Meet the Makers: The Founders of Sisters Grimm Theatre Company
Ella Spira MBE and Pietra Mello-Pittman MBE talk about launching a theatre company, the importance of collaboration and what they look for in their cast.
By Claire Turrell
Grammy-nominated composer Ella Spira MBE and former ballerina Pietra Mello-Pittman joined together in 2009 to launch the UK theatre company, Sisters Grimm. While Spira had produced music for Bruno Mars and Mello-Pittman had lit up the Royal Opera House in London for The Royal Ballet, neither of them had run a theatre company. Now 13 years later, their award-winning productions including Inala and Voices of the Amazon have starred in the West End and toured the globe, with Inala due to head to Broadway soon.
For those who don’t know what is Sisters Grimm?
Pietra: Sisters Grimm is a celebration of different cultures through big dance musical shows.
How did the two of you meet?
Pietra: We met in the Ministry of Sound dance club in London when a mutual friend introduced us. We were colleagues before we were friends.
Ella: Pietra choreographed a piece about the surrealist artist Leonor Fini for The Royal Ballet Show at the Royal Opera House and asked me if I would compose the music for it.
Why did you decide to launch your own theatre company?
Pietra: I was a ballet dancer and Ella's a film composer, we are both from multicultural backgrounds and passionate about world music. We like the idea of bringing together different cultures, audiences and disciplines, so we decided to launch Sisters Grimm in 2009.
Take us back to your first production. What were the early days like for Sisters Grimm?
Pietra: Our first production was Rapunzel The Final Chapter. Neither of us came from money, so we had to go out and raise funding and convince other people that Sisters Grimm was a brilliant idea. I kept working at The Royal Ballet, while Ella was busy composing. Our meetings would be in the coffee shop at the Royal Opera House.
'Inala' was your first large production. You were new to running a theatre company, but you persuaded ex-Rambert Dance Company members, the Soweto Choir and Ladysmith Black Mambazo to take part. How did that happen?
Pietra: It took a lot of effort and persistence to get everyone on board and to get approval to use the Rambert Dance Company and The Royal Ballet names. With Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Soweto Gospel Choir, there was an openness to explore what may be possible and see if there were any sparks between us.
Where did you go from there?
Pietra: After launching Inala in South Africa, we took the show to London and then Europe. The following year, Ella received a Grammy nomination for the score and we started work on our next show in my home country of Brazil. We launched Voices of the Amazon in 2017 and took it to London, Moscow and Singapore.
'Voices of the Amazon'. Photo credit: Johan Persson
Jeremy Irons was the narrator of that show. What’s been your biggest pinch-me moment so far?
Pietra: There have been so many pinch-me moments. One was premiering Inala at the Edinburgh Festival in 2014, another was performing Inala at the Royal Albert Hall in 2019 during Black History Month, and then there was our 10th-anniversary party at the Ministry of Sound. We turned the main DJ room into our auditorium. Our 68 performers included Jeremy Irons and Alfie Boe, and Joely Richardson performed an excerpt of a show of ours that was in development.
You’ve made it look easy. Was there ever a time when you thought you’d bitten off more than you could chew?
Ella: Have there been moments of panic? Absolutely. When we were relaunching Inala, Brexit happened. We had confirmed the venue and booked performers and then our funding was put on hold. Pietra took out a loan against her apartment to help cover the bills. It was a big commitment for her, but she didn’t think twice about it.
When you cast performers for your shows, what are you looking for?
Pietra: There’s the skill level, of course, but attitude and belief systems are also a big consideration. We are creating a family and having a happy household is important. Live theatre is full of unexpected twists and turns, and we need a team that can roll with that.
Did you have any mentors at the beginning?
Pietra: No, we were learning as we went along. We have a brilliant advisory board now, which includes arts leader Colleen Jennings-Roggensack and choreographer Arlene Philips, but we didn’t have any mentors at first.
Launching a theatre company was a massive risk. Before we opened at the Edinburgh International Festival a lot of people didn’t understand Sisters Grimm as it doesn’t sit in a particular box. But we had a clear idea of what we wanted to do, including lowering ticket prices to get the mix of people in and not exclude anyone.
How easy was it for you to leave The Royal Ballet, Pietra?
Pietra: I should have left earlier. I didn’t retire until 2015. I was producing Inala and dancing in The Royal Ballet at the same time. Inala became so large I had to make a decision between producing it and needing to be snowflake number nine. It was the right time to leave.
Were you on tour when COVID-19 hit?
Pietra: We were getting ready to tour Japan and then China with Voices of the Amazon. At the time we were in Dubai getting ready to work on a piece for Expo 2020. We hadn’t yet gone into production with the tours. We held on to our core team and refused to let anyone go.
During the pandemic, Ella created the multimedia artwork series Global Landscapes where she collaborated with local artists in Australia, the UAE and Singapore. Collaboration is a large part of what you do, why are you so attracted to it?
Ella: As a third-generation Holocaust survivor, maybe there’s something buried in there that thinks if we all celebrate each other’s cultures more persecution won’t happen. I realise that’s idealistic, but I’m sure that’s a big driver.
Has the two-year break made you rethink productions?
Pietra: The shows won’t change artistically, but we will be more focused on permanent resident shows over touring.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to launch their own theatre company?
Ella: Do what’s right for you and don’t feel you have to conform because that’s the way it’s always been done. But make sure you have a creative and [an] analytical person within your leadership team. You need to have the big dreams underpinned by process and logistics.
What’s next for Sisters Grimm?
Ella: Inala will return to the West End in 2024. We then plan to take the show to Broadway in 2025.
Ella (left) and Pietra receiving MBEs from HRH Prince Charles
Claire Turrell is a freelance journalist based in Singapore. She launched the US brand SHAPE Magazine in the Middle East. After working for Harper's BAZAAR Singapore, she went on to launch Travel by Lightfoot, the magazine for experiential travellers. Her work has also been published by Insider, Nat Geo and the BBC.
Photos credit: Johan Persson