The Very Hungry Caterpillar

The Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia has been bringing children’s stories to life with the help of puppets since 1972. The company tours across the world year-round and will be performing an adaptation of three Eric Carle stories, including “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” in Forbes’ Mainstage Theatre this Sunday at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Jim Morrow, the Mermaid Theatre’s artistic director, offered some insight on the upcoming performance.

 

Can you tell me about this production — “The Very Hungry Caterpillar?”

There are three stories that we’ve adapted by Eric Carle, a very famous American children’s author and illustrator. His most famous book is “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” We placed that story with two others, [“Little Cloud”] and “The Mixed-Up Chameleon” … So far we’ve adapted seven of Eric’s books to date. They tour together in various combinations. So, combined, those three stories make up our play and so we created this performance piece in 1999 and it’s been touring the world ever since, to children and their families, mostly throughout North America, but also in Asia, Europe and Mexico.

 

How did you decide on JMU?

The way this works is we offer shows to theaters and they get into contact with our agents in Toronto and those that are interested make arrangements with us and this happens about a year in advance of the tour because the tour is between four to nine months long. So the arrangements for this venue have been made for a long time and then we drive to their theater en route from another.

 

Can you talk about the puppets used in the show?

Well, when I say puppets, it starts with looking at the books and trying how to figure out how we’re going to best perform them. Then I set about how to best design the show and adapt the storybooks into a full stage production, and in that process figure out how large the characters are going to be and what they’re going to be made from, how they’ll be built and so what we do is, we develop movable sculptures and then we add broad superstring or wires — whatever is needed to move them. Once the performer picks them up and moves them, that’s when they become puppets. But they begin as sculptures. So they’re not traditional puppets, like a marionette, they’re basically sculptures that we use as puppets.

 

So they’re pretty big?

Well, yes, some are big. The caterpillar is probably 3 feet in length. It has two rods — one coming out of the top part of its body and the other at the bottom. The performer holds onto those rods and moves it like a caterpillar across the stage. Performers are dressed in black and you don’t see them. They perform in a darkened environment and they’re dressed in black and we project ultraviolet light onto the stage so it all glows. It looks like magic, basically. When the kids are watching the show, they’re not seeing the performers so it looks like the objects are moving across the stage by themselves. It’s very cool.

 

How did you decide to adapt his books?

It was a collective decision. We were looking for a book that would be popular with children and audiences across the world and Eric’s works have been translated into 30-odd languages so children are reading his books around the world. And because we tour globally, our choice of material has to satisfy audiences everywhere. And he was the perfect choice for a number of reasons. One, his books are amazingly beautiful. They tell very simple and elegant stories. He is a true artist. He has a great connection with a child’s mind. And even though his stories are simple, there’s a lot going on. Little children between 2 and 6 really respond positively to Eric’s stories and so we thought it would be natural for us since we are a company who celebrate storybooks and puppetry as an art form. We thought it’d be an ideal choice for us to promote reading and puppetry. So we contacted Eric and his people and they readily agreed to allow us to adapt his work. It’s truly astonishing for us. He’s a genius because he not only writes [his] books but also illustrates them. He creates beautiful pages of art out of a collage. I’ve seen his work in progress. I actually have a piece of his artwork in my office.

 

Does the Mermaid Theatre work with other storybooks?

We’re in the business for adapting books for children. Our most famous ones include Eric’s works, but also the work of Leo Lionni, one of Eric’s contemporaries. “Swimmy” is one. “Frederick” is another. Like the Eric Carle adaptations, we took three of Leo’s books and created a play around those three stories. We’ve adapted “Goodnight Moon” and “The Runaway Bunny,” which is touring across America.

 

Contact Emmy Freedman at freedmee@dukes.jmu.edu.