We can all name several books which have been turned into plays or films, for better or for worse. Books are a great launching point for productions; dialogue has been written and scenes set.
But what do you do when your main character is a mute wild animal? How do you tell any kind of emotional story?
That was the challenge faced by Monkey Baa Theatre Company when it started work on Diary of a Wombat, based on the book by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley.
Actor and puppeteer Michael Cullen told the Baw Baw Citizen how the popular play with minimal dialogue and a live cello telling the story of a wombat came together.
How do you go about translating a kids’ book about a silent character into a 45-minute stage production?
We had two creative developments, they were about two weeks each, and we really played around with a lot of different ideas. We came to the table and we had no limits, we said ‘let’s see whatever idea works.’ So we tried shadow puppetry, we tried traditional puppetry, we thought about marionettes, hand puppets, what can we use?’ We were using couch pillows and a bean bag for a wombat at one stage just trying to see what would relate, and what would capture the spirit of the wombat. At the end of the creative development it became pretty clear there were some choices we had made which would work. One of which was to have a big, soft, flexible puppet, slightly larger-than-life, to convey that sense of this imposing creature who just turns up out of nowhere and ‘bang!’ She has a really strong presence when she’s on stage.
The cello as the wombat; that links everything together. As soon as we brought the cello in, we had this incredible inner landscape of the wombat without having to reduce it to language, without the language going ‘oh, I’m hungry, I’m going to eat carrots today.’ Whenever we tried to have the voice of the wombat just talking words it seemed – I don’t want to say Disney in a derogatory way – we wanted to keep the wombat as a wild animal as opposed to anthropomorphising it, and the voice of the wombat through the cello seems to capture that. We suddenly had a whole lot of expression, a whole lot of playfulness or anger; really clear emotions were able to be conveyed very simply and beautifully through the cello, and that linked the story with incredible thread that wove all the way through it, so we weren’t scared of not having words.
How did you land on the cello as the instrument for the wombat? Who thought of that?
Definitely Eva. Eva had a vision early on. She saw the big, flexible puppet, and… I think that sort of just came to her. Personally I think the reason is because of the range of the cello – you have these beautiful base notes soaring all the way up to beautiful high notes, and so you can run the gamut of emotions this creature would be feeling. Our cellist, Mary Rapp, she really captures that and she plays with such energy and intensity.
Does the reaction of audiences change depending on where you are?
Not so much. It would change depending on how many parents there are in the audience. We played to an audience of 500 school children the other day, and that was pretty raucous. What I would think changes is if there’s parents in the audience there’s a lot of stuff that parents would get which is not necessarily for the kids; I’m sure the parents could relate to a small, very opinionated, powerful little creature bossing them and trying to impose its will upon them. I think a lot of the parents seem to really laugh at the slightly more layered stuff that’s going on.
I hadn’t realised Diary of a Wombat was a metaphor for small children!
I think that’s probably my metaphor, I have to be careful here! You just have this beautiful, mischievous, but entirely wilful character coming in and going ‘oi, do this!’ I think for children the fantasy is, of course, this creature has complete control over their parents. This creature doesn’t take no for an answer and does what she wants when she wants.
This is listed for ages three and up. It’s not just for kids then?
No, definitely not. You’ve got to be pretty smart when making kids’ shows these days because parents are coming to see the show, and if the parents like the show they will be telling their friends. I think our director Eva Di Cesare, she has two kids herself, and her sense of humour definitely bled into the play. There’s a lot of dry humour for the parents.
You have been doing puppetry for a long time now – what do you enjoy so much about it?
I’ve been doing puppetry for a while, and I sort of fell into it by accident. But once I was there I found this amazing moment: when you’re doing something with puppetry, there’s a moment where the audience has to come along the journey with you; they have to make the decision to believe along with you, but they’re watching you, they can see exactly what you’re doing when manipulating the puppet. There’s no tricks, there’s no hidden anything. So at some point in their mind they have to edit you out of the image and bestow life on this creature, and when that happens… children do that at the drop of a hat.
Grown ups need to feel like you’re not pulling the wool over their eyes, the need to go ‘how did that work?’ And once they’re satisfied you’re just trying to offer them a story, then they choose to believe.
I love that, because as soon as they give them permission to believe in the life of this character, which is essentially a bunch of inanimate things put together and moved by someone, as soon as they do that they are allowed to have this incredible experience of shared imagination with the audience. It’s such a beautiful discovery every night. It feels like the puppet has its own personality and I’m just there to help it, not just imposing my will.
Puppetry, especially live, isn’t much of a thing in Australia, is it.
Yeah, I think it’s becoming moreso. A lot more shows are starting to put it in there, and I think it’s because of things like War Horse (which Michael was involved in) and King Kong; they were big-ticket items which put puppetry in people’s minds. But now I think people are realising you can do incredible things with a chunk of foam and eyes if you have a really well-developed character and a funny, interesting, engaging storyline. That can be just as engaging for an audience as a huge set. In a completely different way, of course. But puppetry as a thing can be a really different experience for an audience, and I think people are enjoying it. I’d say it’s opening doors.
You can catch Diary of a Wombat at Cardinia Cultural Centre, Pakenham, on Thursday 20 July at 6.30pm and on Friday 21 July at 10am or 12pm.
Book through the West Gippsland Arts Centre: wgac.com.au.
First published in the 7 July 2017 editions of the Baw Baw Citizen and Casey & Cardinia Free Press newspapers.
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