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PigPen Theater Uses Cardboard Puppets, Imagination To Bring Heroic Mouse To Life

Kate DiCamillo’s ‘The Tale of Despereaux’ becomes a new musical at The Globe

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Kate DiCamillo’s book “The Tale of Despereaux” won the Newberry Medal in 2004 before becoming an animated film from Universal. Now the Old Globe is partnering with PigPen Theater Co. to bring DiCamillo’s book to the stage with the help of cardboard puppets and flashlights.

Aired: July 29, 2019 | Transcript

Kate DiCamillo’s book “The Tale of Despereaux” won the Newberry Medal in 2004 before becoming an animated film from Universal. Now the Old Globe is partnering with PigPen Theatre Co. to bring DiCamillo’s book to the stage with the help of cardboard puppets and flashlights.

“Game of Thrones” proved that with today’s technology even stories of pure fantasy can be rendered with an air of realism. PigPen Theatre Co. prefers to engage its audience with something less high-tech.

“You’re going to see us pull out a bed sheet and a cardboard puppet and light it, and you'll understand immediately what's happening,” explained Arya Shahi, a founding member of PigPen. He insisted there can be emotional depth in things that are anything but realistic.

“There is a pact that you make with the audience, almost before the show begins,” he said. “Where we just kind of set the stage and then indicate that we’re going to ask you to go on an imagination trip with us because that’s what we did coming up as a company, we couldn't rely on a CGI budget [but] we could rely on bed sheets and the things that we could just bring with us to rehearsals.”

That low-tech approach creates magic unique to theater says fellow PigPen founder Ryan Melia.

“Part of the fun of using puppets is to surprise the audience and making them go, ‘Oh shoot, by the end of the show I actually am connected to this thing that I didn't know was going to make me feel this way,’” he said.

The challenge in adapting “The Tale of Despereaux” to the stage was to get the audience to connect with a mouse and a rat as main characters.

“How do you do small animals, animals that in life probably aren’t big enough to carry the weight of an emotional moment on stage?” Shahi pondered.

The solution Shahi and his PigPen collaborators came up with involved mixing their favorite stage inventions with some new elements.

“We're using three-dimensional puppets that are kind of a little bit larger than life so you can see them but that really indicate like how small these characters are,” Shahi said. “And we're using actors that just portray the characters without any kind of costume pieces or anything.”

Photo credit: Jim Cox

Betsy Morgan as Miggery Sow and Eric Petersen as Roscuro in "The Tale of Despereaux," book, music, and lyrics by PigPen Theatre Co., based on the novel by Kate DiCamillo and the Universal Pictures animated film, directed by Marc Bruni and PigPen Theatre Co., running through Aug. 11, 2019 at The Old Globe.

Actress Betsy Morgan is new to PigPen’s style of theater and enjoyed the challenge of performing with a rodent puppet in her hand.

“I'm playing one character and then I'm trying to keep the life of the puppet, which is a totally different being alive,” she explained. “So for me, I was always about making sure that that the puppet character was independent and living and breathing while I was singing as the other character. So it's a little bit of like rubbing your stomach and patting your head.”

In Kate DiCamillo’s book, Despereaux is a mouse that’s interested in listening to other people’s stories. That is also the creative process employed to adapt the book to a stage musical.

“That's how we built it,” Shahi said. “We had to listen to everyone who is invested in this story. We had to listen to ourselves and our version of the story and what resonated with us in the story and then create a piece of theater that we think really embodies all of that.”

Melia plays the narrator who helps pull the audience into the world of Despereaux.

“Part of the appeal of doing this story was the idea that in the book it invites you into the story,” Melia stated. “It's a very personal relationship that you have with the voice of the book, the narrator, and we saw that as a quick link to the way that in theater there’s an invitation to the audience to contribute their imaginations and that is as important as us contributing our imaginations. So inviting the audience to be a part of the process of just believe and everything's going to be way more fun.”

Morgan sees it as an invitation for the audience to be creative with the artists on stage.

“We do this show that looks very technically beautiful but when you get down to it, because of the brilliance of our designers Jason [Sherwood, scenic designer] and Isabella [Byrd, lighting designer], we have a show that is not very technically advanced,” Morgan said. “Basically all we're working with are puppets, which are made by cardboard cutouts and sheets, these are all very homemade things. And I think that that’s inspiring for an audience member to come and watch something that you can do at home. I mean if I were a kid coming to see this production I would most certainly go home and start making puppets.”

The charm of the production stems from its sincere investment in the story and its do-it-yourself ingenuity that never tries to hide the fact that sometimes it’s just a flashlight, a bed sheet and a piece of cardboard.

“You'll understand how we’re doing these things,” Shahi said. “And we are doing all of them but you’ll find moments where hopefully there will be a spark of wonder and joy because you don’t know how we’re doing it but you know that there’s nothing helping us.”

No green screen, no CGI, no D-Box vibrating seats — just artists asking audiences to take a leap of faith and seeing the wondrous places that imagination can take them.

“The Tale of Despereaux,” a new musical, runs through Aug. 11 at the Old Globe Theatre.

By Reporter Beth Accomando

Kate DiCamillo’s book “The Tale of Despereaux” won the Newberry Medal in 2004 before becoming an animated film from Universal. Now the Old Globe is partnering with PigPen Theater Company to bring DiCamillo’s book to the stage with the help of cardboard puppets and flashlights.

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