Guji Guji, by Chih-Yuan Chen and Death Duck and the Tulip, by Wolf Erlbruch are both published by Gecko Press, and available for purchase at bookshops nationwide.
Peter Wilson, Director of the Little Dog Barking Theatre company is in Wellington at the moment for a school holiday run of two puppet plays based on Gecko Press picture books: Guji Guji, from the book by Taiwanese author Chih-Yuan Chen; and Death Duck and the Tulip, from the book by German author/ illustrator Wolf Erlbruch. I popped over to BATS to have a talk with him about adapting children’s books for theatre, the secret to making good theatre for children, and why it is that puppetry endures.
Wilson began his New Zealand career as the founding Director of Capital E National Theatre for Children in 1996. He left there in 2010, to found Little Dog Barking Theatre. Since at Little Dog Barking, as well as before, Wilson has adapted many children’s books into puppet plays. His adaptation of Death, Duck and the Tulip has toured internationally since 2014, and it is exciting to see it back in Wellington from Tuesday 19th until the Saturday 23rd April at Bats Theatre.
1. How did you come to choose two books published in English by Gecko Press to adapt into children’s plays?
A copy of Death, Duck and the Tulip was actually given to me by my wife – I read it, and had two thoughts. First, that it would adapt well into the kind of work I do. Second, I thought if I had had a book like that when I lost a brother (I was 5, he was 6), it might have explained a lot of things – so that was the other reason for doing it.
Children that age don’t tend to get talked to about death very much – although of course, the book itself is about life, rather than death. So that is why I did the first adaptation. Then Julia Marshall (publisher at Gecko Press) suggested other books of hers to adapt, and one of these was Guji Guji and I instantly thought it would lend itself to shadow puppetry.
I’m always looking at children’s books. I’ve done other books from other children’s publishers. I’ve done Kiwi Moon, by Gavin Bishop and Tessa Duder’s (YA novel) Jellybean, among others.
2. Is it the fairytale aspect of the books that make them good to adapt?
Yes, and no. I’m always looking for something that’s a little big stronger – not something run-of-the-mill. A lot of children’s theatre presents happy all the time.
Guji Guji is about bullying, about family love, about friendship, its about identity and who we are. Which I think are important things for society in this day and age – children are faced with all sorts of different challenges, and its important to show them the world we live in. I try to choose stories to reflect the world of the child.
3. What level of interaction have you had with the authors of the two books while adapting their books for performance?
I had a little bit of correspondence with the Guji Guji author, and I did try to communicate with Wolf Erlbruch, but I missed him.
Guji Guji is on an international tour in the middle of the year. We are taking it to the Okinawa International Theater Festival for Young Audience in August, then on to Kyushu to play in five centres, then to WA’s Awesome Festival, then to Shanghai for their Theatre festival. The Auckland Arts Festival is coming to have a look at it this week, and also Nelson Arts Festival.
4. Have you got a solid team of puppeteers you work and tour with regularly?
They change, but I try to keep a close team together. Kenny King has been with me since we started. We worked at Capital E before that. He has an interest in puppetry. I have two new people this year – we travel overseas as a team, and I try to keep everybody together.
5. How do you choose actors that are excellent at performing to children?
There are two things I look for: They either need to have experience working with children, or have children of their own. The second thing is that because the work is a mix of puppet, and mask, and visual theatre, I try to look for people adept that those arts. A lot of actors think of performing for children as a good starting place, rather than a career – they want to go into film or television.
6. What makes an adaptation work?
I don’t know what the magic is. There are other adaptations of Death Duck and the Tulip, for example. I adapted it before seeing them. There is a company in WA who created a big-budget musical from the book – and it just didn’t work. They missed the whole point of the story.
I always try to keep my adaptations as simple as possible. My actors would disagree – there are so many props in them. But as long as the audience can’t see the work, we’ve done our job.
7. How do audiences from different cultural backgrounds react to Death Duck and the Tulip?
We haven’t had any negative reactions around the world, but I have in New Zealand. We had done performances in Christchurch and Nelson, then in Auckland, three performances in schools were cancelled, because the play was about death. The principals came to see it, and were happy, but the parent body controlled the decision.
We’ve had parents come and thank us for presenting such a difficult work to their children. And we’ve made children cry, of course – we’ve made adults cry. That’s part of the game. I mean, I can read a book and cry. And I think it’s rather good – I don’t advocate that children should be sad, but they should be able to experience and understand that emotion.
8. Finally, a very broad question – why do you think that puppetry as a way of storytelling, particularly for the very young, has endured?
I’ve always used puppets. I find puppets are amazing things, because they’re basically a piece of material, or something carved out of wood, and you breathe life into them. And children, and adults too, suspend their disbelief. Because they know its not real.
I always remember my father saying, when I first went into puppetry – I had a show with a bandicoot in it, and the bandicoot went to sleep, and he breathed while he was sleeping.
At the end of it, my father – he never came to my work at all, but he came to this show – said ‘the bloody bandicoot breathed.’ He couldn’t believe it. My father really wasn’t an arty bloke, and I think that’s the beauty of puppetry,this ability to suspend disbelief. And we can create impossible worlds, because the puppet as an art form can do impossible things – if we want it to fall to pieces, we create a puppet that falls to pieces.
Thank you to Peter for taking time to chat with me – please do go and enjoy these wonderful works if you are lucky enough to be in Wellington. I took my two children, aged 3 and 5 to Guji Guji today, and they were spellbound.
Little Dog Barking are a touring theatre company, available for school and festival performances. Have a look at their other shows on their website.
Based on the book by Chih Yuan Chen. Guji Guji is a simple and beautiful story about being different, bullying and family love.
Bats Theatre Date: 19th – 23rd April 2016
Little Theatre, Lower Hutt: 28th April 2016
Kapiti Playhouse, Paraparaumu: 29th April 2016
Times: 10:00am and 11:30am
Venue: BATS Theatre, 1 Kent Terrace, Wellington (map)
Age: 2 – 10 years old
Ticketing: Via BATS Theatre – ph 04 802 4175 or visit http://www.bats.co.nz
DUCK DEATH AND THE TULIP
Using puppets, mime and magic, Little Dog Barking Theatre Company tells the story if a heart-warming and whimsical friendship between a playful duck and a character called Death.
Date: 19th – 23rd April 2016
Venue: BATS Theatre, 1 Kent Terrace, Wellington (map)
Age: 2 – 102 years old