Playwright John Glore.
Playwright John Glore took a moment to answer a few questions about how he adapted Kate DiCamillo's Flora & Ulysses for the stage and why he likes to write plays for audiences who are young at heart.
South Coast Repertory: How and when did you first come across Kate DiCamillo’s Flora & Ulysses? And after you finished reading the book, what made you want to adapt it for the stage?
John Glore: I heard about the book shortly after it was published, while we were producing The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, another play based on one of Kate’s books. I really loved that play, so I quickly bought a copy of Flora and read it in one sitting. And as soon as I finished it, I got in touch with Kate’s representatives and asked if they would allow me to write an adaptation of Flora & Ulysses for the stage. I love the combination of humor and seriousness in the story of Flora’s difficult life and her way of escaping her troubles by reading comic books about superheroes. I find the characters charming and funny. And I thought it was really unusual that for much of the story, Flora’s mom is actually kind of the villain—although in the end we find out she means well and only wants to do what’s best for Flora.
SCR: How long did it take you to write this play? Have you continued to work on it since you completed the first draft?
JG: I started working on the adaptation as soon as I got permission from Kate, which was about two years ago. I finished a first draft in about four months and then I asked some of my co-workers here at SCR to help me out by reading the play out loud. Hearing the play out loud helped me learn what was working well and what needed rewriting. I also learned that I had to make it quite a bit shorter, because our shows in the Theatre for Young Audiences series can’t run longer than 70 minutes, and in that first reading the play was more like 90 minutes long. So I went back to work, off and on, for the next year. In the summer of 2016, Oregon Children’s Theatre brought me to Portland to do a workshop of the play because they will also be producing it around the same time that we do it at SCR and they wanted to help me get the play ready for those two productions. I spent three days with some actors and a director. They read the play and investigated the characters, while I listened and learned. I did some more rewriting during and after the workshop; then we had a second workshop here at SCR, where I did the same thing. I’m sure I will continue to work on the script all the way through the rehearsals for the production. I want to make it as good as it can possibly be, before our audiences come to see it.
SCR: The character of Flora loves comic books, and the novel’s use of comic book-inspired illustrations is integral to the storytelling. How did you capture this technique in your stage adaptation?
JG: It’s one of the things I really enjoy in the book, the way some parts of the story are told in comic-book form. So to try to capture some of the feeling of that, we’re going to be projecting things on different parts of the set—words and images—that help show what’s going on in Flora’s mind or what Ulysses is thinking. Flora loves to quote from a comic book feature called “Terrible Things Can Happen to You!,” so we’ll be projecting some of those quotes, too. Also, our set designer, François-Pierre Couture, is working with the director, Casey Stangl, to create a set that has kind of a comic-book look to it.
SCR: It’s not fair to play favorites—but is there a character in Flora & Ulysses that you’ve come to love the most? If so, who is it and why?
JG: I do love all the characters, and because Flora is the hero—or she’s the human hero, anyway—I particularly empathize with her. But I suppose my secret favorite is William Spiver. He’s part exasperating and part adorable. He’s the kind of kid who has a hard time making friends, because he’s a bit odd (or maybe more than a bit), and he’s incredibly smart. I was somewhat like that as a kid (not as smart as William Spiver, but smarter than some of the other kids) and I’ve never found it easy to make friends, so I guess I relate to him. But I also relate to all the characters in one way or another. I have kind of a romantic, poetic heart (which I keep very well hidden most of the time), so in that respect I relate to Tootie and Ulysses and even Phyllis. I wish I were more courageous, so in that way I relate to George. And I admire Dr. Meescham’s ability to hold onto hope and stay optimistic, even though she’s very old and has lived an incredibly difficult life. What’s interesting to me is that every character in the story feels lonely in one way or another, and I think that’s something that happens to all of us from time to time. We feel alone, we feel as though no one understands us. It’s good to be reminded that other people feel the same way and to be shown how they can overcome their loneliness.
SCR: You’ve written quite a few Theatre for Young Audiences plays during your career. What do you like most about writing these plays?
JG: I guess I’m still a kid at heart. I enjoy the same things in a story that young people do. And one of the great things about doing plays for kids is that you can do anything, you can let your imagination run wild. (Of course if you’re adapting someone else’s book, you do have to make sure you stay true to the original story.) The same is true for the directors and designers and actors who work with you on the production: everyone feels free to be completely creative and imaginative. And everyone is having fun. Sometimes when you do plays for adults, you feel you have to be very serious and tell difficult stories about complicated things. But the only real obligation when you write plays for kids is to make sure the kids in the audience won’t get bored. And the best way to do that is to make sure you’re never bored yourself. That doesn’t mean there aren’t serious things in plays for kids. After all, Flora is dealing with her parents’ divorce, and William Spiver has been banished from his own home and shipped off to stay with his aunt, because his mother doesn’t really understand him. But even though those are big problems— the kind of problems that many kids have to deal with in their real lives—the way Kate DiCamillo tells the story, you never stop having fun.
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