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

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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.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 This is KPBS mid day edition. I'm Maureen Cavanagh. Kate DiCamillo, his book tail of Desperado won the Newbery award in 2004 before becoming an animated film from universal. Now the old globe is partnering with pig Pen Theater Company to bring the book to the stage. KPBS arts reporter Beth Haka. Amando talks with Aria Shahi about how cardboard and flashlights are bringing the adventures of a Henry and heroic mouse to life. This is tales of Desborough, which is about a mouse. So how do you tackle bringing something like that

Speaker 2: 00:37 to the stage? I thought there's the million dollar question, right? I think, um, that was the first challenge of the piece. Um, how do you do not only animals, which we wish we'd done before, but particularly, um, small animals, animals that in life probably aren't big enough to, uh, carry the weight of an emotional moment on stage. Um, so we've, we've experimented with so many different methods. Um, going back to, I think the first time we tried a workshop for Desperado was 2015, perhaps 2015, 2016. I can't remember exactly when. Um, and we started using the toolbox that we've had developed in our other shows, which was a lot of light play, a lot of shadow play, um, and some three dimensional puppet play. Um, and we decided over the years that, you know, there doesn't need to be a rule. I think that's, that's the biggest takeaway from our show is that, uh, all the scale moments as we called them, when, when a human has to interact with a, with a mouse or a rat or two mice or two humans or three humans in one.

Speaker 2: 01:37 But you know, that whenever we have all these moments, we've just basically gone through our toolbox, found the effect that we think works best for the emotional moment of the show and employed that. Um, and I think that's been kind of fun because obviously there's a lot going on in the show and we, and, and because it's the world premier at the old globe, we're learning so much from the audiences. Um, so I think it'll continue to get refined. Um, but we're really happy with, uh, all the different ways we are doing at work. We're using, we're using three dimensional puppets that are kind of a little bit larger than life, so you can see them, but uh, that really indicate like how small these characters are. Uh, we're using actors that just portray the characters, um, without any kind of costume pieces or anything.

Speaker 2: 02:17 That was one of our big ideas originally is that the tail of desperate is all about communities that have because of a tragic event in the kingdom, Moon door have kind of, um, isolated themselves from each other. And we really wanted to find the commonality between the communities and, uh, and using actors to portray animals. It's a very simple thing to say, but it's actually kind of cool when, when you, uh, when you find the right moments to do so, when to remind the audience of the differences between the characters and the similarities of the characters and use that to propel the same.

Speaker 1: 02:54 I am, you know, nothing like me. You're amazing. Not even a good

Speaker 3: 03:00 guy. Well, what does a good now? Stupid. Ah, they sniff around for grubs and spirit. Good. I'm looking at you right now and let me tell these something that want no [inaudible] offense to Novo carriage.

Speaker 1: 03:12 Now this was made into a film also and with movies we now have all this capability with CGI to create anything we want where the audience really doesn't have to fill in any details. But one of the things that's magical about theater is you're engaging in this kind of agreement with the audience that you make this leap of faith and that's kind of where the magic happens. So how has that been a process for you of kind of developing these tools?

Speaker 2: 03:40 I mean that's your 100% spot on. You know, we were lucky enough to have been doing this for awhile and we have a lot of friends in theater and everyone has their style. Everyone has their aesthetic. And I think the thing that sets us apart, or the thing that we've, three of us that's as a department, the thing that we've embraced as our aesthetic, as what a pig pen show means is exactly that, is that there is a pact that you make with the audience. If almost before the show begins, there's always some kind of connection between the performers and the audience before we say a line of text in whatever dialogue we've chosen. Oh, whatever acts that we've chosen for that show, uh, 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 in college.

Speaker 2: 04:22 And that's what we did in the fringe festivals. And that's what we did kind of coming up as a company is we couldn't rely on this Egi budget. We could rely on bedsheets the things that we could just bring with us to the rehearsal room. And, uh, and luckily I think there's a, there's a space for that. And I think there's a growing space for that because of all the amazing TV that's being made because all the amazing films that are being made, uh, those markets are almost, uh, just saturated in a way with, with realistic storytelling. And even when it's fantasy, even when it's, you know, game of Thrones, uh, anything, anything that's being made at high budget, high budget, there's a, there's an air of realism even about the fantasy. So to Kinda take a step back and say there is a lot of emotional, um, depth to be found in something that's not realistic, um, and to, to respect it and take it ticket earnestly, not seriously, but take it earnestly, I think.

Speaker 2: 05:16 I think that's for us big. I know when we first started becoming a company that people hadn't maybe ever heard of, one of the main criticisms that we would get is that, you know, these, these a bunch of young guys, and it's a little too corny, like to, for lack of a better word, it's just too corny. Like the, this is, Eh, and it was always a weird thing to read big. Uh, you shouldn't read your own reviews. Most of them were amazing or else we wouldn't be here, which is, I'm, I'm very grateful for. But that was something that I always clocked is like, oh, that wasn't even a choice we made. We didn't sit around and say like we got to tell stories really like that are full of heart and earnestly. It's just the kind of storytelling that appeals to us. You know, mean you look at some of the earlier Disney stuff, um, and the, and the, and then Pixar, I mean Pixars so good and universal and like all these studios and movie makers that have leaned into it and found how to communicate that earnestness, the theaters, the place to do that.

Speaker 2: 06:12 I mean, you're in a room with 600 people and if you can, if you can lead with that and then kind of acknowledged that we're all doing it together. Like it's okay, we're all adults. I mean there are kids here, but we're also adults. We're not belittling the earnestness of a story. And so that leads to basically being able to do whatever you want on stage with Banjos and flashlights and puppets and like we're all having a good time and we're trying to just learn something from each other.

Speaker 1: 06:35 So you do deliberately go kind of low tech on some things. So you have shadow puppets and you use flashlights. So what can people expect

Speaker 2: 06:44 for that? Um, I think people can expect a range of things. One is, uh, 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. And you'll either like it or you won't. And you'll be like, oh, that was a strange thing to see in a, in a big musical. You know, like that's, I just don't expect that. But I think what's lovely about our shows is at least if we're doing them right and we built them properly and uh, and the, and the surprises continue to be platformed. So we kind of teach the audience like, here's a thing that we do. And then by the end of the show, we'll do that thing without not really showing you all the pieces and make you wonder like, wait, how did, how did they just do that?

Speaker 2: 07:20 Cause you know, all the pieces, we're not, we're not reinventing the wheel here. We're just showing you like, here, here's the technique. And because we've been doing it for so long, there's certain sequences in the show that like for instance the flashlights that we use, we've learned that like if you use an led flashlight rather than an incandescent bulb or something like that, you have a lot of Christmas in the shadow. And when you move the flashlight, the shadow distorts in very interesting ways. And it also becomes reminiscent of a movie of the way the camera moves in a movie. Um, so you'll be looking at something that's very traditional like puppet and all of a sudden there's like a swing and you're in a three dimensional world on screen. And you know, some people think that's projection, but it's not. It's really the same stuff being lit or being tilted in interesting ways to create a new effect. So that's, I think what you can rein expect in the show is like, you'll understand how we're doing these things and we are doing all of them. But you'll find moments we're, 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.

Speaker 4: 08:24 [inaudible]

Speaker 1: 08:25 the tale of Desperado runs through August 11th at the old globe theater.

Speaker 4: 08:32 [inaudible].

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.