads that need reining in sometimes… but then again, we all have a bit of Toad in us don’t we? I could feel like a different character every day of the week I reckon!

You were once Portly (Otter’s son) in this production – what’s it like performing in and producing a show for a whole family?

It’s a bit surreal, but I wouldn’t be the first. There have been a few Portlies before my time that have gone on to be a part of Willows in some way or another. I think some of the Portlies we have now are definitely going to be movers and shakers later on, most of their CVs are more impressive than mine.

The show involves a fair bit of moving about and audience interaction. What’s the strangest thing that’s happened as part of the show? Have you ever lost an audience member?

We make quite a lot of noise in the gardens, it would be pretty hard to lose anyone. If someone somehow got lost they just need to follow the music!

One of my favourite memories is Toad’s Poop Poop car not working one show and Weasel, who is meant to drive Toad, Mole and Ratty off the road in their cart just running past them flailing his arms shouting “poop poop”!

Now, that’s some top shelf improv for you right there.

You have also directed several shot films. How does your work in interactive theatre inform your film work, or vice versa?

At the end of the day it’s still story-telling, just in a different medium. Things like character development, the pace of the story and guiding the audience attention from one thing to the next are big aspects of story-telling that are totally transferable between both mediums.

If you were adapting another book into promenade theatre, what would it be and why?

Peter Pan most likely. It’s something we’ve been meaning to do and I have a feeling pirates are coming back in a big way. Just need to figure out the flying bit…

Which of Shakespeare’s plays would you most like to direct?

Definitely A Midsummer Night’s Dream. You can have so much fun with that play and I’ve always loved the idea of fairies pulling all the strings in our mortal world.

Forget Lizardmen, it’s been the fairies all along!


The Wind in the Willows is on around the country. The Melbourne production is on at the Royal Botanic Gardens until 27 January 2019. Tickets are available from the Australian Shakespeare Company website. 

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