Marc Bruni is the co-Director with PigPen Theatre Co. of The Tale of Despereaux. He has directed the Tony, Grammy, and Olivier Award-winning Beautiful: The Carole King Musical on Broadway, in the West End, US and UK Tours, and in Australia where he won the 2018 Helpmann Award and Green Room Award for Best Direction of a Musical. Bruni’s other directing credits include The Explorers Club (Manhattan Theater Club), The Sound of Music (Chicago Lyric Opera), among others. He is a Magna Cum Laude graduate of Dartmouth College.
TS: Give us some background on the evolution of the show and the controlling argument that brought together the artistic team.
MB: Universal Pictures produced the film version of the book “Tale of Despereaux” by Kate Di Camillo. PigPen having done “Old man and Old Moon,” they asked PigPen, “Would you be interested?” The members of the PigPen team, seven fellows who were Drama majors at Carnegie Mellon [University], saw themes in the book which lent themselves to how they liked to tell stories. “Old Man and Old Moon” was their culminating work at Carnegie Mellon. Chris Herzberger of Universal saw it at the Judson Gym in New York, and two and a half years ago, a multi-year process began to write a draft, hold a reading, and I came on board via Universal.
We have since then collaborated on three readings and puppet labs to tell the story, using several devices. It went up at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre this past summer. We’ll have a second crack at it here at Berkeley Rep. The seven PigPen guys are writers, composers and directors, with some collaborators whom they regularly worth with, such as Lydia Fine and Nick Lehane, who are puppet designers. We talked about new people: a team of designers, Jason Sherwood, Don Holder, Broadway folk bringing their artistry. PigPen has worked with choreographer Jennifer Jancuska in the past and we have a wonderful relationship. She created a brilliant physical language which allows movement to feel heightened, using a simple “kitchen” prop. We’re not trying to show a human with big ears acting like a mouse. We go for more of a suggestion than a literal pair of big ears.
TS: Two themes emerge in the book: chiaroscuro, the counterposition of light and darkness, and honey as a metaphor for music. How do they manifest themselves in the production and performance quality you aspire to achieve?
MB: Dark and light shadow puppetry is PigPen’s imprimatur, using pieces of cardboard, a sheet, and a light source to create sequences to assist in the telling of the story. The honey sound comes from actor-musicians playing their own instruments. There’s a song called “Honey Sound.” Despereaux hears it from inanimate objects through something akin to ESP. We run a banjo sound through reverb, with the vocalization of Princes Pea over it. It’s like no other sound you’ve heard. The audience hears it just as Despereaux does: from something that doesn’t make sound. It’s like smelling a shiver or dancing light: it asks, “How do we perceive cross-over sensory experiences?” This ability is among those that make him an outsider.
TS: Where does the power come from in the telling of the story and can you point to specific elements that motor it along?
MB: A number of elements come into play. Musicals are plays that add the idea of song when a moment becomes so important that a character needs to sing. This happens four times over in Tale of Despereaux because it’s consists of four books, one for each of the four characters. The structural challenge is to hang all this on Despereaux’s journey, in keeping with Joseph Campbell’s “power of the myth” or “hero journey” idea. Here, it follows the journey of a rat along with that of Despereaux. The rat is also an outsider. Their parallel experiences in dealing with transgression motor the story. The consequences drive the show. The task lies in figuring out how the events cohere into one single narrative and how each moment is depicted through a scene, song, dance moment, and the use of shadow puppets.
You end up with a patchwork of all those elements and have to make them feel inevitable. The visual I can give you is the idea of knitting together a tapestry–call it “The Princess Pea Collection.” I hope that they suggest each other because there are challenges of scale. For example, a human and a mouse have a scene together. How do we indicate that scale? Sometimes by showing the human and the shadow of the mouse. The puppet becomes human. Different worlds are depicted: human, mouse, and rat. It’s key that these elements not get in the way of the show, at the same time that they give it dimension, and relate as if there are no boundaries in these worlds.
JG: What dance styles did you choose in order to create the atmosphere for The Tale of Despereaux? How much of a role does dance play?
MB: More than we thought. There’s more movement specifically choreographed meant to heighten the emotion of storytelling, more than to just display steps. We don acknowledge the dancing. It’s folded in to elevate the story of the characters’ movement. We want to let movement evoke or heighten the emotion of movement. The Spoon on Needle action sequence is the closest we come to classical dance.
TS: How is the story structured in the blocking, tempi, and shaping of the show?
MB: Because it’s co-written by seven people, in a very collaborative atmosphere, they are constantly working to find the best idea in the room. This became a generous process in San Diego, allowing many adjustments and changes, given that the task at hand was to create a 90-minute experience, then pared down to the sum total of a long-form version that could have been produced in an epic two–night show. This was not a time for diversions: it has to mean something that will add up. We do that as lean and mean as possible. The Old Globe and their prop department went above and beyond. We needed a big spoon and the one that arrived was custom-welded! I’m used to doing new musicals. This could have just as well been one because it is a remount, with three new cast members and we only have two weeks of rehearsal!
JG: In the novel, the author breaks the fourth wall, and addresses the reader. Is this a device that you use in the show?
MB: There’s a character called The Librarian. He addresses the audience directly. Everyone responded to that device in the novel because it makes the novel feel “adult ,” and appeals to multiple generations, not a theater piece just for children, but sophisticated children’s theater with adult appeal. At the Old Globe, the audience appreciated it, based on developmental level, just as a parent can experience it in a totally different way than a child would.
JG: Despereux struggles against conformity. Were there any conventions in musical theater that you had to struggle against to produce this show?
MB: This was the first musical Universal has produced. The work they did in the past was more diegetic, with sound originating from the actual filming process. They have never before shown characters singing their feelings. Hopefully, we will have married the spirit of Found Object Theater with having characters sing. Those are the challenges with this, taking the best of devices Pigpen has used before and redeploying them in a new way, more akin to expectations for a musical.
TS: What is “Found Object Theater”?
MB: Found Object Theater is the idea that you can find something and use it to transform itself into something else. A mophead you could find in your garage, redeployed in a theatrical way, becomes a dog. You use it out of necessity, originally, and yet sometimes it’s the thing that works best. Accessing is why everyone loves theater and that is why Found Objects is such a good way to tell story vs. film adaptation. We were all eager to produce something that could only exist in theater, to create an imagination trip for the audience.
Singer & Son
(Toba Singer and James Gotesky)