An interview with George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, writers of the upcoming Festival show The Three Little Pigs, about the ups and downs of writing for children, the insights gained from international productions and their upcoming performance in the Festival of New Musicals. Interview conducted by NAMT’s Program Intern Audra LaBrosse.
NAMT: Three Little Pigs is a familiar story to most people. During your writing, how did you go about updating the tale and adding original touches?
George Stiles: Well, we did a similar thing with Honk!, our re-take of The Ugly Duckling. We enjoy making the characters as “human” as possible, and updating the dialogue so it feels contemporary and classic all at the same time! Family dynamics always interest us, how brothers and sisters manage to get along with each other, even though they’re often very different characters. So with the Pigs, we liked the idea that the father of the family had been “taken” by the Big Bad Wolf, so there’s a tension from the outset and makes the Mother a strong but put-upon figure who’s had to raise her piglets single-handed. We also thought a Wolf who reckoned he was “misunderstood” was fun… after all, he’s just doing what wolves do!
NAMT: This show is part of a “trio of trilogies.” Tell us a bit more about that concept.
GS: That’s all [Anthony’s] fault. He’s greedy. One’s never enough. But what’s great about it is that a theatre can choose to “mix and match” the shows. The second is Goldilocks and the Three Bears, which we premiered earlier this year – and the final part will be The Three Billy Goats Gruff. Each is 45-50 minutes long, so you can do 1, 2 or 3 of them with the same 5 actors, and design a simple set that works for all three. That way, theatres can program the shows for daytime or evening presentations.
NAMT: Can you tell us briefly how you went about updating the other stories in the trilogy?
Anthony Drewe: Well we haven’t written The Three Billy Goats Gruff yet, but Goldilocks And The Three Bears is ready to go and played very successfully in Singapore earlier this year. Our self-imposed conundrum in writing the trilogy was that we wanted it to be possible to perform all three shows with the same five actors. In the story of Goldilocks there are traditionally only 4 characters, but this limitation actually gave us our way into retelling the story. We first meet Goldi as she accompanies her father, Mr. Locks, a lumberjack, to the woods. Our new character, Mr. Locks, is felling trees to make way for a new road that is going to pass through the wood. It is when the tomboyish Goldi wanders off that she encounters the Bear’s cabin and her adventures begin. Despite the fact that Goldi has eaten Baby Bears’ porridge, broken his chair, and even had the temerity to sleep in his bed, the Bear Family see her as an ally who can help save their woodland from the bulldozers. So, as well as telling the much-loved fairytale, we have given it a modern day, ecological twist.
NAMT: The Three Little Pigs and your shows are directed towards family and younger audiences. What do you like about writing for this audience?
GS: You can’t fool younger children. They let you know immediately if they’re engaged and entertained. Often it’s their first time in a theatre, and that’s also a thrill and a responsibility for us. I also don’t think there’s a more heart-warming sound than the giggles of a kid when the show has made them laugh.
NAMT: Since young children always come with a chaperone, do you add anything to make it more enjoyable for the adults involved too?
AD: When devising shows for younger audiences, we have always tried to write in a way which will appeal to the target audience as well as to their older brothers and sisters, who are usually reluctantly “dragged” along, and to their parents and even grandparents. There is something very moving about seeing three generations going to the theatre together and all getting something slightly different from the experience. We try to throw in a few gags for the older members of the audience, which go over the heads of the kids hopefully without detracting from the story. With Honk!, Just So, Peter Pan and Mary Poppins the target audience is a bit older than that for The Three Little Pigs, but the same principle applies: tell the story clearly, with humor and hummable songs, add a few surprises and hopefully everyone goes home smiling.
NAMT: The Three Little Pigs was commissioned by Singapore Repertory Theatre (and has already been translated into Mandarin!). What was the experience like mounting the production there?
GS: We’ve a long history with Singapore Repertory Theatre. They have been fantastic at commissioning new work across the years and deserve to be recognized for that. English is the first language of Singapore—but of course there are many local idiosyncrasies and it’s part of the reason we named our three little pigs Cha, Siu and Bao, after our favorite dim sum of barbecued pork dumplings! #tasty. Gaurav Kripilani is the artistic and producing director and he loves getting new work premiered at his theatre and is very nurturing in the process—so the show has now had two successful runs there, one in English and one in Mandarin. We read both shows in London before mounting them. The other great discovery was our orchestrator, Ruth Ling—she’s a fantastically talented musician who has created our backing tracks—and she lives and works in Singapore. She’s trained in London and the USA—and I predict a glittering future for her.
NAMT: Because of your shows’ great successes, you tend to encounter international audiences often, and have been translated into many other languages. Have you learned or discovered anything about your shows, including Three Little Pigs, through a response from a non-British (and non-American) audience?
AD: We have been unbelievably fortunate that our shows, particularly Honk!, have been translated into so many languages—Hebrew, Icelandic, Danish, Filipino, Dutch, Japanese, Finnish, German, Belgian, Portuguese, Swedish and Mandarin. Translations bring many challenges, particularly for the poor translators. We advise them to try keep “the essence” of the meaning without doing a slavish translation—in some languages it is very hard to find an exact equivalent and, in the case of Danish, for example, the vocabulary is only a quarter of that of the English language. I actually directed Honk! in Tokyo and I had to have a translator and interpreter on hand all the time so that I could at least understand what the actors were saying. The other challenge is that sometimes a simple monosyllabic word in the English language requires a multi-syllabic word in the local language, which has a knock on effect in a song where one syllable is usually allocated to one note—so occasionally a few extra notes have to be added to the melody!
When we watch productions overseas it is interesting to note the way in which different audiences react. Generally the key moments, be they comical, moving or scary, elicit a similar reaction. I remember in Japan that the audiences were very respectful, clapping at the first appearance of the star performers, and generally only clapping 7 claps (I counted) after each song. There was little laughing out loud, which seemed to be a cultural thing, but at the end of the show the audience went wild! I guess a good story is a good story, no matter what the language and, in the case of Honk!, Hans Christian Andersen did the hard work for us!
NAMT: You were previously at the NAMT Festival with Honk!. What part of the Festival process are you excited to revisit again?
GS: Pretty much every part! Working with insanely talented Broadway performers for a start. The chance to showcase our piece to so many great regional theatres, as well as New Yorkers—it was hugely beneficial to the life that Honk!has enjoyed since 1999 when it was at the Festival. The chance to meet other writers, to work with the brilliant Vicky Bussert and Ryan Garrett—and just to be in NYC for another week always puts a spring in our steps!
NAMT: Have there been any recent edits to The Three Little Pigs that you are excited to try out in New York?
AD: With The Three Little Pigs, we held a semi-staged reading in London before the show opened in Singapore in 2012. A few changes were made between the reading and the production, and some further edits and additions were made in rehearsal. For the NAMT Festival we have made a few little edits to get the running time down so that we are “in and out” in 45 minutes—so you pretty much get the whole show for this presentation. As I think Michael Price of Goodspeed Opera House once said to me, “No-one ever complained about a show being too short!”