Between 1894-95, writer Rudyard Kipling published “The Jungle Book” followed by the lesser-known sequel, “The Second Jungle Book.” Having been raised in exotic British India, Kipling’s imagination was abundant. He was inspired to create a vivid jungle wherein Mowgli, a resourceful boy, finds harmony and discord in the midst of an array of animals, such as Baloo the Bear, Bagheera the Panther, Kaa the Python, Shere Khan the Tiger, and several more.
It is a colorful and seemingly impossible narrative that intrigued and persuaded titan media conglomerates, like Disney, to release the animated film in 1967 and the live-action film in 2016. Later this year, on October 19th, Warner Bros.’ “Mowgli” will be released.
“Jungle Book” fever is undoubtedly running high, and, from July 17th through July 29th, the Pasadena Playhouse will be home to a new, updated vision of the indelible story that is written and directed by Rick Miller and Craig Francis. The family-friendly production offers a different take than what Disney and Hollywood have brought to “The Jungle Book” discussion by infusing it with interactive, multimedia technology and contemporary sensibilities. Not only will unexplored elements from Kipling’s works (e.g., poems and songs) be underscored with a digital scenic design — including panoramic sound and inventive puppetry — but there will be a message to consider; that is, how do we, as human beings, relate to our animal counterparts and Mother Nature as a whole?
At the forefront of this existential question is Mowgli, who, in this show, now exists in our modern world, bereft of his origins, as an architect in New York City. The audience gets to examine his struggle of reconciling his present with his past in such a topical manner that we find ourselves thinking about “Jungle Book” in an entirely refreshing way.
In an interview with co-director and writer of this “Jungle Book” reimagining, Rick Miller — who is also an actor, musician, and an educator at the University of Toronto — we discussed how this rendition of the 124-year-old tale came together and what audiences can expect when it arrives in Pasadena on July 17th.
Entertainment Weekly called you “one of the 100 most creative people alive today.” You even teach a class called the “Architecture of Creativity” at the University of Toronto. Why do you think the publication positively singled you out, and, in your opinion, what makes someone creative?
Creativity is an interesting topic because we’ve only really thought about it for the last 100 years, including geniuses, and those we’ve been inspired from. It’s in all of us – lodged in our brains – and some of us have a greater access to it than others. We’re trying to ultimately encourage others to be as creative as they can. I love to create.
Since you and Craig Francis are both co-writer/director, how did you two split your duties for this project?
Sometimes there’s productions with no leadership and much conflict. Craig and I are problem-solvers and we use our combined creativity to solve issues. We know our strengths and weaknesses. I’m more of a director to the actors and Craig is strong with organizing the multimedia aspects.
We wear many hats and collaborate effectively and understand that it’s better to wear more hats on our head than just one. A play, by nature, is a very collaborative process and we’re fortunate to have many talented designers, consultants, and actors, who also have an important voice in the process.
How did the idea arise for you and Craig to develop this modern, multimedia version of “Jungle Book”?
It’s a second part of a trilogy of productions called the ‘Trilogy of Shows.’ The first show was ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ – which was about Captain Nemo and how he disconnects from humanity. We looked at it from the perspective of today, and what water means to us and how we have to protect our oceans.
‘Jungle Book’ allows us to explore the relationship with nature and each other. Mowgli, more so in the book, is raised by animals and then kicked out for being human. When humans raise him, he is then kicked out [for being too much of an animal]. In ‘Jungle Book,’ what we belong to is an idea that we explore.
‘Frankenstein’ is next, and we’re going to look at the loneliness that is associated with that story. We’re trying to be as creative as the novelists were in the 19th century but also add a modern sense and be expressive using multimedia technology and shadow play.
From a narrative standpoint, in what ways will this show be different from the works of Rudyard Kipling and the Disney adaptations?
Our initial goal was to go back to Rudyard Kipling’s works. He wrote two ‘Jungle Books,’ and Mowgli was only a part of those stories. Craig and I tell stories all over the world and we wanted to go back to Kipling’s words and tell a more modern Mowgli story; there’s more to it than being raised by wolves. Our characters are speaking to the audience and the narrator takes us back. Mowgli is an architect living in New York City, and he’s forgotten the law of the jungle, as a builder who ignores nature.
Our ‘Jungle Book’ is about Mowgli rediscovering the law of the jungle and living in balance with the natural world and the human beings around him. It touches on several things and it’s an entertaining piece with significant meaning behind it.
There’s lots of multimedia elements in this production, including an effective use of digital screens, an immersive soundscape, as well as puppetry, and so on. Did you encounter any challenges as far as aligning your vision with the technology at your disposal?
I think any technology poses challenges (laughs), and then you find a very simple solution to it. In fact, it’s often the simplest tech solution to what you thought was a high-tech problem.
[Using technological effects], you can still trick audience members at a play into getting them to wonder how certain things happened. But you can’t do that in movies anymore. Since you can still do this in theatre, I don’t think theatre will die if you’re able to create magical moments long enough that people are willing to leave Netflix and share in [onstage] stories.
How did the premiere at the Asolo Repertory Theatre go in Sarasota, FL? And do you foresee making any changes, however minor, for the Pasadena run?
Asolo also helped commission and pay for the show. They saw several workshops of ‘Jungle Book’ and gave us feedback. We made 98 percent of all changes before we premiered there; it went very well for audiences spanning all ages. We don’t feel we have to make many more changes for Pasadena, though there will be little things here and there.
Down the line, we hope for a tour around Western North America.
What will it be like having such a modern production at a historic theatre in the Pasadena Playhouse?
I’m really interested in the history of the place, especially with Mowgli being an architect. The Pasadena Playhouse has a great history and its architects had an idea about the context of what they were building. There is terrific architecture today that doesn’t always use the technology [available to architects] intelligently.
I think it’s interesting to be in a beautiful building. We can appreciate beautiful cities by learning about their history while also looking toward the future. With buildings, we can learn to retrofit them without disregarding their past. I love that the Pasadena Playhouse is resurging and it’s a classic place with its own stories, people, and history. I’m proud to be a part of it.
For more information about “Jungle Book” at the Pasadena Playhouse, please visit pasadenaplayhouse.org/event/jungle-book