Jack and the Bean, which launches the 2013-14 Manitoba Theatre for Young People season this week, sprouted out of a university course about soil that intrigued playwright Linda. A. Carson.
The Vancouver-area writer fixated on the idea of a pile of dirt onstage but it took her three years before a story took root in it. The ideal fertilizer turned out to be the children's folk tale Jack and the Beanstalk.
"I wanted to adapt that tale of why Jack's farm was very poor and not producing enough to feed them anymore," says Carson. "That twigged me to the ground being dead and how, in our day and age, soil can become dead by overuse."
Jack and the Giant Beanstalk debuted at Toronto's Young People's Theatre in 2012 and arrives at MTYP with a trimmed title that signals the bean is of central importance in Carson's 50-minute environmental tale for the target age group of four- to eight-year-olds.
In her spin on the children's classic, Jack is compelled to sell his beloved toys to feed his hungry family but instead trades them for magic beans, which grow a towering beanstalk. After climbing to the top and encountering fertile ground in the sky, the farmer's son discovers, not a golden egg-laying goose, but the reason why his family's land is dead and, more importantly, how to bring it back to life.
The traditional story has not been adapted often, the most recent version being this year's adventure film Jack the Giant Slayer. As a stage show, the idea of representing a giant and a huge beanstalk in a theatre is daunting when the audience has grown up watching fantastical CGI. Then there was the risk of messing with the expectations of kids and their parents.
"I thought there might be some peril involved," Carson says from her home on Bowen Island, less than 20 kilometres northwest of Vancouver. "But at an early workshop in Toronto, I was amazed by the number of kids who didn't know the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk because they come from other countries and it is not their history. And those that did know the story had no qualms about leaving the traditional tale and coming along with this new adaptation."
Although young audiences fear the fee-fi-fo-fumming giant, for them, his arrival is one of the thrilling aspects of the story. In Jack and the Bean, the health-conscious ogre likes to eat humans, but they're bad for his digestion. Audiences are urged to become tiny bugs, which the giant loves because they help keep his garden healthy.
"It encourages the kids to go into role-playing," says director Kim Selody, who is Carson's husband and frequent MTYP collaborator. "If they don't, they could get eaten."
Carson says she wants to show her audience that Jack has a responsibility to see the bigger picture of our world and the way many life forms -- from bacteria to insects -- depend upon us as we depend upon them. It is part of the cycle of life and people must realize they need to maintain the balance.
"I want kids to explore the dirt instead of seeing ground as something to run on," says Carson, best known for her play Dying to be Thin -- about a teenage girl's struggle with bulimia -- which MTYP will present later this month for the third time. "I want them to imagine that there is a whole life in that dirt. They are like gentle giants themselves to all the life forms below their feet."
That original pile of dirt from which Jack and the Bean was harvested remains a central image. But real soil didn't give Selody the look he needed, so he opted to use chopped-up rubber tires instead. The recycled material better reflects blue/grey light to suggest lifelessness and warmer hues to signify growth.
"It's about composting," says Selody. "I don't know if the kids get that if we continue screwing up the dirt with chemicals, it dies and you can't grow anything. The lesson is how to compost."