Before it opened on Friday night, the Pinocchio reboot Wood Boy Dog Fish had been in the works for more than a decade.
L.A.-based theater company Rogue Artists Ensemble wanted to create a play that would dispel “the confusion that Americans have about the story because of the Disney film,” artistic director Sean T. Cawelti explains. Cawelti, who’s also directing the show, adds, “That led us down a little rabbit hole of researching and began this quest to try to figure out what a modern theatrical adaptation would be.”
Besides the time that was spent on research and development, Cawelti says part of what took so long was that the company “needed to grow up a little bit in order to tackle something like this.” Rogue Artists does a lot of work with puppets and masks — like 2011's D Is for Dog, an L.A. Weekly nominee for best comedy ensemble that featured life-size puppets — so its members became attached to the idea of adapting Pinocchio and were determined to see it through. “It’s a piece that has always felt like a really amazing match of company to source material,” Cawelti says. “It just felt like this is a project that had to be tackled by this organization.”
From the outside, it might have seemed that the show had been stuck in what Hollywood types call “development hell,” but the bulk of the company's work was accomplished during the past couple years while it continued to develop and stage other productions, such as 2013’s HYPERBOLE:bard, a minimalist Shakespeare show performed in parks around L.A. But they’ve been workshopping Wood Boy Dog Fish for years now. Playwright Chelsea Sutton describes the process: “It’s been, ‘Here it is, everyone! Give us feedback.’ Back to the drawing board. ‘Here it is again.’ And because of the nature of the project, how ambitious it is and all the moving parts of it, it’s something that we couldn’t really move forward on until we felt really solid on what direction we want to go to and what we want to say.”
Figuring out the best way to present the story of Pinocchio theatrically was difficult because of the way the original book, written by Carlo Collodi in the 1880s, was published. Sutton explains, “It’s episodic; it’s very like an Alice in Wonderland kind of thing where Pinocchio just goes on one adventure and another adventure and then another.”
Cawelti adds, “It was released in a paper as a serial, every week or two weeks, but he originally planned it out, and for him, the story ended with Pinocchio hanging from a tree and being dead, which really was his lesson to everyone in Italy at the time: If you’re not a good citizen, if you don’t go to school, if you don’t listen to mom and dad, if you don’t pray, then you’re going to die in a tree.” But then Collodi ended up broke and started writing his most popular story again. “Pinocchio just wakes up from being dead on the tree, and the book continues. But he didn’t plan it out, so the second half of the book is totally schizophrenic. Nothing relates to anything else. Through the years, I think I’ve watched as many films as I can find, and they’re all victim to the same problem, this episodic conundrum, which is that the individual parts are greater by themselves than the sum of the whole thing.”
Another challenge was figuring out how to distance this production from the shadow of the lighter, fluffier Disney adaptation without alienating the film's fans. In Rogue's version, as in the book, Pinocchio kills the cricket and then is killed off at the end of the show's first act. Sutton felt obligated to incorporate certain iconic elements from the film so the audience wouldn't be totally disappointed. Referring to the Disney movie, she says, “When you think of Pinocchio, that’s what you think first. I think there’s elements of the Disney version in here — we do calls to all these things, but try to make it our own as well.”
Cawelti agrees that the legacy of the movie looms large. “When the Disney film came out, it was the first time that books were really changed based on a film. The Disney film was released, and it was such a hit that the publishers actually pulled off the shelves the original version of Pinocchio and they rereleased it,” he says, explaining that they would take pages out of the books and add new unauthorized illustrations in the style of the movie. “It was like 30, 40 years in America before you could find a good translation of the book.”
Creating Wood Boy Dog Fish was a collaborative effort for the group. “We’re not an actor-based company as much as we are a sort of think tank, so as an ensemble all of our big creative decisions are done by consensus, and we have a very interesting development process, as evidenced in this 10-year-plus process,” Cawelti says with a laugh.
The ensemble typically focuses its energy and resources on one show a year instead of presenting a season of varied works, like many other companies. But Rogue's shows are time-intensive and labors of love for the members, most of whom have day jobs to pay the bills and can rehearse only on evenings and weekends. Two-thirds of the show’s budget is going toward paying artists, with actors getting about $20 per show plus a gas honorarium, which is more than the old minimum of $7 per show required under Equity’s controversial 99-seat agreement.
Now that the show's all set, the challenge is reaching an audience that’s willing to go to the theater instead of staying home and watching Netflix. Sutton, who is also the company’s marketing manager, says half-jokingly, “It is kind of voodoo.” The company made a preview video for the show, but she says it was hard to capture the tone of the show on film since live theater is a very different medium. But, she says, “A lot of it, especially in L.A., is word-of-mouth. If you get something interesting, that’s different, and try to get across why this is relevant or why this is not going to be like anything else you’re going to see, that’s the important thing.”