Sunday, February 22, 2009

"The Mitten" by Jan Brett is now a Musical!

Jan Brett & Jennifer Kirkeby

























L: Marilee Mahler, Stage Manager
R: Sandy Boren-Barrett, Director








Laura Kirkeby, Choreographer














Photos by Bruce Challgren





I have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to adapt some remarkable children's books for the stage. One of my favorites was "The Mitten" by Jan Brett. It was produced by Stages Theatre Company last year. Anyone who has read Jan's beautifully illustrated books knows that her readers are instantly transported to the magical settings of her stories.

"The Mitten" was a particularly fun adaptation for me because it is based on the Ukrainian folktale of a young boy who drops his white mitten into the snow. One at a time, various woodland creatures get inside the mitten for warmth until it is ready to burst. The last animal to enter the mitten, the Mouse, tickles the Bear's nose as she snuggles in. The Bear sneezes, and well, I don't want to give away the ending in case you haven't read it yet. :)

When the Artistic Director of Stages Theatre Company, Sandy Boren-Barrett asked me to adapt "The Mitten", she told me that she wanted it to be a dance-theatre piece. We had talked about this concept for a few years, and this seemed like the perfect story for this style. As a result, much of the play was set to music. Composer Shirley Mier began her research by listening to a lot of Russian-Ukrainian music. She truly caught the spirit of the story by using a "Peter and the Wolf" style. Each character had their own instrument and theme.

One of the things that I do for inspiration and relaxation is to take walks. Well, I have two Schnoodles, so my walks aren't always relaxing. Regardless, I remember taking them on a walk after a big snowfall prior to adapting "The Mitten". The snow was untouched and so white and sparkly that it actually hurt my eyes. The trees and bushes were heavily flocked with snow. The sky was endlessly blue. It was stunningly beautiful, and I felt as if we had stepped into a Jan Brett illustration.

As we crunched along through the snow, I watched how excited my dogs were to be outside. I wondered what it would be like to be their size moving through such deep snow. At times, my smaller dog, Sadie, would disappear into a soft snow drift, only to jump out with clumps of snow clinging to her fur. I thought about the different animals in "The Mitten" and how hard it would be for them to survive a long, cold winter. That walk was just what I needed to begin my adaptation.

As you can see from these photographs, the production of "The Mitten" was beautiful. We had an amazing production team and group of actors. Joe Stanley created a set that looked just like the exquisite illustrations in the book. The play was very well received, selling out many shows in the 730 seat theater.

One of the best things about writing a play (and at times the most terrifying) is sitting in the audience watching the production that you have worked on for months, sometimes years, unfold. For "The Mitten", I smiled as I listened to the "ooh's" and "ahh's" of the children. They absolutely loved guessing (and in many cases knowing) which animal was coming onstage next. One little boy sat in front of me holding his copy of the book. Even though he was obviously too young to read, he proudly turned the pages to follow along with the play.

There are other theatres that are interested in doing this production. We were asked many times where people could buy the music CD. Publishers have also asked about it. It is my hope that this musical has a long and happy life.

My next adaptation with Shirley Mier is "The Paper Bag Princess" by Robert Munsch. Auditions are this week, and it will open at Stages Theatre Company on April 17th. Come and see it. It is the original girl-power book!

Besides being an amazing artist, Jan Brett is a teacher's best friend. Visit her website: http://janbrett.com/. You will find an amazing array of free activities, coloring pages and projects. She recently started a blog in which she shares her life, her animals, what inspires her, and what her next projects are.

2 comments:

Mermaid Queen said...

Hi Jennifer,
Thanks for sharing all the beautiful photos of The Mitten. Jan Brett certainly had created some amazing books, and your play looks stunning. The Mitten is one of my kid's favorite books. Does Jan Brett illustrate her books too? Take care, and have a great day.
Martha

mygreenside said...

We love The Mitten and Jan Brett! She has an amazing website and she shows you how to draw hedgehogs and the like (my five-year-old and I draw with her all the time)! Since I want to be a children's book author and illustrator when I grow up, I am so jealous that you worked with her!

Wendy

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