Children’s Fairy Tale Turned Primal Myth
The project started as a 45 minute “Lunchtime Theatre” held at Allen Hall, at the University of Otago, which we titled Momotaro: The Mainland. Then, after meeting with acclaim and popularity the concept received some funding to be shown for two weeks as an evening production in the same theatre. This extension was called Momotaro: The Island.
The final product was a two part performance with the audience seated in two completely different configurations, one representing the Mainland and the other the Island. This Mainland/Island dichotomy came to represent many things for us as we created these pieces: Id/Superego, Innocence/Maturity; Waking Life/Dream; Terrestrial/Divine; Visible/Invisible.
I gathered a team of dedicated actors who were interested in spending 4 hard months on work-shopping and exploring differentways of creating a work of theatre with two starting points: the mythic archetype as expressed in Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a thousand Faces, and the children’s fairytale, Momotaro.
For The Mainland the audience was set in traverse with a long thin runway of a stage between the seating blocks. This put the audience and actors very close together. The space was fully enveloped by black curtains through which the audience had to enter to get to their seats. There were two main entrances/exits, as shown on the diagram below. Moving from one exit to the other denoted characters moving from the Island to the Mainland and vice versa in the opposite direction.
Three lighting states were used to signify the three interacting environments in the play: Momotaro’s grove of trees; the temple that sits between the Island and the Mainland; and the road between the Island and the Mainland.Numerous other entrances and exits existed though, most notably crawling through the seating blocks, emerging between the audiences’ feet, which was used to denote entering into Momotaro’s grove of trees.
The soundscape was a continuous stream of piano music by a live musician. Each character had their own musical motif which mingled with the motifs of other characters as they entered and interacted.
During intermission the audience left the theatre and we rearranged the seating block for The Island as per the diagram below. Suddenly the close proximity disappeared and was replaced by a wide space lit with cold blue lights.
Momotaro: The Mainland
The original story of Momotaro is summarized below:
An old woman found a large peach floating down the river one day while she was collecting water. She brought it back to her husband whereupon they cut it open and discovered a vibrant healthy young boy within. The boy had supernatural strength and boundless energy which multiplied astronomically as he grew, and they named him Momotaro, which means “Peach Boy”.
Momotaro’s parents lived out in the forest, far away from the village, and kept secret from him the fact that the village was in fact rampaged and pillaged from time to time by Ogres who traveled there from a far off Island. When Momotaro discovered this gruesome truth he resolved to travel to the Island and destroy the Ogres.
Although his mother was reluctant to see him go she packed for him three kibidango, sweet dumplings, for the journey. Along the way he met a monkey.
“Where are you going,” the monkey asked.
“I’m going to the Ogre Island,” replied Momotaro, “I’ll give you a kibidango if you come with me.”
The monkey immediately agreed to this offer and accompanied Momotaro on his journey. Along the way they met a bird and dog who also agreed to join Momotaro to Ogre Island in exchange for a kibidango each.
They fashioned a boat and sailed to the Island after Bird had flown across the ocean to scout the quickest way. Once on the Island they discovered a massive wall protecting the Ogre’s city which monkey scaled and unlocked the gate from the inside. Once inside Dog and Momotaro went about massacring the Ogres and taking their treasure.
Momotaro returned back to the people of the village victorious and distributed the reclaimed treasure.
Process of Creation
I wrote a preliminary script of 60 pages which loosely adhered to the story line of Momotaro, but expanded on the characters, their backgrounds, their relationships to each other, and their motivations. This script was conceived not with a through story line in sight, but merely as a starting point from which to begin creation among the actors. It gave the actors an opportunity to understand my vision for the characters and their possible interactions with each other, and some potential dialogue to work with.
(Another one of Campbell’s subjects which was an obsession of mine during the development of this concept was: The Call of the Hero Refused. I related this directly to a phenomenon in my personal life that had deeply troubled me for some time. From the ages of 18 to 20 I was able to follow my conscious mind into my dreams and remain conscious throughout the dream, observing and navigating my way through the images and characters of my unconscious. However, as I grew older I became afraid of remaining conscious in my dreams, for fear of getting stuck forever in the dream world. So, from then on, whenever I entered the dream and became conscious that I was dreaming I panicked and forced myself to wake up. This, to me, was the Call of the Hero Refused.)
In the traditional story of Momotaro, however, the call is accepted, the story is known, the path is preset. But I wanted to insert an element of uncertainty, and choice, into the narrative. That is why I created the characters of Theo and Herm. Two brothers from our time and place that the audience could easily relate to. They are making a movie in the woods when it gets dark and they decide to stay the night. Immediately we see the story of Momotaro intersecting with their dreams. Before long the amalgamation of dream and reality is complete and they are a part of the unfolding myth, which, argues Campbell, and Jung before him, has the same basic structure as our dreams. One boy, Theo, refuses the call of the Hero and becomes lunch for the Ogres in Momotaro’s world; the other, Herm, accepts the call and accompanies Momotaro to the Island.
However, I wanted the actors to take most of their inspiration for the development of their characters from their character’s role in the mythic archetype as laid out by Joseph Campbell. Momotaro was the hero; the animals (dog, monkey, and bird) were the helpers; the crossing to the mainland and the gates of the ogre city was the Departure; and the murdering of the ogre (atonement with the father) was the task; and the boon being, simply, treasure. However, I wasn’t quite pleased with the mother and father’s role in the story. To me they lacked that compelling aspect of Universal Mother and Father-to-be-Conquered that Joseph Campbell highlighted in Myths around the world.
I wanted to create an illusion of the child-like fairy tale, under which a frothing cesspit of cruelty and barbarism existed. This is why I created the Old Man/Father Ogre, Old Woman/Mother Witch dichotomy. On one side we have Momotaro who is deeply loved by her adopted parents. They take joy in telling her about how she was born from a peach and are constantly worried with her safety.
On the other side we have the same actors playing Momotaro’s mother and father doubling as Father Ogre, and Mother Witch. (Father Ogre was the head of a nuclear triumvirate including the captive Bird and their abomination half-breed daughter, Oni.) To me, the Ogre family represented all the dark puddles of consciousness inherent in humanity. I needed the actors playing these characters to embrace the darkest, most vile aspects of personality and emotion. Bird, who was once the free ruler of the enigmatic Island, is now a slave and captive to the Ogre, who rapes and punishes her, keeping her wings constantly bound. Oni is a child of rape between Ogre and Bird who displays schizophrenic personality traits--Bird attempts to teach her civility and beauty, while her more dominant Ogre side compels her always towards cannibalism and murder. In a way, these three were the Id, Ego, and Superego manifested in a single dysfunctional, inter-species family.
Mother Witch is the character which pervades, and indeed manipulates, all worlds. She initially drags Herm and Theo through their dreams into the myth of Momotaro, and she masterminds an intricate plan that encompasses both the Island and the Mainland and all three worlds.
Now I was suddenly dealing with three distinct worlds all having direct impact on one another. There was the fairytale of Momotaro San, the veiled barbaric world behind the fairy tale, and the modern day world of Theo and Herm.
To deal with all these overlapping worlds I established the characters of Dog and Monkey as ambassadors, or mediators between the worlds, who narrated sections, expounded on characters and history, and spoke directly to the audience. They were also the guardians of the temple which straddled the sea between the Mainland and the Island. So, in every sense they were liminal characters existing in the between spaces.
Then there was the existence of the audience, which didn’t go overlooked. In the temple they were regarded as stone statues, and on the mainland they played the part of trees.
I was struck by the seriousness and depth of some of the inherent concepts: adoption, warfare, murder, revenge. Initially it was my intent to juxtapose these profound subjects against the backdrop of a cute fairy tale.
And it was certainly not my intention to stay true the story, but only to take from the story those concepts that inspired me (us) and bring them out as fully as possible within the framework of Campbell’s mythic archetype without the hinderance of “staying true.
So, the actors went home and read that 60-page tome of a starting point, and we were ready for rehearsals
I cast the parts before rehearsals began mostly on instinct, a total of eight characters: Momotaro; Old Woman / Mother Witch; Old Man / Father Ogre; Dog; Monkey; Bird; Theo; Herm.
My intent was to draw out of the actors the aspects of themselves that were aspects also of the characters. Simple enough, but quite abstract and surreal when you are dealing with animals and archetypes. What about them was Dog-like; what about them was Ogre-like? And because they already had a fair idea of my vision for these characters, and also a personal relationship to the myth itself, they were well informed and this process was quick.
I encouraged them to find an emotion or aspect of themselves that best represented their character and to hold it under a microscope. To study its every detail and intricacy until that single aspect becomes the whole, and all other emotions or personality traits fall to the wayside,becoming in essence a supporting act for the main emotion. This is how I worked with the fairytale characters.
We worked for four hours a day (at least) establishing relationships between characters. Rehearsals for many weeks consisted of me walking between the characters and whispering directions in their ears, “Go talk to Dog,” “Ask Momotaro if she needs help”. The rehearsal space was a barrage of strange creatures interacting with each other. And because there was no real context for this to be happening in, other than the vast world within which we were operating, the reactions of the actors to each other were largely personal reactions. By that I mean they were reactions of one person to another, not one character in a scene with objectives and superobjectives to another. So I wanted to see how the actors related personally to each others’ characters.
This started a trend throughout this troupe’s 4-month rehearsal on the show, towards mingling life with theatre, until it reached the point eventually where the two were indistinguishable.
Only after these “first impressions” of each other’s characters was it time to continue.
From the beginning I demanded close physical contact between the actors. There was to be no embarrassment or inhibition. So the next phase of rehearsal was focusing on the physicalization of the characters using as a driver the dialogue in the preliminary script. I insisted on full contact relationships, often giving as instructions things like: “During this scene every part of your body must touch every part of his body.” I ran exercises like this that treated the human body for what it was: a body. We were delving into the mythic world of the unconscious and we had to develop our own set of morals and societal norms, but for the moment there were to be none.
Finally, once the actors were sufficiently flabbergasted that we’d been rehearsing for four weeks and hadn’t set a single scene, we took from the script what inspired us and started crafting scenes. As a scene developed and crystalized I would go home and write it down, the official creation of which would demand the addition of another scene which I’d write and take to rehearsal the next day.
This went on and on until we had a series of compelling vignettes that in haphazard format told a loving, brutal, dream-like, and mysterious tale.
By this time we already knew that this showing would just be a “first round” and that a full two weeks in theatre were secured for us two months down the line. So we titled it Momotaro: The Mainland, for the entirety of the action for that act took place on the Mainland ended with all the characters departing for the Island.
Momotaro: The Island
Process of Creation
After the success of The Mainland, the whole troupe got a second wind that saw us through the creation ofMomotaro: The Island.
The Island, in the story we created as an ensemble, signified everything mysterious, enigmatic, unknown, taboo, godly. It was invisible. It was where all the woven riddles and veiled questions posed in Momotaro: The Mainland, would finally be answered.
The Ogre has taken the Old Woman hostage and Oni has murdered Theo, sucking out his eyes and eating his heart, the Call Refused and brutally paid for. Momotaro and Bird have managed to protect Herm from the Witch and the Ogre’s design. Now the Ogre heads to the Island with his prize, Oni and Bird following close behind. Momotaro is compelled to go to the Island as well to save her mother from the grips of the the Ogre and manages to convince Dog and Monkey to leave their post at the temple to join them.
But what is the Island? Why is it so significant?
None of us knew. We all had ideas. Each of us had his or her own Island in their heads. To me it was a lot of things: the subconscious to the Mainland’s conscious; Plato’s astral plane, the divine origin from which all earthly objects hail; a place where problems are resolved, where the invisible is made visible; a place where the veil is ripped away, the personality, the character, the desires, and all that is left is the mythic archetype, radiating with significance.
The Island seemed so significant that I cast a new actor to embody it. She was Japanese, which seemed necessary, and had an intense gravity about her person, deeply melancholic, powerful but sensitive. She would play the Spirit of the Island.
We had no script. We only had the weeks together and the vastness of our co-founded universe.
But always returned to Joseph Cambell’s archetypes of myth, the influence for the creation of this epic. In terms of a narrative, I believe Herm’s adventure on the Island can be summed up in these words from “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”:
“Once having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials. This is a favorite phase of the myth-adventure. It has produced a world literature of miraculous tests and ordeals. The hero is covertly aided by the advice, amulets, and secret agents of the supernatural helper whom he met before his entrance into this region. Or it may be that he here discovers for the first time that there is a benign power everywhere supporting him in his superhuman passage.”
The curiously fluid, ambiguous forms were embodied in the flowing movements, disjointed soundscape, and dream logic of the action.
Indeed, the entire one-hour segment on the Island is a series of tests and ordeals for our hero to overcome.
While in the rehearsal room we looked at a series of objects and dialogue, the advice, and amulets which had been introduced in The Mainlaind and explored their powers in the world of The Island.
The secret agents and supernatural helpers whom he met before his entrance into this regionbeing of course, dog, monkey and bird. Dog and Monkey still existing as liminal characters on the Island and Bird having been the disposed Queen, anxious for revenge.
The benign power everywhere supporting him being The Spirit of the Island, our new dark and enigmatic actress.
We often used excerpts from Joseph Campbell to aid us in our rehearsal process.
Again we had two months with which to prepare. My troupe was dedicated and I held rehearsals for about four hours a day, but not everyone was needed at every rehearsal. The first week we spent discussing the possibilities, sharing our vision of the Island, and its significance.
Then the next two rehearsals were “dancing” with a chair. One person per chair. “Find every possible way that that chair and your body can relate.” Many a concentrated hour passed doing this activity. Then I started teaming members of the cast together. “Treat each other’s body like you treated the chair”. Bodies were twisting and weaving in and out of each other. There was no respect for generally taboo body parts. I explicitly instructed them not to think of themselves as human, but as geological processes, as land. I watched how every combination of actor worked together, and little Chihiro, the Spirit of the Island, seemed to bring a calming ease over those she “became land” with.
And there was meaning to it all!
When Herm first arrives on the Island he sees the Spirit standing alone in a wide open space. Bodies start crawling towards her and eventually gather in an animate clump around her. Eight neutral bodies wriggling across each other and swirling around the Spirit. She was the Spirit, and this was her land. (See video footage). From her land, the void that contained all and nothing, she could bring certain personalities (or characters) out, and just as easily suck them back in. When the actors were “land” they were a blank slate, emotionless, neutral, reacting smoothly with their bodies to what happened around them. This is how she told her story to Herm, and this is how the audience was told in turn.
So all the actors at once played Land, and their characters. The characters of Old Woman and Old Man were shed because they were merely illusions, to be replaced solely by Ogre and Witch. On the Island only the true personalities show.
Momotaro delved deeper into the illusions of the Island to find her Grandmother while Herm followed, being stopped by various characters wishing to achieve their various malicious, or sometimes benevolent, ends.
While the Mainland was a coherent story featuring characters with human desires and attributes, the Island carried those same characters and desires into the world of dream.