Why did you want to adapt The Stinky Cheese Man for the stage?
When I was a kid (back in the Stone Age, when there were only four TV channels) I always loved the fractured fairy tales that were part of the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoon show. So when my young niece (who is now a grown woman with a child of her own) introduced me to The Stinky Cheese Man book, I thought it was hilarious and would make a fun, crazy play.
The illustrations and text in Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s book come together to create a total experience for the reader. How did you adapt it for the stage?
One of the things that’s so clever about the book is the way it makes fun of how books work. For instance, the title page just says “TITLE PAGE” in great big letters, and then in parentheses, “(for The Stinky Cheese Man & Other Fairly Stupid Tales).” And in his introduction Jack, the narrator, tells you to quit reading and turn the page because “if you read this last sentence it won’t tell you anything,” which of course you find out is true as soon as you finish reading the sentence. So I decided if I was going to turn this book into a play, then it should be a play that makes fun of being a play. So I wrote an opening number called “Opening Number” and a love song called “Love Song” in which almost all the words are “love.” Also, in the book, Jack isn’t a very good storyteller and he doesn’t do a very good job of laying out his book, so in the play I turned Jack into a kind of stage manager-narrator who keeps getting confounded by the other actors and characters in the play, until his play turns into a complete disaster zone.
SCR first produced this adaptation in 2005. Why revive it now? Has the play changed?
Everyone who saw it as a kid in 2005 is now really old—I mean they’re, like, teenagers. And there’s a whole new bunch of kids who didn’t see it when we first did it, because they were a bunch of babies back then. So it seemed like a good idea to bring it back. And yes, the script has changed in small ways, and the production will be very different because it’s being put together by a new director and new designers and most of the actors are different. Everyone who’s working on the show is so good that I think it will be even better than it was the first time.
If you could add one more fairly stupid tale to The Stinky Cheese Man, what would it be?
It would either be “Hansel and Some Girl” (in which Hansel and some girl get lost in the woods, and happen upon a house made out of straw, so just for the heck of it they huff and puff and blow the house down and then the witch who lives there with three pigs turns Hansel and some girl into nutcrackers) or “Beauty and the Bees” (in which a girl named Belle decides to become a beekeeper only little does she know that her hive is full of killer bees who go crazy when they see the color yellow). Or maybe “Snow White and the Seven Seas,” which would involve pirates.
I might have to write a whole new play to fit all these stupid tales into it.
Why did you want to direct The Stinky Cheese Man?
It’s such delicious good fun. I love stories that subvert or riff on other stories. I also love The Stinky Cheese Man’s torqued, lost-in-the-fun-house sense of playfulness. At the center, there is this storyteller who is desperately trying to tell a good story and keeps failing—but keeps trying again. And I feel like that, in some ways, is the story of my life as a director. I am a storyteller constantly trying to tell a great story, and it’s always about juggling the challenges, chaos, and other things that happen in the theatre in the attempt to tell a story.
What are some of the elements from the book that you’re excited to see come alive on stage?
The illustrations in the book are so deliciously weird, and trying to bring them to the stage is such an exciting challenge for the theatrical imagination. I love all the opportunities to lift things out of naturalism and turn them into something beautiful, weird and wondrous—that’s an exciting directorial challenge.
How does directing a play for young audiences differ from directing a play for adults?
I’m not sure it’s all that different. I think the process is the same for me, mostly because I do a lot of plays that I call “style plays,” which involve size plus truth. They have “size,” meaning we have lifted the performance out of naturalism, but they must still retain “truth,” meaning the performance has to be genuine.
If there’s any difference between working on a play for a young audience and working on a play for an adult audience, it’s that a young audience is not polite or restrained—they’re entirely truthful. If you look in at an audience made up of children, you will instantly know if you have their attention. It’s the greatest compliment when you do, and it teaches you important things when you don’t.
What do you enjoy most about directing for young audiences?
I love directing plays for young audiences because I think we have to educate the next generation of theatergoers that the theatre is a crucial and important art form. I feel like it’s my job to shape the next generation of people who think that this is a viable thing to do with their time.
What do you do during the rehearsal process to help the actors discover and distinguish their many characters?
I’ll usually do a physical exercise, in which I ask actors to walk across the stage as themselves. Then I ask them to change one element of their walk—like an arm, a leg, a hand position, a neck position. We also look at what center the character leads from (there’s something called Laban Movement Analysis, which is about movement paradigms—light, heavy, legato, staccato, etc.). Then we’ll also ask ourselves about the character’s voice, too.
I have to say that most of the time the actors bring in many ideas, so I only have to help them find inspiration when they’re lost. And we have such rich, inventive actors in The Stinky Cheese Man that it’s almost never the case.
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