This past school year, director, educator and a Stage Partners favorite, Peter Royston, directed two play adaptations of The Jungle Book. His middle schoolers produced the Stage Partners Jon Jory’s adaptation and the elementary students performed the Disney musical. In this intimate essay, Peter shares his experience working on the two different adaptations and what his students took away from viewing each other’s work.
Akela asks the Wolf Pack to spare Mowgli's life in the Sleepy Hollow Middle School 2017 production of The Jungle Book adapted by Jon Jory (photo by Mark Liflander).
WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE
Exploring different interpretations of the same story
by Peter Royston
The writer George R.R. Martin wrote, “Old stories are like old friends…You have to visit them from time to time.” But just like old friends, each visit to an old story brings a different viewpoint, a new angle. Over the years, or even over the centuries, new interpretations, new takes on old tales emerge. The best stories are those that can be reinterpreted and seen fresh at each viewing. Young people can learn a lot about perspective and the choices artists make by seeing different interpretations of the same story.
That was my rationale as I embarked on an interesting experiment. I am privileged enough to have the unique position of directing theatre for different age ranges within the same school district. I knew that I wanted to direct Stage Partner’s adaptation of The Jungle Book by Jon Jory with the Middle School I work with, but what show to do with the fourth and fifth graders at the elementary school? The answer came to me in a flash: why, The Jungle Book, of course! But not the same version: here was a great opportunity for young people to see and experience different interpretations of the same classic story.
"Kipling’s original vision for The Jungle Book was a dark and very human adventure story..."
First, a little background: the English writer Rudyard Kipling published The Jungle Book at the end of the 19th century; the series of stories tells the tale of the boy Mowgli who is lost in the Indian jungle as a baby and raised by wolves. Mowgli learns not only the language of the jungle animals, but also their many customs, laws and rules. Kipling had been born in India during the height of English rule, when the sun never set on the British Empire, and the world he created in his stories reflected that ethos: his Jungle is one, not of chaos and instinct, but rather of strict Rules and Codes. Each animal lives within its own tribe but all follow the many rules of the Jungle Law. To disobey the Law means dishonor and death.
Kipling’s original vision for The Jungle Book was a dark and very human adventure story, one that has seen countless interpretations over the years: from the original 1942 movie starring Sabu to graphic novel adaptations by artists such as P. Craig Russell. One of the most well known versions of Kipling’s story was the 1967 Disney animated film. As in most Disney films, this version showed more light than darkness; the initial screenplay was closer to the original story, but, under Walt Disney’s direction, this new Jungle Book took on a more humorous, joyful tone.
The kids at my elementary school were happy to take on this adaptation; they were already familiar with the show’s lighthearted songs like “Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You.”
My middle school group would tackle Jory’s version, one very close to Kipling’s original. In Jory’s take, the characters feel more like medieval knights than animals: warriors who struggle, and sometimes fail, to hold fast to a rigid code of honor and integrity. The language is almost Shakespearean; here is Akela, the leader of the Wolves, begging his fellow warriors to spare Mowgli, the “Man Cub’s” life: “Let the man cub go to his own place, and when my time comes to die, I will not fight thee. More I cannot do, but I can save you the shame of killing a brother against whom there is no fault.”
This is not to say that Jory’s adaptation is weighty; on the contrary, it has a propulsive action that keeps moving until the very end, and because the characters are so rich, the danger they face creates meaningful suspense. Listen to Bagheera, the Black Panther, speak about gaining his freedom, sounding like a weary soldier from a Kurosawa film: “Feel under my jaw. That mark is the mark of a collar. I was born among men and my mother died in the cages of the king’s palace. They fed me behind bars until one night I felt I was Bagheera the panther, no man’s plaything.”
For our production, we took these ideas seriously: our characters were not actors dressed to look like animals, but human warriors with animal traits. Bagheera was became a black-clad samurai, Baloo the Bear a fun-loving giant, and Kaa the Snake a green-hooded ninja. The middle school students loved this “Game of Thrones” tone – one student said, “the memories I made will never be forgotten…it just brought out a whole new version I had never seen before.”
Bagheera the Black Panther comforts Mowgli in the Sleepy Hollow Middle School 2017 production of Jon Jory's The Jungle Book (photo by Mark Liflander).
So the Jungle Book school year adventure was arranged: both the middle school and elementary groups were able to produce their versions of the story separately and then get a chance to see the other school’s work. Let the comparing and contrasting begin!
The students were immediately aware of the shows’ tonal differences. The Disney version was called “upbeat,” “fun,” “cute,” and “playful,” while the Jory script was tagged “dramatic,” “intense,” “Shakespeare-esque,” “adventurous,” “involved.” The musical version had “more of an entertaining vibe” than the “storytelling vibe” of the Jory script.
The young woman who played Mowgli in the Jory version found a connection to her character – her Mowgli sounds a lot like a teenager going through life’s changes: “At first, he is pretty bratty and snobby, but then becomes more mature as he learns the lessons of the jungle…It was cool to take in the emotions of someone who is told they have to completely change their life to something new and different from anything they’re used to.”
Experiencing different versions of the same tale allows students to see the act of storytelling not as words set in stone, but a fluid process that they can be a part of, something akin to the modern concept of “remixing.” When asked about creating their own adaptations of The Jungle Book, students invariably wished to combine elements of both productions, merging the serious adventure of the Jory version with some of the humor and even the songs of the Disney adaptation. Said one, “I’d create a fine line between drama and fun…I would want a mix of the two.”
In the end, seeing both productions of The Jungle Book led many students back to Rudyard Kipling’s original text. “Seeing both productions would make you want to learn more” about the original version, the foundation for all of these adaptations or “remixes.” Of course, this is just what we want in educational theatre: our live productions became an accessible gateway to exploring classic literature. After all, as one of my young actors said, “the only person who knows the full story would be Rudyard Kipling.”
A writer, director and a teaching artist, PETER ROYSTON is a former Off-Broadway director who has worked in various capacities to bridge the gap between the entertainment industry and the educational community. As the co-founder and co-director of Theatre Direct’s educational program, Broadway Classroom, Peter helped to bring thousands of students to Broadway, to experience – and learn from – the history, grandeur, and just plain fun of live theatre.
As a teaching artist, Peter has worked with school districts in Westchester and New Jersey to create theatre residencies and theatrical productions. For the sixth grade and the third grade in the Tarrytown/Sleepy Hollow school district, Peter has created theatre residencies bringing stories and historical events to life on stage with the students; he has taken these residencies to districts in Westchester and New Jersey. In 2012/2013, Peter was asked by Disney Theatrical to the first public school production of their new adaptations, The Lion King KIDS and The Lion King, Jr.
As a writer, Peter Royston is the author of over 50 study guides for Broadway, Off-Broadway, touring and regional productions, including The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon (co-author) and. Les Miserables (co-author). He is the creator of the award-winning study guide and educational program for the 2004 Broadway production of Sly Fox, by Larry Gelbart, which brought together the disparate worlds of the educational community, Broadway theatre, and the Museum of Cartoon and Comic Art (MOCCA).
Read more at: https://peterroyston.wordpress.com/about/