With the Gruffalo, anything is possibleBy Audrey Tan-Zubiri
Philippine Daily Inquirer
The first time I heard about “The Gruffalo” was months ago. I was having breakfast with two girlfriends, and we were trying to think of fun activities for our kids.
One said she wished “The Gruffalo” would come to town so we could take the kids, and our other friend immediately perked up.
I had no idea what they were talking about, but their enthusiasm for the show got me quite intrigued, and wouldn’t you know it? A month later, by coincidence, I met the local producer of the show. Immediately after that, I got my hands on a copy of the book and the CD of the musical, and that night, three new Gruffalo fans were born in our home.
There are many children’s stories that capture our attention and get our imagination soaring, but very few can jump from being a five-minute story telling session into a 50-minute musical!
This is quite an ambitious goal if you want to remain true to the author’s intentions and message, but “The Gruffalo” is able to accomplish this without veering away from the original story.
Add to this the fun songs in the production and you’ve got a winning recipe for audiences all over the world, as proven by its track record that spans over 10 years.
The show has been running since May 2001, when it was first presented in the United Kingdom. Since then, it has traveled all over Europe, North America, Chile and in the last few years, has hit Asia, showing in Singapore, Hong Kong, China and Taiwan.
Julia Donaldon’s award-winning book is the story of the quick-thinking mouse who outsmarts his would-be predators through his imaginative description of a make-believe monster called, what else? The Gruffalo!
But what happens when he comes face to face with this terrible creature of his imagination? I won’t say, but thanks to his clever little mind, the mouse is able to live another day.
The story itself is very simple, but I found it to be just right for my toddler and preschooler who both thoroughly enjoyed it from beginning to end. It is not a complicated tale set in faraway imagined lands, but rather, a straightforward one that involves familiar animals and basic themes that small children can easily relate to.
Therefore, it is not surprising that the stage production should follow suit and forego the big bang backgrounds and productions. Rather, it goes back to basics, where imagination is encouraged and the audience is as involved in storytelling as those onstage.
Admittedly, though, when I found out that the show has only three members in its cast, I wondered how in the world they would make the story work, considering it has five distinct characters. In addition, the production also stays away from traditional animal costumes.
Fortunately, I kept in touch with my new friend, Bambi Sy, and her Hong Kong partner, Matthew Gregory of ABA Productions. The two were kind enough to connect me to the director of the show, Olivia Jacobs, who patiently answered my questions about the musical.
According to Olivia, Tall Stories aims to produce innovative, physical storytelling theater.
“As grownups, sometimes we forget how wonderful it is to be told a story, and how much fun it can be to create a whole world with a suitcase, a bed sheet and a couple of sticks.
“In our productions, we aim to create very visual worlds with a great sense of fun and a lot of imagination, allowing audiences to be carried away without presenting everything totally literally. We don’t need to bring in a massive pool of water for the audience to believe we’re underwater; it’s about how the performers move and the sounds they make that make us feel that they are swimming.
“Similarly you don’t need to create a whole golden palace, just elements of it. A man can play a boy, a house or a chicken—with just a little sprinkling of imagination.
“We hope that our productions utilize the uniqueness of theater, the fact it is the only medium where the performers can interact with the audience and the show can be different every day.”
Here is a peek into our conversation, and what to expect when The Gruffalo comes to town!
It is a charming, classic book! I am amazed at how such a short story can become a full-length production. Did you have to add/change anything from the story to make it fit the stage?
We developed the story in rehearsals, and the additions we made fleshed out the story as opposed to altering it. We looked at, for example, how a snake moved and the slithery, hip-swiveling movement that appeared in our human form.
That snake became a rather Ricky Martin-esque character, who sings a suitably salsa-based song, and fox’s light padding movement translated nicely into “ducking a diving wheeler dealer,” who logically had to sing that song. Everything came quite organically in the rehearsal and the show was great fun to work on.
Why do you think the story resonates with families the world over?
“The Gruffalo” has been a huge hit for its authors, and has been translated into more languages than any other children’s book of our time. I believe it is a wonderful story simply told—add to that Axel’s (Scheffler, the book’s illustrator) fabulous illustrations and you can’t really go far wrong with a picture book.
It’s a David and Goliath story, where the little guy beats the big guy through brains rather than brawn. Hugely satisfying, especially if you are a little person yourself.
What can Filipinos expect when they see the play?
A fun, entertaining telling of a fabulous story that works, we hope, for grown-ups as well as children.
Why did the Gruffalo choose Manila as his next stop?
Mr. Gruffalo is very well-travelled, taking in London’s West End, Sydney Opera House and Broadway as well as Chile, New Zealand, Canada and Poland among many other places. He’s never been to Manila but he’s always wanted to—and we’re sure he’ll have fun during his stay… You may spot him doing Tai Chi in Rizal Park or wandering in Intramuros looking for a fort to call his own.
The Gruffalo will run from Feb. 15-17 at the Rockwell Tent, Makati City. Visit www.ticketworld.com