Playful invitation into world of feeling like an outsider
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Jim Morrow grew up in Newfoundland, so he says he knows what it feels like to be different.
“We knew we were different. We were told we were different practically every day,” says the artistic director of Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia, a Wolfville institution.
Of course, that’s not a feeling distinct to those on the East Coast: every person, no matter where they live, feels at some point that they are not enough or that they are too much. From the moment we are able to socialize, we begin to become aware of when and where we fit in best, as well as where we stand out worst.
But what if being different wasn’t always such a bad thing? What if — gasp — it could be a strength?
That’s not just the core message of Mermaid’s adaptation of writer Todd Parr’s children’s storybooks, on now at MTYP. It’s the title: It’s OK to Be Different.
The ideals of Parr, a prolific American author of children’s literature, captured Morrow’s attention. In the children’s theatre business, Mermaid is globally renowned for its innovative productions, based in the past on stories like The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Guess How Much I Love You, and Goodnight Moon.
Mermaid got in touch with Parr, and asked for his blessing to adapt three short stories with similar messages for the stage: The Earth Book, This Is My Hair, and It’s OK to Be Different. Parr enthusiastically agreed, and Mermaid set about readying a production featuring puppetry, black light, an immersive score by Halifax musicians Asif and Shehab Illyas, and narration by Mi’kmaw poet Rebecca Thomas.
The kid-lit world is just as saturated by shallow work as any other segment of publishing. But to Morrow, Parr’s stories — with simple messages and an eclectic use of both verbal and visual colour — stood out from the pack.
“Todd’s stories are trying to tell us something,” says Morrow. “He isn’t instructing, but instead playfully exposing us to messages through his written work.”
That playfulness comes through on the stage, where over the course of one hour of sensory-friendly theatre, the stories are brought to life with fluorescent paint, UV light, and articulate, object-based puppetry.
Like the story books children love best, Morrow says the show allows the kids enough time to react to what’s happening. “In our plays, we provide ample opportunity for children to turn away and say, ‘I liked that,’ he says. “It’s paced so gently that a child can intellectually be part of the action.’”
After all, kids are smart enough to know when they’re being pandered to. Parr’s books, Morrow says, do not do that, so neither should a stage adaptation.
“Theatre shouldn’t be a place where you feel rushed,” he says. “It should be a blanket you pull over yourself. And that doesn’t mean it can’t be stressful, but our brains should relax into what’s happening before us.”
Kids remember the stories they’re read. Morrow certainly remembers which mattered to him when he was a little one in Newfoundland.
“When I graduated from kindergarten, the school board in their wisdom gave every student a book, and the book I received was one called Wee Gillis.”
Morrow didn’t forget it, and Mermaid adapted it for the stage a few years ago.
With enough repetition, enough emphasis, and enough oomph, the stories kids hear, and the ideas they promote, stay with them for the rest of their lives.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.