Tuesday, February 2, 2016

a conversation with Israel Jimenez, the director of Valley YouthTheatre's new production of a very different PINOCCHIO

by Gil Benbrook

This Friday, Valley Youth Theatre opens their new production of Pinocchio, but this isn't exactly your Disney song and dance version of the classic tale of a boy made of wood. Greg Banks' reimagined adaptation is a fresh, fast paced 'story-within-a-story' that uses stage magic and a small ensemble to bring the magical, fun and heartwarming story of carpenter Geppetto and Pinocchio to life.

This show will definitely keep the audience guessing as to what will come next as well as how they will create some of the iconic moments form the story on the VYT stage. Banks' adaptation uses make believe, imagination, audience interaction and familiar elements to pull the audience in and to tell the story of Pinocchio, the wooden child who dreams of becoming a real boy.

We asked Pinocchio director Israel Jimenez, who also serves as VYT's Director of Education & Outreach, to take a break from rehearsals to sit down and answer some questions about the show, though he kept insisting on being somewhat vague as he stated "the best parts are the surprises in store!"

This version of Pinocchio by Greg Banks that you are directing for VYT is a relatively new adaption of the story. How does it differ from the classic story and the Disney animated film that most people are familiar with?

"Greg Bank’s version of Pinocchio is most closely based on Carlo Collodi’s children’s novel, "The Adventures of Pinocchio." The major difference with this version is the exciting story-within-a-story approach Banks has created. Why I don't want to say too much about the surprises in store for audiences, what I can say is that part of the experience is how our ensemble of performers, unbeknownst to the audience, will be providing a fresh and unique form of storytelling to deliver the well-known classic."

While there are many iconic moments in the story - Gepetto being rescued from the belly of a whale, for example - at the core the story is about the emotional relationship between Gepetto and Pinocchio. How are you ensuring that their relationship is portrayed so the audience connects with it emotionally?

"Part of the fun of our "play within a play" version of Pinocchiois following the journey of the young people that portray the roles of Pinocchio and Gepetto. They depend on each other to be able to tell the audience the story, building a unique bond from their collaboration. That comes across in their portrayal of Gepetto and Pinocchio, who go through a powerful, heartfelt journey that parents and children in the audience will undoubtedly connect to."

the VYT Pinocchio cast in rehearsal
photo courtesy Valley Youth Theatre
The original Carlo Collodi story is really an emotional fairy tale. But it also has some scary scenes, for example where Pinocchio and the boys are transformed into donkeys and sold into hard labor.  Are those scarier elements still intact in this version?

"The dark moments in the story remain intact in this production, although they are told in a unique way. One of my favorite occurs when Pinocchio feels he's let his father down to the point where there is nothing he can do. As the audience, we feel invested in his journey and we are encouraged to be the voice of hope to help him out."

What do you think is the on-going appeal of the story of Pinocchio and what type of message do you think Pinocchio offers for modern audiences? 

"The themes in the story of Pinocchio are relatable for both youth and adults. The story resonates on our human need to be liberated of feeling like puppets in our lives. We strive for freedom - from school, from work, sometimes even relationships. Just like the puppet Pinocchio, we often fall in the same bad patterns and don’t quite know how to correct them. And just like the puppet, we often want to please the parent, the adult. Modern parents and children can relate to the relationship between Gepetto and Pinocchio and the choices they make that separate or bring them closer together."

Most fairy tales are centered on a wish. In Pinocchio the wish is to become a real boy. But the story is also about identity and how we define ourselves versus how others define us. How important do you think that message is for young audiences?

"As an educator, I’ve been able to witness young students struggle with fitting in and finding themselves. Being able to see the same struggles represented in a story like Pinocchio is powerful to these youth, who often feel like they are alone on their journey. Pinocchio, like most of us through trial and error, has to learn that the choices he makes directly impact the outcome of his wishes."

Is the challenge of directing a live action production of a new version of a famous fairy tale, which most people know from an animated film, exciting or daunting?

"Exciting AND daunting! The best way I chose to approach this is by making this production uniquely our own -from beginning to end. Even though I don’t want to give much away, I can confidently say that this production is like no other version of Pinocchio in the way the story is told. I am excited about surprising the audience with something completely unexpected. Which can also be very daunting, as you can imagine."

Did you encounter any difficulties in directing the show? 

"Absolutely. The bolder and more out-of-the-box the project is, the more challenges it brings in. Because this concept is so different than anything I’ve ever directed before, it pushed me in a way I wasn’t expecting. We all had to, in a way, reinvent the way we approached a show process at VYT, forcing us all to step outside of our comfort zone. It’s a thrilling experience."

This VYT production has a fairly smaller cast compared to most VYT shows. Does having such a small cast make it easier or harder to direct?

"The original script by Greg Banks is written for a cast of four plus a musician. Since I first read the script, I’ve always imagined more exciting, creative possibilities with a larger cast. After the playwright gave us the green light to expand the cast, I was excited to introduce 13 daring young artists to create a beautiful, dynamic piece. It made the process far more challenging, yet I am very excited about the result."

Did you learn anything during rehearsals that made you change your original ideas of how to direct this play?

"There is never a day in rehearsal where a cast member, stage manager, crew member, or designer doesn’t inspire the process with a choice or idea. That is what I love the most about the theatre collaborative process. I feel the best work is done when I come in with a direction plan and it is organically transformed by what we create in the moment together as a group."

The musical Into the Woods, which VYT presented last summer, is a retelling of famous fairy tales. There have also been several big budget Hollywood live action movies lately that also update or reimagine such tales such as Alice in Wonderland and Millificent, as well as Into the Woods. Why do you think Hollywood, and audiences, never tire of these classic fairy tales?

"Part of the nostalgia of revisiting our favorite stories has to do with our subconscious reliving the impact those stories made when we first heard them. It reminds us of who we once were and what we’ve become because of the themes. For me, it puts into perspective the lessons learned, and the ones I keep messing up (quite a few of them)- maybe that is why my nose has remained this large for so long."

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