Friday, February 12, 2016

Jungalbook:The Playwright and the Play

Rudyard Kipling’s tales collected in several volumes of The Jungle Book have been adapted in many media, including music, comics, stage, television and the movies--the best known probably being the 1967 Disney animated film.  Disney is set to release a new star-studded live action version of The Jungle Book this April.

But the most widely performed stage adaptation is this one: Jungalbook by Edward Mast.

The Jungle Book was first published in 1894.  Edward Mast wrote his adaptation in 1984.

Born in California, Mast earned his B.A. and M.F.A. in playwriting at Sonoma State University, a sister university to HSU in the CSU system. Mast became a fan of The Jungle Book in his twenties.

 “When I came to imagine an audience for a dramatization, naturally I thought of children,” he wrote in the introduction to the published play. “This was partially because the stories spoke to my own childhood world of loyalty, adventure and betrayal, but also because I feared that an audience of grown-ups would require a snicker or a sidelong glance from actors pretending to be bears and hyenas. At the same time, I feared that children might find the themes of the play too merciless or harsh.”

 “I was wrong on both counts. Adults were challenged by the grimness of the play much more than children, though many seemed to respond to the same qualities of the story that I did. The young people, on the other hand, taught me that the younger the audience, the more it is filled with passionate extremists, hungry for actions of inevitability and consequence, eager to witness the workings and misworkings of justice, emotion and responsibility. Why any of this should have surprised me, I don’t know; as a child, I was much more enthusiastic about grappling with grown-up issues than I am as a comparative grown-up.”

 Jungalbook won the 1991 Distinguished Play Award from the American Alliance for Theatre and Education.

 The main character in Jungalbook is Mowgli, the human foundling raised by wolves. Eight of the stories in the two volumes of The Jungle Book (three in Book One, five in Book Two) involve Mowgli as a character. Mast uses elements of several of these, especially the first (“Mowgli’s Brothers.”) There are also differences from what happens in Kipling’s tales.

 Mast moved the action from the jungles of India to a “jungle gym” on an urban playground. Since its first production, Jungalbook has been staged many times, by professional and community theatres, and by colleges, high schools and elementary schools. Various productions have modified the setting, such as emphasizing gang warfare in an urban jungle (as in productions at Northwestern and Sarah Lawrence.)

Other productions are staged more specifically in schoolyards, as is this HSU production.

 Though Mast calls for ordinary playground clothes, some productions use elaborate costumes and makeup. The HSU production takes an organic approach, as the school kids select costume elements from a “lost and found” box and put them to imaginative use in suggesting their animal characters.

 Some productions even improvise dialogue. At HSU, there is a framing narrative (the coach/recess monitor challenging students to imagine the jungle story) but once that narrative begins, the actors stick to the script and say the lines as Mast wrote them.

Based in Seattle, Edward Mast has continued to perform and to write plays. His adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine was staged by Ohlone College, and produced on the Van Duzer Theatre stage as part of the 2011 Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival hosted that year by HSU.

 Mast’s work with a group of Seattle activists called Theater Squad was the subject of a 2012 article by Theresa J. May, theatre professor at the University of Oregon, former member of the HSU Theatre, Film and Dance Department, and co-author of HSU’s current Book of the Year, Salmon Is Everything.

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