All Wrapped Up in STORY: Peter Maple chats with Ralph McCubbin Howell – TALKING ARTS

“You can get lost in a good book you see. Though it’s worse to get lost in a BAD one…” -The Bookbinder.

Mystery, magic, and mayhem are leaping from the pages to attack the senses and the imagination via a fairy-tale spectacle encompassing shadow play, paper art, puppetry, music, and good old-fashioned storytelling. New Zealand’s Trick of the Light Theatre are coming to play – and play hard – at Riverside Theatres this March with their award-winning mish mash of the fantastical, the gothic, and the absurd. This is the one-man bazaar, The Bookbinder.

The spotlight sharply focuses in here for us today on Writer and Performer, Ralph McCubbin Howell:

Tell me – what prompted you to begin the creative journey on this story? What lit that very first spark for you?  That seed? That lightbulb moment? Where did that very first breath of life come from…?

We originally made the show for NZ Fringe in 2014. We liked the idea of staging a show between the shelves of a bookshop, so created a story based in a world of books and storytelling. By chance, around the same time a friend of mine met a bookbinder in Oamaru called Michael O’Brien who he suggested we meet. We drove down and had a yarn with Michael about his apprenticeship and his craft, and his stories informed our tale as well.

In terms of staging, we’d also just come out of a very big production (Broken River which was an environmental/political drama staged around a 6 metre kinetic water sculpture) so were wanting to work on something on a wholly different scale.  We’d toured some shows to schools and been frustrated by how much their facilities would have an impact on the audience’s experience – when we performed in schools with more resources, and flash equipment, the show looked and sounded great, and when we performed at schools with less at their disposal, the production suffered. This didn’t seem fair, so we set out to make a show where we controlled the theatrical environment (all the lights are practical and the sound is diegetic), and where we could put it on in non-theatre spaces. 

After that initial stage, what then continued to propel you forward in pursuing that new idea – to fully invest – and whole-heartedly chase that story down?

A wildly ambitious deadline to put it in front of an audience. We made the show fast – once we’d worked out the basic shape of the story everything else came together over a fortnight, including writing the script, making the props and rehearsing. We hit opening night with the glue still drying. The idea was to make the show in front of an audience, and in our first season we performed it twenty-odd times in two weeks. The show changed a lot night to night as we found out what worked, what didn’t work, and how audiences were reacting. 

Was it difficult in bringing it to ‘full fruition’?

Ha. I don’t know what full-fruition is…! – The show remains an ever-evolving beastie, and whilst the changes aren’t as wholesale as the ones we were making in that first season we are still making changes as it goes on. We’ve just come out of an intensive redevelopment period in which we’ve redesigned the pop-up book (we’re now on version 4.0) and remade the puppets. I feel if we get to a place where the show’s no longer changing it’ll probably be time to put it to bed. 

A One-Man show. Benefits and Negatives?
Do you find you miss other actors to play off? Or do you revel in the freedom to really run your own game?

This is our first time making a one-man show, so we’re learning as we go. It’s great to be so nimble, and we’ve been able to tour the show much more than larger cast pieces. It also means it’s easy to roll out last minute changes – I can try stuff on the floor based on how the audience is reacting, whereas in a larger cast piece you’d have to make sure the whole cast were on the same page.  In a sense in a one-man show the audience becomes the other actor, and they change from night to night – it’s nice having something new to bounce off with each performance.  Can’t say I prefer one style over the other, and as we switch between various shows I’m fortunate in that I don’t have to choose. 

What would you say are your influences and inspirations for the show?

The story’s inspired by traditional fairytales and works of contemporary fantasy – writers like Neil Gaiman and Susanna Clarke. The structure draws upon classic portal fantasies (think Narnia and Alice in Wonderland) and there’s definitely a debt to the fairytales of Hans Christian Anderson and The Brothers Grimm. Closer to home, we’re big fans of Margaret Mahy and Joy Cowley.

What stories did you grow up on?

His Dark Materials, The Chronicles of Narnia, Dickens, Tomorrow When The War Began

The show has toured to many places and had many successes. What next for The Bookbinder after this current tour?

We’re going to be back in Sydney in September with a season at Belvoir Theatre. Before then, we’re hoping to take the work to South Africa, and maybe even on tour round the Nordic Fringe circuit.

Has the show and the character resonated more in any one particular place than any other? If so, where? And why do you think that might be?

We’ve performed the show in Oamaru in the South Island of New Zealand on three separate occasions – which is more times than you would think given the town has a population of 14,000 people.  I think the show is a particular delight to this community as it is where Michael O’Brien lives and works, and the people can recognise moments of him in the story.

Who has been responding stronger to the show and the material do you think? Children or adults?

Both! It works best when there is a mix of adults and older children.

What story or stories have you personally ever gotten lost in – as a child or an adult?

We have recently been on a massive David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, Slade House) binge. Really enjoyable narratives, and love how he is investigating new kinds of structure – characters from across numerous novels are all interconnected. Have read everything he’s ever written and hungry for more!

If you could forever live in ‘the world’ of one particular story – what would it be and why?

Frankly, the amount of fiction and fantasy we see coming out the mouths of world leaders in our own world is terrifying enough as it is.

And so the story goes…

Peter Maple – Theatre Now and Talking Arts
Original publish date, February 24, 2017.