INTERVIEW: Ben Glasstone of MONSTRO Theatre on ‘Book Story’ & simplicity in the digital age

MONSTRO theatre are taking Book Story – a puppet musical celebrating books, reading and libraries – on a national tour this Autumn. We spoke to award-winning writer, director and composer Ben Glasstone about the show, sharing, and learning to love your shelf…

Book Story – what’s it all about?

It’s about books that go on adventures, and it’s about how we find our own stories and share them with the world. The show celebrates, and will be performed in, libraries (as well as studio theatres).

Book Story UK TourWhat inspired you to create a show about books and libraries? Why did you want to tour to libraries, and what do you think is the value of cultural events in libraries?

The original idea for Book Story came to me in a library!  I was staring at a shelf of “Oversized Books” – a motley crew of book genres that had just happened to end up on a shelf together (not fitting on their respective category shelves).  The idea that these different types of books might be seen as different characters occurred to me: how had these unlikely shelf-fellows ended up side by side and how did they feel about it?  It took years for that seed of an idea to be developed into a theatre show, but the library setting was always in my mind as part of the story.  I love libraries and love to write in them.  Books are emblems of the way we share our minds and souls with our fellow human beings (even after their writers may be long gone) and libraries are the sites of those magical, silent acts of sharing and borrowing and lending. Libraries are also among our few remaining urban sanctuaries and we cannot afford to lose them: cultural events in libraries help remind us of those spaces and value them.

The blurb for Book Story suggests the show will “engage children with the challenges of the digital age”. What are some of the challenges young people face?

It’s easy to worry about the apparently ever-diminishing attention spans of kids growing up immersed in digital media.  There are many, many wonderful things about the internet, but the young as much as the old hanker for stability and simplicity – for things that stand still and foster reflection.

Book Story (11)

There’s a lot of discussion around the impact of technology on young people, with some fearing the negative effect of video games, computers and phones, unavailable to previous generations. Book Story will “explore our deep fondness for the simpler age of the page”- does the production take a stand on this debate?

I think the challenge of the digital age goes to the heart of what we are.  My theory on why so many of us seem to love and cherish books and other analogue media – and to privilege them over their digital counterparts – is that computer-based devices and media are, by their very nature, character-less.  Since they can be anything (your phone is a camera, a clock, a diary, a recipe-generator) they are nothing.  And limitation is character.  Book Story explores the metaphor of book-as-person.  We want our lives to have a story (like a book) with a beginning, a middle and an end.  We have characters that are (or become) to some extent fixed and limited (like books with their given genres and stories).  And so we relate to books as – in some way – akin to ourselves.  Digital media are wonderful tools, when used wisely; but books are a uniquely valuable focus for reflection, for connecting deeply (and slowly) with our fellow humans, living and dead.

Your company MONSTRO are pioneers of the puppet musical – can you tell us how and why you developed this style of theatre?

I first got involved with puppetry when I created a musical called The Mouse Queen, based very loosely on Aesop’s fables.  Seeing that the piece needed a special theatrical language, my collaborators and I turned to a puppet director to work with us, the well-known (in puppetry circles) Steve Tiplady.  Steve helped us develop the show and when he took up the Artistic Directorship of London’s Little Angel Puppet theatre, we produced it there.  The show was a very unique fusion of live performance, live music and puppetry – and turned out to be a huge success, even travelling to New York and transferring to a 500-seat theatre off Broadway.  And ever since then, working with many of the artists involved in that show, I’ve been fascinated by the possibilities of puppetry and how they can work alongside musical theatrical languages.  MONSTRO has provided a platform for exploring these possibilities further.  I’ve done singing cats, singing keys and a singing snake-burglar.  Singing books was only a matter of time.

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As an artist who has composed, written and directed for many productions for young audiences, what led to your focus on children’s theatre?

Like many artists, I’m a bit of a child myself.  There’s a resistance to accepting the (necessarily) stripped-back picture of reality that adulthood requires. I want to keep as much of raw naive perception in my life as I reasonably can.  Admittedly, perpetual infancy has its drawbacks; but what can you do?  I got involved in writing musicals for kids to perform and teaching music and song writing to young people early in my career and I’ve always done a lot of this alongside professional theatre work.  It was something that came naturally and, I feel, can only feed the work I make for children by providing fresh insight into how young people actually see the world. I leapt happily into making family shows as soon as I was first given the opportunity (for Unicorn, in 2001, making a version of Pinocchio with Michael Rosen) but I’ve always bridled at the idea that “children’s theatre” should be seen as categorically distinct from any other theatre.  After all, adults bring the kids (and pay) and their experience should be respected as much as the young people’s. So I’ve always tried to make work that engages adults and children in tandem, Book Story (both a cartoon caper and meditation on mortality) being a particular case in point.

Do you have any tips for theatre makers wanting to create work for children?

You can’t fool kids into thinking they’re having a good time. And they will sign, yawn, chatter and possibly cry if they’re not.  So you absolutely have to engage them; tell them a story.  Of course this is entirely true for “adult” theatre too (though too often forgotten) but the beauty of making work for a young audience is that they simply will not let you get away with not telling them a story.  Make it funny.  Not only funny, but regularly funny.  This doesn’t mean it can’t be sad too. Keep it surprising. If you can do all that, then it can be as weird, improbable and irrational as you like. (Another of the joys of writing for kids).

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What was your experience of theatre growing up?

My father was a ballet teacher and choreographer, so I went to the theatre as a child, though most often to see men in tights, which I liked, but wasn’t thrilled by.  What did thrill me was when one of my dad’s students, a certain Michael Clark, heavily influenced by the Punk Era, started making weird, wonderful and deeply theatrical dance shows, sound-tracked by anything from The Fall to Igor Stravinsky.  My family become loyal followers of Michael Clark’s shows (we are to this day) and the excitement of these pieces, not just transgressive, but also very purely aesthetic, fuelled my love of theatre.  My parents also used to sing a lot of old show tunes from the 40s and 50s and it may have been when these two influences met in the moment of my watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show as a wide-eyed 14 year-old my lifelong quest to write unlikely musicals was born.

Book Story is recommended for ages 5+. The show will be touring nationally until November; for more information and to book tickets click here.

Children’s Theatre Reviews exists to help plug the gap in criticism and writing about theatre for young audiences. It is run entirely voluntarily, and needs support to continue covering and supporting the sector. For more information and to help give children’s theatre the voice it deserves, please visit our Patreon page.

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