turning picture books into magical kids’ theatre

Eva Di Cesare talks theatre, childhood and the magic of bringing children’s books alive on stage.

Can you think of a better way to introduce theatre to children than through the stories and characters of their favourite books?

This simple, yet genius idea was dreamed up by three Aussie actors over coffee (as all good ideas are) one rainy morning and now, twenty years later, the Monkey Baa Theatre Company is still bringing familiar stories to children all around the country.

We talked to Eva Di Cesare, one of Monkey Baa’s creative directors about their latest production Diary of a Wombat and what bringing books to life on stage means to her.

Why do you think exposure to theatre is important for children?

Theatre opens up a world of possibilities for young people. Good theatre inspires young people’s imaginations and nurtures empathy and creativity in them. It provokes respect and understanding of the lives of others, their own lives and their place in the world, and; perhaps to understand it and then change it.

What inspires you so much about picture books?

I adore picture books. I’m often found sitting in the children’s section of the bookstore reading them. What inspires me most about them is that the illustrations are part of the storytelling and just as important as words.

I love that I can look at illustrations over
and over again and each time I can make new discoveries about the story.

I love how the story is told visually as well as with just the right amount of words. When I bring a picture book to stage, I get excited about all the possibilities of how we can show it visually. Do we add dialogue, or is the visual storytelling enough? On Diary of A Wombat, we had such a wonderful time exploring all these options.

How do the children react to seeing their favourite characters come to life in front of them?

Children are divine in their responses to seeing their favourite characters and they get very involved as they sit watching them come to life. Sometimes they call out to them, to help them on their journey in the play.

We had a situation once when a young person was so excited to see Pete, in Pete the Sheep on stage that they even walked onto the stage to talk to him.

It was a moment of joy for us because the young child was so overtaken that his favourite character was there in front of him. For him, Pete was real. Joy, wonder and amazement is what I see in the reactions of our young audiences. It’s very satisfying.

I love the honesty that comes out of young people’s mouths during the show. In the middle of our production of The Fairy’s Wings and Mabby, the fairy was upset and she had to get a message to Tania, the young girl in the garden, and she didn’t know how to do it – a young boy yelled out “Just use a pen!” And… when she decided to fly off he then called out “Well that’s not flying!” It took a lot of strength to keep it together.

So theatre etiquette isn’t a priority?

From our experience at Monkey Baa, theatre etiquette is not something that we focus on for young people. As long as they’re engaged deeply with it and their imaginations are being sparked then I believe they can focus for as long as need be. The etiquette will follow as they get older. Usually the louder they are the more engaged they are. Busy feet are okay with us.

It’s important that we don’t set adult expectations on young people in a theatre, and that they have the freedom to engage in their own way with a piece.

Forty five minutes is a great length for a production for young people under the age of eight. But more to the point, if a show has action and a storyline, young people will follow it.

About Diary of a Wombat.

Monkey Baa Theatre Company’s latest show, Diary of a Wombat, is based on the beloved picture book by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley.

Adapted for the stage by Monkey Baa’s Creative Directorate Eva Di Cesare, Sandra Eldridge and Tim McGarry, the production will feature puppetry (Directed by Alice Osborne of War Horse), a live cello score, magical set design and of course, Mothball; the naughtiest wombat in Australia.

“We’ve assembled an extraordinary team of artists to bring this iconic picture book to life,” said Eva Di Cesare.

Diary of a Wombat is such an enduring childhood classic and audiences are going to fall in love with Mothball all over again when she burrows her way on to our stage.”

DIARY OF A WOMBAT

DATES: 18-24 April & 27 May (10:30am and 12:30pm)
FOR: Ages 3+
VENUE: Lendlease Darling Quarter Theatre, Terrace 3, 1 – 25 Harbour St Sydney
TICKETS: $29pp / $104 Family of 4 / $125 Family of 5 / $25pp Groups of 10+ (no booking fees apply)
BOOKINGS: www.monkeybaa.com.au or 02 8624 9340

Following its Sydney premiere at the Lendlease Darling Quarter Theatre, Diary of a Wombat will tour 59 venues across Australia until November.

Words Barbara O’Reilly 

This post was brought to you by Monkey Baa, thanks for supporting the companies that make CHILD Mags Blog possible.