On our way to Bellingham, WA for the amazing and inspirational Western Washington University Children’s Literature Conference, Shane and I stopped in Seattle for quick trip to the Space Needle (never again) and a performance at the Seattle Children’s Theatre (again! again!). Since I’m no longer a practicing (rehearsing?) theatre artist, I’ve made it my new mission to seek out shows that intersect with my professional interests. Basically, I’m trying to watch all the local adaptations of children’s books I can find and “study” them.
This month’s book: The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats.
Winner of the 1963 Caldecott Medal, The Snowy Day is a pivotal children’s book that once introduced multiculturalism into mainstream children’s literature. It’s also a great choice for theatrical adaptation, as the cut paper collage illustrations inspire textural design choices and the storyline translates well into theatrical structure.
In preparation for the show—which also covers Whistle for Willie (1964), Goggles (1969), and A Letter to Amy (1968)—I read the treasury Keats’s Neighborhood, which includes 10 of Keats’s stories. I highly recommend it as an entry point into Keats’s life and work. You can also see more of Peter there in his other three stories that weren’t in the production: Peter’s Chair (1967), Hi, Cat! (1970) and Pet Show! (1972).
Now let’s talk about the ingredients of the production: three actors, two benches, lights, shadow puppets, and white cloth backdrops. Simple yet effective. Each of the three actors played the main characters in the stories but also filled in as narrators, puppeteers, and sound effects. All three performers were great, naturally, but what I really appreciated was their use of mannerism to convey a character change. For example, the actor playing Peter would narrate part of the story and then physically morph his body into a smaller size by hunching his shoulders and lowering his head. It was a smart choice. Key costume pieces helped, too—especially those which, like Peter’s hat, were visual matches to the smaller-scale shadow puppet shapes. But the actors really did some great character work.
Another high point: seamless transitions. Music, sung by actors and accompanied by simple tracks, sped up not only scene changes but Peter’s life as he aged from story to story both in narration and visually as a shadow puppet. Set pieces were moved around and rotated to assume new functions (e.g., one bench even flipped up to become a mailbox).
And the shadow puppets? Oh. My. God. The production played with scale, expertly drawing kids’ attention from human-sized characters to shadow-sized characters. Human and shadow characters also interacted, which was mesmerizing. Eventually, a shadow puppet even made its way into the audience. It was seriously amazing, y’all! Click through the production photos while you still can. If you haven’t already, it’s too late for you to see it now. But become a producer and make it happen wherever you are!* Yeah? Yeah!!
*The adaptation is by Jerome Hairston and the original production was directed by Peter C. Brosius and Fabrizio Montecchi.