By Brian Robin
"Snow White" Banks on Muscular Writing
Playwright Greg Banks fondly remembered a teacher who—above all—stressed brevity in writing. Later, when he worked with a small theatre company in his native England, everyone wrote their owns scripts. This, in turn, led Banks back to his teacher’s advice, what he called “muscle in the writing.”
“I try not having any wasted words. I try writing economically with dialogue,” he said. “I remember my teacher telling me to make my point and move on, get on to the next thing. When I started writing, we’d write our own scripts. But we wrote through improvisation; we’d improvise more and more. … and have to hone it down.
“Today, when I write, I still have those actors sitting on my shoulder telling me, ‘You said too much. Cut it down.’”
Banks took that lesson so much to heart, he carried economy in writing to the next level: economy of actors. You can’t get more economical than adapting Snow White to two actors, inviting Snow White and Dwarf Four to play all 14 characters. SCR’s Theatre for Young Audiences and Families production of Banks’ adaptation of Snow White runs through Nov. 20 on the Julianne Argyros Stage.
Banks turned that lesson into a cottage industry that made him one of the world’s preeminent children’s playwrights. He’s known for adapting children’s classics into productions featuring smaller casts. A five-actor Robin Hood, which SCR produced in 2012, was the first of three Banks plays produced on SCR stages.
Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, which has showcased several Banks adaptations, produced five-person adaptations of The Hobbit and Jungle Book. Banks directed both productions, which featured H. Adam Harris, who is directing Snow White.
“I really enjoyed working with him. He’s very relaxed and he’s a very warm performer,” Banks said about Harris. “He was always generous to other people, thoughtful about other actors and always supportive of me as a director.”
While working for that initial theater company, Banks found his niche writing intelligent, quirky children’s plays. They’d play village halls, schools and other non-theatre venues. At one point, Banks was asked to adapt a script for another company that performed children’s plays. But it was his adaptation for Jim Sheridan’s film Into the West at the Travelling Light Theatre Company in Bristol that brought Banks into the spotlight of critics.“
“Not just exceptional children's theatre, it is complex, moving and vivid theatre that creates a complete imaginative world of its own,” Lyn Gardner wrote in The Guardian.
From there, Banks “followed my nose,” which led him to more adaptations. This led him to the front door of Children’s Theatre Company and Peter Brosius, the company’s artistic director, which led to 13 Banks productions on CTC stages over 18 years.
Banks’ nose knows what works.
“I found myself doing that work and I felt like I really liked writing for young audiences,” he said. “I try not to be patronizing. I write for me, them and their parents, so everyone is getting something out of it. … I like the audience of young people. They come with very open minds. They want to see something exciting and fun and I think it’s important they see adults demonstrate a long range of emotions.”
In Snow White, Banks created a world where adults are angry, caring, loving and unpleasant—often within moments. He originally created that world with three actors, but trimmed it back to two because, “I didn’t get excited. When I started to do this with two, it came alive.”
Banks said cutting one actor made it more interesting, because the actor playing Snow White would have to play more characters. He said it would make it more fun for not only the actor playing Snow White (Candace Nicholas-Lippman), but the actor playing Dwarf Four (Derek Manson).
“You see actors change characters before your eyes and you realize how complex people are,” Banks said.
“There are dark elements to Snow White. I don’t want to avoid dark things, because that’s important to the story. It’s not a gentle story and kids know about that stuff. They see arguments, they hear stuff, they know there’s a dark side to life. It’s important they see struggles in the theatre; that it’s not just jolly and friendly. You need to care about a young audience; you don’t want to scare them, but you want something that feels real. Sitting with your parents and friends, where someone’s holding your hand on the scary parts.”