Turning over a new leaf

By Dionne Christian

Elle Wootton as one of the weird and wonderful creatures found in The 13-Storey Treehouse.
Elle Wootton as one of the weird and wonderful creatures found in The 13-Storey Treehouse.

Fans of the madcap Treehouse books by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton will wonder how the dickens anyone is going to adapt the kids' stories for the stage.

After all, said treehouse includes a bowling alley, a secret underground laboratory, self-making beds, a vegetable vaporiser and a marshmallow machine that shoots marshmallows into hungry mouths.

Who wouldn't want to live there? Who, though, would want the challenge of turning it into a live theatre show?

Turns out award-winning playwright Richard Tulloch, who created Bananas in Pyjamas and adapted The Book of Everything for theatre, was more than keen to turn The 13-Storey Treehouse into a touring stage play for kids and their grown-ups.
Tulloch answered a few questions about how he's made the much-loved books into equally as loved theatre:

How familiar were you with the books and what did you like about them?
I knew Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton through the Australian childrens' literature world.

All their work has a daring naughtiness about it that young readers clearly respond to. The Treehouse books were new to me, though, until they were suggested as potential stage material.

How does one even start adapting a book as crazy as The 13-Storey Treehouse for theatre?
My first thought was, "this book is outrageous fun, and totally impossible to stage". But in the story, characters Andy and Terry are working against a deadline to cobble a book together. So my second thought was, "what if they throw a play together, apparently with no preparation?" It should have the energy, unpredictability and danger of improvised theatre sports. The audience will be in on the conspiracy. Anything goes and hopefully shortcomings will be forgiven.

What was the biggest challenge and the greatest joy of working on this project?
When a story is intimately known and so loved by the young target audience, it's a challenge not to disappoint them. We clearly couldn't construct a convincing 13-storey treehouse - complete with man-eating shark tank, bowling alley and lemonade fountain - for a modest touring production, so the fear was that they'd feel shortchanged. The joy came in seeing inventive and engaging actors take the audience along for the silly ride.

Obviously, The 13-Storey Treehouse and The Book of Everything are very different books but what was similar about the adaptation process?
Adapting The Book of Everything was easier. It's a powerful plot and Guus Kuijer's gently witty, poetic language lightens the dark themes. Since most action takes place in living rooms there are no obvious staging difficulties.

Treehouse challenges are about staging the impossible. Andy Griffiths sat in on the initial workshop week and encouraged us to play fast and loose with his crazy story, adding songs, magic and theatrical surprises. Both shows benefited from early workshops with input from directors, designers and actors, whose additions eventually made it into the scripts. I love the collaborative process of theatre-making; it makes the playwright look clever.

Finally, when you wrote Bananas in Pyjamas did you have any idea of how successful it would be and why do you think it was such a hit?
Nobody could guess two guys in clunky suits would become megastars. "Bananas" and "pyjamas" don't even really rhyme. If we understood how it happened, we'd have a hit series every time. We worked on it hard and thoughtfully but we must admit we were lucky too.

What: The 13-Storey Treehouse
Where and when: Bruce Mason Centre, April 18-22 then on a North Island tour until May 23. See cdpkids.co.nz for tour details.

- NZ Herald

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