Not only has Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are been adored by wave after wave of preschoolers, but when the colored ink was still wet on its illustrations it won the 1964 Caldecott Medal for most distinguished picture book of the year. That was only the beginning. There followed ripples of tie-in products--nothing compared to the current commercialization of kid lit and cartoons, but still a fair number of games, puzzles and action figures.
And then Sendak's most celebrated book evolved way beyond the toy department. In the 1980s, former child-prodigy composer Oliver Knussen turned it into a fairly avant-garde opera for England's prestigious Glyndebourne Festival. In the late 1990s, Randall Woolf transformed it into a dance spectacle for the American Repertory Ballet. From time to time Sendak has also authorized more modest theater productions.
Now, Tucson's Arts for All is about to stage an ambitious new adaptation by Steve Anderson. The show will involve live actors, "sign dancers" using American Sign Language, and puppets and creature costumes--some of them 12 feet tall--bringing the Wild Things to life.
"This is a book I've read to my 2-year-old every week since he was born," Anderson said last week. "Sendak's art is something kids love to look at because it's so rich."
That art has slowly been rendered into substance. Anderson was sitting in a costume shop that looked something like a Wild Things slaughterhouse, littered with huge papier-mâché heads and foam-rubber entrails. But it's a slaughterhouse that works in reverse; by now, all those parts should have come together for the play's January 19-21 run.
"We've made the Wild Things soft and squishy so they don't look too terrifying," Anderson said.
Sendak's story revolves around a boy named Max, who has been sent to bed without dinner for wreaking mild havoc at home. In his mind, at least, Max sails off to an island inhabited by monstrous but not so dangerous creatures. These Wild Things recognize Max as one of their own, at least in spirit, and crown him their king. As fine as this is, in the end Max returns home to "a place where someone loves him best of all."
"Part of what gets Max crowned king of the Wild Things is what got him into trouble in the first place--his creativity and imagination," said Anderson. "So when he arrives on the island, they all do a 'sign dance' of appreciation that he's revitalized their spirit and their joy. It's easy for a parent to nip that stuff in the bud with kids, because you turn your back for a minute and they've destroyed the living room turning it into a fort."
Revitalizing spirit and joy is Anderson's business as arts manager of Arts for All, a 15-year-old organization he joined last year. Arts for All does exactly what its name implies, offering cultural experiences to people--both performers and spectators--with and without disabilities.
"If you have a disability, that doesn't automatically get you into a show," Anderson warned. "We're trying to create something that people want to see because it's great theater, not just because someone with a disability is in it." So when he's casting, Anderson simply looks for performers who bring as much as possible to a role; sometimes that may be a deaf actress with a particular intensity, or a wheelchair dancer with striking grace and rhythm.
This production will feature a combination of new faces and veterans on stage and behind the scenes. Perhaps the most notable participant is Beckie Kravetz, the consultant on the design of the large puppets. Kravetz isn't by any means a household name, but she's well known in backstage circles as a mask-maker and makeup artist who has worked for most of the world's major opera companies.
Anderson himself has an MFA with an emphasis in acting from Brandeis University, and has performed in Off Broadway productions and in regional theater. So although he has adapted Where the Wild Things Are especially with a kid audience in mind, he resists making things too simple. For one thing, he has framed Sendak's fantasy with a more realistic story involving other characters.
"But even though we've layered in two story lines and (American Sign Language), we hope kids will stick with it, and adults should find it to be rich theater," Anderson said. "You have to think your way through this; you can't zone out like with Barney the dinosaur."