How do you make a monster? Philosophers and writers have tried to answer the question for a long time, but unlike British director Sally Cookson’s attempt, their responses only have to live in the realm of words. Hers needed to work on stage, show after show, night after night. Her monster was also an ancient, gnarled yew tree that arrives and disappears in a blink.
“I’d been wracking my brain for months before we went into a workshop. I drew out all sorts of pictures and had all sorts of ideas about how it might happen,” Cookson shares about her preparation. “But, when we started to make those in the room, ‘Okay, let’s get some chairs and make a tree,’ it was rubbish,’ she admits.
“I’ll never forget the moment when [puppet consultant] Toby Olié and the stage manager said ‘There’s a whole load of ropes in the basement.’ So we trundled up and tied these heavy ropes to the beams in the room, and as soon as we saw them, we knew that was the [medium] we were going to use.’
Cookson and company’s solution will be on full display when The Kennedy Center hosts the U.S. premiere of “A Monster Calls,” May 25 to June 12. The Oliver-winning production had acclaimed runs at Bristol’s and London’s Old Vics during the summer of 2018 before pandemic cropped its early 2020 tour.
Based on Patrick Ness’s awarding-winning young adult novel of the same name (from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd), “A Monster Calls” relates 13-year-old Connor’s anger and confusion over his mother’s declining health. Isolated from his friends and family, Connor unknowingly conjures a monster who shares three parables before Connor must face his own deeply hidden truth.
“There aren’t many stories out there that really connect us to what it means to live and to die, to be human,” Cookson shares about the story’s serious appeal. “Even though it deals with painful stuff, grief and loss, it’s also about hope, about life going on with possibilities. I love its combination of gritty, life issues with magic.”
Bringing magic to the stage is second-nature to Cookson, who began her career as a LAMDA-trained actor before shifting to directing and adapting beloved tales like “Peter Pan,” “The Lion, The Witch, & The Wardrobe,” and “Jane Eyre” for prominent UK theaters.
Creating the production’s ligneous monster perfectly illustrates Cookson’s rigorous but wholly democratic process of making theater.
“It’s only through connecting and collaborating, playing and experimenting and listening to other’s ideas you find things you never thought possible,” the director asserts with clear emphases. “As a director, you’re never going to have all the brilliant ideas that come when you allow an open space to everyone.”
Cookson adapted the novel alongside Adam Peck, with the entire company contributing to the final script and staging.
Before heading to The Kennedy Center, “A Monster Calls” wrapped up a two-city UK tour this spring. Cookson describes returning to the show after its hiatus as “healing,” and shares that many in the company feel restored and nurtured working on it after the last two years.
The director eagerly anticipates learning how American audiences will respond to the play. “British theater audiences are usually very kind and well-behaved. They leave the theater quickly. But often after ‘A Monster Calls,’ there was silence,” Cookson recounts.
“We started to realize audiences needed a bit of time to absorb and reflect, but then they wanted to talk. We started to keep the auditorium open longer so the audience could,” she continues.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how vocal and open Washington audiences are, and I’m looking forward to sharing what I think is a beautiful piece of storytelling.”
“A Monster Calls”—based on the novel by Patrick Ness, inspired by an idea by Siobhan Down, adapted by Sally Cookson and Adam Peck, and devised by the Original Company—performs at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts May 25 to June 12. For tickets and more information, click here.