Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
I am a little girl and my name is Rose, Rose is my name…
And which little girl am I am I the little girl named Rose which little girl named Rose.
This is one of the many conundrums that plague Rose, the nine-year-old protagonist of Gertrude Stein’s The World is Round as she searches for her place in the world. The book and its origin are rather marvelous: it was first published in 1938 when author-editor Margaret Wise Brown (best known for Goodnight, Moon and herself influenced by Stein’s style of prose) tried to entice established authors of adult books to write for children. Those she approached included Stein, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. Though Steinbeck and Hemingway balked, Stein agreed. In fact, she replied that she had an “already nearly completed” manuscript titled The World Is Round, and would be pleased to have Wise Brown’s company Young Scott Books publish it.
The novel was illustrated by Clement Hurd (also best known for Goodnight, Moon) and featured one blue-and-white illustration per chapter on pink paper, with the text printed in blue. (This specific and whimsical combination was stipulated by Stein herself.) The book had been out of print for years before being reissued by HarperCollins in October 2013 to commemorate its 75th anniversary. The World is Round is remarkable not only for being one of only three children’s books that Stein wrote, but also for her stylized use of language. The mostly unpunctuated prose, the rhythmic turns of phrase and the recursive wordplay imply an experimental, fanciful spirit that reflects little Rose’s meandering quest for identity and belonging.
Soulpepper’s musicalization of The World Is Round–called Rose–is no less remarkable. The work, which is likely in its initial stage of development, will be presented to audiences for the first time as a concert on December 16. This is the first of 3 performances as part of Soulpepper’s 3rd annual Family Festival. The concert presentation, directed by Artistic Director Albert Schultz, marks the culmination of its workshop stage. Clearly, the musicality inherent in Stein’s prose style caught the eye –and ear– of Rose’s co-creators actor Sarah Wilson (the lyricist) and Mike Ross, Soulpepper’s Slaight Family Director of Music (the composer).
Wilson describes how she and Ross had been looking for something to collaborate on for some time . . . and they’d been looking for something family-friendly. With this intent, she came across The World Is Round when its reissue got some attention online: “I ordered it, and we both had the same ‘this is the one’ reaction to it right away.” The rhythmic language and other elements suggested a musical adaptation: “The writing itself is very musical, and Rose herself often sings in the book,” Wilson says, “and the style of it gives us a ton of room to play.”
Given the vast scope inherent in the book, Wilson and Ross had to assume the rich task of adapting the ideas presented in print form . . . into a performance medium that’s collaborative and multisensory – and in this instance, intended for children. As Ross points out, much of the “telling” and interpretation in a story like this rest with the audience. As such, there will be significant – and individual – variations between the way a story is told and how it is received. “As my good friend (Soulpepper’s Resident Artist and Young Family Director of Design) Lorenzo Savoini puts it – theatre occurs in the mind of the audience,” Ross explains. “The performers and designers and directors are trying to create a situation where the story is being implied in a way so that the audience is actually telling themselves the story privately. We give them the tools, but their imagination is key – and if we don’t rely on their imagination and trust it, then we are not doing our jobs properly.” And in Ross’ view, children are “far more open-minded to imaginative storytelling” than their adult counterparts, and are more ready for what he and Wilson have in mind. In describing his musical compositions for the child audiences who will come to experience Rose, he enthuses, “their imaginations are on fire 24/7, so tapping into that is such a joy.”
Despite The World Is Round being considered a children’s book, its themes are universal and transcend age. It’s no secret that scholars continue to puzzle over it for meaning that remains ambiguous and elusive. Is this a challenge . . or does it provide Rose‘s creators with an unusual freedom to suggest themes relatable to the children in the audience and their caregivers? Ross describes the universality of Rose’s quest in this way: “David Crombie spoke at an event I was at recently, and as he wrapped up his speech, he said that we are all basically asking ourselves the same three questions in life whether we’re 5, 55 or 105. These questions are 1) Who I am? 2) How do I behave? and 3) Where do I belong? I think Rose is asking these questions on all of our behalf, and her journey towards finding the answer is heroic and worth experiencing no matter what age you are.”
While Ross and Wilson are obviously delighted at the prospect of enlivening children’s imaginations, it is also clear that they value and respect what children think. According to Wilson, the only child to hear the music of Rose (so far) has been Ross’ daughter. So the children who attend the concerts will be the first kids to hear it. “And we’ll be attentive to them,” she says, noting that their responses will inform Rose’s development. “Sharing this publicly is the next stage of the process, and I’m sure we’ll use information we get from the concerts moving forward.”
As for the lucky children who will be among the first to see Rose (A Concert Presentation) this December? Wilson hopes that “they feel enchanted. Entertained. Seen.” If Soulpepper’s other family shows, like A Christmas Carol, Alligator Pie or any one of the concert theatres are any predictor, Rose has success written all over it. And those who are repeat fans of Spoon River can now enjoy the privilege of following another Soulpepper musical as it evolves into its final form. One that’s uniquely its own . . . not unlike the book that inspired it: “We’re trying to do something unusual with this show,” Wilson hints, “so really I hope it’s a series of surprises.” And Rose will be its name.
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What: Rose (A Concert Presentation), based on Gertrude Stein’s The World Is Round; adapted by Sarah Wilson and Mike Ross; lyrics by Sarah Wilson; music by Mike Ross; featuring Ghazal Azarbad, Hunter Cardinal, Peter Fernandes, Hayley Gillis, Nicole Power, Mike Ross, Alicia Toner, Rose Tuong, Brendan Wall and Daniel Williston; directed by Albert Schultz
Who: Audiences 8 years of age and up
When: December 16, 7:30 pm; December 17 and 22, 2:00 pm; part of the Soulpepper Family Festival
Where: Young Centre for the Performing Arts in the Distillery Historic District, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, ON, M5A 3C4
For Info and Tickets: Soulpepper.ca and 416.866.8666
© 2016 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya