Interview: Arran Hawkins on His Stage Adaptation of The Jungle Book

By That's Shanghai, April 24, 2018

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Last April, Earlybirds theater and education company teamed up with director Arran Hawkins to stage a production of The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling's timeless tale of a human boy raised in the wild. The show was such a success that Earlybirds is bringing it back this weekend with an expanded cast and original new songs at the Changning Culture & Art Center (you can buy tickets for it right here)

The story's iconic characters, from fierce tiger Shere Khan to wise and protective panther Bagheera, will come to life onstage thanks to the show's top-notch cast, innovative choreography, costume design and make-up. We caught up with director Arran Hawkins before the show to learn more about what to expect, from hiliarious physical theater to a 'cat-off' musical scene.

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Why is the classic story of the Jungle Book a meaningful tale for you?
To be honest, it was never a story I really knew very well. I’d seen the Disney animation when I was a kid. I knew all the character names. But it was never a tale that had gripped me in the way Tarzan had when I was growing up - but the similarites are obvious. A boy raised by animals in the jungle. Not apes this time, but wolves. And set not in Africa, but in India.

My Grandfather grew up in India. He was British, but didn’t set foot on British soil until after WWII when he was 19. Mowgli has no recollection of where he is from, until as a teenager he returns to the village where he was born, and meets the girl who lived across the path from him. My Grandfather returned to Yorkshire, to his home town, a town he had never seen before, and met my Grandma. So the story for me really is about finding your sense of place. Who you are. Where you belong.

How did the original production of The Jungle Book come about?
Earlybirds approached me to direct something for them. I’d worked before with them on OZ, Theatre Anon’s adaptation of The Wizard Of Oz, back in 2015. This time they wanted to put on an exclusive Earlybirds show for children and families, with children in the show, as they are a kids education company. We decided The Jungle Book was the show to do. They found a script, got the rights to it, and we staged it in April last year.

How did it come about that you are putting the show on again this year, with a bigger budget and support from Earlybirds?
Earlybirds had been in discussions with me since the last show ended about what we would do next. A few ideas had been thrown around but none of them really clicked. Then someone said we should redo The Jungle Book, as many people missed it last year, and it had been a fun show that the audiences had really enjoyed. We talked it through and confirmed all the original adult actors would be up for performing in it again, and this time we would add new songs and dances, and a whole lot more kids. Once the idea was set, the ball started rolling and here we are, just about to open The Jungle Book 2018.

Tell us a bit about the new songs and choreography that have been added this year.
Well, I got together with my musical director OJ Ryan, who co-wrote all the songs from OZ and Snow Queen, and we worked on a few new numbers for the show. As with our previous collaborations, we don’t write ‘musicals’ per se, but shows that add music to give feeling. So, we have a catchy sing-a-long opening and closing number, a ‘Cat-Off’ between Shere Khan and Bagheera, and a couple of beautiful ballads for Mowgli, among others.

As for the dances, with so many kids in the show, I thought it would be a shame not to have them show off  their dancing skills. So I brought in my friend Sofy Renier, who is a fantastic choreographer, to work with the kids, and she came up with some tough dances that the wolves and monkeys perform. The kids are brilliant and make the dances look easy.

What are some other changes and additions from last year to the show?
We are in a bigger venue. So there will be more tech in the show. A larger stage means using mics for all the actors, which is not something I’m used to doing, as usually my shows are more intimate and the use of mics isn’t necessary, so that’s a new challenge for me. Kathryn Robbins returns to paint the faces of all the beasts of the Jungle. More lights. Bigger sound. And a whole lot more space for audience!

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What is your background relating to theater and directing?
I’ve been in theatre since I was around 8 or 9 years old. Acting in school plays, and training in Drama and Theatre all through my teens, and then starting a theatre company with a group of friends at college. That company went proffessional in 2001 and I toured as an actor with them for a few years before moving to Shanghai. I’d directed kids shows back home, for schools and youth groups, but I was able to really get my teeth into directing professionally here. And I love it.

I love acting too, and miss being on stage all the time. As an actor, you’re a cog in the machine (and I mean that in the most respectful way), you’re working with all the other cogs and springs and moving parts to make the machine work. As director, you are the one building the machine. You’re the one who decides what shape it will take, how it will move, what story it will tell. Sometimes you are limited with the tools you have to work with (small stage, bad lights, no budget), and you have to adapt. It’s always a challenge, and often it doesn’t work the way you wanted it to, or hoped it would. But that’s what I love about it. It’s predictibly unpredictable.

What are some of your thoughts and impressions of the theater scene in Shanghai and its growth over the past few years?
When I first arrived here in 2008, there were one, maybe two companies putting on shows once or twice a year. Now there are many shows every month, and many many talented passionate people giving their all to tell stories and entertain audiences. That can only be a good thing. I hope it keeps growing. This town is very transient for us expats. So many great actors, directors, producers and artists have come and gone. Yet there are always new people coming through to fill the gaps. I hope these people continue to build on the foundations of what we have now, and make Shanghai one of the cultural hubs for theatre and the arts in the future.

What are you looking forward to most about the show?
Relaxing and watching the audiences reaction. If I’ve done my job right, they should all come out of it feeling entertained at the very least, and moved to tears and laughter too, hopefully. Although I won’t get to relax for long as I have two other shows coming up over the next two months. The Little Prince in May, and The Absence Of Reason in June for ShanghaiPRIDE.

Have there been any highlights or fun stories from the rehearsal or casting process that you can share?
Too many to count. When you’re working with 7 great adult actors and 20+ kids on a fun show like this, amusing and entertaining things happen during every rehearsal. Just last week we were running a scene in which Rich Bochniak as Tabaqui the Jackal comes creeping into the jungle clearing looking for food, not noticing at first that Mowgli is sleeping in the centre of the clearing. It’s all done to 'Hall of the Mountain King,' which starts off slow and builds to a crescendo.

Rich is a brilliant physical actor, and his timing last night was hysterical, going along in time with the music, slipping on a banana skin (classic), juggling coconuts, until he spots Mowgli and goes in for the kill, then remembers he mustn’t without first letting Shere Khan know. Everyone in the room, all the actors and kids, and parents, were crying with laughter. It’s worth coming just for that scene!

Why do you think people should come see the show? 
Because it’s an hour and fifteen minutes of solid entertainment that will make you laugh and leave you feeling good. You’ll love it, and your kids will love it even more!

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Details: The Jungle Book, Apr 28-May 1, times vary, RMB118-348 (VIP). Changning Culture & Art Center, see event listing, buy tickets.

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