Reflections on bringing an Australian children’s Classic to the stage, with Peter Maple and Eva Di Cesare. – TALKING ARTS

Monkey Baa are bringing to life (and bringing the particularly eccentric lifestyle of foodie) wombat, Mothball, from the acclaimed children’s picture book, Diary of a Wombat, to the stage. Director Eva Di Cesare and I discussed the unique adaptation process for this fun little foraging gem of a story. From concept to execution – from paw to mouth – we’ve scrounged around together, and we’ve vigorously digested Eva’s all-consuming thoughts. All presented here for you now in the form of her own reflective diary:

– Diary entry on CASTING #1 –
– Who to choose and why:

During the process of choosing the performers for this production I took into consideration many factors:

• Are they engaging performers who understand and contribute positively to the world we are trying to depict? Tick.
• Are they the very best puppeteers? Tick.
• Do they love performing for noisy, boisterous, honest young people? Tick.
• Can they adjust to the many and varying stages across the country? Tick.
• Can they tour for 9 months together? Probably.

– Diary entry on CASTING #2 –
– My Cast:

Shondelle Pratt, Mary Rapp (Cellist), Michael Cullen, and Julia Ohannessian are an incredible team. The audience response has been a very clear indication that we have the very best cast for the show.

– Diary entry on our WOMBAT, Mothball #1 –
– Design choices:

Initially we grappled with how we honour the picture book image of Mothball. That (iconic) image is who young people know so well as Mothball. To move away from that image would seem disrespectful, to the authors, and to the audience, and to Mothball herself – who is a very real character.

– Diary entry on our WOMBAT, Mothball #2 –
– Puppetry:

Enter Bryony Anderson to our design dilemmas – the best puppet maker in Australia. And the rest is history.

– Diary entry on our WOMBAT, Mothball #3 –
– Results:

Most joyous day! Tears in the eyes of Mothball creators, Jackie French and Bruce Whatley, as they meet Mothball live on stage for the very first time!

– Diary entry on ADAPTATION #1 –
– From written text to live, staged, performance:

The concept team, along with all the other creatives, spent days working on the picture book –analysing page by page, the story told with words, but also the story told with illustrations…

• What is the driving story?
• What are the themes?
• Just who really are these characters?
• How are we going to tell this story visually?
• Without Mothball talking, how do we depict her inner most thoughts? How do we get the voice of Mothball on stage without anthropomorphising her…?

– Diary entry on ADAPTATION #2 –
– I had a dream:

Dreamt of a cello last night.

What if a cello is used as a voice? As the voice of Mothball?
What if a cello represents Mothball’s internal journey?

– Diary entry on ADAPTATION #3 –
– Enter the musicians:

Oonagh Sherrard composed the most beautiful score to encapsulate Mothball’s world – Mothball’s voice.

Mary Rapp – a most beautiful musician – brings that world and voice to life with her stunning cello, Clarence.

– Diary entry on ADAPTATION #4 –
– Narrative focus and attention:

We all agreed that there was lots of drama to be had if the human characters have only just arrived in the area, as a tree change – new and wide eyed and innocent. Then, the affect of Mothball on their world would be even greater as a story arc. And of course, then, even more humourous for our audience when witnessing the two worlds clash and collide.

– Diary entry on THEMES AND PURPOSE –
– What do I want the audience to see, think, and feel?

• Nature versus Humans.
• Acceptance.
• Harmony
• I want the young audience to see that the animal world is unpredictable. Best to respect it and let it be.
• I want the audience to see a real life situation on stage and the humour that goes with it.
• Wombats are wild animals, not to be domesticated. (But they may tame a human. That’s the irony.)

– Diary entry on ANIMALS AND HUMANS –
– Similarities and differences:

We all need warmth and shelter and food to survive. We all share one planet. That’s the similarity.

We humans have two legs and two arms and a brain, and yet, animals seem so much smarter than us. That’s the difference. They only take what they need. We don’t.

– Diary entry on PUPPETRY AND HUMANS –
– Mixing them together – advantages and disadvantages:

No disadvantages. Utilising a clear delineation between the two.
Our puppetry depicts the animal world. And the human characters – they are played by humans.

Our only real challenge was how to manipulate the puppetry and harmonise the space with the bodies on stage for the human characters. I think we’ve achieved that lovely balance.

– Diary entry on RITUALS AND ROUTINES –
– Functions of, and, where would we be without these conventions and such (daily) structures?

Rituals and routines of our lifestyles contribute to our happiness, I think.

I love to wake up and have a coffee quietly on my own in the backyard listening to the birds chirping. Love it. That’s my routine. Disturb it, and I’m not happy.

I wouldn’t cope without my rituals and routines. I hazard to guess that the same could be said for animals – but I wouldn’t want to assume that.

-What does this mean to my wombat character, Mothball?

Mothball instinctually works out how to get what she wants. She clearly and naturally understands relationships for what they are. She doesn’t change who she is to get what she wants. She just is who she is.

-What does this mean to my human characters?

Bryan and Jackie, in our play, are uncomfortable at first by the imposition of this creature, Mothball, and its (ever-growing) demands. It takes Bryan and Jackie a while to understand that if they want the tree change, and that if they arrive in the middle of the bush and set up house, they are in fact encroaching on nature, and nature will probably teach them some lessons (here in the form of Mothball!). For example – how to share your food and your space.

-What does this mean to me?

Relationships for me are about being there; holding space for another, with compassion, and kindness, and patience.

A relationship is not about changing someone but about being there in your own entirety, and allowing another to be there in theirs. Not always an easy feat.
But, we’ll get there, together…

-End Diary.
-Peter Maple & Wombat Director, Eva Di Cesare.

Peter Maple – Theatre Now and Talking Arts
Original publish date, April 14, 2017.