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article imageAlligator Pie comes to the stage Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Nov 7, 2012 in Entertainment
Toronto - Alligator Pie is a book beloved by generations of kids and parents since its publishing in 1974. Now a theatre group in Toronto is translating Dennis Lee's work to the stage.
The collection of whimsical children's poetry is a Canadian classic of sorts, beloved by generations. Alligator Pie (MacMillan) won the Book Of The Year Award For Children in 1975 from the Canadian Library Association and was later adapted into a short film in the early 1990s. The fun, light-hearted nature of Lee's writing is complemented by Frank Newfeld's wild, colorful illustrations.
In the early 1970s, Lee was already an established Canadian poet with a fiercely proud poetic voice. A co-founder of House of Anansi Press and recipient of a Governor General's Award for poetry, he surprised fans and critics alike in tackling children's literature. But it was while reading Mother Goose rhymes to his own children that he realized Canadian kids needed their own stories, with more familiar, friendly references. In Alligator Pie, Lee purposefully uses Canadian cultural references and locales, in combination with musical rhymes and schoolyard-sounding chants to create what authors Gail Edwards and Judith Saltman call "a distinctly nationalist collection of verse reflecting the lives of contemporary Canadian children."
In their book, Picturing Canada: A History of Canadian Children's Illustrated Books and Publishing (University of Toronto Press), they note that "Alligator Pie marked a commercial and aesthetic turning point in Canadian children's publishing… (it was) the first children's title published within Canada to achieve overwhelming commercial success, which, in turn, stimulated interest by other trade publishers in the potential market for children's books." The incredible success of Alligator Pie allowed other publishers and authors to approach children's books with the same nationalist zeal, placing a strong emphasis on Canadian identity and references, while seamlessly integrating the zesty visuals and catchy writing that pushed Lee's work to the fore. Alligator Pie retains its importance as a cultural benchmark in Canadian history, demonstrating that creative expression of national identity and commercial success need not be mutually exclusive entities.
Now Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre Company is adapting the work to the stage. The company's creation ensemble (all graduates of the Soulpepper Academy) have put together a work for stage that has something for both parents who remember the book, as well as children who are newcomers to Lee's work. As Soulpepper Associate Artist Paula Wing points out, "A poetic ride with Dennis Lee always includes story poems, tender lullabies, poems that are jokey and even rude, and, to his readers' particular delight, a few subversive, nasty little rhymes too - just to goose Mother Goose."
Soulpepper Theatre Company s stage adaptation of Dennis Lee s Alligator Pie runs at the Young Centre...
Soulpepper Theatre Company's stage adaptation of Dennis Lee's Alligator Pie runs at the Young Centre, now through November 25th. It will also be part of Soulpepper's 2013 season.
Brian Rea
Raquel Duffy and Mike Ross, two members of Soulpepper's newly formed Creation Ensemble, recently took time out of rehearsals to share their thoughts and experiences. Neither grew up exposed to the wild world of Alligator Pie, but as they told me, it actually made the stage translation easier -and having Dennis Lee on hand (as a Soulpepper Resident Artist) doesn't hurt, either.
Like many Canadian kids in the 1970s, I had a copy of the book -did you?
MR: It passed me by. I was born in P.E.I., but grew up in the United States -it was all Dr. Seuss and things like that down there for me. But that's why I got into this -I didn't have any previous exposure. I grew up in New Jersey.
RD: I actually didn't know Lee's stuff either -I was born in P.E.I. as well and grew up in Nova Scotia. I somehow missed it, but it's interesting, being here in Toronto, because everyone... well, you mention Alligator Pie and people lose their minds. Everyone knows it here! It wasn't until about maybe high school when I first read Dennis Lee's stuff.
Do you feel a certain amount of pressure from people who've been exposed to it, in adapting it for stage?
MR: Of course, yes. But I was excited about that. It's so cool, the different kinds of connections people have to material generationally: they're adults now, but they had it read to them as children, and other generations just did the reading if they were old enough, now they just go get it for their own children. It's a nostalgic experience for some people, and for others it's a brand new thing.
Does that make it easier or harder to translate onstage?
RD: I haven't found it a problem at all, because the material is so fresh. There are no preconceived notions of what it should be. The amazing thing is, Dennis Lee is a resident artist here, and he's come in and watched some stuff we've done, so having the presence of the playwright, the poet, behind us is a great thing.
MR: The thing we have to monitor is, are we lumping too much stuff on this (visually), and poetry isn't being heard? We have to be careful of that, because (the words are) the center, and if we're being too clever and showy it becomes about us and not the core of the thing: his words. But as Raquel said, he's come and seen us do incarnations of the piece all along and he's been pretty happy with how we've made his stuff the center of (the show). He's been supportive and wise in whatever notes he decided to give us too.
Soulpepper Ensemble Creation members Ins Choi (L) and Mike Ross (R) in a scene from the stage adapta...
Soulpepper Ensemble Creation members Ins Choi (L) and Mike Ross (R) in a scene from the stage adaptation of Alligator Pie, on now at the Young Centre.
Jason Hudson
The visuals in Alligator Pie draw kids in as much as the poetry -will we see some of those?
RD: Not really... well, in a more in an abstract way. (Newfeld's) visuals definitely played a part in our developing the show but there's no beautiful backdrop that will remind you of any of the book.
MR: We're not really taking the illustrations and trying to… replicate that visual world. In a lot of cases there's been a way of capturing the essence of a poem with a picture -'Oh, remember in that illustration they did this?' -it's been a way of making a stage picture. The essence of making one image encapsulates what we're trying to do -it's something we've been aware of, that it's possible to do and to get it right.
You've done past adaptations of poetry onstage -including Dennis Lee's other works, plus ee cummings' poetry -how did that experience help you prepare for this?
RD: The way we approached Lee's work was very similar to how we approached cummings' work; that experience worked for us back then. We used it as a template for how to approach the songs people would bring in … they'd be coming in with an idea, sometimes it'd be a musical idea or visual idea and we'd all work on it together -it'd be kind of that. The first one really aided us.
MR: All of us doing this were involved in that one. We have a shorthand, a set of unspoken rules you have to follow -stuff nobody teaches you when you do this creation work.
Like what?
RD: It has a lot to do with the feeling of being present in the room and what the temperature of the room is at any point in time, and just navigating that.
MR: One thing is, you have to be aware where the collective brain of the group is, as opposed to yourself, and that's hard. You're in there and you've got an idea, and it may not be in line with where the energy of the group is going, and sometimes you have to just eat that and keep your mouth shut, because otherwise you're stopping the flow of things. That's something that takes time to learn. You have to have enough experience where the flow is stopped -either you've stopped it or you've seen someone else stop it -and you realize, 'I need to kind of humble myself and put that idea in my pocket and save it for another time or translate another version of it down the road.'
It takes patience and humility to operate within a group, and the only thing that teaches you is time and rough sailing, and you get through it and you realize, that's what made that work: we were all kind of flowing together for some reason, and whatever the case, your inner you stars to learn how that works.
That's a good summation of theater, and a lot of creative endeavors involving a group.
RD: That's true.
MR: We're familiar with each other's aesthetics and our tastes are all very similar as well. There's not a a lot of selling to be done of certain ideas -we may not like it, but we know exactly what that person is trying to articulate, and so you can hash through it quickly, as opposed to another situation, where you have to try to understand what another person might present. We don't have to do any of that.
Raquel Duffy  a member of Soulpepper s Creation Ensemble  says the creative shorthand she and the gr...
Raquel Duffy, a member of Soulpepper's Creation Ensemble, says the creative shorthand she and the group share expedites a lot of artistic decisions, but it can cause trouble too: "We goof around and then we don't get anything done!"
Jason Hudson
More about alligator pie, Book, Children's book, dennis lee, soulpepper
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