“In the light of the moon a little egg lay on a leaf…”
A simple opening sentence that makes both adults and children alike squeak with excitement, Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar has been delighting audiences for the last 49 years. Described as “one of the greatest childhood classics of all time,” the book utilises a distinctive collage technique for its illustrations, has been translated into over 40 languages and has won numerous awards.
Jonathan Rockefeller is just one of the many whose love for this book has followed him through the years. So much so, that he decided to create The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show, a gorgeous hour-long puppet show displaying the iconic titular story, as well as several other of Carle’s books. The show has toured internationally and is finally emerging at Arts Centre Melbourne just in time for the school holidays.
Eric Carle, upon seeing the show, said “I hope the performances will be enjoyed by many and that the colourful characters bring comfort and joy to all who see the stories… it is uplifting to see such beautiful and cheerful works inspired by my characters! I hope my books – and this show – will inspire you and your imagination.”
I had a chat with Jonathan about the well-loved little bug, just why we love it so much, and how he brought the magic of the book to the stage.
Tell me a bit about your background with theatre and Eric’s books!
I went to film school, and I had some very theatrical and cinematic teachers and people that I worked for. My philosophy always was to apply theatrical mentalities to cinema, and cinematic qualities to theatre, and I thought this was a wonderful, playful entry into doing something different. I still have my childhood copy of the book. It’s a little bit dog-eared and yellow, but I still have it. It’s always been a book that I’ve really enjoyed. I’ve always been drawn to the art of Eric Carle, his drawings are so simplistic and beautiful and expressive, and I think that many of us have grown up with the same toy, or as Eric Carle himself puts it, ‘book-toy.’ It’s half playing around, it’s not just reading – it’s feeling and touching and counting. It’s got lots of playful aspects to it.
Why did you choose The Very Hungry Caterpillar?
Eric tells his stories in so many layers, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar is the perfect example. Not only are you learning about days of the weeks, different fruits and foods, moon phases, and metamorphoses… you can take it on any layer that you want. We now have 3 different versions of the show travelling around. Our different productions have different stories in it. I think that’s the wonderful thing about working with Eric Carle and all his books, there’s such a wonderful plethora of books to choose from. If you go and see the show in New York, for example, you’re seeing an entirely different show to what you’re seeing in Australia. The version you’re seeing here is the first version we ever produced of the show, it’s been running on-and-off for 4 years now.
What were your biggest challenges when creating the show?
One of our challenges when we started working with Eric’s books is how you can translate this very stylised 2D tissue paper illustration into 3D. How do you expand that into movement in the story? What does the caterpillar look like from the front? From reverse angles? From the back? And how do you express that in a theatrical context. It’s this playful expression we had to discover, and that was a real challenge, but a really rewarding one too. We have a brilliant composer by the name of Nate Edmonson who has captured, I feel, the beauty and simplicity of the book and done it with music. The narration helps you musically guide you through the story. All the puppets are handmade. We had a team of many, many builders… our largest one is our Butterfly which as a 12 metre wingspan. They’re not little hand-puppets, we’re talking about incredible, big, sizeable things here. Then of course we’ve got red alligators and elephants, there’s so much joy in not knowing what’s going to happen next.
I believe there’s over 70 puppets involved – who else can we expect to see besides The Caterpillar?
75 puppets, yes! All the puppets are handmade. We had a team of many, many builders… our largest one is our Butterfly which as a 12 metre wingspan. They’re not little hand-puppets, we’re talking about incredible, big, sizeable things here. Then of course we’ve got red alligators and elephants, there’s so much joy in not knowing what’s going to happen next. Not only do we tell the story of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but also The Artist Who Painted the Blue Horse, which is a wonderful story about imagination and not conforming to expectations; another one called Mr. Seahorse which is all about underwater life and different fish with differing parental techniques; and the final one is The Very Lonely Firefly which is about belonging and finding where you are, but it’s a fun journey through the night with flashing lights. One could argue that Eric is the rockstar of the publishing world, he’s about to turn 90 next year and has sold something like 120 million books worldwide, he’s a superstar. But it’s really nice to bring those other stories to the forefront, those that people may not have known. And people treat this Caterpillar, when it comes out on stage, like a rockstar. It’s like a Taylor Swift concert. Audiences know the story inside out.
Why do you think The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show is something people should come see?
The thing that we are really proud of is that this has become the very first theatrical experience for many kids who will grow up and love theatre. And that’s really been one of our goals from day one. I think there’s a tendency for people to look down on children’s theatre, that it’s over-simplified or a bit amateur. But these are quality, incredible puppets, and we wanted to produce a sophisticated show treating children with the same respect that we treat our adult patrons. They’re really responding to that, and loving being a part of it as well. I can’t express how excited and rewarding it is to know we are introducing new generations to theatre. It’s so important on so many different levels, and for kids to have an experience at that age, you find a lover for life. I really encourage everyone in the Australian industry to champion building and growing that next generation of theatregoers.
Arts Centre Melbourne presents: The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show
Created by Jonathan Rockefeller – Based on Eric Carle’s books
28 November – 2 December, 2018 at the Playhouse