Thursday, March 7, 2013


On Jane Yolen’s website, she describes her book, “Owl Moon”, as a gentle tone poem. It is about a father who takes his daughter owling. It won the Caldecott Medal for John Schoenherr’s lovely illustrations. “Owl Moon” has been an ALA Notable Book, A Reading Rainbow book, a Junior Literary Guild selection, and on dozens of state award lists. It has been translated into nine languages.
While Jane Yolen envisioned the book in the woods near her house, the illustrator used his own farm in New Jersey as the setting. Jane had her husband in mind as the father, and their daughter, Heidi, as the child. In the story, she didn’t mention the child’s gender, but she says that the flap copy gives the secret away. 
Ellie as Jane
The journey to create this balletic piece has been done with care, love, and a sense of awe. Escalate Dance and Theatre Studio auditioned and began rehearsals for Stages Theatre Company’s production of “Owl Moon” in October with choreographers Nikki Swoboda, Shannon Raines and Stephanie Narlock. Director, Sandy Boren-Barrett began rehearsing with the actors of Pa and Jane in February. And yes, naming the little girl Jane is a nod to the brilliant Jane Yolen.

I had a different role than a playwright for “Owl Moon”. I was more of a scene shaper. I helped decide which narrative we would use, and then helped to shape the order of songs, dances, voice over, etc. It was a fluid and very different way of working – always open to change. When you create art, you have to be brave. That’s what I always say.

l. to r.: Director: Sandy Boren-Barrett, Jennifer Kirkeby, Stage Manager: Marilee Mahler

Here are some questions that I asked our Director and Artistic Director of Stages Theatre Company: Sandy Boren-Barrett, our Composer: Aaron Gabriel; and the Dance Director: Ann Marie Omeish:

JK: What was your vision of the adaptation of “Owl Moon”?

SBB: For me, the adaptation has always been steeped in movement. It has always been a ballet theatre piece, from the time I first read it – to the commissioning of the music, to the movement we are creating now…It just felt like it was a story meant to be told through movement.
AG: My vision for Owl Moon is to create a musical atmosphere that captures the simple story-telling and haunting winter imagery in the book. I spent a great deal of time studying and reacting to the illustrations which is different from the usual text-based approach I usually take. It helped me create music that was more sense-based instead of lyric-based. This is ideal for dancing.

AMO: Sandy introduced the book to me and I thought it was so beautiful. I immediately pictured the different elements becoming dances.

Director Sandy Boren-Barrett and the creation of the Silhouette Dance

Silhouette Dance onstage                      Photo: Jeff D. Larson

JK: What is it about Jane Yolen's book that appeals to you?

SBB: The illustrations are really gorgeous, but for me it was the poetry of the words that I loved. The internal thoughts of that little girl…talking only to herself, reminding herself “If you go owling you have to be quiet and make your own heat.” Or “When you go owling you have to be brave”, telling herself to be brave. It reminded me of overhearing my own daughter talking to herself while she is playing and creating…Just lovely…

AG: The simple, concise and meditative quality of the text and illustrations. The book is about one moment really, one event shared between a father and daughter and the quiet anticipation leading up that that moment. It is a very different kind of adventure story.

AMO: I loved the quiet parts of the book. I like that it is about a father and daughter connecting with nature.

Mady and Jordan                                                        Photo: Jeff D. Larson
JK: What makes the story unique?
SBB: Today, kids don’t often get to have experiences like this, some kids have never even had the chance to take a walk in the woods, much less go owling at midnight…Bringing this story to the stage, I hope gives them a glimpse into the magic of the outdoors…it is a place of wonder…I want them to all experience that.  
AMO: I think that this is a wonderful book to put to music and to tell the story through dance and movement because of the way it is written.
Top: Jordan, Zoe and Hannah

JK: How has the process of creating this piece worked?

SBB: All along the creation process has been so joyful…all of the artists have brought such joy to this work. It was certainly an unconventional commissioning process, but I imagine all work that starts with the music is driven by that. Aaron did not want to read the text at first at all – he wanted to just see the pictures…his music tells a story all its own, and the dancers bring that story to life. Limiting our text to only the words of the book has added a complexity to the creation, but it has also been so freeing, it really feels like the thoughts of the young girl. All of the designers, in particular our costume designer, Christine Richardson, have been working with me for quite a few months, crafting the “look” of the piece…the show has had to look and feel both theatrical and dance-like, it has been such a wonderful blending of both of these styles.

AG: I wrote the majority of the piece at a cabin in Gordon, WI - a small town in the north woods. I started on New Year's Eve in 2012 during a massive snow storm. It was perfect for understanding the dynamics of the forest after a big snow. The exciting yet muffled world snow creates. I hope this is reflected in the score. The rest of the piece I had to compose during the summer - even on days that were over 100 degrees. But I still had that snowfall as my inspiration.
Mady and Molly
AMO: I have loved the process! It has been very different because we started on the choreography much sooner than a normal show at Stages. All of the Escalate dancers starting rehearsing on Sundays at Escalate to learn the choreography. We came to Stages and began working with the actors 3 weeks before opening in the theater. I had 3 different choreographers work on separate pieces, and I love the results! There is an animal dance that my contemporary teacher Stephanie Narlock choreographed. The tree dance is a ballet that Shannon Raines my ballet teacher choreographed, and Nikki Swoboda choreographed the rest of the dances. I feel that they all work wonderfully together.

l. to r.: Sandy Boren-Barrett, Ann Marie Omeish (Dance Director) and Nikki Swoboda (Choreographer)

JK: Have there been any surprises or discoveries?

SBB: To be honest, it has been surprising that it has gone so easily. The collaboration with Ann Marie and her company, Escalate, has been seamless. Her choreographers have brought such beauty and artistry - it is exciting. Usually collaborating can usually get a little messy, but this has been very clean and clear and wonderful all along.

The biggest discovery was when I saw the first rehearsal with the dancers. This may sound naive, but I was blown-away by how their bodies responded to the music. With such detail. Even to the small movements of their hands and fingers. For instance, I orchestrated the end of the piece 'Pa and Jane enter the Forest' to have a light, pizzicato in the strings at the end of the song - to emulate snow falling from a pine bough; you'll see as the dancers respond with their fingers, wrists and arms in very small movements. They begin with their arms above their heads, then, starting with one finger joint at a time, allow them to cascade down to their sides in small fits. Just perfect. This is my first ballet, so it was a huge and exciting learning experience.

AMO: I wasn't sure how the process would be since it is so different, but I am really happy and surprised that it's worked so well! There are always things that come up in the rehearsal process, but we've been able to all work together and make a beautiful show.

Actor Todd Bruse as Pa, Ellie as Jane, and Director Sandy Boren-Barrett
Ellie and Todd in the woods                       Photo: Sandy Boren-Barrett
JK: For you, what is the heart of this piece?

SBB: The heart of this piece is the little girl…you see and hear everything through her…

AG: For me, the heart of “Owl Moon” is in the special relationship between Pa and Jane. The book starts with an odd event: a father waking his daughter up at midnight to go trudging through the snow. I think most parents hope that once children are asleep, they remain that way until morning. But when you go owling, all the rules are broken. I like how this special experience creates a bond between the two that carries throughout their night.

AMO: It’s about the relationship between a father and daughter and the special bond they have as they go owling.

Jordan as the Owl

Photo: Sandy Boren-Barrett

Actor: Todd Bruse                               Photo: Jeff D. Larson

JK: What would you like the audience to take away from the performance?

SBB: I hope that they see ballet as a completely accessible art form for them. I think a lot of people feel like “ballet” is some sort of highbrow art form…one they may not understand or enjoy. I want them to WANT to see more stories told in this way – and to look forward to more shows that Stages Theatre Company will tell in this way. ☺

AG: I hope people enjoy the marriage of the music and dance. And that they are enticed by the approach we took to the story - allowing the dancers to take on many roles including environment, animals and trees. I hope they are inspired by the relationship between Pa and Jane - that simple, quiet things can be just as exciting as the bigger events in life.
AMO: I hope that they can go into the world we've created and have great memories of the show.

Set Design: Joe Stanley, Lighting Design: Mike Kittel, Photo: Jeff D. Larson
OWL MOON at Stages Theatre Company                                       
March 8 - 24, 2013
1111 Mainstreet Ave.
Hopkins, MN 55343
Box office: 952-979-1111
For more information, visit these websites:


Beth Stilborn said...

This is wonderful, Jennifer! Thank you for helping us see how Owl Moon came into being as a stage production. How I wish I could be in the audience!

Jennifer Kirkeby said...

I'm so glad that you enjoyed it, Beth! I wish that you could see this production as well. It's been a true labor of love!


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