Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Imagine that the phone rings. Great news! You’ve been hired to direct a story of an abused orphan boy who finds himself in the unexpected company of a nurturing ladybug, a surly centipede, an underconfident worm, a musically-talented grasshopper and a many-handed spider. You’ll be bringing to the stage their transatlantic voyage in an overgrown peach that ends up impaled on the Empire State Building!
Does this sound a little . . . daunting? Well, it is. And this is pretty much what happened to Sue Miner, the director of the musical version of the classic novel James and the Giant Peach, which is now running at Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre. Inventive as the story is (and no one does inventive quite like author Roald Dahl), Miner’s version is a compelling, funny, lively experience which has struck a chord with audiences and critics alike. Quite the feat, as – obviously, given the subject matter – this is not the simplest story to stage.
The hardest part, admits Miner, was dealing with the sheer scope of the story and having the characters “travel across the countryide, land in the ocean, be surrounded by sharks, fly and land on the Empire State Building”—all while inside a gigantic peach. The easiest part, she says, was working at YPT, which is “always supportive and amazing in every department, and working with an immensely talented team, and watching every one rise to the occasion.”
Much of this show’s success lies in Miner’s skilful integration of the acting, sets, costumes, music and lighting. “This sounds a bit much,” says Miner, “but I have to be the starting and end point of everything. Directing is a huge responsibility, and it is fantastic when working with such wonderful artists and technical team who want to collaborate and tell a great story.” The planning began months ago. After the initial reading of the script last spring, she chose the production team. She then met with the set designer, costume designer, lighting designer, musical director, and choreographer. They had long meetings and discussions. Following these, they each went away, then returned with images: “I didn’t know we would have shadow play at all until I saw that the designer’s first thoughts were to have a white curtain. From that, I suggested shadows for certain parts of the play, and then he came up with the drawings for them. (They aren’t in the script).”
The same was true for the other designers. “If I didn’t like something, for example, the Spider costume or the design of a cut-out train, they would have to change it. There were what seemed a thousand questions about how we were going to stage the play long before the first day of rehearsal. It is a thrill to say to them that I wanted sharks, and they gave me sharks!”
Miner also cast the show, so every person on stage is the one she wanted. She also could influence musical arrangements, when they had to be “massaged” to move the plot. “Not every single number had a ‘button’ for applause, for example, but rather a transition into something new in the plot.”
James and the Giant Peach was originally a two-act play. As Miner explains, it becomes a different story as an “85-minute flow” created for a YPT audience. And flow it does! The casting is impeccable, the set is fun, and the music and choreography mesh effortlessly. The success lies in Miner’s vision of this “85-minute flow” and her being attuned to the audiences’ reactions. “I try to listen to all audiences, regardless of their age. Often, too, it isn’t what they say but how they act as an audience. It is easy to tell when people are bored or confused. I like to keep working on the show until it has opened.”
Such professionalism and perfectionism are to be expected with a renowned, in-demand director whose diverse body of work includes Shakespearean plays, musicals and puppet theatre . . . just to name a few. She has also directed a remount of Puppetmongers’ Bed and Breakfast , the story of the Princess and the Pea told with tiny puppets in a Victorian doll house, playing at the Tarragon Theatre December 19-21. In 2015, she will be directing a play with acting students at the Toronto Film School. And if it were not enough to be a freelance director—with multi-award nominations to her credit–she is also the co-artistic director of Pea Green Theatre Group, which she co-founded with actor-husband Mark Brownell.
To these varied experiences, she adds parenthood as a significant aid to her process: “My directing has changed a lot since having kids. I have always respected children and their intense process, but since having them, perhaps I have more understanding and curiosity about how very serious growing up can be– and truly goofy, too! Also, that not a lot is needed to just play. My children and my husband saw a dress rehearsal, and I took their observations very seriously, as I did the school previews we had.”
This respect for children shines through . . . and it resonates with audiences. In the performance I attended, children (and their parents) were enthralled with James’ tribulations…and so engaged throughout that some danced in their seats during the musical numbers. Yet this liveliness doesn’t overshadow the show’s serious themes: the innate resiliency of children and the transformative quality of cooperation. Though the characters are unlikely, they are ultimately relatable, And their interrelationships exemplify that “family” is less your relations by blood than those who care about you . . . even when they come from other species!
Miner describes the opportunity to direct this beloved story as “an honour.” Audiences are responding in kind, with houses selling out fast. YPT has extended the show to January 4. Don’t miss it.
News You Can Use
What: James and the Giant Peach, directed by Sue Miner
Who: Age 6 years (grade 1) and up
Where: Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street, Toronto, ON M5A 3Z4
When: Until January 4, 2015
©2014 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya