Wild Things coming to the North Shore
When adapting a best-loved children’s book for the stage, it’s best to tread lightly.
Especially if that book is Where the Wild Things Are, the children’s book best-loved by adults.
So when Kim Selody, director of North Vancouver’s Presentation House Theatre, wanted to bring the canonical story of the misbehaving Max and his imaginary land of “wild things” to the Canadian stage for the first time in 2002, he wrote to Maurice Sendak to ask the Wild Things author and illustrator for his blessing and his advice.
Sendak, 83, died in May, but not before the famously reclusive writer granted Selody the go-ahead, albeit with one condition.
“Sendak gifted us permission to do it in a small, intimate experience,” Selody recalls. “And the stipulation was that it had to be a guided performance.”
What that means is the play isn’t exactly a play, per se. Rather, for those familiar with the story, it means the audience members are the “wild things” — and are provided masks accordingly.
“Our show is the play where an adult can take his ‘wild thing’ out in front of children,” Selody jokes. “You come to the show and you are encouraged, both as an adult and as a child, to let the ‘wild thing’ out of your head.”
Since 2002, the director has premiered the play across Canada, even taking it on a victory lap in 2006 before bringing it to Japan, twice. His timing couldn’t have been better, as only a short while after securing Sendak’s permission to stage it, the author sold all the story’s reproduction rights to Universal Studios to make the 2009 film, Wild Things.
“This is the only existing production of the play,” Selody tells The Outlook, having consulted an entertainment lawyer soon after the story’s sale. “Several other people have asked can they get the rights to the play, can they do it?
And I said actually you can’t because Maurice Sendak was very careful to only gift it to a few people under very strict rules.”
The most important rule for Selody, whether stated or not, is not to stray from Sendak’s child-like vision.
“It’s built on the premise that you really can never know for sure what’s going on in someone else’s head,” Selody says. “And the feelings that a child has — the feelings of loneliness, the feelings of anger, the feelings of frustration — are just as powerful in a four-year-old or three-year-old as they are in an adult. They’re not lesser just because the kid is younger.
“Maurice Sendak understood that,” the 35-year theatre veteran adds.
Often remembered not as a children’s author but as an author who told the truth about childhood, Sendak’s work here adapted for the stage requires one big lie to get its point across. Namely, that there is a play, but due to one late-coming trouble-making audience member, they’re missing it.
“When the kids come in and they sit down in the theatre, they think they’re getting the story of Where the Wild Things Are and they think it’s going to be told in a certain way. But then a kid comes in late and disrupts everything and gets into a lot of trouble. He ends up wrecking everything, and he’s Max,” Selody says. “Then he ends up going on his journey and we help him through it all.”
And like the book, while created ostensibly for kids, it’s meant to be enjoyed by kids of all ages. And that in itself may be the book’s most endearing and enduring quality; the precision with which it navigates face-value fun for kids with reflective metaphor for nostalgic grownups.
“We try to make the play work at both the adult and the child’s level,” Selody says,” because the purpose of this is to have a shared experience.”
Where the Wild Things Are plays Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from Nov. 9 to 18 at Presentation House Theatre. Tickets are $15 and seating is limited to about 100 people per performance.