Last weekend, the New Victory invited local artists interested in work for young audiences to participate in a conversation with Guus Kujier, the author of “The Book of Everything;” Richard Tulloch, the playwright who adapted that book; Neil Armfield, director of the production; and Kim Carpenter, the designer of the show. The conversation was moderated by Mary Rose Lloyd, Director of Programming for The New Victory Theater. Below is an excerpt of that conversation.
Mary Rose Lloyd: A lot of people have asked if the story is autobiographical. Guus?
Guus Kuijer: I think that it’s hard to say what it is. When I say it’s autobiographical, I’m lying. When I say it’s not autobiographical, I’m lying too. That’s why it’s fiction – you lie your way to the truth. So of course, there are a lot of things I have in common with Thomas. I grew up in a very strict religious family after the war and I became a happy man, so we have a lot in common.
Mary: There’s a forward in your book which talks about you and…
Guus: Yes, I added the forward that describes a man coming to give me the story, so that I’m not Thomas. I’m the one receiving the story and writing it down for Thomas. But of course many people don’t believe it happened that way.
Neil Armfield: Well, when you read the forward it feels like a tease. And that’s exactly what it is.
Mary: Kim, could you tell us, how did this production come about?
Kim Carpenter: Back in 2008, I was on holiday in the Blue Mountains, which is a couple of hours drive out of Sydney. It’s very beautiful and there’s a little bookshop there with a wonderful children’s section. It’s a small children’s section, but I always find books that I never find anywhere else. That is where I found The Book of Everything, in paperback, in a row of hundreds of other paperbacks. I took it to the front desk and as I did, the woman at the cash register jumped up and down saying, “Oh that’s a wonderful book, you’ll love it.” I took it away and read it in one sitting. I thought, as a theater company dedicated to children and family audiences, this is something we should do.
I knew Richard – we had collaborated many times – and he was in Amsterdam. I asked him to find the book in Amsterdam and read it. To make a long story short, he was instantly excited and produced a first draft immediately, without any negotiation. After reading his draft, I felt that that I was not suitable to direct, but wanted to design it. I took it to Neil because I felt it would appeal to his sensibilities. Neil was in Houston doing an opera at the time, but he read it while he was away.
Neil: And I loved it.
Kim: Then Neil and Belvoir’s general manager talked to my general manager and it began with a workshop in October of 2009.
Richard Tulloch: I didn’t know this work, but I did know Guus’s work because I was trying to learn Dutch and I had started to read children’s books. One of his books was Op je kop in de prullenbak (On Your Head in the Trash), which was the first book of his I read. But I didn’t know The Book of Everything, so it was great to read it and immediately love it.
However, I couldn’t immediately see how to stage it. Kim and I have worked together many times, and one of the productions had kids playing kids and adults playing the adults. I thought that might work for this – that we would have a nine year-old playing Thomas. But that’s a lot to ask of a little kid. So I thought perhaps there’s a way it could be a memoir with an older actor narrating and kids acting it out, which could have worked. But when we got involved with Neil and Belvoir Street, suddenly we had the opportunity to have some of the best actors in Australia, and we quickly found we had to do it with an adult cast.
Mary: How did the soundscape and live music come about?
Neil: As a model for the production, I was using a lot of ideas that had been developed for another production called Cloud Street. Iain [Grandage] was the composer on Cloud Street, and Iain has such an extraordinary humanity, such a gift for melody, such a dramatic instinct that I immediately thought of him for The Book of Everything.
He created music in the rehearsal room, and whenever he asked for direction, my only direction was “put yourself inside Thomas’s head.” The music Iain created is always a conversation with Thomas.
Mary: You mentioned that the other night. I love the way you brought it all it to life in Thomas’s mind.
You may not have even considered it, but for us to have a play like this which takes young people seriously and does not shy away from difficult subjects might worry some parents. I’d love to hear your thoughts about your audience.
Kim: When I started Theatre of Image, I started at a time when I thought there wasn’t high quality theater for children and families in Sydney, let alone the rest Australia. At the time, most theater for children would come out of the back of a van and into a school or a community hall. That didn’t interest me at all because I came from a world of theater for adults. Admittedly, there’s no such thing as theater for adults and theater for children. I hate those definitions. It’s simply theater, and it’s either good or bad.
The whole rationale for starting a theater company for children was that as adult artists, we wanted to have the same standards and production values as “adult theater,” to use that term again. It was about using the best artists available and giving them the opportunity to work in a different genre; to use their imaginations in a different way than they can in theater that’s conventionally made for adults.
Mary: Do you have any advice for people interested in doing similar work?
Guus: If I may, I have a piece of advice for anybody who wants to write children’s books. Never ask yourself what children will like. Ask yourself if you will like it. I never try to write a book for children. Never. It’s always for adults and children together. Some nights when you sit here in the audience, adults and children laugh and cry together. It’s the same as reading a book to a child. That experience as a whole family is what a good book offers a child.