! ! !
ZEN ROMPER ROOM was COMPLETELY EFFING CRAZY!
In a Wild Rumpus of delight:
KEVIN GOES WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE!
> I certainly hope all of you were exposed to the wonderment of Maurice Sendak’s WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE in the full blush of childhood. If not, in this litigious society, it might not be too late to sue your parents for dereliction of duty. It should have been a big part of your childhood legacy. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE was the first of the two children’s books that I adapted for the stage, as director of “The San Lorenzo Valley Youth Council’s Young People’s Reparatory Theatre” (Quite a mouthful that!)
. It was early 1981, and I was working at the charming little Morning Glory Café in the small mountain community of Ben Lomond, California, scrubbing away on the endless supply of dirty dishes that kept magically refilling the sink in front of me. Suddenly, I see my friend Emily, the woman who got me the job, making a beeline back towards the kitchen, a big smile on her face and a gleam in her eye. She gushes that she just talked to the woman sitting alone at the corner table, who told her that she was desperately seeking someone qualified to DIRECT CHILDREN’S THEATRE just across the street at Park Hall. (Absolutely my dream job!) So I tore off my apron, dried my hands hastily, and raced out to sit next to her, saying: “Look lady, you don’t know me, but I’m the person you’re going to hire for this position!” I immediately began to recite my already extensive resume for her, and before the end of our conversation, she had hired me for the job! One week later, I had gone from a job doing minimum wage drudgery to the best job I ever had, writing, producing and directing children’s theatre!
Unfortunately, as a footnote of history that job only lasted seven months, because newly elected Ronald Rayguns, (Bless his poisoned heart!), took the helm, and the first piece of paper he signed was the “Get Rid Of Kevin Keelan’s Best Job Ever Act”. In his infinite ignorance, with the stroke of a criminal pen, he eliminated C.E.T.A.: the “Comprehensive Education and Training Act”. It had been the mechanism by which the federal government subsidized human services like the children’s programs of the Youth Council I worked for. When the funding was suddenly yanked, so were our jobs- and we were all sent packing. The haters who promulgated this misguided policy, reassured us that the ‘private sector’ would, of course, do the right thing and step up to the plate to fund the program. And they did… some five years later! It took half a decade for their consciences to awaken and re-fund what had been a really great program that had been a great thing for the children we served. For five years, as a result of this typical Republican short-sightedness, the kids in the San Lorenzo Valley just had nowhere but the streets to turn to after school… Good thinking!
. So, I got the job! To my unfettered delight, I found that in my new position, I would have total artistic freedom to do anything I wanted with this group of kids. The choice of material was mine. I did perceive a great deal of pressure to choose a musical, as these were very popular with the public, but I had no real talent in this genre, so I resisted and chose to dramatize WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE instead. But the text, (such as there is- it’s largely a picture book) presented a problem for a dramaturge: The same problem present in most western literature, as a whole: As the authors are overwhelmingly male, so too is the perspective offered. There are many fewer great parts written for women. They are often cast in supporting roles- as wives, mothers, lovers. Shakespeare was responsible for many of the best roles ever written for women. (However, it’s interesting to note that in Shakespeare’s time, women were not permitted to act upon the stage. The first time ROMEO AND JULIET was performed, one of the lovers was a guy in drag.)
. So, this inherent gender imbalance presented problems. Not only were there no good parts for girls in WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, there were no parts for girls in the original storybook at all! I had little choice but to expand the story greatly. I created the characters of “Mom” and “Dad” and turning the role of “Adolf” the terrier Max terrorizes near the beginning of the book, into a comic sidekick, whose thoughts the audience was able to here, even if her human keepers could not.
. I took the character of Max and split the role in half, into his male and female components: “Max” and “Maxine”. As in the original, Max was more than a bit of a buffoon. A braggart and blowhard, he is a congenital troublemaker always getting himself into mischief. Maxine, by contrast, was much more thoughtful and was always trying to extricate her brother from the trouble he brought upon himself.
. Hopefully, I reinvented the stereotypes of the ‘distant Dad’ and the ‘prattling Mom’, in a dinner scene where Max and Maxine bicker the way siblings do as their Mom, in hair curlers, serves the family. All the while, she blabs on endlessly about who is in a coma and who is cheating on whom, in her daily soap obsession, while dad rubber stamps all the family decisions gruffly from behind the shield of his newspaper. But I included a brief monologue for each, explaining how and why the became that way: Dad is so demoralized and depleted by the pressures of his work, that he just wants to come home and get comfortably numb. For her part, Mom is bored with her lifestyle of staying at home all day watching TV while her family is busy with their lives, since her husbands ideas about the man being the “breadwinner” keep her from getting the job she desires. It’s some pointed criticism actually, making my version a bit of a feminist screed. (I guess I had a bit of an agenda, I could help but slip in.)
. In my version, it is Maxine who hypnotizes the Wild Things and is crowned King, much to Max’s anger, resentment and chagrin. (Why not? Girls can be king!) But her ego is not so wrapped up in the accolade, so she gives her crown to her more immature brother, who was much more attached to the idea of being king.
. There were a number of demanding problems the production faced. We would need multiple sets: The dinner table, the open ocean, the jungle land of the Wild Things and convincing costumes and makeup for these terrible beasts. We would also need a full-sized dragon for the “Sea of Time” sequence. Fortunately, we had just such a costume backstage. It took five kids to fill it, and it would be very effective.
. On the first day of class, it turned out to be a young group of about 20 cute, snot-nosed kids, who were mostly between the ages of 7 and 9- with one exception: There was one 13-year-old girl named “Vivica”. She seemed pretty calm and mature, so I took her aside and said, “Look Vivica, considering your age and maturity, if you want to play Maxine, the female lead, I’ll give you the part, on one condition: that you agree to help me assistant-direct.” (Of course, what I really hoped for, was that Vivica would help me babysit the kids, more than anything- and keep the more energetic ones out of my hair.) Vivica seemed very excited by the idea of playing the lead, and enthused by the idea of being given such responsibility, so we struck that agreement, and I thought I had staged a coup.
. The other classes at Park Hall helped us prepare for the production: making the sets and costumes, assembling the props, making the poster and program. And a fine artist named “Barak” who hailed from Trinidad and Tobago, happened to be an accomplished Papier-mâché maskmaker, so he led a class that made fabulous masks of he animal hybrids that compose Sendak’s Wild Things masks that were three- four times the size of their little heads, placed over their shoulders with internal armatures.
. Finally, the first performance came round, and it was just wonderful. Everything worked beautifully. The show was just buzzing along and Becky’s Adolf generated lots of big laughs and applause. Everything went great… until we got to the Sea of Time. At this point, the Dragon is supposed to enter and confront Max, Maxine and Adolf bobbing across the sea on their tiny sailboat. The lights came up, the curtain opened, the sailboat entered as the cardboard wave cutouts shifted under them… but nothing happened. Nada. Zero. Zilch. Nothing.
. So, I hightailed it backstage to see what had happened, and found all the kids standing there, immobile as frozen statues. And I asked: “Well? What’s going on? Is there some reason we are not doing this scene?” They all just stared at me blankly. So I gently suggested that perhaps now would be a good time to do it. After all, there was an audience sitting out there waiting for it. This was supposed to be our performance… Reassured, they smiled and strode out on stage, and the play resumed.
. When the big showstopper came, Maxine, as king, proclaims: “Let the wild rumpus begin!” and the cast erupts into a frenetic WILD RUMPUS that lasts for three whole pages of ecstatic dance. Inspired, (I thought) I had hired popular Santa Cruz rhythm sensations ‘The Laurel Street Drummers’ to score this scene, and then perform a dance concert afterwards, hoping to attract the adult partiers that flocked to their concerts down in Santa Cruz. The segment kicked ass. The drummers pounded away furiously, as the Wild Things made their grand entrances to universal applause for the amazing masks alone. In the middle of it all, Becky, as Adolf, stops the action and performs a superb soft-shoe shuffle to Cole Porter’s “All of Me”. The production was a smashing success.
. Afterwards, many of the parents seemed relieved. No doubt some of them kind of wondered about me- this very young, longhaired hippie guy who was hired to look after their children… The former doubters clapped me on the back and proclaimed: “Good job! Wonderful show! My kid had a great experience.”
. But in the midst of all this success, I felt a bit let-down, when less than half of the eight member band I thought I had contracted for actually showed up for the gig- and the adults I had hoped to attract for the Afro-Latin rhythm dance concert that followed? They stayed away in droves. No matter. Rick Walker, Jim Griener and Gary Regina gave it their best and made a big, beautiful noise for a trio! The parents all danced with their kids joyfully- and taken altogether, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE was a delightful experience.
… I did, however, omit the most interesting part of the story:
. We were about half way through the production period, when one day, Vivica did not show up for rehearsal. I just gave a script to a very nice girl named “Gail”, and asked her to stand-in for Vivica reading for Mom. And she was doing pretty well. Then, about half way through, the doors to the hall fly open dramatically, and beams of bright sunlight flow in. We all look up to see who had made such a dramatic entrance. It’s Vivica, and she is gasping for breath. Her face is beet red. She is dripping sweat, appearing to be in the grip of an Asthma attack. And she is hulking! Seething! Shaking with rage! In one hand she grips a noticeably tattered leather catcher’s mitt, and in the other she wields a bare buck knife with a gleaming eight-inch blade!
. A deep pall falls over the room. Oh My God! She’s scanning the room, searching the room for the object of her wrath. It’s Paul- the little boy who played Dad. She tears off after him, screaming like a Banshee, wailing “AIYEEEE!” As an act of simple self-preservation, Paul performs an impressive standing broad jump onto the stage, worthy of an Olympic vaulter- quite a gymnastic feat for a kid who stood no taller than the stage!
. Vivica roared and lifted the blade to strike- and time seemed to freeze. All these things went through my head, in such a short time! I remember thinking: “Wow. This is serious. Somebody should do something about this…” And then realizing that ‘somebody’- was me! As unlikely as it seemed, I was the responsible adult here. If someone was going to save Paul’s life, it would have to be me!
. So I leapt forward and grabbed her wrist and shook her hand violently- but she would not drop that blade! I wrestled her to the ground. Finally she let go, and started sobbing uncontrollably. When I could get her calmed down enough to explain herself a still-panting Vivica explained that she had had a little disagreement with Paul. These young entrepreneurs went into business together. They chipped in to buy a big bag of hard candies that cost them about 2 cents apiece and sold them at school for 5 cents each, netting a tidy profit of 3 cents each. (Little capitalists!) Apparently, she and Paul had a little disagreement about who owned what percentage of the remaining stock, so she went into his room, stole his hunting knife and vengefully shredded his new catcher’s mitt. Not finding this enough punishment, she decided to seek out Paul and finish him off!
. Obviously, I could not have a mass murderess play the female lead in my children’s play, so I turned to Gail and said: “Well girl- if you want the part, you are now Maxine!” Delighted, she consented. And though it was sad having to exclude Vivica, Gail was wonderful in the role! Come performance, she glowed and shone in a way Vivica never did.
> I learned more about my adult self, doing this job, than in any time that came before it. In teaching children- you learn at least as much from them as they learn from you…
Kevin experiences The Lands Beyond, in: ADVENTURES BEYOND THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH.
© Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.