When I saw the advertisements around my humble town of Shreveport, Louisiana for a production of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, I thought to myself, “Oh, a puppet show. That’s nice; another way to enjoy the story, besides just watching the movie.” After actually experiencing it a few days ago with my husband and 11-year-old son, Sammy, I quickly realized that my previous thoughts on the matter were glaring understatements and didn’t do the production justice at all. In the words of the well-traveled Sammy, “This is the best thing I have ever been to in my entire life; it’s even better than Legoland!” That’s a serious comparison coming from a boy who for three years, before actually spending a day at Legoland, saved up every single free pass to the theme park that came with a new Lego set, even after they had expired.
After buying our tickets online, I did a little research about the production and the people behind the making of Fantastic Mr. Fox. I found out that it is the brain-child of three totally cool guys (in my personal opinion). Arthur Mintz, who had previously worked on Disney’s James and the Giant Peach, came up with the idea of adapting the story of Mr. Fox’s adventures into such a cool, interactive experience. He got together with pals Jacques and Rene Duffourc, who agreed to help make it all happen. It wasn’t long before Hi-YAH! Productions was started. Fantastic Mr. Fox opened in New Orleans, in late 2010, to rave reviews and eventually sold-out shows. It had to be extended several times due to its immense popularity.
William Joyce, creator of the PBS animated series George Shrinks and the hit Disney cartoon Roly Polie Olie, calls Shreveport his home and is on the Advisory Board for a local art, theater and music exhibition center, not to mention all around amazing place, in our downtown called artspace. I got to chat with Jacques Duffourc after the show, and he told me that Mr. Joyce made them “an offer that they couldn’t refuse” to bring Fox to artspace in Shreveport. Even with a list of demands, like needing to cut holes in walls and take up space on several floors of the building, Jaques told me that artspace has been wonderful and that they couldn’t have pulled it all off without the support they’ve gotten from everyone involved. I have to admit that I am glad it all worked out: I’m about to tell you a little bit about the show, without spoiling it, because if you are lucky, you may be within driving distance. If not, Jacques seems pretty confident that Fox is on it’s way up; several agencies from New York and Los Angeles have shown interest in the production, so it could be headed your way sometime soon, after a hoped-for blessing from the Roald Dahl estate.
We first entered downstairs, to a normal looking basement-type of room, decorated with the artwork of children who had drawn their own “wanted” posters for Mr. Fox. A television played a loop of a short preview of what was to come. It wasn’t long before Jacques greeted everyone and lead the audience of about 25 kids and adults (the maximum per show is 30) to an elevator that we we all rode up one floor, ten at a time, to a seating area where the show would begin. The first thing I noticed was the curtain; it was sewn together with bits of fabric and various clothing; most recognizable was a pair of khaki-colored corduroy jeans. “Neato!” I said, pointing them out to Sammy. The curtain parted and the very exuberant narrator, wearing two different-colored Chuck Taylor All Star tennis shoes, began telling us a little of the back story of Mr. Fox, the main character. He imparted a few gags that the kids got quite a kick out of, but I won’t ruin it here, in case you are ever an audience member. One in particular got praise from Sammy, considering that the narrator that night happened to be one of his older classmates from kung fu class, a young man named Caleb, and he gave a little extra attention to my son, who was sitting on the front row.
The audience didn’t sit long; we were soon given headlamps and adults were offered knee pads (which I later wished I had taken advantage of) so that we could literally crawl into the story book! Our head lamps lit the path as we found our way through dark tunnels, pieced together quite creatively from pieces of cardboard boxes, and came out into the first of many wonderful sets, called “Over the Hill.” Being inside the set like that, crawling around and sitting on the cardboard-covered floors, looking around in wonder at all of the great detail and artistry that went into making it all so wonderful and elaborate, made me feel like I was a kid again. I was back in my own bedroom, an eight-year-old little girl, playing house inside of a shelter that I had carefully built with the sheets and blankets confiscated from all of the beds in my home. It was magical, without a doubt.
We moved into different sets, by means of more tunnels, a ladder and even slides. Some parents opted to take the “back way,” and I even did that a time or two, to save my knees a little grief and to get to see what the outside of the set looked like. It was amazing! Overtaking the stairwell and several floors of the building were the tunnels and slides, covered in up-cycled cardboard that had been torn apart and pieced back together again. Jacques later told me, after the show, of the “cardboard parties” they hosted in order to build the set, inviting volunteers to come and piece it all together, with the promise of a little food or drink in exchange.
The audience never sat back and just “watched a puppet show.” We were actually in the show. The puppeteers were in the sets with us; they wore clothes that blended into the background and although it was obvious they were there, after awhile, you just didn’t notice or care that they were. At times throughout the show, the narrator encouraged us to shout, to yell, to tell the characters what they should do. We all formed a bond and were very comfortable with one another; we were are in this experience together and we were having a great time! A few of the younger kids got a little frightened at moments, like when scenes went dark or a rather large puppet would come into a scene unexpectedly. The show is recommended for ages four and up due to the “athletic nature of the performance and crawling and sliding required,” but I think that is a good age to judge its appropriateness by also, considering the few screams and whimpers I heard from the under-four crowd when a few thematic elements got underway. It seemed so real at times that a few toddlers wanted to leave, but to me, that just shows the high quality of the production itself. I also noticed that towards the end, some of those same kiddos showed a little more bravery and were no worse for the wear. When I asked him what one of the most rewarding parts of putting on the performance was, Jacques told me that for him, it was watching the transformation of the children, going from unsure and a little bit frightened, to brave and ready to take on whatever the next tunnel would bring. I would have to agree with him on that; after reassuring a few kids that it was all going to be just fine, I noticed them later cheering and exclaiming about how much they loved it and wanted to come back.
In today’s day and age, our children are over loaded with digital devices and electronic entertainment. It’s rare to find a kid who doesn’t own an iPod, iPhone, Nintendo DSi or other hand-held device that keeps them from ever having a dull moment. Even in taking our children out of the home for entertainment, we all usually just sit and watch, depending on someone or something else to dance, sing or make bright colors interesting enough to take us away from something else that could possibly be even more interesting and engaging. It is truly refreshing to be a part of an event — yes, I will call it an event, because it is not just a “show” in my opinion — that makes the audience feel like they are right there in the story, and the only way they will find out more is to get on their hands and knees and crawl to the next scene. Instead of just absorbing moving images on a screen, we were participants and we had to be engaged. The children got to touch, jump, slide, climb, crawl and even at one point, snack, right there in the performance.
Parents in today’s society, as a whole, seem to have gotten away from letting kids really have fun. We’ve all heard of “helicopter parents,” the kind that constantly hover over their children, fearful that something bad may happen to them if they don’t watch over them all the time. Kids need to just be kids; they need to jump, run, crawl, slide and get dirty sometimes. I did it when I was a kid and I seemed to have turned out okay (for the most part!). How else can children learn to rely on themselves and figure things out on their own, if their parents are always making every little decision for them? Fantastic Mr. Fox at artspace is a wonderful example of good ideas, creative interactive theater, great fun, and a great way for kids (and parents) to let go and have a good old-fashioned fun time, while leaving the television and video games systems at home for a night. I truly hope that a lot of GeekMom readers are within driving distance; it is well worth whatever number of hours away you have to travel to see it. It is only showing until the end of November, and there are plenty of other great things to do in the area, so it would be well worth it to make a day, or even a weekend out of it.
For more information, including showtimes and tickets, visit artspaceshreveport.com/fantastic-mr-fox