Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"The Pied Picker" Process: Creating a New Show. Part 1. STORY

Initial artwork for "The Pied Picker."

It all begins with a story.

Since I began creating puppet shows as a teenager, I have always enjoyed tinkering with classic fairy tales in much the same way that Rocky and Bullwinkle and the Muppets treated these time-tested stories. With each story, I try to find it's core: the central idea and then take extreme liberties to tell my own version of that story in a humorous fashion.

One story that I have always wanted to adapt but which seemed to present perplexing challenges was that of “The Pied Piper of Hamlin.” In this tale, the town of Hamlin is riddled with rats. At his wits end, the town's mayor accepts the offer and price of a wandering Pied Pier to rid the town of its vermin. Following the trail of music stemming from the Piper's pipe, all but one of the rats is drowned a nearby river. When he returns for his payment, the Piper is unceremoniously dismissed by the mayor. The Piper then seeks his vengeance on the mayor and the town by playing his pipe and leading all the town's children up and into a tall mountain on the edge of town. Once the last child is inside, the mountain seals shut. Only one frail, crippled boy is left behind.

Part of what draws me to this story, especially in my role as a family entertainer, is the idea of “paying the piper his due.” I think all freelancers have experienced having a contract altered or having payment withheld after fulfilling their part of the agreement. Quite often we'd like to seek retribution but realize doing so might jeopardize our reputations. Therefore we tend to stew about it and hope to be all the wiser on the next project. In this story, the artist takes matters into his own hands.

Certainly one of the big problems with telling this story is it's ending. When I first attempted to tackle “The Pied Piper” while a Puppet Arts graduate student at the University of Connecticut, my professor, Bart Roccoberton asked how I planned to deal with the overtones of pedophilia. Modern interpretations and literary critics have proposed that leading the children out of town into a mountainside insinuates that the Piper is a child molester. It was as if a blemish had been pointed out on a perfectly white shirt: suddenly I couldn't see anything else. While I did develop the story into a finished script along with puppet designs, I filed all that work away and worked on other ideas. But the Piper always lingered.

Years passed. Then one day in the spring of 2015, it hit me. I figured out how I wanted to tell this story.

One of my favorite springboards for starting work on a new show is utilizing a Stanislavsky idea I learned as an undergraduate theater student at Troy University: the “magic if.” This theatrical principle asks the all important question of “what if...” in the course of a scene as it relates to story, action and character. Suddenly the world opens up when you can ask, “What if the big, bad wolf is allergic to blueberries?” “What if instead of trying to eat the three billy goats gruff, the greedy troll tries to charge them a dollar to cross his bridge?” “What if the Gingerbread Man gets combined with Pinocchio?” All at once the possibilities for imaginative storytelling are endless.

In that vein of fractured fairy tale mash-ups, I found my answer for “The Pied Piper.” Basically, I realized that it's the mayor, the crooked authority figure, who is the bad guy in this story. HE'S the one who should get what's coming to him! The original story does seem like the Piper punishes the whole town when the town residents had nothing to do with the mayor's decision not to pay the Piper. So, the “what if” became “What if I combined 'The Pied Piper' with 'The Emperor's New Clothes?” This was soon followed with “What if, instead of rats, the town is plagued by roaches?” Then, “What if, instead of a pipe, the Pied Piper plays the banjo?!” Suddenly, “The Pied Picker was hatched and I gave myself the gold star for genius.

While the town of Hamlin, Georgia prepares for it's centennial celebration, a convention of roaches has simultaneously chosen the town for it's annual meeting. Members of the city council insist the town mayor do something about the rampant roaches reeking havoc. Just when all ideas had been exhausted, a wandering banjo player comes into town and takes note of the town's bug problem. He tells the mayor he can get rid of the roaches for a fee. Desperate for any solution at this point, the mayor agrees. The Pied Picker begins to play some hot banjo licks and, as if possessed, all the roaches, in mass exodus, leave the town in a hurry. With one exception, who happens to be a banjo lover. The mayor discovers he is in a budgetary fix: all of the town's funds had been blown on the decorations for the centennial celebration, leaving noting with which to pay the Picker. However, instead of explaining this to him, the Mayor dismisses the Picker and goes about his business writing a speech which he will present to the town during the celebration. The Picker then gets an idea. Claiming no hard feelings, he offers to make the mayor a fine new suit of clothes in the latest fashion which he can wear when he address the town later that afternoon. The mayor eagerly agrees. The Picker takes measurements and begins working on the suit of clothes, except the mayor claims he cannot see the Picker using any fabric. It is explained that only those who are important enough can see the fine fabric being sewn. Of course, there is no fabric, but the mayor claims that he, of course, can see it. Later that afternoon when he takes the stage to give his speech, the Mayor, thinking he is sporting the latest fashion in men's apparel, it is made clear that he is wearing not much at all save his underwear. And the Picker, as mysteriously as he arrived, is nowhere to be found.

Next up, CHARACTERS! Stay tuned!
Original synopsis notes for "The Pied Picker."

Plot notes for "The Pied Picker."

Story ideas for "The Pied Picker."